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Importance of Fish
Fishing Seasons
Wind, Rain, Currents
Fishing Grounds
Fishing Gods, Shrines, Prayers
Fishing Legends
Fishing Methods
Specific Fish
Other Seafood
Fish Preparation/Eating
Fishing Sources

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Fishing Methods

Hook and line
Hawaiians used many fishing methods. Hook and line were used to catch medium-sized fish as well as sharks, squid and octopus. The most reliable line was made from olona, one of the world's strongest plant fibers. Hooks were shaped from a single piece of human, bird, or dog bone, pearl or turtle shell, whale ivory, or wood; composite hooks combined two or more pieces lashed together. Stone, coral, or shell tools were used to shape the hooks. Hook shapes ranged from straight to nearly circular, often including one or two carved barbs. The largest hooks were built for sharks. Made of wood or a composite of wood with a bone point, they measured seven to 11 inches long. Fishermen stored lines and hooks in gourd containers.

Stone sinkers took many shapes. The plummet form, or pohakialoa, is unique to Hawai`i and was made to carry lines to the bottom of deep fishing grounds.

While in shallower water a fisherman could easily see the sandy or rocky bottom, it was more difficult to get visual bearings in deep water. Oil from roasted kukui nuts, chewed and spat on the surface, increased visibility to six fathoms (120 feet).

Hawaiians made lures as well as hooks. The most striking are cowrie shell lures for catching squid and octopus. One or two cowrie shells and a stone sinker were lashed to a wooden shaft that also supported a bone hook; the lure might also include a hackle of ti leaf strips. Different cowrie shell lures were used to fish at particular times of day, depending on color, ocean conditions and the sea floor. Some lures passed down through generations became famous in stories and chants. Some were named for ancestors or relatives. Kamakau wrote that some lures were so powerfully attractive that they would simply be shown over the side of the boat and "squids came climbing in."

Fishermen used fish, shrimp or crab to bait their hooks. They used live bait to attract and hold a school of fish. Ground bait - cut pieces of fish pounded soft - was wrapped in a cloth package along with a baited hook, the whole bundle weighted and lowered to the sea bottom. The line was then jerked free and the hook swallowed by fish attracted to the bait. Squid ink bait made from the roasted ink sac mixed with plant ingredients was put on the fish hook tip to catch small fish near shore.

Hawaiians used spears to fish in shallows or along rocky ledges, or underwater to catch rock fishes. Night spear fishing inside the reef was done by the light of kukui-nut torches as the bright light attracted fish in shallow waters. Hard woods like kauila, o`a, koai`e, and uhiuhi were favored for spears. Finished spears were six or seven feet long, slim and sharply pointed at one end.

Fishermen also used traps woven like baskets to catch smaller fish and shrimp. A funnel opening led into the trap and a bottom opening held a stone weight or allowed the catch to be extracted. Made of lama wood and `ie`ie rootlets, the largest traps were five feet in diameter and three feet deep. Women used smaller traps to catch shrimp in streams, placing their traps under leaves and branches where shrimp would naturally hide. Other shallow-water ocean fish such as palani, uhu, kumu, kahala, and squid were fed roasted sweet potato from a basket for several days running. Once the fish grew comfortable, the bait was placed in a trap inside the basket. Sometimes fish were fed for one or two weeks to make them plump and delicious before the trap was added to the feeding basket.

Hawaiians favored net fishing over other methods. Nets allowed fishermen to catch many fish at once and they could be used from shore or from a canoe. Sometimes a community would fish together. Called a hukilau, everyone worked as one to pull in a large net spread in shallow water near shore. The catch was then divided equally among the group.

Olona plant fibers were a favorite for making net and rope. They were strong, resisted rotting, and didn’t kink. The strongest nets, for catching sharks, were of thick rope made from hau bark.

Gillnets, hanging nets, encircling nets, and seine nets were set over large areas, attached to the shore or set from canoes. Flexible wood frames supported smaller hand nets built to dip into water. Bag nets with cords attached to their free edges were used to catch fish to stock fishponds. Huge bag nets were used in places like Honolulu Harbor to catch large quantities of fish.

As a boy, Robert Punihaole accompanied his uncle on fishing trips along the Kona coast and on excursions to gather net materials. He says, "We went to Kealakekua to gather olona to make the nets. My uncle them would go mauka, gather the olona, and bring it home. They would ihi [strip] the bark, ho`opulu [soak] it, ho`omalo`o [dry] it, then kahi [comb] it on a long board to draw out the fine fibers, and then koe [separate] the fibers. They then would make poka`a [balls] about twelve or more inches in diameter, and then there were two mea wili [twiners] which they would spin to wili aho [make the rope] for the fishing and net lines." Fishermen used mesh gauges, netting needles, net menders, floats, and sinkers to finish and repair the nets.

Koki`o dye
To make olona fishing nets and lines less visible in the water, fishermen dyed them. Koki`o, the native red hibiscus, produced a purple dye also used to dye kapa. Robert Punihaole remembers, "The fishermen of Makalawena, Kuki`o, and Kaupulehu [villages on Hawai’i island] all went to the uplands of Kaupulehu to gather the koki`o bark. They gathered the bark carefully, stripping only a small section of the bark. They knew that if too much was taken the tree would die, and there would be no koki`o to gather. That was how they did it, and I went with them when I was very young. Once they stripped enough bark, they would return makai, and boil the bark to make the dye, and they then colored the olona nets and lines. Sometimes we would use kukui too, but it was not as good, because the kukui has more acid, and `ai ke kaula, it eats the rope, making it weak." He adds, "Because the koki`o dye was so valuable, if someone went up to gather, they would call the other families together, and all of them would share the dye to color their nets."

Noose Shark hunting
Many types of sharks swim in Hawaii's waters. Hawaiians revered some as embodiments of ancestral spirits or `aumakua. They fed and cared for these sharks and spun tales of their protective powers.

Other sharks were hunted to be eaten, caught by hook, net, or noose. To noose a shark, the animals were first tamed by several days of feeding. Fishermen threw bait from a canoe in relatively shallow water, usually baked meat wrapped in ti leaves as well as pounded `awa mixed with water that was lowered into the ocean in gourd vessels. The feeding routine was repeated for three or four days until the sharks met the fishermen regularly and came in close to their boats. Finally, satiated with the food and slightly stupified by the `awa, the fishermen could slip a noose over the shark's head. The shark was then dragged to shore where it was stranded and killed.

"To the native son, the shark was a horse to be bridled, its fin serving as the pommel of a Mexican saddle. I have seen men skilled in herding sharks riding a shark like a horse, turning the shark to this side and that until carried to shore, where the shark died."

Fish ponds
Hawaiians developed aquaculture to supplement other fishing activities. Fish ponds guaranteed a food supply for chiefs in lean times and increased the wealth of the managing chief. Massive stone walls enclosed shallow bays or inlets. The walls curved so prevailing currents pushed sand and debris around the wall rather than collecting it at one side. Stones on the outer wall - built without mortar - angled downwards so wave action worked to pull them tighter. Creating a new pond was a major engineering project and required 10,000 men to build a 60-acre pond.

Sluice gates in the pond walls allowed small fish to enter from the open sea and prevented larger fish from leaving. Pond stock was replenished as new fish entered with currents and high tide.

Hawaiians built fishponds on Kaua`i, O`ahu, Maui, and Moloka`i with the highest concentration on Moloka`i. Hawai`i island had the fewest ponds due to its abrupt coast and lack of reef and lagoons.

Hawaiians also used natural fresh or brackish water ponds, stocking them with fish and using them in the same manner as artificial ponds. Anchialine ponds filled with brackish water support a type of small, red shrimp (`opae ula). Hawaiians cleaned and maintained the ponds, harvesting the shrimp to use as bait for `opelu fishing. They caught and released small ocean fish into other ponds; manini, aholehole, and moi were left to grow to a good eating size. They were caught later in fish traps, the desired fish collected and the rest allowed to swim back to the pond. As with all fishing, Hawaiians were guided by the dictum, "Lawa kupono, a`ale `anunu!" (Take only enough for what you need, don't be greedy!)

Fish ponds were stocked with awa (milkfish), `ama`ama and `anae (two kinds of mullet), `ahole (sea-pig), `opae (shrimp), `o`opu (guppies), and puhi (eels). Other sea fish entering the ponds were ulua, kahala (amberjack), kumu (goatfish), manini (surgeon fish), `o`io (bonefish), and uhu (parrotfish).

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