Kaunakakai - Molokai's "Big City"

Millions of years ago, two separate and, of course now extinct, volcanoes joined together to form the island of Molokai. On the West end, the terrain is generally plains-like and quite dry with sharp cliffs around the edges leading into the sea. On the East end, enormous mountains dominate the landscape with rainforest waterfalls, the world’s tallest sea cliffs (as described in our North Shore Molokai feature), the largest waterfall in all of Hawaii, and lush green valleys carved into the terrain as sharp as a good skipper’s filet knife.

The two distinct personalities of the topography on each end of Molokai create an island form that Michaelangelo himself would have stared in amazement at. It’s the only island in the chain where the terrains differ from end to end so vastly, as even Maui, its closest competitor in this regard, has lush forests and majestic waterfalls on both ends.

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Kaunakakai Pier towards the "flat end" of Molokai

Molokai has been labeled the most Hawaiian of the islands for years, a moniker most likely well deserved. Niihau, the private island which only allows visitors by invitation, has the highest population of native Hawaiians, but since the public so seldom gets to see their way of life, Molokai assumes the role of most Hawaiian somewhat by default. With a population of less than four thousand and a visitor count of about 85,000 a year, Molokai is an easy place to take walks alone on secluded beaches, drive for hours without stopping at so much as a single traffic light, select from one of three hotel to spend a night, or find some of the best fishing this state has to offer.

Between the two extreme differences in landscape lies a small town on the South shore, almost dead smack in the middle, known as Kaunakakai. There’s no buildings over three stories, no elevators, no traffic lights (and not much traffic either), no amusement parks, night clubs, nor even a McDonald’s. Even the airport at Ho’olehua on the flats just to the North of Kaunakakai is so small that jets do not regularly service the island. And the folks that live on and visit Molokai like it that way, because it helps breed the lifestyle of peace and quiet. The fish seem to like it, too.
Molokai has a curious number of fishponds still bordering much of the coastline, especially along the Southeast from Kaunakakai to Mapulehu. While most of the islands had at one time or another a series of fishponds used to support the ohana (families) in both trade and consumption, Molokai’s ponds are the ones which are still mostly in use today. They can be easily distinguished from the air, and even a tour from the rental car will show some of the ponds. Perhaps it’s the presence of these fishponds which attract the pelagics we love to spend so much of our time in search of.

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Downtown Kaunakakai

Fishing off of Molokai is as good as it gets. Funny as it may seem, Molokai doesn’t have but a few boats in the harbor at Kaunakakai Wharf, and last time we were there, only one did day charters. Accordingly, although the shores of Molokai are the ones producing the fish ranging from rainbow runners to thousand pound Marlin, it’s the island origination point of the charter boat that tends to get the credit for the production. Take the case of the Lahaina Jackpot a couple years ago. Two fish over 1100 pounds were weighed in that tournament held in Maui, but both were caught off the North shore of Molokai. Or think about all the Oahu boats that fish the waters of Molokai’s Penguin Banks only to return their harvest to Oahu. How about the Maui (and sometimes the Oahu ones) guys that fish the steep drop curve between Molokai and Lanai, producing Mahimahi by the boatload, again to return to the shores of the originating island?

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A small village along the shore

Make no mistake about it. Molokai produces as many big fish per boat as anywhere in the world, and that is the beauty of the fishery. Since so few boats can truly access Molokai because of its proximity to the harbors of Oahu and Maui, and the relative lack of facilities for those boaters operating on Molokai, the island does not receive the fishing pressure of places like Kona, Lahaina and Honolulu. Thus the fishing is often much better. We’re amazed at how many people will get off the plane after returning home and tell their friends they caught a big fish off Maui or Oahu, when unbeknownst to them the fish was actually caught off Molokai.
Another contributor to the lack of boats on the Friendly Isle is the Hawaiian weather. There isn’t really a single place on the entire North and East shores of Molokai that provides a boat with more than a night or two of refuge at a time, and that’s especially true when the weather is uncooperative. Kaunakakai wharf, however, is a very safe anchorage and is the harbor where the barges and ferry traffic arrives, but because of the slot created by the tall mountains to the east of Molokai and those on West Maui, the afternoon convective winds on a mild tradewind day blow considerably harder here than in other areas. Of course, as the afternoon wears into evening, the winds usually die down and the harbor becomes one of the most peaceful places on this planet to spend a night on the hook staring at the stars.

The best fishing on Molokai is along the North Shore for the entire length (though some say the Eastern end is better), the West end out front of the beaches from Ilio Point to Laau Point, the Penguin Banks, and the ledge curve between Kaunakakai and Lanai. The Eastern end in the Pailolo Channel looking across to Maui can be a struggle unless the Mahimahi open schools are around, but three of four sides to the island makes for a pretty good day on the water.

To illustrate the point, one trip that stands out was in 1997, when a group of us traversed the Molokai Channel and spent the night at the wharf in Kaunakakai. As we tied up to the dock, the locals were hanging around and gathering their composure after a strenuous day. We got the lines secured, and they asked us how the fishing was, almost as if to say, "we’d sure love to share what you have in the fishbox." We sheepishly told them we failed to hook up that day, and when they heard of the route we took, they asked if we had even put out the fishing lines. We said that we had, but just seemed to not have any luck (yes it does happen once in awhile) that day. The locals then proceeded to rub it in our faces and tell us that every single boat that had come in the harbor that day caught something, most of which were significant fish. A 563 lb. Marlin here, a nice Ahi there, a few more Mahimahis back over that way was all we heard. It became the focal point of the rest of the evening’s conversation, because they just couldn’t imagine us traveling through those types of grounds without hooking up.

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The cliffs of the North Shore near Kalaupapa

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Kaunakakai Pier

Kaunakakai is a great place to visit, and many like the idea of living there, too. The Pau Hana Inn and Restaurant is a 10 minute walk from the harbor, and this quaint little bungalow style hotel is an experience nobody should miss. Every Friday night the locals join together for a real Pau Hana (after work) party, and everyone sings Hawaiians songs until the night turns back into day. The view is incredible in almost every direction, too. Lanai to the South, the rainforest to the North and East, and the plains to the West all beckon the eye for another stare of this island paradise. So if you are looking for an out of the way place in Hawaii to go do some serious fishing, spend a night or two in Kaunakakai, catch a few fish, and enjoy the ride.
Going to Kaunakakai

As mentioned above, there was one charter boat left in Molokai at our last visit, and I believe it was a 28 footer. Don’t let the number fool you when it comes to fish production, though. There’s few hotels and it’s predominantly a local island, hence the lack of charter opportunities. However, the fishing is great.

The best thing to do is book a three or four day (or longer) trip from Oahu or Maui, and use Kaunakakai as your base camp for your nights. That way you can fish the Penguin Banks, the ledge between Lanai and Molokai, the north Shore of Molokai, and time permitting, the South Coast of Lanai all on the span of your trip, thus almost assuring you of hooking into a substantial catch. Kaunakakai serves as a perfect launching point for all these great fishing grounds, and with the exception of times of severe weather from the South, it is a flat calm and perfectly serene anchorage.

During days when the barge traffic may or may not take place, you’ll be out fishing. In the late afternoons and evenings, the harbor is essentially deserted, with all the longshore guys at home or at the Pau Hana having a few cold ones. The Molokai Yacht Club, only open for special functions, is just down the road, and town is only a few more minutes walk past that. You could literally see the substantial majority of the town on a bicycle in about 30 minutes, and that’s just the beauty of it.

As with most anchorages in Hawaii, enter Kaunakakai with some caution. There’s a lot of reef to concern yourself with if you veer in too close, but if you give it plenty of berth until the channel marks are in line especially coming from the West, you should be able to enter without incident.

Finally, if you have extra fish on board, use it for barter to get a ride to somewhere you’d like to visit or a tour of something you to see. The people are extremely friendly as it is, but when you offer fish in return for things they offer, you usually end up making a friend for life.

That’s why you often hear the phrase, "Molokai mo’ bettah."


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