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Letter To A Hawaiian Bonefish

Dear O’io: You eluded us last year. Our esteemed guide, Captain Jeremy Inman of Oahu Flyfishing, caught the Covid, had to cancel. I wrote the story anyway because the occasion was my 80th birthday and wannabe writers never die, we keep writing. We were in Honolulu enjoying an interesting street week, report of which I felt equally germane to hooking up with you out there on the flats. I sent the story headlined “Uh Oh, No O’io” to Tail Magazine editor-in-chief Joe Ballarini, who liked it but judged it too fishless for the magazine. He lateraled it to Tail’s reader contribution blog, where it remains as preface to the foregoing, our return to Honolulu, which you know, evanescent quicksilver wraith of the reef, heartbreaker of many a fly caster, turned out to be a little bit fishier. 

* * *

This vast lagoon where you live, where we dubious terrestrials intrude with desperate desire to feel your power, is called Ke’ehi in the language of the people who got here first, they who fished and farmed here for centuries in a lifestyle that coexisted well with the fecundity of the sea and of the land. Much has changed. But not you, O’io. In A.J. McClane’s magisterial Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, he wrote “Bonefish live in a constant state of alarm.” Great writing because it is brisk truth. It takes a masterful guide with the vision of an osprey, and expert poling of his flatboat from his raised platform at the stern, to position an angler on the bow for a reasonable presentation of the shrimp fly he tied himself expertly that replicates what you want most, something to eat. “Thirty feet at one o’clock,” says Captain Jeremy. I cast the fly in accordance with his instruction, and miracle of miracles, it is apparently close enough. “Eat it, eat it!” I hear Jeremy imploring softly so as not to alarm you, but dammit, you do not, you either refuse the replicated morsel slowly, maddeningly, or you spook, which is to say you disappear with such suddenness as to give doubt you were ever there in the first place.

For hours, brother Rick and I alternately stepped up on the bow, without the balance we used to have, but with the fine instruments of our salt water 8-weight rods and reels, drags set perfectly for 10-pound tippet strengths, and cast as well as we could to where Captain Jeremy spotted you, you rumor of a fish, how many times? Thirty? Forty? It does not matter because you vexed us remorselessly. There was a moment in the blue water near the outer reef when we saw one reason why you are so preternaturally alert, as a big slab of an Ulua, a Trevally, Jeremy judged to be about forty pounds flashed by the boat. I asked him, “Do they eat bonefish?” He said, “They eat everything.” 

By now, it was time to pull up to a small island in the Ke’ehi for lunch -- great BLT sandwiches that replenished some of our dwindling elderly male reserves of energy for the forthcoming afternoon, nearly a mile of knee-deep wading the lagoon; stalking you, hunting you, needing you, wanting you as badly at this juncture as a lost love we knew too late was true. For more hours we followed the captain. He would spot you now and then with his seemingly x-ray vision, freeze to a halt, point, and whisper instruction to either Rick or me. “Just there, put it there, ten feet.” Usually our customary result, you impossible ghost of a fish, you either refused the fly, or you pulled your amazing vanishing act leaving us limp with disappointment for the umpteenth time. And once what did you do? Unseen until you were perhaps only a foot from Jeremy’s left knee you dramatically spooked and made a big hole in the water that startled the hell out of our usually unflappable leader.

Then, finally, some action we were all desperate for: Jeremy freezes and points. “Twenty feet, three o’clock,” he whispers. I see you clearly and put the fly as close to your table as I dared. Then wham, that lusty take, that power jerk that says fish on in every language. I could feel your energy bend the rod, zip up the line, and rocket up through my left arm into my grateful heart. “Let it run, let it run!” exhorts my captain who well knows your customary 40 mile an hour reel screaming speed run for life. God knows I am ready for your run, but instead I feel short bursts and when I coax you close, Jeremy says “You got a goatfish.” Am I disappointed? Hell no, the little guy of something near a pound fought like a trooper, and with black and white stripes at the tail, and bright red and yellow coloration forward, I thought he was one of the most beautiful denizens of the reef I had ever seen. “Hold him up for a shot,” I ask Jeremy and just as he does, the fish the Hawaiians call an Obake Weke, a Nightmare Goatfish, nomenclature meaning if you eat it you might wake up screaming, slips out of his hands into involuntary earlier than anticipated catch and release.

On the wade back to the boat, our captain consoles us needlessly because Rick and I loved the whole experience, including intimacy with the beauty and the Hawaiian history of the lagoon, as well of course with the mystery of you, O’io. “This is not a rare day,” Jeremy says, “These fish are extremely challenging and often frustrating. But what keeps clients coming back are those other not so rare days when they are very hungry and less wary, and we are rewarded several times with the wonderful A game of the sport and the pastime of fly fishing.”

Not to worry Captain Jeremy, you will hear from us again and soon.

* * *

Anyway, dear fish, before we left Honolulu, we drove over the Ko’olau Range, the beautiful mountains that are the spine of Oahu, to the windward side of the island, to the town of Kaneohe, to visit with Naoki Hayashi, a master of what has become the fine art of gyotaku. It began in the 19th Century when Japanese fishermen made ink prints of their catches simply for record keeping but it has evolved into highly prized artistry, and Naoki’s work is at the top. It has nothing to do of course with catch and release but Naoki is justifiably proud of his ethos, he utilizes non-toxic ink so that nothing goes to waste, all his subjects are appreciated on his dining table as well. For obvious reasons Rick and I were particularly interested in the O’io gyotaku in his gallery.

Thus it is, magnificent fish, your life has been rescued from time, you will live forever in our hearts and on our living room wall.

(Denis Rouse, 81, took fly-casting instruction 60 years ago from Bennett Mintz who is now 90. After the first lesson Rouse stowed his spinning and bait casting gear and inhaled the Orvis catalog. Their most recent outing together involved sea-run cutthroat trout on the Hood Canal in Washington State.)

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