There was a man who was the fisherman for the village. He wasn’t a fisherman like we think of today. Everyone in the village fished. The fisherman was THE BOSS. He had a huge net, yards and yards of panels twelve feet across. When it came time to fish, the fisherman would pile the net in canoes and take the men out to lay it all around the bay. Then he would go climb a tree and watch for the schools of fish to come in.
A new e-mail popped up on my screen. Subject: Hukilau. I clicked on it.
Tomorrow, at 9:00 AM, there is going to be a hukilau at-you guessed it-Hukilau Beach. We're going to fish, and then I think cook the fish. And people have promised that we'll get at least one :)
The next morning I asked my children at breakfast, “Does anyone want to go to the hukilau?”
“NO!” they said. It was the first day of summer vacation, and they didn’t want to have to leave the house. At least not so early in the morning. We were going to a pot luck picnic at a different beach later in the day, and that would take them away from their computers long enough. I decided not to push it.
I went by myself.
When he saw the fish, he’d call for the villagers to come. Everyone ran down to the beach, men, women, and children.
There were other people on the sidewalk, moving toward the beach; a plump elderly couple in tourist clothes and sunhats, an athletic young woman with a blond pony tail, a red-haired man, his bare back nearly sunburned. A pick-up truck with its back end full of Polynesian kids passed me and turned into the beach parking lot.
The dirt-paved parking lot was packed with cars. A black tarp canopy, strung on aluminum poles, snapped in the wind. I hiked over the dunes and through round-leaved plants with purple flowers to reach the edge of the water. A cool wind blew spray off the ocean, mingled with spatters of rain from the gray clouds in the sky. People stood around a green rowboat, big Polynesians in t-shirts and swim trunks, stylish Japanese tourists in sun hats with shiny black cameras, children in blond curls chasing in and out of the water. Some of the men loaded fishnets made of thin nylon thread into the boat, making the boat look like it was filled with green mist.
They would take up the ropes with leaves, lau, and pull on them, huki. Hence hukilau. Pull the leaves. The men would be out in the water, watching the net, to make sure it didn’t snag on any coral or rock.
Everyone on the beach grabbed the wet, sandy rope. People from all over the world; the woman with the blond pony-tail I’d seen on the way to the beach, next to a little Polynesian boy in a green tank-top, next to an old man with mutton-chop whiskers, next to a skinny Asian woman in a white blouse and pink shorts, next to me. We pulled, then stopped on signal for the swimmers to lift the net over the coral, then pulled again.
“They didn’t want to come.”
“They only do this ever ten years. You’d think they’d want to see it.”
So the people pulled, and soon the nets would come up, flopping with fish. There would be more fish, and more, until the nets were full to bursting.
We walked the rope down the beach, pulling and winding it at the end, until the nets began to come up. Yards and yards of empty nets. I watched for the fish, wondering if we’d caught any at all. Something dark in one of the nets made my heart move a little faster, but it was only a bit of seaweed.
Slowly, panel by panel, the nets came out of the water. People lined up on either side of the nylon mesh, keeping it low to the sand, easing it along whenever the swimmers gave the signal. Out of the white surf came one small white shape. One lone fish, struggling in the net until his fins bled pink.
More and more net came up from the water, until the last panel broke from the waves. A scattering of fish twisted and shimmered as the divers stretched the net out on the sand. Children gathered close, everyone crouched around the net, working with their fingers to free the fish.
When the catch was on the beach at last, everyone lined up. The children took their shirts and held them out at the bottom to make a basket. Each child got 3-4 fish, and adults would get ten or more. They would eat them raw, boil them, bake them, and dry the rest.
"Can't schedule a hukilau, can you?" I asked one of the fishermen. "You have to wait until the fish come in."
He laughed. "This time of year the fish are still tiny. Every summer UH releases more fish out here, they have an orange tag on them, when you catch them you see it, it's really neat. But those are all gone by now. We didn't catch much today, but everyone had fun, yah?"
Special thanks to Uncle Joe Ah Quin for sharing his memories of the hukilau in old Laie Bay with the BYU Hawaii Women's Organization in October 2011. The historical details in this post were summarized from his words.