As we quietly sneak through the knee deep water, our guide Nigel suddenly stops. Peering out into the glass-like flats, he calmly makes the command. “Two bones. 10 o’clock. 50 feet out. Swimming towards us.” I look at my friend Ian. He gives me a quick nod which means I’m up. With a Crazy Charlie in my left hand, my 9 wt setup in my right and a stack of fly line floating next to my legs, I take one slow breath in and calm my nerves.
Muscle memory immediately takes over as my arm snaps a sharp backcast, releasing 15 feet of line behind me. As I feel my line unfurl and tighten, I load the rod and unleash a near-perfect cast. The fly lands about 5 feet in front of the approaching bonefish. Thankfully, they do not spook. At this point, my heart is beating so hard that it must be reverberating through the water, notifying the fish of our presence. Nigel, however, is composed. “Slow strip, now wait. Strip, strip, strip…he’s on it. Set!”
As soon as I feel the weight of the bonefish on my rod, line frantically disappears from my left hand, making erratic arches and loops in the air as it goes. Once that pile is all gone, my reel sings her sweet song. I adjust the drag without hesitation and seconds later, there is a mere three coils of backing left on the arbor. Nigel offers a conservative guess. “Looks like its about 10-12 lbs.” I can almost hear Ian’s jaw drop. Between rod-warping runs, I reel-in like a madman. The moment of truth has arrived. Nigel plucks the chunky bone out of the water and hands it to me. Grip-and-grin pictures, high-fives and smiles abound. Victory is ours.
I gotta come clean here. Although my friend Ian and I did go out for a day of guided fishing in Kaua’i, we both got skunked on bones and bluefin trevally. The funny thing is, stories like the one above are what most angling enthusiasts are presented with on a daily basis. We all love to hear about the epic battles that have happy endings, the angler overcoming odds and outsmarting their prey. The stories about those pursuing elusive saltwater species culminating with a fish in hand or net. The days where every dry fly casted is met with a perfect slurp off the surface. We want to hear the tales where all the pieces fall into place.
But as most anglers know, those moments, those stories are often rare. And when setting out for a day on the water, there is no guarantee of victory. Victory, that is, in the sense of a means to an end. Because even though we missed some shots at bones and trevally in Kaua’i, we learned a lot. And there is great success in learning from a hands-on experience and the mistakes that inevitably coincide. Hopefully, in reading the following tips, tactics and information on fly fishing in Kaua’i, you will be more prepared for when you make it out there. Because in my opinion, this trip is definitely worth a place on your bucket list.
Saltwater flats’ species can be extremely hard to see, especially if you’re new to targeting them. They blend in well with the coral, sand and grasses which makeup the bottoms. And they become virtually invisible when they turn broadside to an angler. This is particularly true for bonefish. Add a little wind or cloudy conditions to the equation and spotting these cruisers can turn from difficult to nearly impossible. That’s why it is paramount to hire a guide or go out with someone who has sufficient experience. Their eyes have been trained to locate the fish in a myriad of conditions.
Before leaving for Kaua’i, I reached out to veteran fly fisherman and guide, Nigel Warrack. Nigel owns the outfitter, Fly Fish Kaua’i and has extensive knowledge of the area as well as the salt and freshwater species found there. We locked in a day of flats fishing for the beginning of our trip. But stormy mornings when the tide was right (in this case, an incoming tide) prevented us from going out until the very last day of our vacation. Although we were getting a little antsy to hunt for some bones, rescheduling saved us from unnecessary frustrations.
The morning we finally met Nigel on the beach, it was perfectly clear and windless. Visibility was as good as it was gonna get. And the lack of wind also helped with casting. In short, these were the most ideal conditions.* But even with the weather and tide on our side, the bones and trevally were few and far between. And the opportunities we did have were squashed by botched casts or the fish heading in the wrong direction. You can’t win ‘em all.
*A little chop is sometimes beneficial as it makes it harder for the fish to see you.
The Right Gear
Unlike the sandy-bottomed flats of the Florida Keys or Bahamas, Hawaiian flats are primarily composed of corral. The corral ranges from crumbly and uneven to rock-hard and more or less uniform. In short, walking on this type of surface can be brutal on your feet. That’s why having the right type of footwear is key. Skip hard-soled sandals like Keens or Chacos as they leave a lot of your foot unprotected. I suggest wearing a saltwater wading boot instead. The Simms Intruder Boots are designed specifically for conditions like this. They provide full-foot protection, ample cushioning and include integrated gravel guards and neoprene socks. After 6 hours of wading through corral-infested flats, your feet will thank you for choosing the Intruders.
Anyone who’s done some flats fishing knows the sun can be unrelenting. Beyond lathering up with your favorite sunscreen, I’d highly suggest purchasing a hooded sunshirt. The Patagonia Tropic Comfort Hoody II has been my sunshield on many fishing excursions. It’s ultralight, extremely comfortable, has thumb holes and a generous hood and is reasonably priced. Also, the fabric provides 50+ UPF sun protection.
Proper footwear…check. Sun protection…check. What about your fingers? The combination of salt water and fly line being repeatedly run across your finger will create friction. I’ve burnt a nice arc on my digits several times and it’s not fun. And once the burn is there, it only gets worse. Save yourself the discomfort and purchase a pair of saltwater gloves. Check out the Simms Solarflex Sun Gloves. They are fingerless so you won’t lose dexterity while rigging. And they have reinforced pointer fingers for added durability. Their fabric also provides 50+ UPF sun protection.
For additional tips on prepping for a saltwater trip, read our blog on ‘5 Underrated Things Not to Forget’ here.
While the flats fishing on Kaua’i is relatively limited, reef fishing is abundant. As we toured around the island, we noticed numerous areas with exposed and accessible reefs during low tide. Figuring we could get away with a DIY approach to this style of fishing, we did just that. And although we didn’t land any monsters, we were able to get into some smaller bluefin trevally, Poopaa (Hawaiian hawkfish), wrasse, reef triggerfish (Hawaii state fish) and a few other species. Given the inconsistent footing and random drop-offs, traversing the reefs during low tide was often difficult. But it was well worth it. Here’s a few tips and tactics we picked up from our explorations.
-Enter at low tide. But be aware of the next incoming tide and how long you’ve been out. During our first day, we had walked several hundred yards out in shin to knee deep water and fished for a couple hours. By the time we were heading back to the beach, the water was chest deep. Have a well-timed exit strategy.
-Search out the bays and areas that have relatively flat water. These sections often contain a stretch of water between the outer reef and the shore which is perfect for walking and fishing. At low tide, this also makes accessing the outer reef possible.
-Look for the ‘pocket water’. Areas that drop off suddenly amidst a flat area usually hold fish. Toss your streamer across and let it sink. Vary fast and slow strips. This usually brings out the fish hiding at the edges of the dropoffs.
-Don’t want to adventure into the flats or reefs during low tide? Look for jetties or peninsulas. You can hike or walk out onto them and access the edges of the reef without getting into the water.
Yes, you’re traveling to gorgeous Kaua’i where luxurious resorts and accommodations can be found at every turn. But the opportunities of camping on the beach should not be overlooked. Kaua’i has numerous county and state campgrounds which offer ocean views, amenities like showers and bathrooms and easy access to beaches and trails. Some have designated sites (reserve in advance to ensure a spot) while others fall into the dispersed, ‘camp-where-you like’ category. Either option places you feet away from saltwater fishing and is a great alternative to the standardized tourist route. Click the link here for more information camping. As a side note, the west coast of Kaua’i does not have as many easily accessible stretches of reef as the south, east and north. With fishing in mind, choose your campsites accordingly.
Although we didn’t have time to check this out, Kaua’i offers a fair amount of freshwater fishing options. You can actually fish for rainbow trout on the island one day, bass the next and then go the saltwater route the following day. In terms of island fly fishing, it’s the whole package deal. The extent of freshwater opportunities is largely due to the fact that Kaua’i is the wettest place on the planet, averaging 37.5 feet of rain annually. On the inner, mountainous part of the island, it’s pretty much always raining.
While the ponds, rivers and streams that skirt the mountains provide more accessible freshwater fishing possibilities, the trout fishing is quite a bit harder to get to. Off road travel and some hiking will be required. And knowing where to go is a major challenge. If you want to forgo some of these obstacles, Fly Fish Kaua’i offers guided freshwater outings in addition to their saltwater trips.
Make It Happen
Traveling to Kaua’i is an amazing experience in itself. By throwing some fly fishing into the mix, your enjoyment will be amplified ten fold. But before you leave, head into Vail Valley Anglers and talk to their knowledgeable staff. They will help you find the perfect gear, travel wear and accessories whether it’s for salt or fresh water fishing. Then, you’ll be ready to hit the beach, flats and rivers during your adventures on Kaua’i. Mahalo!
Keep ‘em wet, handle them sparingly and always appreciate where you are.
Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers’ Content Contributor, @sticks2snow