Trout in the tropics? Yes. In fact, I just caught a beautiful, plump, healthy, sixteen incher here a few hours ago. It is the most geographically isolated place on the planet. It drains the highest and wettest swamp in the world. It flows into a canyon grand enough to get the title "Grand Canyon of the Pacific". It is in America. It is in, fittingly enough, the Rainbow State. Yes, it is right here in Hawaii.
Kokee State Park to be exact, on the island of Kauai. Fellow Trout Unlimited member Deane Gonzalez and I have spent the last two days on Kawakoi Stream. Deane has been imparting his knowledge of Kawakoi, Kauaikinana, Mohihi, Waialae, Koaie, and Waikoali streams to me. Don't worry if you can't pronounce what I just wrote. It's just part of what makes this place so special.
It's a common misconception that streams in Hawaii are too warm to support trout. The streams in Kokee snake their way through the mountains at around 3500-4000 feet, with an average summer water temperature of about 66-68°F. The last two days have been warm and sunny, which is not usually the case. You see, most of the streams in Kokee drain the Alakai Swamp, which in turn drains Mount Waialeale, which is the rainiest spot on Earth. The usual weather is a chilly perpetual mist and light rain which may or may not burn off by afternoon. But this time Deane and I are lucky, with the sunny weather we can easily see into the tea-colored pools from the high vantage points that trails, which run parallel to both sides of the stream, provide.
I've learned that fly fishing for Rainbows in paradise does not come without its...difficulties. The most important thing I want you to know is that the fish are not plentiful. These streams used to be stocked, but the program was stopped several years ago because of concerns that the trout, an introduced species, were eating a species of rare endangered damselflies, which were native. Even though the local TU chapter teamed up with scientists from the Bishop Museum, conducted a four year study and proved that the trout were not eating the damselflies in significant numbers, the stocking program was never resumed by the State of Hawaii. So what the streams lack in numbers, they make up for in the size of the fish (with some fish upwards of 18 inches). Although there are no native trout in Hawaii, there are some wild trout, which are able to reproduce on a limited basis in some of the streams (Waialae, Kauaikinana, and Koaie).
A Kawakoi Rainbow
A Kawakoi Waterfall
This time on the Kawakoi, we are only running into a fish every couple of pools. And pools on the Kawakoi can be the length of football fields. Deep pools tangled with logs and lined with overhanging ginger and ferns. Pools that rest still as a statue, not betraying their secrets. But this is where the Kawakoi trout dwell. You'll find them along the deep cut banks of pools more so than in the foot-deep riffles and boulder strewn pocket-water that separate the pools.
The next thing you should know is not to expect to get to the streams easily. From the airport, you'll need to pick up a 4WD vehicle. If you don't get a 4WD, you'll regret it. I warned you! From the airport, you'll drive about 40 miles to the top of the canyon and experience a 15° drop in temperature.
Another five miles down the bumpy and sometimes downright scary Camp Ten Road and you'll be in the heart of Kokee trout country. Kawakoi has good access via trails running along both sides of the stream for a little over a mile. After that you're on your own. A machete might come in handy. If you're not whacking through the invasive ginger to get to the stream, or figuring out how to scale down a ten-foot stream bank, then you're not trying hard enough!
Good flies to try
Tip #3 - leave your dries at home. I've never known a Hawaiian trout to rise to a dry fly. I could be wrong, but that has been my experience. And this is coming from the mouth of a religious dry fly fanatic. I've seen dragonflies as big as your fist, but never have I seen these trout tempted by them. The trout seem to prefer imitations that resemble tadpoles, frogs, or minnows. Crayfish are also present in the streams and may yield success. I've done well with modified San Juan worms and green wooly buggers (see pictures). I always add weight to my flies (either beadheads or lead bodies) to get them down to the fish faster.
A Kokee Sunset
Deane got skunked on the Kawakoi today. But that's just the way it goes here. Even if you don't catch a Rainbow here, it's not a total loss. You get a free serenade from tropical birds. You'll see rare and exotic flowers found nowhere else on Earth. You'll get incredible views you never expected. Every turn of the stream or trail in Kokee brings a new discovery.
After two nights of clear star gazing weather, an evening mist starts to roll in. And I can see a rainbow in the distance. If you've never pursued trout in a place like this, you've definitely got to come and check it out!
For more information, go to http://www.tuhi.org. Aloha!