Author: Evan Pascual
Some of life’s greatest joys are the simple things – the company of loved ones, exploring the outdoors, or indulging in a favorite hobby. It’s hard to imagine a better place to enjoy life than Maui, a Pacific wonderland steeped in culture, history, and natural beauty. While our island home continues to rapidly grow, it may feel we are far from the “good old days,” but some traditions have stood the test of time and often take us right back to where it all began.
While school is out for summer break, Hawaii will soon see thousands of ‘oama returning to its shorelines.
‘Oama fishing has long been a summer pastime for local families and anglers. It’s one of the simplest forms of fishing enjoyable for people of all ages and skill levels. ‘Oama fishing is truly local in the sense that it is not sold as an excursion, the fishing spots are far from hotel resorts, and the people you see almost always include familiar faces such as friends, family, co-workers, former classmates, etc.
A pair of yellowfin goatfish, weke ‘ula.
The word ‘oama is Hawaiian for several juvenile goatfish species under seven inches in length – beyond this size, they are called weke. The commonly caught species include yellowstripe goatfish (weke‘a) and yellowfin goatfish (weke ‘ula), both of which use barbels under their jaw to locate invertebrates buried beneath the sand. Beginning in June or July, large schools of ‘oama migrate to inshore habitats that offer protection from predators and rough water conditions. They congregate in shallow, sandy beaches near reef shelves or in harbors under piers and boat slips. ‘Oama schools will stay around for weeks at a time usually until September, at which point they return to deeper waters as weke.
The yellowstripe goatfish is easily identified by a squarish black spot on its sides.
Fishing for ‘oama is as basic and inexpensive as it gets. All you need is a handpole, light fishing line, split shot weight, a small hook (preferably barbless), and a bit of luck with patience. Shrimp is a popular bait of choice. Once you find the school, drop your bait to the bottom and watch for the fish to nibble. Once you feel a “bump” or see your bait disappear, lift the rod smoothly to set the hook. Timing is key and will take trial and error to perfect. Catching ‘oama can be a lot of fun, but if the fish aren’t hungry, don’t be surprised if they reject your bait.
‘Oama is a coveted fishing bait and food dish. It’s an excellent bait when fishing for papio (trevally under 10lbs) and ulua (trevally over 10lbs). It’s so irresistible that many fishermen refer to ‘oama as “papio candy,” however many locals would argue it’s better to eat the ‘oama themselves. Cooking ‘oama is very straightforward – dust in flour, season with salt and pepper, and deep fry in hot oil. Scaling or gutting the fish is optional, but most fry it whole. Once crispy, ‘oama is usually served with vinegar, Hawaiian chili pepper water, or ponzu sauce for dipping. Thus, ‘oama is often called “Hawaiian French fries.”
For as simple as ‘oama fishing is, it carries great value for local communities. It’s a social experience that brings family and friends together for a fun day on the water, where parents can pass down skills and knowledge to their children. It’s a classroom to learn about sustenance and sustainable fishing practices while forming a personal connection with the ocean. For the solo angler, ‘oama fishing is a way to unwind after a long day at work. Regardless of how one fishes for ‘oama, the experience is the same – it takes us back to the simple days, a reminder of the easy-going lifestyle that makes living in Hawaii so unique.
“Ka Mo‘olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column written by Maui Ocean Center and published in The Maui News.