Fly Fishing Guidance for Hawaii
Kona and Kauai – September 21- October 5, 2019
It’s taken me over a decade. But, I have finally figured out how to successfully fly fish the game fish from the shoreline in Hawaii. This guidance article is for the many fly fishers that visit the Hawaiian Islands (on vacation or otherwise) and want to “Do it yourself” (DIY) fly fish from the shoreline. I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert here. I will keep working at it until I am. But, I have had success and I wish I knew 20 years ago what I just recently learned through literally thousands of casts, trial and error. I would have had a ton of success if there was legitimate guidance on the internet. I have not found that yet. I have read a bunch of guidance on the internet for fly fishing the ocean, even specific to Hawaii, from the shoreline that just does not work in Hawaii.
We have a timeshare in Poipu, Kauai. It’s at the Marriott Waiohai. We go for a couple weeks every year; mostly in September. And we have every year for ~20 years. I just cannot sit on a beach for hours and hours like my wife does. I’m not very good at relaxing. So, I always bring a fly rod. I have had a lot of success and provided a ton of guidance on fly fishing for trout on Kauai. But in the ocean in Hawaii I have not experienced much success short of occasional small reef fish and needle fish (Aha).
I snorkel quite a bit and I could always see the big trevallys (Omilo) and jacks I was targeting. But, I never had success in catching them…until just recently.
This is the guidance that I have been scouring the internet for… for years …it just does not exist…. It should get you some success.
Other than just not being able to sit still one of the reasons I didn’t give up was one of my favorite “big fish lost” stories. I lost the giant blue trevally from the cliffs of Mahaulepu on Kauai about 4 years ago. And I basically was roll casting from 20 feet above the water. It was pure luck that it shot out from nowhere and took my fly. I was so surprised I didn’t get a good hook set and lost the fish of a lifetime.
Strip as fast as you can
I might as well start right up front with the most important guidance of all that became an eye-opening revelation to me: Strip as fast as you can. I didn’t start catching big game fish on Hawaii until I started stripping as fast as I could. Now, I have been stripping streamers for trout for years. This is not that. This is literally stripping so fast a stripping basket is useless. Don’t bother with one; you wont be able to hit the basket because you’ll strip the line so quickly in such large strips that it will fire behind you missing the basket. I’m talking full arm’s length strips of the line that fire the line 4-5 feet behind you. Honestly, this is the guidance for using a stripping basket I had been reading on the internet for years that is just plain wrong. I use a stripping basket in the surf at home (Carlsbad, CA) and it’s wildly valuable for all the reasons of why we use stripping baskets: line management, preventing tangles, preventing the line from swinging around in the surf and wrapping around your ankles, preventing the line from catching sea weed, etc. in Hawaii every fish is hunting and being hunted and they are fast swimmers because of it. You have to strip fast to fool them; to induce strikes.
Yes, stripping fast also means the process is very physical. And it requires agility and practice. And, overstating the obvious: this type of fly fishing is not for beginners. Being that said a beginner could really improve their stripping skills on a week-long vacation of practice. and with that practice a beginner could easily see success.
Now if you have thought this through then you are saying to yourself, “Without a stripping basket that limits me to stripping the line where it won’t tangle and get caught. That means stripping in the water or on the sand”. Yes, absolutely true. This is the handicap; the limiting factor. Much of the Hawaiian shoreline is lava. Lava is the exact wrong place to strip line onto. Let me give you an example. I recently broke this rule. I saw a trevally crashing on bait fish. I said to myself, “I’ll run over there make one cast and risk the line getting tangled in the lava. After the cast the waves pushed my line back into me forcing the line to embed so deeply into the lava it took me 20 minutes to figure out how to free the line. No one wants to lose a $90 line to lava. But, it does happen.
The limitation of stripping so fast without a stripping basket is the line ends up at your feet, in the water, reef, sand or lava.
So the Hawaiian shoreline is not a lake; you will battle the current and the surf no matter how small the wave conditions. Any north shore in any of the Hawaiian islands is going to be a challenge to fly fish in winter because of the surf. Alternatively, you will get the calmest conditions in summer on south facing beaches. Standing in the water (allowing you to strip the line quickly behind you where it floats) in bays and casting out to the structure that does sit on the edge of the bays will produce success. The flat water of the bays will also reveal the hunters crashing on bait fish. Casting into bait balls will produce success. But, success often means wading out in waste deep water or higher and battling the surge or surf.
Finding water without humans in it or around it is tricky.
Beaches are a good choice to strip fast because your line will not get tangled behind you. But, beaches also produce people. I cannot tell you how many times someone has wandered up from behind me without me noticing while I’m in my back cast to say something like, “I didn’t know you could fly fish in the ocean.” I haven’t hooked a tourist yet, but I have come close. So, you would think that fishing the early mornings before the beach gets filled with sunbathers is a good time to fly fish. Well, yes, but because of the 3 hour time difference from PST and 6 hours from EST there always seems to be people on the beach at 6am that can’t sleep.
So, what do you deduce from this: well, finding the ideal spots to fly fish in Hawaii can mean wandering for a while until you find a spot conducive to stripping quickly which doesn’t have people. Hiking is almost mandatory. That is why I like to fly fish on Kauai or the Big Island: there are so many undeveloped beaches and bays on those two islands. On the busy islands like Oahu and Maui it’s going to be harder to find fishable water without humans.
Read the water / Scout it out
If you are an experienced trout fly fisherman you know where the trout hold; you know where to cast. It’s not practical to jump into the river with a mask and snorkel to see where the big trout are. In Hawaii, it can be. I nailed a big blue finned trevally in front of our place at the Marriott Waiohai in Poipu simply because when snorkeling I saw a bunch of them holding on a submerged reef not visible from above the water. On the big island I watched the water. I saw a huge blue trevally crashing on bait fish in the small surf. I literally got to make the 40 foot cast right in front of his face. Now that I know I can catch them, I am a lot more observant of them in the water. Of course, as I have, you will see fish you’d love to cast at, but just can’t because of the lava or the length of cast or the wind or….
Put the wood on ‘em
I have read many a story about hooking the big triggers or trevallies and them darting to the bottom of the reef in a cave to find cover and then losing the fly line because of it. So when you do hook a fish put the wood on them: Fight them hard. Do not let them dive for cover. Keep them on top as best you can. Because a fish that carries your fly line into a cave at the bottom of the reef is going to tangle your fly line in coral and snap off the leader leaving your expensive fly line tangled in coral 20 feet deep. Diving into surge to untangle your fly line 20 deep is going to be dangerous if not impossible to retrieve.
What to bring: Everything
There are no fly shops on any of the Hawaiian Islands. If you want to fly fish you have to bring everything.
Rods: sure a 6 will work. But casting a 6 into that wind will not. Most likely you’ll bring a fast action 8; not to help you with fighting the fish as much as it will help you punch the line and weighted fly through the wind. My current favorite for Hawaii is a TFO 10 weight which I needed every bit of when fighting a big blue finned trevally on the Big Island.
Reels: sure a trout reel will work. But, if you bring a trout reel you need to be extra diligent at cleaning it after each use with fresh water. The salt and sand will kill a fresh water reel. So, sure you can pull off your fresh water gear for a week. it may not be worth it for a week’s vacation in Hawaii to buy a salt water fly reel. They are expensive.
Fly Lines: forget the sinking or intermediate sink lines. This was another one of my problems that lead to so much failure over the years. In the surf of San Diego you need sinking lines to get the fly down. that is where the fish are; in the sand in the depressions and channels. A sinking line in Hawaii just gets your fly tangled on the bottom (lava or coral) quicker. You will want to use a floating line. They are also a lot easier to cast than a sinking line. The predators will frequently be in the top of the water column chasing bait fish. They can be on the bottom and in the reefs but, even if they are, they are looking up. That is where the bait fish are; on the top of the water column. Sure you can get away with a trout line that is a floating line. But, if you can justify the expense the Rio outbound tropical short is the perfect line for the Hawaiian islands (inshore or offshore) and many other warm water oceans.
Leaders / tippet: 20 or 30 lb flouro about 4-10 feet in length. No need for fancy tapered leaders in Hawaii. No need for lightweight tippet you are stripping so fast. I believe flouro is necessary because it’s so invisible in the water. But, I have never used mono so I don’t have a standard for comparison.
Flies: baitfish patterns in small sizes like 4-6-8 are effective. Also, they are a lot easier to cast into the wind. For Hawaii, clousers are perfect. I have not found / tied the perfect color combination yet. I will in time. but, from the successes I have had, I suspect white or silver on bottom and very light blue, black/grey or green on top match most of the bait fish. I like the clouser style patterns because they ride hook up…. reducing the number of snags. And let’s face it, if there were a single fly you had access to for ocean fly fishing it would be the clouser. Now, I have also had success in Hawaii with bonefish patterns that imitate a shrimp. So, I’ll be working on designing a few clouser patterns and a pattern that is a shrimp imitation in a clouser format that I’ll sell on the site, once I know they are proven.
Interestingly enough, and another reason for my lack of success in Hawaii over the years, is that this type of fly fishing is totally different from the way we fish the ocean in san diego with giant anchovy and sardine patterns in 1-0 and 2-0. in san diego we use giant anchovy and sardine patterns to fly fish off shore for tuna. To fish in the surf we use tiny sand crab patterns. In Hawaii I have not found success with large patterns or tiny patterns.
What to wear
There is no shocking news here. You’ll want quick dry clothes with sun protection including a hat. It’s fly fishing and you’ll be hunting by staring into the water. polarized lenses in sunglasses are a must. Wearing glasses while hooks are flying around are a must. The water is warm. No need for waders. But shoes are important. There are inexpensive “reef shoes” that work great. Any water shoes that can stand up to the slipperiness of the rocks while at the same time can stand up to the razor-sharp lava are going to work great. No matter what, you will give the ocean your blood. Trust me. it’s part of the deal.
You have to be able to produce a decent overhand cast
I wish it weren’t true, but this type of fishing in Hawaii is just not for beginners. I know a legion of friends who’s fly fishing is limited to lobbing a bobber 20 feet off the front of a drift boat. That “cast” is deadly on the Missouri River in Montana, but will not help you in Hawaii from shore. It’s not like you need to do an 80 foot double haul. But, you need to be able to overhand cast into the wind; frequently more than 40 feet.
Fishing licenses not needed when fishing the ocean in Hawaii. I wish there was a tourist only, inexpensive fishing license you could buy online with that money going straight to conservation. But, there is not. You can fish without a license and kill anything you catch (short of in some dedicated marine parks).
Fishing is part of the Hawaiian culture and they do it well with long traditional rods with bait set ups. And they eat everything they catch. There is no catch and release culture in the Hawaiian islands like there is in fly fishing. “I can’t believe you just let that fish go.” is something I now have experienced a few times. I rarely notice people behind me watching me fly fish (But, I always look into my backcast). There are exceptions to everything. But, typically the natives do not typically like sharing the water with tourists. Of course most of the natives are fishing off the lava cliffs where you can’t fly fish anyways so it’s rarely a problem. The Hawaiians are fishing to survive. I am fishing for sport. And I always catch and release because with so many fish being taken I just don’t feel it’s my right to catch and keep. I can always go to a restaurant.
Heads up: the guidance in this article does not apply to the Hawaiian bone fish. I have not yet figured out how the catch the Oios (bonefish) without a huge amount of hassle. Frankly, it may be impossible to have success with bones unless you are willing to sacrifice tons of flies and /or be willing to fish for 4 hours without a single cast. If you are patient and don’t mind losing 20 flies per hook up you can have success. When snorkeling I can see quite a few bonefish now that I look for them. Not, huge bones, but lots of them under 1.5 feet long that sift through the sand for crustaceans. You fish the bones just like you would in the Bahamas: slowly. In Hawaii slowly means getting snagged on the bottom. Now, there are exceptions. About a half dozen times, I have seen the bones; big bones, run up on the beach in 6 inches of water, unfortunately every time that has happened I didn’t have a fly rod in my hands.
So there it is…. Feel fee to reach out to me by email or download the guidance document which has location information.