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The Hukilau in Historic Hawaii

Hukilau History in Hawaii



VERY few old-time residents and visitors to Hawaii can forget the thrill of hukilau fish­ing on one of the many bright, sandy shores of Windward Oahu. Although very popular until 50 years ago, this ancient style of herding and catching fish is rarely experienced or even witnessed today. Hukilau fishing was a favorite pastime of royalty in another era. Tradi­tion­al­ly, the entire community was in­vited to join in this noontime activity. Regardless of social standing or occupation, everyone looked forward to shar­ing in the work and the excitement. An added and unexpected bonus was to receive some of the fresh catch as a token for being part of the effort. Any casual passerby was also hailed and asked to lend a hand or two; all help was welcomed and generously acknowledged. Even children had re­sponsibilities, as well as rewards from the sea that befitted their youth. In the late morning, Hukilau by Carol Silvapeople began trickling toward the shoreline, where they set down their belongings or laid aside any items they happened to be carrying. Footwear was removed and clothing was hiked up safe from the splash of incoming waves. In no time, a hardy crew of 20 or more family mem­bers, friends and strangers of all ages and abilities had gathered on the beach to await direction. They squinted against the glare of the sun and sea to watch as a handful of fishermen swam out with a length of corded rope to a spot that fish were known to frequent or to an area that was regularly chummed to encourage fish to inhabit it. The sturdy rope was then arranged in a crescent pattern in the sea with the open end facing the shore. The rope was 120 feet or longer, de­pending on the fishing area to be en­closed. Earlier that morning or the night before, fishermen had draped the rope with dried ti leaves, tying them by the stems in intervals of 10 to 12 inches. Leaf tips pointed downward and, when the rope was lowered into the sea, each leaf swayed to the gentle rhythm of the tides and cast darting shadows in the brilliance of the noonday sun. The move­ment of the leaves and their shadows served to scare the surrounded fish and direct them toward the shore. The fishermen took hold of the rope and signaled to those on shore to grab the rope ends. As the fishermen began swimming toward the shore with the rope, the folks on the beach slowly start­ed to pull the rope out of the wa­ter. As the circle of rope tightened and closed, a net was placed or thrown over the bubbling mass of fish to bring them ashore. Records of hukilau yields indicate that 4,800 pounds of fish could be caught in a single day. In earlier times, concern was ex­press­ed that hukilau fishing was de­pleting shoreline fish. In 1937, efforts were made to pass a law banning this community activity. Public furor was high and many prominent Hawaiians spoke loudly in favor of preserving the right to hukilau as in times of old. Rousing testimony was given at legislative hearings and the bill was killed. Today, there is a beach in Laie Bay on Oahu, familiarly called Hukilau Beach, that commemorates the monthly public hukilau scheduled there for about two decades after World War II. Nets were used instead of the traditional corded rope. Resi­dents and visitors alike drove to the Windward Side to spend the day in the sun and sea, bringing in the fish to be prepared and cooked right on the beach.

(Photo by Hawaii State Archives)


Read more of Carol Silva’s fascinating, unique histories of the Hawaiian Islands:

Royal Pets
Riding the Old Oahu Railway
A Wealth of Water
Guardian of the Bones
The Significance of Hawaiian Names
The Sweet Side of Hawaii
Dining with the Royals
Literacy’s Champion
Tourists of Old
Sacred Silence
Land of the Menehune



5 Responses to “The Hukilau in Historic Hawaii”

  1. James Knelange

    When I got this email I was hoping I would be going to a huki huki huki huki Hukilau .

  2. Robert

    I would have loved to have done this a few years ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Oahu!

    • Winona

      Aloha Robert. We hope you’re fortunate enough to come back and visit our beautiful islands.

  3. Keoni May

    I remember my first hukilau, in the mid-1950s.

    An old fashioned, very large, very heavy, fishnet was used.

    There was about 100 of us, pulling on that net, in cadence.


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