Honolulu, Hawaii, July 31, 2014
We were fly fishing the flats at one of our usual spots when SteveL mentioned that the oama, juvenile goatfish, had made their annual appearance at a spot that was not too far away. The best part--nobody knew the fish were there. SteveL suggested we bag the fly fishing for a day to hit the oama, hook about 20, then use them as live bait to catch large predatory jacks that also annually appear to feed on the tiny fish. I know The Girl was also interested in catching oama and had done so on previous trips to the islands but I didn't know if she wanted to follow us out on the reef to our rock pile. I asked if he minded if The Girl came along and he said that was fine with him.

The Girl agreed to go for the oama AND accompany us out to the rock pile, so the next day SteveL picked us up and in 20 minutes we were on the flats searching for the elusive school of tiny fish. Oama are baby goatfish, or weke in Hawaiian, average length between 4 1/2 to 6 inches, and they congregate on the flats in schools that can number in the hundreds or thousands. There is safety in these numbers because the tiny fish, prized by local anglers for bait or for food, are also targeted as an easy meal by hungry jacks and barracuda that make sudden, violent attacks--slashing through the school then retreat with their meal.
SteveL put us in the general area of the school and now it was up to us to scout around to find them. We moved slowly, scanning the flats for the tiny grey shapes hovering over the bottom. Within a few minutes SteveL had located the school on a sandy patch in knee-deep water and we quickly spread out, rigged up our fiberglass and bamboo poles, baited our size 16 hooks and began fishing.

Oama fishing requires a delicate touch. It's like setting the hook on a brookie in a tiny mountain stream. There is no sudden run like a bonefish or a violent smash and grab like a huge jack or tuna. All that is required to set the hook is a gentle, subtle lift of the line. No jerking or strong upward sweep is required. Just a gentle twitch of the wrist or a straight up lift of a few inches will set the hook firmly. Of course, a good pair of polarized sunglasses helps a lot--you have to see which fish is eating your bait to set the hook. Other than bait and your pole, the glasses are the most important piece of gear you can bring with you for oama fishing.

As the tide began to turn we were surrounded by hundreds of fish and The Girl and SteveL hammered them. In a few minutes we had enough bait for our expedition to the rock pile.
We went back to the car, put the small poles away and brought out the big guns. There was no messing around here. The fish we were after are big and very nasty so we were giving no quarter and expecting none in return. SteveL said he once hooked into something so big, he had the drag locked down tight and whatever it was on the other end kept peeling off line and it took all he had to just hold onto the rod.
The tide was rising as we arrived at the rock pile. SteveL set up the big rods while I baited up a smaller spinner for The Girl to use. She knows how to cast it so she went right to work, flinging the bait out into the deep bluish-green water. I rigged another rod with a free-swimming bait, no swivel, sinker or leader, just the hook tied to the main line and tossed into the deep.

Unlike fly fishing, there's a lot of waiting around after you dunk the bait. You tighten up the line after the cast then stand around watching the rod tip for any movement or pass the time telling fish stories, talk about life in general or just watch the scenery. I figure 30 minutes went by before we had some action.
The Girl had a strike. Something big had grabbed her bait and was heading for the other end of the reef, out towards the breakers. The line was peeling off her reel so we tightened it up a bit and she fought the fish in until SteveL could net it. It turned out to be a huge palani, or surgeonfish, that had taken the bait. This was a fairly rare catch since these fish are usually herbivorous and this one ate a chunk of squid. We shot a couple of pictures, she did not want to hold the fish and I was leery myself since I had been cut once before by the knives on the fish's tail (hence the name surgeonfish) then let it go.
We checked the rods, rebaited the hooks and went back to fishing. I was standing 30 yards away holding the free-swimming bait when I saw the tip of one of the large rods suddenly begin jerking back and forth. A solid hit and hook up. SteveL grabbed the rod, fought and landed the fish.
Another 30 minutes passed before there was another take, this time on the other large rod. SteveL cranked down on the drag and again, fought and landed another pretty good fish.

After the excitement died down we went back to fishing. I put a new live bait on my line and moved down the reef, away from The Girl and SteveL, then began fishing. I watched a couple of turtles surface and give me the eyeball before they gulped down air and headed for the bottom. I could feel the vibration of the fish swimming on the end of my line when suddenly the bait took off, swimming rapidly. There was a sudden downward jerk followed by the line peeling off the spool. I tightened down the drag and swept the rod back to firmly set the hook then walked rapidly back to The Girl, who had just reeled in her line to recast, and gave her my rod so she could fight the fish.

The rod had a serious bend on it so something pretty big was on the other end. But whatever it was, it was very smart. Instead of heading for the open ocean it ran parallel to the reef where the sharp coral soon shredded the line.

The tide was still rising and it was beginning to get pretty deep where we were standing so we decided to reel up and begin wading for shore. The remaining
oama were released and after rinsing all the gear off at a beachside shower we headed to Hawaii Kai and lunch at Yummy Korean B-B-Q.
EQUIPMENT: To catch oama we used straight bamboo poles about 3 to 4 feet long with a very fine taper at the point with about 3 feet of 2 pound test fluorocarbon line at the end. Hooks between size 14 to 20 are used, depending on the size of the fish. A size BB split shot is set about 8 inches above the hook. For fishing on the rocks we used a variety of heavy surf casting rods outfitted with baitcasting and spinning reels spooled with heavy test line. The spinning rods were outfitted with 6 and 12 pound test line with fluorocarbon leaders.