On the Rocks
story by Stu Dawrs
photo by Wayne Levin
“Along the hilly and rocky coast is where this kind of fishing is frequently done,” wrote Daniel Kaha‘ulelio of the ku‘iku‘i method for catching ulua (jack). “When we reached the place where we were to fish, the pole was set up and the bait tossed in.
The wooden pole creaked and when my father grasped it, his strength was unequal to the task until he pressed the pole against his stomach, almost flying into the sea.”
Kaha‘ulelio published this account in 1902, as part of a weekly column on fishing in the Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa. The entire series, translated by the late Mary Kawena Pukui and edited by M. Puakea Nogelmeier, was recently published in book form by the Bishop Museum Press. Reading through the book, it’s striking how little has changed in the last century: True, the equipment has been updated, but the lure of Hawaiian shorefishing is as strong now as it was when Kaha‘ulelio was learning the art from his father and grandfather in the mid-nineteenth century.
And ulua are just as hard to land. In his seminal work Pacific Shore Fishing, Michael Sakamoto, writing some eighty years after Kaha‘ulelio, calls the white ulua “the most sought after shoreline fish in Hawai‘i.” He also notes how difficult they can be to catch, with fisherman having to deal with, among other things, plundering eels stripping the bait off hooks; large, line-breaking rocks and reefs; the physics and inherent danger of casting lines from rocky outcroppings into surf (and often at night); and, if one successfully reels in a mature ulua, the sheer effort of hauling a fish of this size twenty feet or more up a cliff face. (There are roughly fourteen species of ulua in Hawaiian waters; in general, they weigh from thirty to 120 pounds, though the current state record for a white ulua is 191 pounds, caught by Maui spearfisherman Al Gadow in 1980.)
The prime ulua season is generally considered to be six months long, from late spring to early fall. Between the months of August and November, shorefisherman can often be found casting for papio, the general name used for all ulua before they grow to be over ten pounds.
Ka ‘Oihana Lawai‘a: Hawaiian Fishing Traditions
by Daniel Kaha‘ulelio
(Bishop Museum Press, 2006)