You’ve got to be careful of the unicorn fish,” says Andrew Park, a Hana local and my guide for this Hawaiian net-fishing adventure. “The horn’s not a threat, but they’ve got two diamond-shaped knives on their back. One slice and you’ve got to get to the hospital. Nothing else you can do.” As a consolation, he offers: “They make good BBQ.”
It’s not just the unicorn fish we have to watch out for. The elephant ear fish’s distress signals can attract moray eels. The oama (goatfish) is harmless, but, according to Park’s grandparents, eating the head will give us “fish nightmares.” At least if we catch a moi (Pacific threadfin), we can eat it without having our heads cut off, formerly the fate of anyone without noble Hawaiian blood who dared eat this royal fish.
Still, I’m enjoying the royal treatment as a guest at the Travaasa Hana Resort on Maui’s lush east coast. The property dates back to the 1940s, and over the years, various owners have left their mark; but the recent purchase by Travaasa has brought with it a renewed commitment to the region’s cultural heritage, and a focus on offering authentic experiences. Hence my lessons in traditional net fishing and the spa—rated one of the best in Hawaii—which offers traditional lomi lomi and phaku wela hot stone massages.
While the rest of Maui, especially the western shores of Kanapali, Lahaina and Wailea, are fully developed tourism meccas, Hana, thanks to its remote location, has remained relatively untouched. To get here, one must navigate the famous “Road to Hana,” a winding, occasionally singlelane stretch that runs 80 km from Kahului airport, past towering waterfalls, lush rainforests and epic seascapes.
Little has changed in the tiny town of Hana in the past 30 years. There’s a general store and one gas station for the entire east coast. The bank is open for an hour and a half each day, three on Fridays. Celebrities come to Hana not to see and be seen—Oprah Winfrey has a home nearby—but to disappear.
I’m sort of wishing I was doing that just now as Park and I stand, net in hand, on the black lava beach of Hana Bay watching the incoming tide toss up some heavy-looking waves. After being instructed in the art of preparing my net—which involves wrapping it around my body like a toga before casting—we’re soon wading into the surf. Park spots something moving in the water and with a great heave and a splash, I toss my net. It falls weakly about two feet in front of me. More tosses fall short, but on my fourth try, success! I’ve caught a convict tang. It’s too small to eat, so we let it go, but it is a triumph nonetheless.
I keep casting and eventually get the hang of it. There’s real satisfaction in watching the long spool of line fly from the hand and unravel as it arcs across the water. And while the fish may have outsmarted me today, I know I’ll get the last laugh: there’s onaga ceviche on the restaurant’s menu tonight.
THE TWO MINUTE GUIDE TO HANA