Guest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

Maui Shoreline
Maui Shoreline

Recently I tried to apply my fly fishing obsession to the waters of some of the biggest mountains in the world. I’m talking about Hawaiian coastal waters, which lap the sides of monstrous volcanoes rising from the ocean floor to the sky.

Inexperienced and ill equipped, I prepped by tossing together a salt water rig with some recommendations from fellow J Stockard blogger, Mike Cline, and a local fly shop. Then I put it all into a trunk with the snorkel gear and sunscreen, and herded my family onto a plane to Maui. This article is intended to alert other water-floggers with sub-tropical fascinations that there’s more to that game than meets the eye.First I’ll admit I didn’t do very well. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy trying, but as is usually the case with new waters, I ended up with more lessons learned than fish stories. Below is a list of variables that independently affect the experience; they must all line up like stars and planets before success can have a shot.

 Gear – The advice I got was excellent; shore-based and wet-wading fishing seems to be very well served with a 9-foot 7-weight rod, a simple reel that can hold a hundred yards or more of backing, and a good sinking line. A fast action rod would do nicely, although I was also quite happy with the medium action pack rod I picked up for the task. Its attributes locked me into a 200gr sink tip line (300gr was far and away too much, as tests revealed, reducing the rod to a useless wet noodle); that 200gr SA Textured Streamer Express line sinks quickly, picks up easily and handles well. I kept the leader relatively short, opting for a 6-foot 50# level mono section (which turned over well enough), and a wire-core 20# tippet to handle toothy reef fish and the extremely jagged, abrasive Hawaiian volcanic rocks. In case I locked into a huge “Ulua” jack (hey, a guy can dream) or needed to break off a snag, in between the leader and tippet I put a short 12# “weak link” section that I knew I could snap if I leaned into it. I was still able to extend the fly to the end of the cast.

 Bait – The flies I brought, based largely on Mike Cline’s advice, were mostly Chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnows and Deceivers. I also tied up some tan-with-black-stripes Kwan patterns, one of which got a lot of attention from a huge parrot fish, who did everything to that fly but actually grab it. It seems there aren’t a ton of locals who know what fly fishing is (some say it’s “the same as skimming” which I think is basically spinning…although I heard there’s a good guide named Captain Jon Jon Tabon, whom I never met), so don’t expect to get useful advice on streamer colors from fishing stores while there. I did find one shop that had some high-ticket Deceivers tucked into a drawer somewhere…I bought a bunch of other colors from them but none got me any further toward the goal…but it was likely other factors holding me back.

 Fishin’ Spots – I tried both wet-wading and fishing from rocks; I did not hire a guide or cast from a boat. I’d studied satellite maps in advance, looking for flats where bonefish and Papio (small jacks) and Trevally might prowl. Depth was important, and I found it difficult to locate water less than waist deep, within reach of drop-offs, and calm enough to not get knocked over. There are one or two places where it’s possible under certain conditions, but those conditions are far from guaranteed. Also, there seems to be grabby structure (some coral, much gnarly, porous, exposed volcanic rock) everywhere; I spent as much time unsnagging bottom as I did working my streamer. Lost a couple of flies, a count that could easily have been triple if not for blind luck.

Bottom Structure
Bottom Structure

From rocky points (instead of wading) I had a little better vantage point and could keep my fly a bit off the bottom, and I could avoid being doused by every third wave. But still it was far from safe; there are “sneaker waves” every n wave cycles (where n is an unknown), which can break over a fisherman’s standing position. Visitors who don’t know the ocean, don’t watch like a hawk and don’t choose their positions based on the certainty that a rogue wave will come along are injured, or worse, with tragic frequency. A quick look at the toothy nature of the rock I’d be knocked onto made me vow to not be one of them.

 Tide – I assumed this would be important, given the general notion that fish will enter inshore areas and feed when the tide is in flood…but I found myself looking for the opposite–low tide. Why? Because it was difficult to find water shallow enough to wade and protected enough from the open sea’s power to do so. Adding to its depth with high tide just meant I couldn’t get more than a little bit off-shore, sometimes not even past the shore break (which, even if very low, tangles stripped line around feet unless you happen to have a stripping basket…I didn’t). And for fishing off the rocks, a higher tide meant I couldn’t safely stand as far out on the points–sometimes not even far enough to allow a back cast.

Trying to time the hours I could sneak away and fish with a cooperative tide level had me waiting days and days for this variable alone to line up. Had my arrival been timed luckier, of course, I guess I could have had more good chances, but such was not the case. Given that low tide occurred about 40 or so minutes later each day, it wouldn’t have been that easy to time it morning after morning even if things had lined up initially.

 Wind – Trade winds varied day to day in intensity and morning turn-on time, which affected the height of the chop and my ability to wade. It also greatly affected my casting and back-casting ability from the rocks, sometimes entirely negating a spot because the fishy-looking side was into a stiff wind. Also, just when you think you have the trade wind direction figured out, a tropical storm from far off can approach, pass to north or south, and change all that. Hard for a newcomer to predict.

 Swell – This was a variable I didn’t expect. I came in with an eye on tide and wind, only to be also informed that “An excessive swell is arriving from the New Zealand area due to back-to-back storms down there, making high rollers and breakers that won’t peak for two days yet and probably will continue for a week or more. Great surfing!” Well, this put the clamps on wading, rendered rocky point perches dicey, and generally complicated the picture immensely…and all from a force more than 5000 miles away. That’s the ocean for you.

 Light – As everywhere, fish come into closer water more when the light is low. Hawaiian water tends to be particularly clear and its denizens will usually seek more depth in broad daylight. This limited either my spots or my hours or both.

Strange Critters
Strange Critters

Safety – When light is low (due to murk from run-off or surface chop, or due to a low sun angle in early AM or late evening), out come the predators. Wading the flats during these times was a prospect of some concern to me. Yes, I heard plenty later about how I was being a silly mainlander and how “sharks don’t like to enter the shallower flats,” but those people are talking broad-stroke lore. Every year or so we hear of a tourist, surfer or kayak fisherman suffering a deep, bloody laceration, or losing a limb, or worse, and it’s always “an unusual case…typically never happens…one of those things…case of mistaken identity–we’re not the Tiger Shark’s natural food…more people die of a coconut falling on their head…be wary of water and times of day when mistakes can be made.” That it’s unusual doesn’t help the individual. And I didn’t intend to be that news story. As a mainlander I have a poor feel for what constitutes swimmable depth for a hungry shark. So I didn’t tempt fate by entering water too early or too late, or in churned up sections, regardless of tide. And I always had some kind of quick escape route in mind. All this impacted the water I was willing to fish.

Those Snorkels & Sunscreen…As big a factor as any other, since a trip to the islands is always a family vacation for me (probably the case for almost all visitors), was the set of ambitions and activities and schedules of everyone else on the trip. So many days were of the “let’s get out to that beach early!” variety, and so many of them ended in after-dark return to the room with a carload of snoring people. (And Hawaii doesn’t do Daylight Savings time, so Maui summer days are full-on summer nights by 8pm.) As the family chauffer, body guard, map reader, micro-meteorologist, financier and pack animal, I had to pick and choose a couple of times and close-by places when most other variables lined up and no one was relying on me, to try a little fishing. It’s the role of Dad.

 Closing Thoughts – By my observation, none of it was destined to be sight fishing; it was “cast and see what might hit.” Overall I learned that one must really be a local to fish the islands effectively, especially with fly gear. I enjoyed the quest, and I’ll try again on future jaunts…and one day in about a hundred years I may become good at it. But not today.

Others here (including our own Mike Cline) no doubt have significant wisdom to offer, based upon quite a bit of experience fishing these island waters in the past. Myself, I thought I’d let other aspiring occasional visitors know there’s a bit more to juggle than one might think.

3 Comments

    1. Fred

      There are “flats” both above waterline and below; Maui in particular, which is called “the Valley Isle” for its broad, shallow-gradient terrain saddling the gap between two different massive volcanic cones, has corresponding flattish subsurface areas.

      The challenge for wading purposes is the depth (and surface dynamism) of these “flat” areas–depth that is affected by many of the variables I mentioned…and possibly more. I reported from an “observant visitor’s perspective” only.

      The local fly fishing guide (who, again, I’ve heard of but have never met) would probably be the expert on when and where wet wading is feasible. I’m sure he must have a formula the elements of which he can monitor to arrive at a go/no-go wading decision, and he can probably also greatly extend the fly fishing opportunity matrix with a boat.

      So please take my own experiences as anecdotal primer material, if you plan to flex your fly rod around the Islands. There will be “flats” but working them is still a complex undertaking to decode.

      – Mike Vorhis

  1. Mike, nice write-up. Sorry my advice didn’t result in any fish. I think overall, shoreline fishing in Hawaii is tough. My experience has only been on Oahu and Hawaii. On Oahu, the flats at Kaneohe Marine Base and Hickam were good wade fishing, but the closer you got to the outside reefs, the more jeopardy you put yourself in with sharks. The one location on Oahu that fished well for small reef fish was on the west coast from Barber’s Point to Makaha. The jetties at Barber’s Point always produces a few toothy grouper like fish and was a pretty safe place to park. On Hawaii, the big issue was finding access to rocky shorelines that weren’t 30 feet above the water. Not an easy task as the entire island just juts out of the ocean. My favorite and most productive spots on Hawaii were along the highway from Kawaihae to Hawn. Along this coast, you could find a lot of spots where you could reach the shoreline and cast into deep cuts between rocky out crops.

    Maybe one day I’ll make it to Maui to see if I can get something there.

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