Catching the Past
Photos By: Jack Wolford
“I love the aesthetics of the Hawaiians,” says Gary Eoff, seen on the opening spread making a hina‘i, or fish trap, on the Kona coast of Hawai‘i Island. “Their utilitarian items are so beautiful.” Eoff arrived in Hawai‘i in 1980 and became fascinated with the Islands’ ancient fishing tackle. He studied under traditional craftsmen such as Angel Pilago and Willy McGlothin for twenty years, learning not just to make the items, but to find, cultivate, harvest and process the materials from which they’re made. Hina‘i such as the ones pictured here are woven from the aerial roots of ‘ie‘ie, a forest vine, which are so sturdy that such traps can last for generations. Hina‘i are not just durable, they’re ingenious: The conical entrance at the top looks different from the inside than the outside, tricking the fish. “Just like a fly trapped at a window,” says Eoff, “the fish swims around, unable to find the way out.”
Eoff weaves hina‘i at the water’s edge (this page) because ‘ie‘ie is too stiff when it’s dry. Once woven, Eoff dyes the traps with a stain made from kukui bark, which both camouflages and preserves them. The size of the trap depends of course on the fish it’s designed to catch. “The bigger the trap, the bigger the fish,” says Eoff. A larger trap also requires a larger stone weight lashed to it “so it goes into deeper water where the fish are.” At right, Eoff fashions a sinker, or pohaku loa, by carving a groove around one end of a oblong stone, then tying several strands of olona (which he calls “the strongest fiber in the world”) in place with a loop around the stone. Then he pulls the fibers upward and twists them into a cord, which is protected by an additional cap of woven olona.
If you make your gear by hand, you’re going to make sure you don’t lose it. Makau (hooks) and ka‘a (fishing line) would be stowed in gourd containers, or poho aho (at left), so that if a canoe were to huli (capsize), the buoyant gourd would float. Some tackle demonstrates sophisticated understanding of an animal’s behavior. Luhe‘e (octopus lures, at right), for example, take advantage of the he‘e’s attraction to sound and its taste for cowries. A fisherman taps the stone near an octopus burrow to lure the animal out; once out, it sees the shell of its favorite prey and strikes the lure. Since the early 1990s Eoff has been making various lures the crew of the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a, which is currently circumnavigating the globe. “They’re using them on the worldwide voyage,” says Eoff. “I always make enough lures for them to share.” This isn’t just for the sake of tradition or nostalgia; he makes these objects in part because they still work. “We do today what we did yesterday,” he says, “so we can do it tomorrow.”