story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Monte Costa
It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday, and the tall, tanned fisherman has agreed to take me out on South Moloka‘i’s reef. We sit on his friend’s waterside lanai at Kapa‘akea, just east of Kaunakakai, drinking beer and waiting for the tide. His flat-bottom, bare-bones fishing boat, Makalei, which he built himself and named after his 9-year-old daughter, floats slack on its mooring line a few yards away. The weather is sunny, winds light.
Known on the island as “Tyler-man,” the 50-ish carpenter and weekend fisherman is beloved for the reliable catch of fish—‘oi‘o, papio, kala, palani, manini—he brings in from the reef and gives to friends and neighbors.
“People ask if I have ‘o‘io for parties, or papio or whatever, and maybe they give me some beers for it,” he says. “What’s ‘o‘io?” I ask.
“Bonefish,” Tyler says, explaining that islanders scrape off the raw, white flesh and mash it up with fermented limu kohu, a seaweed, and kukui nut relish to make a favorite pupu.
Tyler scans the reef, which stretches from the beach to a distant wave line, then glances down to check the tide. The best fishing is on a flood tide, he says, when schools of fish migrate onto the reef flat to feed on algae growing in the sun-baked shallows.
A beer later, the tide is ready for us. Tyler loads the Makalei with two throw nets, a three-pronged sling spear, a cooler and a 9-foot ko‘o (pole). We motor out over the reef in foot-deep water. The near-shore bottom is a thick, coagulated bed of rust-brown mud that looks and feels like a wool blanket. Tyler’s 30-hp Evinrude kicks up a chocolaty wake.
Off the bow, a disturbed stingray scoots away. To starboard, Tyler points out a little cloud of brown
water, an ‘aki lepo, to use the Moloka‘i term for it, which means there’s a school of fish feeding and stirring the mud. “‘Ama‘ama,” Tyler says. He passes the ‘ama‘ama (mullet) by and steers upwind—east—along the coast a mile or so and out toward the wave line where the water is cleaner and a bit deeper.
Behind us the island rises and builds into a panorama: Sere ridges and gullies of the desiccated south side sweep down from Kamakou’s forested crown to the narrow coastal plain and the wide, placid reef. Seaward, beyond the reef and across the sparkling deep-sea channels, the islands of Maui and Lana‘i glow purple under fair-weather bonnets of white cumulus.
On the horizon between them, the low-lying slab of Kaho‘olawe marks Kealaikahiki (the way to Tahiti).
Tyler cuts the motor as we approach the edge of the reef, a good half-mile offshore. This wave line runs for 30 miles east to west, and we’re close to its midpoint. As far as we can see, we’re alone on the reef. Tyler readies his spear and nets. He pulls out his ko‘o and stands on the bow deck. He uses the ko‘o to steer, pushing off coral heads as he picks his way downwind. In silence he scans the water ahead, looking for fish exactly as Hawaiians have done for centuries—except that they used to do it in canoes.