KAUAI, Hawaii – Tom Christy backed his boat from the dock and paused. There, just a few hundred yards east, were the deep blue waters of the Pacific and the legendary blue marlin and mahi-mahi that draw world-wide anglers to Hawaii. Christy couldn’t care less.
“I don’t fish the salt water because I get seasick,” Christy said he turned his boat west up a river and hit the throttle. “Besides, I’m a bass fisherman and some of the best bass fishing in the world is up these rivers.”
During two mornings of fishing Christy, a guide who said he has lived 40 years on Kauai, showed us some nice largemouth and smallmouth bass in clear rivers shrouded with banana-bearing palms and other tropical trees, shrubs and lush grasses.
I can’t agree with “some of the best bass fishing in the world.” But it surely is some of the most beautiful bass fishing on the planet.
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On Kauai, though, it seems like about everything is about as beautiful as it can get.
Big scenery, small package
It was our fourth trip to the Hawaiian island since our daughter did an internship at a small hospital there in 2008. I was stunned by the beauty we found.
The beaches, of course, are legendary. A few hours on Ke e’ beach, which has great snorkeling a few swim strokes from shore, with my family is as good as it gets in my world. But even there, we spend about as much time looking inland as out to sea.
Keep in mind that Kauai’s land mass is about 560 square miles, barely half the size of Sedgwick County. Yet few entire states offer as much scenery.
It’s 10-mile-long Waimea canyon rivals the Grand Canyon for rugged beauty. But even more impressive are the mountains peaks that rise from sea level a few miles away up to more than 5,000 feet in some cases.
Thanks to 300 or more inches of rain annually in some places, most of the mountains are coated in greenery.
Many of the most striking scenes in movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “King Kong” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” were filmed on Kauai. The legendary Napoli cliffs fall for thousands of feet nearly straight down into the ocean. Waterfalls dropping hundreds of feet are found at many of the creases in the interior mountains.
The rivers below those falls held few fish, and none that existed totally in fresh water, when man first came to the Hawaiian islands. That started to change about 125 years ago.
“A lot of the people that moved here came from the mainland and probably had some experience freshwater fishing,” said Annette Tagawa, Hawaii Aquatic Resources biologist. “We think they probably just brought over some fish to provide some (freshwater) sport fishing opportunities.”
She said largemouth bass were first stocked in 1896. Smallmouth bass came in 1953. Also now living in Kauai’s fresh waters are bluegill, channel catfish and some African fish. South American peacock bass share a number of privately-owned, man-made reservoirs with the assorted bass species, too.
For close to 100 years, there have even been rainbow trout stocked, and living well, in several high-country streams on Kauai.
On a mid-May vacation, I booked two mornings of fishing with Christy.
Slow fishing in paradise
Both mornings, we launched his boat near where rivers met the Pacific, and fished our way upstream. As we went, Christy talked of 10-pound largemouths, 6 1/2-pound smallmouths and five-pound spotted bass. (Tagawa later told me there’s no record of spotted bass ever being stocked in Hawaii. The state’s other bass records are well under Christy’s claims. He also pointed to where he said he’d caught a three-pound bluegill. The state record is 8 ounces.)
The first morning, my son Jerrod threw flies while I cast lures Christy recommended. The habitat began as a green wall of assorted trees and brush hanging over the water. As well as the targeted bass, Christy predicted we might tie into barracuda or some other species that ventured up the mouths of the rivers. A hand-sized estuary fish was the sole bite.
After about 2 1/2 hours, we rounded a bend and things started looking, well, “bassy.” Boulders could be seen under the water, and fallen trees stretched from the shoreline well into the river that was running cool and clear. My hopes were raised when Christy began casting his own fishing rod for the first time.
Jerrod had a decent largemouth follow a lure. We saw several smallmouths in the shallows, but they weren’t interested in any fly or lure. We ended the day bassless.
The next morning I was joined by my nephew, Brian Elliott, and Christy took us to a different river, from which we could see some of Kauai’s highest peaks as we cast lures and flies to the edges of mats of floating vegetation. For close to an hour, I cast a small black woolly bugger, a go-to fly I’ve used in three countries and at least a dozen states to catch fish when nothing else would. Not a single take.
Late in the morning, with about an hour left in the trip, we were up where the river narrowed, got more shallow and again flowed over boulders and submerged wood. Christy picked up his rod with his favored plastic bait. I picked up one with a Ned rig, the lure that’s been the spinning version of the wooly bugger when it comes to producing fish.
A cast near a log brought a strike and a brassy-colored flash in the water before the fish came unhooked. It had to be a smallmouth.
At the next hole up the river, near where a mango tree was dropping softball-sized fruit into the water, a fish picked up the Ned rig a few inches from shore. There’s no mistaking the run of a strong smallmouth bass. The 17-inch fish cleared the water once by more than a body length. Three or four times, I thought it was ready to lift aboard and each time the fish had different ideas and pulled line from the reel.
Except for an enlarged fin on its back, the smallmouth looked like the hundreds I’ve caught in Kansas, Missouri and other states. A slightly smaller one I caught a few casts later did, too. We had just those two bass for two mornings of fishing. I hate to think how much my two fish cost me per inch, especially when I have such great bass fishing back home in Kansas. I’ve had some 100 bass days from watersheds and nearly non-stop action on some Flint Hills streams.
None of those, however, can hold a candle to Kauai’s beauty. It’s just one of those places where the fishing is more important than the fish.