Fishing - An Art of Survival

by Betty Fullard-Leo

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

Being a fisherman, a poe lawaia, in old Hawai'i was an honorable profession, one that grandparents handed down to the boys in a family. It was a profession that anyone would practice for the sake of survival, but the more expert the fisherman, the more tools of the trade-long canoes, short canoes, large and small nets, various poles, woven fish traps, bone hooks-he possessed.

Most fishermen appealed to the god Ku'ula for his benevolence, though a variety of deities might be worshipped, and to insure a good catch, fishing heiau, called ko'a, would be built. These heiau were named in honor of the particular god, for example, Ku'ula ko'a, Kanemakua ko'a, Kinilau ko'a, Kaneko ko'a, etc., that each man chose as his particular good luck deity. Before setting out to fish, offerings of bananas and baked pig would be made at the heiau. Small Ku'ula alters, smooth, elongated stones pointing toward heaven, also existed where offerings could be made. Ku'ula rocks still can be found on promontories overlooking favorite fishing sites.

Another fishing god who was honored was Mai'ai, an ancestor who discovered the use of olona fiber for making nets. In the 20th century, olona has been replaced by increasingly more efficient man-made materials-cord, linen, nylon, sugi-in net making. However, only a few men have the knowledge, the time and the perseverance to make their own nets today. Kahu Harold Teves, a minister at Kauaha'ao Congregational Church at Wai'ohino on the Big Island has a passion for fishing and is determined to pass on the technique of net making to younger generations. In old Hawai'i, they used upena ku'u, standing or gill net, only, Kahu Teves explained to a group attending a ho'olaulea (cultural celebration) at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. To set the record straight, he continued, Throw net fishing was not a technique practiced in early Hawai'i, but was brought to the Islands by the Japanese who came to work in the sugar cane fields in the late 1800s.

The first nets used in Hawai'i are thought to have been basket traps of various sizes-tiny for o'opu, bigger for eels, large enough to hold a person for kala and palani.

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

An ancient net maker bartered dogs, loads of fish, and food from his fields and taro lo'i in exchange for 4,000 or more strands of olona fiber which his wife would braid into cord for the net. A fine-mesh net for catching small fish might take a year to complete. The size of the cord increased when larger four and five-finger nets were made for catching big fish such as kala, ulua and papio. Nets preserved at Bishop Museum vary in length from 27 feet to 92 feet. Net makers used a shuttle, or hi'a, which was a piece of flat wood also employed as a ruler to make the maka (eyes, or mesh of the net) a consistent size. Kahu Teves works his shuttle easily, starting a net at the piko, or center, and tying the eyes in a circle around it, adding an extra eye, called pu'umana, at regular intervals to create perfect round throw nets.

In earlier days, long, rectangular nets were dyed brownish red with a mixture of ground kukui bark. Long nets were set into the sea, and the ends were drawn in to form an arc, a method that has come to be called hukilau, which is sometimes demonstrated at modern luaus. Schools of fish could be driven into the net by other fishermen, or the net might be dragged across the sea to catch whatever swam by.

Other nets were made in the shape of large bags, called papa. A bag might be laid on the bottom of the ocean while a lead fisherman in a canoe above dangled a melomelo stick, a stick that was rubbed with strong smelling kukui and coconut meat and burned, which attracted the fish. When large schools of fish were nibbling on the stick, the fisherman moved it toward the mouth of the bag. Divers guided the fish into the net and when it was full the fisherman in the canoe above tightened a pull rope that closed the mouth of the bag, so the divers could lift the catch into the waiting canoes.

Early fishermen also used lures. The cowry lure, or leho, used to catch octopus continues to be replicated today. A fisherman held the cord of the lure in one hand and made it dance in the water, until the octopus took hold of the cowry, then the fisherman pulled the cord up swiftly, grabbed the octopus and pulled it against the side of his canoe, imbedding the lure's hook securely, so the octopus could be hauled aboard.

During the time of the King Kamehamehas I, II, and III, pole fishing from canoes for aku was an aristocratic sport. A lei-bedecked ali'i (chief) with his friends would go out in a canoe accompanied by a flat canoe, or malau, drilled full of holes that carried live bait in the sea water which seeped in. A head fisherman watched for flocks of birds that gathered over schools of aku and kawakawa. The water was chummed with baitfish ('iamo). One man filled his mouth with baitfish, distributing them to the pole fishermen on demand. The fishermen held the bamboo poles in their left hands and shook the 'iamo on their hooks in the water until an aku grabbed the bait, then the fishermen pulled in their lines, freed the hooks and tossed the aku into the canoe, repeating the process until the school of aku moved on to another locale.

Many ingenious fishing methods existed. Sometimes lures made of shiny paua shell and pig's hair were used to fish for aku in much the way fishermen troll for them today. An unusual bait was made from the roasted ink sack of a squid mixed with any number of ingredients such as leaves, flowers, seeds or fruit and mashed to a paste in a stone mortor called a poho. Hooks for smaller fish were dipped into this kind of bait. For deep-sea fishing, multiple hooks made of turtle shell, dog or human bone or hard wood would be attached to heavy lines.

photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

Spear fishermen added stone or bone points to their wooden staffs before swimming above a reef or diving from a canoe in pursuit of their prey. Some fishermen even caught fish barehanded by thrusting their fists into holes in the reef. Fishing was truly an art, but it was an art for the purpose of survival. As one old Hawaiian saying goes, Aia a kau ka i'ai ka wa'a, mana'o ke ola. One can think of life after the fish is in the canoe.

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