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A Site for Sore Eyes : Hawaii's Only Freshwater Fishing Is at Wahiawa Reservoir, Which Drought Has Turned Into a Dwindling Home of Exotics


WAHIAWA, Hawaii — Tiny bubbles rise everywhere from the bottom of the Wahiawa Reservoir in the center of Don Ho's Oahu, but it definitely is not wine.

"I don't know what those are," Lance Marugame says as he steers his little boat past at trolling speed, "and nobody wants to dive down there to find out."

Wahiawa, also known as Lake Wilson, holds many mysteries in its muddy, murky depths from which locals pull a remarkable variety of fish, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, channel catfish, bluegill, tilapia, carp and the more exotic pongee, oscar and tucunare, or peacock bass, plus an assortment of nuisance species--here a piranha, there an alligator--that have been granted freedom from private aquariums.

Bordering Schofield Barracks and Wheeler Field, Wahiawa is a 300-acre artificial lake winding several miles up two narrow canyons from a dam, which was built in 1906 to store water for sugar cane and pineapple fields.

It's not meant for drinking water, and after one look you wouldn't consider it, even if you didn't know about the two sewage treatment plants on its shores. If the discarded furniture, plumbing fixtures and other refuse that residents have rolled down the banks aren't convincing, the pig floating snout up, stiff as a board, would clinch it.

Normally, most of those eyesores are underwater, but Oahu has had a drought.

"It's a better-looking lake when the water's up," says Howard Araki, who owns the nearby Kilani Rod & Tackle store.

And since it's the only public freshwater fishery on the island, the locals are able to ignore the unsightly features for the sake of good fishing.

"I don't think the tourists know about it," says Marugame, president of the Hawaii Freshwater Fishing Club.

"When people come to Hawaii, they think of marlin," says Araki, the club secretary.

Wahiawa isn't overfished, as long as all observe the catch limits imposed by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Club members do; some others don't. One angler showed off a stringer of tucunare, apparently unaware none could be kept during their current spawn. There's a lot of work to do at Wahiawa, in both restoration and education.

The largemouths are the Northern strain, not the generally larger Floridas popular at Lake Casitas and Lake Castaic and other Southern California fisheries. The state record, caught on the island of Kauai, is 9 pounds 9 ounces. The largest taken from Wahiawa is 7 1/2 pounds, and most run from two to three pounds.

More intriguing are the pongee, also called "snakeheads," which are found only on Oahu and are certainly a top contender in any ugly fish contest. It is believed that Chinese immigrants brought the first pongee to Hawaii in the early 1800s as a food source. Marugame considers them a cross between a piranha and a catfish--a fish that bites back.

A Land and Natural Resources brochure warns of the pongee: "Do not put your thumb in fish's mouth. In addition to the teeth on its jaw, it has large backward-pointing teeth on the roof of its mouth that can inflict deep wounds."

The state record is 7 1/2 pounds, although one five feet long is known to have been taken. With a pongee, you have your hands full.


Wahiawa has a good parking and picnic area and an adequate one-lane launch ramp, which stretches far down into a cove to reach the water these days. As the water level has dropped during the drought, it has exposed not only the trash but the tilapia nests in the steep walls of red mud. The lake is fishable at any level, but the anglers worry that if it gets too low, they won't be able to launch their boats and might have to go back to fishing for marlin.

Trolling Wahiawa, an angler has the feeling of fishing not a lake but a long, lazy river. Marugame uses a depth finder, which indicates steep dropoffs. He advises his clients to cast as close to the shore as possible, especially around floating debris and structure.

The first bites are small jewel cichlids, refugees from discarded aquariums whose owners lacked the heart to flush their pets away. Marugame later catches a largemouth but, alas, no pongee or peacock bass, which he can usually guarantee.

The day isn't wasted. In some stretches where there is no trash, Wahiawa is a sub-tropical travel poster with eucalyptus and ironwood trees lining both banks, and calm, reflecting water between. Marugame points out a place in a thick grove of trees where, he says, a Vietnam veteran lives off the land and sometimes emerges to rage at intruding boaters.

At one point, idling at a likely fishing spot, the anglers hear a rush of water from around the next bend.

"Is that a waterfall?" one asks.

"No, there's no waterfall around here," Marugame says.

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