Hawaiian fishermen crafted tools of their trade

KA MO‘OLELO MOANA

The luhe‘e (left) and hina‘i (right) are among several replicas of traditional Hawaiian fishing tools exhibited at Maui Ocean Center. -- EVAN PASCUAL / Maui Ocean Center photo

As a Maui local, a visit to the fishing store is often a social occasion. The door chimes with the entry of each patron, who is likely to be a familiar face — friend, relative, or coworker. The regulars “talk story” with employees behind the counter, exchanging tales of their latest catch or the one that got away. Aisles are lined with colorful lures in all shapes and sizes, from ultra-realistic to bizarre baits that make you ask, “does that really work?”

Fishing lures have a connection to Hawaii’s past, but they weren’t always as detailed as today’s lures. Throughout history, lawai’a (Hawaiian fishermen) not only carried traditional fishing knowledge but also how to craft and effectively use their equipment. In an era absent of plastics and metals, they turned to natural materials and ingenuity to create lures.

Aku, or skipjack tuna, was a staple food source for Hawaii — and still is today. The pa hi aku was a favorite lure to use when targeting skipjack. This traditional lure was crafted using an iridescent pearl oyster shell, a hook made from bone, and pig bristles crossed at the base of the hook. Dragged behind a canoe, the lure shined in the sunlight as its bristles created a trailing ripple to entice aku to strike.

Fishing for he’e, or octopus, involved a dance between the he’e and a luhe’e (octopus lure). Carefully selecting the right stone and cowry shell, fishermen bound the two together with a hook. Fishermen would drag the luhe’e along the ocean floor, lifting and dropping it methodically to attract an octopus. In “The Works of the People of Old: Ka Po’e Kahiko,” author and Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau shares, “The handsome stone was the ‘husband’ to the cowry, and the cowry was ‘married’ to the stone. When the two matched in beauty, and they swayed in dance in the ocean, the he’e came to watch the joyful dance. Those of them who wished to honi (kiss) the cowry, leaped to embrace and kiss her because they were aroused by the dance. When the he’e took hold of the cowry, the fisherman pulled up the cord swiftly with his right hand, grabbed it with his left, and pulled it hard against the side of the canoe, which forced the hook into the he’e.”

Predating modern fishing nets, the hina’i (basket fish trap) may have been the earliest form of “net” used by Hawaiians. The funnel-shaped basket was crafted using a stone base and the aerial roots of the ‘ie’ie, an indigenous, woody vine found in forests at elevations above 1,500 feet. Used to target a variety of reef fish, a hina’i would be baited and left on the ocean floor. An interior cone allowed fish to enter the basket but made it difficult to leave. Hina’i were made in various sizes and were extremely durable, often remaining in families for generations.

Fishing lures have evolved greatly over time, but behind the modern materials and production, the basic principle of attracting fish remains unchanged.

At the Maui Ocean Center, replicas of the pa hi aku, luhe’e, hina’i and more are displayed in the Hawaiians and the Sea exhibit, while rare artifacts are exhibited in the new Kaho’olawe exhibit (courtesy of the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission). Remnants of Hawaiian fishing lures are just one of many implements that bring us back to Hawaii’s past and remind us of the ingenuity during this time period.

* Evan Pascual is the marketing and public relations coordinator at Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “the Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by Maui Ocean Center staff members. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.

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