Interview with Coach Duff

If you have been paying attention to the Bonefishing News the past few years, you’ve probably heard something about bonefish in Hawaii and you’ve probably seen Coach Duff referenced a few dozen times.  The Coach agreed to do an interview and it is worth reading.

Coach, how did you end up in Hawaii as a bonefishing guide?

I had heard rumors of big bones for years in the Pacific Northwest, where I was more or less a steelhead bum.  I came here to coach for June Jones at the University of Hawaii and was lucky enough to join the program as it was coming into its record breaking 2007 Sugar Bowl Season.  I went out on the North Shore my second day in Hawaii with my wife and kids to barbecue.  My wife is a local girl and liked this certain beach.  Well about 30 blind full line casts into deeper water with a big Clouser I hooked and landed a 9 pound Hawaiian Bonefish (Abula Glossodanta) that ran like it had a rocket shoved up it’s ass.

That was it for me, and I soon was pouring over charts, maps, Google Earth and anything else I could find to locate flats and get to the real business of sightfishing for these pigs.

Nice Aloha Bone

Do you have a fish that stands out, one you remember more than others?

Mark Hopkins landed a 13 plus and a 10 in less than one hour one day.

He is a great angler and a great guy to fish with out of New Mexico.  I was with Blake McHenry one day and he hooked a pig on the North Shore which took us 150 yards into coral heads.  He  free spooled the fish and it took us 20 minutes to pole after it painstakingly getting line back that was tangled in a complete cluster#$%^ all over the reef.  We finally got back to the 20 pound leader and damn it that monster wasn’t still on the hook!  It was pretty defeated but in 8-10 feet of water so I jumped in headfirst and swam down following the leader underwater and netted it under the surface.  Then I swam up and handed it to Blake who was dancing on the casting deck of my Andros 18 footer and in his complete fired up state, kicked his feet out and landed flat on his back laughing his ass off.  We looked like little kids dancing around and screaming and whooping.  You know, these are the moments I like the best.  There are alot of great bonefish guides out there Bjorn, hell I can’t hold a candle to some of the great ones but when you can be a kid again, when you can scream and jump and let flyfishing really take over, take you to that place we all search for every day, it makes this stuff special.

The Hawaiian mentality when it comes to fish, as I understand it, is “Catch it, Kill it, Eat it.”  How do the locals react when they hear you are practicing catch and release?

I want to make it clear once and for all, that there are some great conservationists in Hawaii, gear fisherman who DO practice catch and release.  Sure there are plenty of the “kill everything mentality” they are by far the majority and we are trying to reach each one of those guys and gals one by one.  It will take time.  I’ll never surrender, you can bet on that.  Overall the reception may be a bit guarded and suspicious but as I said earlier there are some great catch and release anglers here.  Being Hawaiian isn’t a blood line thing, it’s an overall love of everything Hawaiian, including it’s wildlife.  When  locals realize you are putting “THEIR” fish back, they love you for it and respect it even if it seems crazy to them.  Notice I said “THEIR” fish.

Far too often we take the “missionary approach” in all forms of conservation.  That is we blast in and beat our chests and tell locals with thousands of years of certain practices how fucked up they are and start ramming legislation up their asses.  Good or bad, right or wrong (and it’s often right with science backed data) that never works for anyone.  I am asked that alot in my boat guiding and usually I ask the angler where his home river is.  He’ll answer “The Skagit” or “The Gunpowder” or whatever it may be.  I then ask him/her “Do you have any poaching problems on that river and the answer is always 110 percent “Hell yes!”  Well then let’s remember this is an issue world wide in every culture, every body of water, every type of fishing.  We may have a little bit higher mountain to climb here in Hawaii but also remember that we live in a special culture here and to jam our views learned on catch and release Western Rivers is not only insulting but will be met with hostility, deservedly so.  I grew up on the Skagit/Sauk rivers and I saw more illegal netting on those rivers than I do here on our flats.

So yes the inshore fishery has been hit pretty hard due to lack of regulations but the bonefish has prospered in the wake of the destruction.  It ain’t over and we will continue to do our part to educate each angler, each netter, one by one and maybe we can turn it around.  These are beautiful people and they do care about their islands, we just have to reach them by walking the walk every day in front of them.

A Coach client with a nice bone.

Talk a little bit about gear considerations for the unique aspects of Hawaiian bonefishing.

I like a top notch 9 weight saltwater flyrod with a 10 weight Monic clear floater and a 10-12 foot 12-20 pound tapered leader (depending on how much coral is around for abrasion resistance) and always tie on my flies with a small Lefty’s Loop.  If it’s good enough for Lefty, it sure the hell is good enough for my hack ass!!!!  LOL I like tan, brown, Olive, Orange, Pink and Yellow flies in sizes 8 through 2-0 depending on the area fished and the fish I am hunting.  I like crabs on soft bottom flats with some mantis shrimp imitations and on heavy inner reef areas or coral rock areas I go to mantis imitations matching the color of the bottom.  I like one long slow strip with a mantis, (sometimes we’ll pop or jump it if they are really active) and one strip (smooth) with a crab and then with the crab we leave it alone!  With smaller fish and smaller flies we will go to a shrimp type retrieve, “POP POP POP POP pause……  POP POP POP POPpause…. but those smaller fish (2-5 pounds) are very forgiving and will often take the fly out of your hand like a Westslope Cutthroat.  The big boys and girls, the 8 pounders and up give you no feeling, no line movement, no “take” you have to witness their stopping on the fly, and then you look for the lifting of the tail, the “backshake” or the “fin dance” and hit em with a good long strip strike.  Far too often our anglers have Mexico and Belize as their bonefishing experience and they keep waiting for the “strike” which never comes here on our big fish.  I call it the “Jedi mind strike” You have to see it, believe it and “hit em”!  LOL  And then of course there are those times when Mr. Hotshit guide yours truly blows it,  reads the whole shooting match wrong, yells “Hit em!” and they are not there on the other end, but we don’t talk about about that………..LOL

PS Practice your casting before you come to Hawaii boys and girls.

15-20 mile an hour trade winds are the norm, not the exception and if you can’t double haul your asses off, it makes it tough.  Find a good instructor, get some brews and hit your favorite park.  You get better casting in the park, and better and hooking fish on the water.  A little something from the Coach because I care.  This is a tough fishery and casting is everything.

For the size of the fishery, Hawaii has received an amazing amount of publicity as of late.  There are a number of places around the range of the bonefish that have been really adversely impacted by too much pressure. Is there too much pressure on the flats now?  Is that a concern?

No, there is not too much pressure.  You have to remember there is no real flyfishing culture here.  It is slowly growing but it will be some time before there is too much pressure here.  I have a custom flats boat and that triples or quadruples how much flats areas you can fish.

Someday there will be pressure here, but it’s not here yet.

Hawaii is known for big, monster, unreasonably large bonefish.  How likely do you think it is that Hawaii will break the magic 20 pound mark?

It’s here, I’ve seen it.  Dave McCoy and Doug Cambell just saw a fish two months ago that was 20 easy.  But it’s gonna be really hard to land one those pigs.  Lots of coral, rock and other obstacles make it pretty unlikely to happen on a flyrod.  It’s possible in a couple areas but………… pretty unlikely due to terrain issues.  Plus when I got here a few folks who constantly claimed they were seeing all of these 20 pound fish were flat out full of shit.  I now know that alot of those “20 pounders” they claimed to see where big milkfish.  I’ve landed fish up to 14 pounds now and let me tell you that is a damn monster of a bonefish.  Plus these guys were only wading and I am floating the flats in a quiet flats boat most of the day.  I see fish pretty commonly in the 12-16 pound range, but a 20 pound bonefish is a damn freak.  In 3 hard years of fishing here, I’ve seen maybe 3 fish I think were over 20.  One with Florida Keys legend Jim Bokor, one with Tom Brokaw’s ranch manager Doug Cambell and my good buddy flyfishing photographer and guiding pro Dave McCoy and one while out with former Keys ace guide and IGFA world inshore guiding champion Captain Chris Asaro whom now lives here and guides with me.  All of these fish were well over 38 inches in length (one close to 42-44) and big shouldered.  Remember this species Abula Glossodanta is 28 to the fork uniformly to be 10 pounds and you can add a pound for each inch.  So a 20 pound fish has to be 38 inches long with this species which is completely different than the Florida species.

Some tail.

When you are out on the water a lot you tend to see some interesting things… funny, strange, weird or frightening things.  Is there something unique that you’ve seen out there on the waters of Hawaii that really stands out?

I saw a 15-17 foot tiger shark swim right up to my boat last Labor Day as I was standing on my platform coming off of a flat into deeper water and just about pissed myself.  Man, my boat felt SMALL that day!  I know, there’s no way he could have gotten us, but the mass and power of that big boy sure put my piss ant place in nature in perspective.  We really are sharing THEIR water with them out there.  It’s too bad we can’t see it that way some times.  What an awesome, awesome creature.

I know you developed a fly called the Lunch Plate Special, a crab patterns specifically for the big bones of Oahu.  Was there something specific you wanted to capture in the fly?

A big calorie filled swimming crab imitation that had some “mojo” some life, some “Ha” as it’s called in Hawaii.  I wanted big bones to see it and know they needed it now, with little or no stripping, little or no angler induced movement.  So far it’s working pretty damn good.  But for every monster that eats it, another one turns the other way, so as with any other trophy flyfishing, I do not believe in “magic patters” or “flies that work all the time”.  Bullshit I say to that.  Presentation is everything with big bones and if the fly looks right, the picky bastards will reward you……………..  Sometimes!  LOL

By all accounts the least bonefishy island is Maui.  Are there bones on Maui for all those poor souls that don’t head to a more bonefish friendly island?

You could find some kayaking in deeper water but overall Maui is pretty tough inshore.  You best bet is to get on a plane and come fish with the Coach, Captain Chris Asaro or Captain Hennessey (a good friend and a great guide in his own right.)

Anything else to add?

Mahalo Bjorn and keep on hunting those bones.  No matter how good we get at this sport, how many big fish we land, how far we can cast, we are just grown up versions of  little boys and girls sitting on a grassy knoll watching a bobber in a pond or in a small creek our daddy sat us down on and said “Right here son, this is the spot I told you about”.

We may use a flyrod as adults but in essence that’s all we really are.

I try to remember that every day, that special feeling of wondering what that pond might hold, and why it catapulted me as a little tiny guy on Sumas creek with my dad and uncle chasing 6 inch cutthroat to a life of beautiful places, incredible cultures and the best people in the world.

(Flyrodders)  We take ourselves far too seriously in this sport and it hurts us far more than it helps us.  Aloha!!!!

Thanks Coach.  Hope to see you out there one of these days.

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  1. Great interview B.
    Makes me want to go to Hawaii.

  2. Great interview Bjorn!…keep up the good work. And a special thanks to my fellow “Blantonite’ “aka” Dan Blantons message board contributor Coach Duff. Great insight on a special fishery in Hawaii. I’ve seen your videos on Youtube and they’re very exciting.

  3. bonefishbjorn

    Thanks Henry. Duff really put some time into the interview. I have some good ones coming up… I do one a week, so stay tuned!

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