How to Fish Like a Hawaiian

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“You always give the first catch of the day back to the sea,” Andrew says as he leads us down to the shore. This is probably the fourth or fifth pearl of wisdom the stocky Hawaiian, our guide for the day, has tossed my way. Each seems more important than the last and it’s clearly vital I remember them all.

Andrew Park Jr., whose friends call him Pako, learned to fish from his father as a child. He used the sort of bamboo rods we’re now holding, 12-foot stalks taken from aging plants. Younger stalks apparently break. “I found that out pretty early on,” says Pako, who harvested these “up on the mountain.” Live and learn, I guess.

By “mountain,” Andrew means the peaks of the East Maui Volcano, better known as Haleakala National Park or “house of the sun,” a massive wave of lava rock that crested more than a million years ago and never bothered to break. The mountain looms over Maui, it’s people, and the beach, but Hawaiians don’t respond to intimidation. According to Andrew, they go fishing.

This morning he’s keen to introduce us to the fish that sustained him as a child: moi (known to “Haoles” and biologists as Pacific Thread Fish). There will also be goat fish, rock fish, and trevally, but first there are going to be some more lessons. “If you whistle before you go fishing, you won’t catch anything,” says Andrew. “Nobody will catch anything if they’ve eaten a banana this morning.”

I’ve been whistling almost non-stop for that last 30 minutes and I enjoyed a delicious fruit salad back at Travaasa Hana, the luxurious, sprawling hotel that has fed me copiously and set up this trip. I don’t say anything.

The actual gesture of fishing with a bamboo pole is fairly straightforward: You bait the hook with a piece of crab – squid apparently offends the subtle palate of reef fish – the take care not to catch a tourist as you cast from the pier. I do this and, within seconds, I feel something take the bait. As I look smugly at my fellow fishermen, each staring hopefully into the light blue, I pull on the pole to find crab gone and no fish. This will happen countless times before I head home, cursing goat fish and moi all the way.

I take a few days off to ride around on horses and putter around in the relentless sun before booking another trip with Andrew. My thinking is very simple: Fishing with a net should be easy. I’ll get some wisdom laid on me, I’ll throw the thing and, boom, fresh fish for dinner. I take the traditional net, now made from monofilament instead of fibers from the Olona plant, and the lead weights attached to it. This is not a complicated trap.

Andrew grew up throw-a-net fishing because of course he did. He stands on a patch of grass in the shade of gigantic banyan tree and demonstrates the technique, which looks almost impossible, with a slightly distracted ease. He squats slightly, gathers the net in left hand, swings part of it over shoulder while wearing the remainder like a hula skirt, folds the drooping fringe over his knee, grabs it with his right hand, and, finally, throws.

“You’ll see locals down the beach, crouching down, their nets at the ready,” Andrew explains reassuringly. “They crouch in order to hide from the fish. Parrot fish, particularly, are really smart.” The biggest fish he has ever caught using this method was an 8 lb moi: “In ancient times only royalty could eat them. If you didn’t have royal blood and they caught you eating a moi they’d cut your head off.”

Andrew lists the many species I’m fairly certain I won’t be catching. There’s surgeonfish, which have knife-like spines on their tails, the diamond knife fish which is best barbecued, and the unicorn fish, which has a horn and a nice flavor when dipped in soy sauce.

I feel pretty good when I finally get to show off to the locals on the beach and cast my net a few feet in front of me, watching it sink in the dark water. After each throw, Andrew wades in to retrieve it, taking care that it doesn’t snag on a rock or lose the tasty eight-pounder trapped inside. I catch a lot of seaweed.

Once again, despite refraining from whistling or eating bananas, I return to Travaasa empty handed. Luckily, there’s a restaurant. I scour the menu in search of a seafood dish, preferably something with a bit of banana.

More information: Rooms at the Travaasa experiential resort in Hana are $350 a night for a la carte guests and $600 for those looking to take advantage of the all-inclusive offerings, including cooking classes and gourment meals.

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