Getting Hooked

For ‘oama fishers, chasing small fry is a big deal
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

Over here!” Peyton Shim points into the water two feet in front of him. Squinting, I can just make out a school of cigar-shaped fish turning circles by his ankles. Twelve-year-old Peyton bobs his flimsy pole down and almost instantly jerks a silver fish from the water.

Swinging his catch out in front of him like a wrecking ball at the end of a chain, he runs with it up the beach to his bucket.

When it comes to catching ‘oama, or juvenile goatfish, everyone has a technique, recipe or secret spot. Some swear by shrimp-paste bait; others say the moon phase affects whether the fish bite. Most ‘oama fishers are evasive when asked where their favorite catch are schooling, but if you happen upon a row of folks ankle-deep in a cove with buckets and bamboo poles, you’ve found them. Don’t be shy; the gang will shuffle over to make room for you and maybe even share their shrimp paste. ‘Oama fishing is as much social event as sport.

‘Oama, or juvenile goatfish, are the smallest legal catch in Hawai‘i. For many Island anglers, ‘oama fishing is the gateway to a life of standing, waiting and hoping. On the opening spread, a trio of Maui ‘oama fishers at dawn.

At three to seven inches, ‘oama are just about the smallest legal catch in Hawai‘i—but for many local anglers, they’re the most fun. The name ‘oama refers to the juvenile stage of two species of weke, or goatfish: weke ‘ā (yellowstripe) and weke ‘ula (yellowfin). These goatfish spawn in spring, producing larvae that drift into pelagic waters. By summertime the wigglers have grown into teenage fish with fleshy barbels that hang down on either side of their jaws and yellow racing stripes that run from eye to tail. Having graduated to ‘oama status, they migrate to shallow bays, where they huddle together in massive schools for protection. Periodically, predatory fish—swift pāpio (juvenile giant trevally) and snakelike barracuda—dive-bomb the teeming masses.

Fishermen pounce on the schools, too. For generations, Island residents have sought out ‘oama, both to eat and to use as bait for bigger fish. Starting in May, anglers stake out well-known ‘oama hot spots: Ala Moana beach on O‘ahu, Kanahā beach on Maui and Hilo bay on Hawai‘i Island. The coconut wireless fires up: Are the fish here yet? Where? How many? Old-timers interrogate freedivers exiting the water: “Eh, you seen any ‘oama beyond the reef?” When the first big school comes inshore, it’s Superbowl Sunday, Christmas and Easter combined. Families drag beach chairs, umbrellas, coolers and fishing gear down to the shoreline for the start of ‘oama season, which usually runs six weeks through summer.

In the springtime, when ‘oama school in the shallows, a dedicated cadre of fishermen young and old go after them using the simplest of tackle—usually just a pole, line and baited hook.

“Don’t say you’re going fishing,” my friend Calvin Hoe tells me the night before my first ‘oama expedition. “Us guys … we say we’re going ‘auana [wandering] or holoholo [for a stroll]. That way we don’t spook the fish.”

Despite growing up in Hawai‘i, I’ve never indulged in this popular summer pastime. I need all the help I can get. So I recruit lifelong ‘oama fisherman Don Saito to initiate me.

We meet shortly after dawn at a coral-strewn beach along Maui’s north shore. I can’t reveal the exact spot or I’d never be invited back. The conditions are glorious: A light offshore breeze ripples across the otherwise tranquil sea. Thick clouds hunker over the West Maui Mountains, offering a reprieve from the fierce August sun. A rainbow flickers on and off at the entrance to Waihe‘e valley. This beauty is all but lost on the half-dozen fishers already wading in with their poles; the only scenery that matters to them is underwater.

To catch ‘oama, all one needs is a bamboo pole or plastic rod and five feet of fishing line. Attach a small lead sinker and a fishhook hardly bigger than an eyelash, and you’re good to go—almost. Prepping bait can be complex, with recipes that verge on witchcraft. Everyone seems to have a tried-and-true recipe: shrimp paste, tails or legs, bits of frozen ‘ō‘io (bonefish), sardines in tomato sauce, aku (skipjack) belly or eggs. Saito uses tiny pieces of fresh ‘oama meat, introducing a little cannibalism into the sport.

If the fish aren’t biting, people add palu to the water—chum made of shrimp mashed with sand. But they’re biting today. I watch Saito dip his hook in and pull out one fish after another. No pause. Dip, fish, dip, fish. At this rate he’ll catch fifty—the legal limit—well before lunchtime.

Children angle for ‘oama during the Larry Libres Fishing and Diving Tournament on Maui. The ‘oama schools were late coming near shore this year, and the fishers came away empty handed. Everyone seemed to have a good time, nonetheless.

“Drop the line into the water without making a splash,” he advises. “Let the sinker fall to the sand. Count one-two-three and yank.” I fuss with the bait, trying to smush the tiniest bit onto the minuscule hook. I cast it into the water, and nine times out of ten, the fish escapes with a free meal. Each time, Saito commiserates, “Oh, that was a big one!” I laugh. I’m just fattening up the small fry for him to catch.

A dark eel slithers like ribbon past us, probably hoping to snap up my wandering bait or a disoriented ‘oama. Another predator wasn’t so lucky. Up on the beach an indignant octopus writhes in the sand, suffering the attentions of a toddler. The triumphant child squeals. “My daddy caught the tako!”

Without a doubt, a day spent shin-deep in salt water beats hours indoors fastened to a screen. Fishing alongside aunties, uncles and tūtū (grandparents), kids learn age-old traditions and hone their observations of the natural world. If they look closely enough, they may begin to distinguish between the two goatfish species. Yellowstripes have black square spots that appear when they’re feeding. Their adult name, weke ‘ā, means “staring weke.” Yellowfins are almost identical but don’t have the black spots. Instead, they turn dusky rose when they congregate beneath rocky ledges—thus their adult name: weke ‘ula, the red weke.

“Today’s a great day,” Saito says, gazing at the swarm of tiny yellowstripes beneath the glassy surface. “In terms of fish numbers, if I was to compare today to how it used to be, it’s pretty close.” He learned to fish by shadowing his elders—and his knack for it paid off. “As a kid I’d bring bags of ‘oama to Fukushima Store and trade for ice cream and hot dogs,” he says. “To this day I still bring fish to George Fukushima. He loves ‘oama.”

Saito attended Maui High School with Peyton’s father, Brandon Shim. The classmates were one year apart and shared interests. “We never got into trouble ’cause we were always out fishing or hunting,” Shim says. He glances over at his son, who’s hooking ‘oama like a pro. Between the three of them, they can take home 150 pinky-size fish today—enough to feed their extended families, their friends and Mr. Fukushima.

“‘Oama is the start of it all,” Brian Yoshikawa had told me a few days prior. He owns Maui Sporting Goods and hooked me up with fishing gear. “The value of ‘oama tackle to any sporting goods shop is priceless. As small as it is, it’s huge for my business. Kids can get started with a $10 kit. Next summer they’ll want to fish halalū [juvenile akule, or big-eyed scad], which are a little trickier, require more skill. Then they’ll see uncle catch a big pāpio.” By Yoshikawa’s reckoning, ‘oama are the gateway fish that lead to a lifelong angling addiction.

Kids tend to have fun fishing for ‘oama whether they catch a cooler full or not. Everyone got skunked at this year’s ‘oama tournament, but no one seemed to mind. For the past thirty-one years, Kim Ball of Hi-Tech Surf Sports has sponsored the Larry Libres Fishing and Diving Tournament as a way to promote goodwill between fishermen and windsurfers at Kanahā Beach Park. Keiki fish for ‘oama while their parents dive for tako, and everyone gets a free t-shirt. The contest usually attracts around six hundred entrants, but it rained this year, so fewer than half showed. Plus, the ‘oama were late; the schools hadn’t come inshore yet.

Taking shelter beneath the ironwood trees, Martha Shigeta shrugged. “It’s like a reunion. We come every year,” she told me. “We talk story, see family and old friends. We used to come with my mother and all four children.” Typically the Shigetas win the tournament, and if they don’t the Nemotos do. Eileen Nemoto flashed a big smile to confirm this before wading into the lagoon to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other contestants. In the light drizzle, parents and keiki fumbled with fishing poles and playfully splashed one another.

Kurt Nemoto caught the only three ‘oama of the day. While the kids might not have cared, some of the uncles and aunties were probably disappointed. ‘Oama are a rare and tasty snack that reminds many kama‘āina (residents) of their childhood. In days past, people often pickled ‘oama whole, minus gills and guts, with vinegar and onion. Yoshikawa likes his fried crispy and rolled in a shiso leaf. Saito prefers his butterflied. “Batter and fry ’em up with salt and pepper,” he says. “Better than french fries.”

“I don’t eat them. I use them for bait,” Allen Onuma says. He’s been hooking ‘oama on O‘ahu for the past six decades. Like many serious anglers, he keeps his catch alive in a bucket with an aeration pump. Live ‘oama are the number one lure for coveted gamefish such as pāpio and ‘ōmilu (bluefin trevally).

Often while fishing for ‘oama, Onuma will snag a pāpio prowling the edges of the school. “The pāpio come real close, even hit your leg sometimes,” he says. “It’s kind of exciting.” He’s seen an ulua (an adult pāpio) swim sideways on the reef after ‘oama and whole schools beach themselves trying to escape. “Last year at Lanikai the pāpio came in on a wave, chasing the ‘oama. The timing was just right, and the ‘oama got beached, hundreds of them.” Really? I ask. Hundreds? “I may have exaggerated just a bit,” he laughs. However many fish there were, the next wave came and washed them back out.

Like Saito, Onuma started fishing at age five, tagging along behind his grandfather and other relatives. “Now I take fish to my uncle,” he says. “It’s even more rewarding when I catch it, ’cause I know I’m going to give it to him.” He catches around fifteen at a time. “If I have extra I give ’em away. I don’t like to waste.”

While the fingerlings behave fairly predictably, every day is different. “Sometimes the ‘oama get frenzied and attack everything in front of them. You can hook them without any bait! Other times you put your bait down and they run away. People say the moon phase affects the bite, that three to four days after the full moon is good for fishing. How true that is, I’m not sure. We just go down regardless.” If the fish refuse to bite, he busts out his secret weapon: aku eggs. These hard-to-get skipjack tuna eggs are tiny, brown and super smelly—irresistible to ‘oama.

A school of ‘oama swim in the shallows of Kailua Bay. Whether pickled or fried, ‘oama make for a tasty snack that reminds many Hawai‘i residents of their childhood.

Onuma fishes among a lineup of about fifteen regulars. “Everybody pretty much cooperates,” he says. “When newcomers come we brief them on what to do.” He likes to hit the beach by 5:30 in the morning, before the rest of the group. Around 10 a.m. they all break for a snack—Spam musubi or something brought from home. At the day’s end Onuma shares any pāpio he caught. His wife, who volunteers at the hospital, will stay until dark. “She doesn’t like other fishing but she loves ‘oama. It’s really fun. It’s a good social event to bring people together,” he says. “Over the season you get to be real good friends.”

Back on Maui’s north shore, I’m getting better at catching the little nibblers. I drop my line in and immediately feel a tug. “I think I got this,” I say, hoisting up a fish. As I scamper over to the bucket, the fish escapes my hook and flops around on the sand. I chase awkwardly after it while Saito and Shim laugh. “Once it catches,” Shim says, “you’re hooked forever.” HH