There are few places on earth more enchanting than the isles of Hawaii. Most people think of Hawaii in terms of beautiful, well-groomed resorts, turquoise water, extravagant gift shops and Shave Ice. Not me. I think of Hawaii in terms of hunting abundant game through almost-impenetrable jungle, sheer cliffs plunging to the sea, guava fruit hanging ripe along steep mountain trails and kaleidoscope schools of fish just out of reach of my three-prong spear. And Shave Ice.
Hawaii is a relatively unknown sportsman’s paradise. Truth be known, there is more hunting opportunity to be found along the jungles and cliffs of the islands than in most of the mainland states.
DIY in Hawaii
In my opinion, the finest opportunities for the do-it-yourself hunter in Hawaii are found in backcountry settings, meaning you’ll have to hike to access them. Most of the islands offer public lands that anyone can hunt. Those lands are often surrounded by private property, but there are usually trailheads that offer access. An experienced mountain hunter can rapidly get into good hunting, but don’t make the mistake of expecting the hunting to be easy.
My first hunt on the islands was a fast-and-light excursion into the cliffs after wild goats. I stuffed a sleeping bag, some water and my takedown recurve bow into my pack, and climbed through the cactus and thornbush on the dry side of the island toward the base of a cliff. I had only 24 hours to hunt. A thousand feet above the sea I found goats, stalked the band for several hours and finally placed an arrow through a young billy. I watched him tip over dead, but his last kick sent him sliding over a cliff. Fortunately, I was able to find my way down to him and got some photos as the sun set across the sea far below. I quartered the goat out, hung the meat in a tree and slept the night on the mountain before packing out to the trailhead, 22 hours after I’d headed up. It was awesome.
Seasons and Species
None of the big-game species found on the islands are indigenous. They have no natural predators, and some of the species proliferate so effectively they become problematic to the island habitat. As a result, seasons are long and limits incredibly generous. Huntable species vary from one island to another. If I’m not mistaken, pigs and goats can be hunted on almost all the islands, with mouflon sheep, axis, whitetail and Colombian blacktail deer huntable on select islands. Often the limit is one or two animals of each species per day. While you shouldn’t expect to fill those limits due to tough terrain, smart wildlife and dense vegetation, it’s still awesome to go hunting with “tags” in your pocket for multiple deer, goats and hogs every day. (No tags are needed in most areas, though you must have a license.)
Season dates are usually long, lasting months on end. Often there are several days (usually, but not always, Tuesday through Thursday) that are closed to hunting every week. Rules and regulations can be extensive and confusing, and vary from island to island and unit to unit, so be sure you study them well.
Hunting and Fishing Licenses
Obtaining a hunting license in Hawaii is not difficult, but you must plan ahead. Your stateside Hunter’s Education certificate is valid in Hawaii, but must be approved before you can buy a license. This can take three weeks or more. Paperwork and details are available online, but don’t fail to submit it at least a month prior to your trip. Island time is pretty awesome unless you’re waiting on something important like a hunting license. Have your approval letter in hand well before your trip, then you can walk into any game office and purchase your license on the spot. If you’ll be bowhunting, you may need an extra certificate. Everything should cost you right around $100. As of my last visit, no fishing license was required to fish from the beach with rod or spear, but be sure and check the regulations for the island you’re on.
Each hunting area on the islands features a check-in station. These vary from a simple kiosk, where you open a lid and sign in, to more elaborate stations offering maps, information and sign-in portals. In my experience, the local hunters take this process seriously, which inspires me to take it seriously, as well. After your hunt, you’re required to sign out and report any game harvested.
Rifle or Bow
One of my toughest dilemmas when planning a hunt to Hawaii is whether to hunt with bow or rifle. A bow requires no paperwork or permitting, while using a rifle requires you to undergo a significant permitting process, including being fingerprinted and registering the rifle at the police station within five days of arrival. You must have an address where the rifle will be kept, and it’s supposed to stay at that address unless at the range or hunting.
Another thought-provoking element that should influence your decision is the fact that many of the good local hunters consider 40 yards to be a rather long shot at either deer or hogs. Most are closer due to the dense jungle vegetation, somewhat equalizing the effective range of bow and rifle.
That said, on a recent hunt to the islands, I passed up shots at five deer at distances greater than 250 yards. They were across a canyon, and while I was confident I could harvest them cleanly, I was not confident I could cross the canyon and recover them. Deer on that particular island are plentiful, but extremely hard to find and harvest—indeed they seem to be the Holy Grail of game there. I left my perch on the ridge exuberant at just seeing a deer, let alone five—the knowledge that I could have killed them was icing on the cake. I just needed to find a way across that canyon.
Most, if not all of the islands have archery-only units offering better access and more liberal hunting dates. It is my opinion that, all things considered, you’re usually better off hunting Hawaii with a bow than a rifle. You’ll simply experience more and better opportunity.
Respect the Locals
There is a strong hunting tradition among the islanders, and in my opinion, it’s important to recognize and respect that. After all, those folks live and hunt there, often depending on the hunting for meat and recreation. You’re the visitor, so try to find ways and places to hunt that don’t intrude. It’s the ethical thing to do, and it may keep you out of a confrontation that’s not likely to end in your favor.
Ropes, Crampons and Taking the Shot
On my last trip (the same one where I passed up the five deer), I hunted my way down a giant ridge that hung above the sea like some primeval monster. I was looking for goats, and I found them. Several big billy goats strutted around, checking females and hunting breakfast in the sunshine of a beautiful Hawaiian morning. They were within easy range of my rifle and I spent hours shadowing them, watching my crosshairs on their ribs. The problem was, the cliffs they were living in were steep enough to scare an eagle, and there was no way I could access a goat had I shot one.
Some Hawaiian goat territory is not so steep and dangerous, but much of it is. You’ve got to be careful, especially when hunting solo, as I was. Next time I climb the ancient volcanic ridges of the islands hunting goat, I plan to have a set of strap-on crampons for my shoes, and several hundred feet of climbing rope. That way, if I shoot a goat, I’ll have the right tools with which to recover it.
The terrain on the islands—especially when hunting goats—can be extreme. Be prepared to pass up shots at animals you can’t ethically and safely recover. There will be some, even when you have crampons and climbing ropes. A goat or a deer is not worth risking a fall to your death, even in the most enchanting place on earth.
Coolers and Meat Care
One of the biggest challenges to hunting on the islands is keeping your meat safe after the harvest. Humidity and heat are a constant challenge. I use a YETI cooler full of ice, and bury my meat in the ice as soon as I get it to the truck. The YETI is super tough and keeps the meat and ice cold for a good long time.
Fishing the Reefs
Thousands of colorful and tasty fish cruise inside the reefs that ring the islands. You can catch them with a little piece of raw shrimp on a hook cast into a channel or pocket in the reef, or spear them while snorkeling with a traditional three-prong Hawaiian spear. The locals set giant poles rigged with big hooks cast far out into the channels, with a bell to wake them if a big fish or shark strikes during the night. Fishing from the shore does not require a license, and you can pick up a basic rod and reel or a three-prong spear for $50 at the local Ace Hardware store. There are minimum-length requirements for the fish you’re allowed to spear, so study the regs before you snorkel into the blue yonder with your three-prong. Fish look bigger underwater than they actually are, so make sure they’re big enough before loosing your spear.
“Relax, This Ain’t the Mainland”
It’s one of my favorite sayings on the islands. Life and attitude are different there; being on time is not real critical, drivers are very courteous (even in heavy traffic) and people are not as tense and stressed. I love the feeling.
Being able to hike and eat guava fruit and thimbleberries picked fresh along the mountain trail is pretty awesome, too. Hunting through dense jungle, stalking along towering green cliffs draped with waterfalls and listening to the surf as the sun sets over the sea all combine to make the islands one of my favorite places on earth to hunt.
And of course, there are the sandy beaches, the snorkeling, surfing and the Shave Ice. Always the Shave Ice.