Oama Basics by Scott Haraguchi, Issue #21 July 2016

Oama season traditionally runs approximately from the beginning of July to the end of September. Last year the oama trickled in a little late because of all the El Nino induced storms but they continued to show up at certain spots through the winter. The effects of last year’s extended oama season on this year’s oama run are uncertain, but here’s what you need to know before the baitfish arrive.

What You Need

• Short, straight pole. You could use a bamboo pole but I like the  cheap, telescopic fiberglass poles with the eyelet at the tip. Four to  five feet is normally long enough. Tie 2 – 4lb test Mono or fluorocarbon line to the eyelet.
• Small hooks with the barb pinched down for easy release of oama and net snags. Some fishers start with a number 20 J-shaped hook early in the season when the oama are small. I like to use the larger number 17 hook, or a slightly larger Owner Mosquito hook. Small hooks are harder to tie and harder to unhook.
• The larger sized split shot, larger than a bb. One larger shot works better than two smaller shots since two shots tend to tangle easier. Pinch the larger shot on about 4 inches above the hook.
• Small scoop net. Spend a little more on a net with nylon netting. It will snag less than the common red cotton-blend type.
• Polarized sunglasses.
• Footwear to walk on pebbly sand and slippery rocks.
• Floating live bait bucket. I like the yellow Frabill Flow Troll with the spring-loaded door.
• Bait. Opae, frozen shrimp, aku belly and oama flesh. There are a few “secret” baits people use that I won’t reveal. When the oama are biting well, frozen shrimp legs dragged on the bottom work surprisingly well.

• Hat
• 5 gallon bucket and live bait aerator/pump if you’re planning to keep the oama alive.

Where To Find Oama

• There are some fairly well known spots on Oahu to catch oama. Ala Moana Beach, Wailupe, Heeia Pier, Ka’awa, Punalu’u, Haleiwa, etc. You can drive by and check those spots from the car, looking for people standing in knee to waist deep water of sandy areas, holding short poles with floating bait buckets.
• The less visible, less fished spots will have to be checked by foot. Generally oama will congregate in areas sheltered from wave action and at the shore end of a shallow protective reef shelf. The areas will be open with good visibility so the oama can see their predators coming from far away.
• Oama also seek protection in plant root systems and other structures but aren’t usually in a feeding mood when they’re hunkered down.

How to Catch Oama

• When oama are swimming rapidly from spot to spot, they usually aren’t very interested in eating. To get these swimmers to start eating, you can palu (chum) with a mixture of sand and sardines/bloody fish scraps.
• When you see the oama sniffing around on the sandy bottom with their barbels, they’re looking for food. This
is the best time to catch them. Drop your bait to the bottom. When the oama swim to it and start nibbling, lift the bait up in a smooth upward motion toward the approaching oama. If you don’t hook one, drop down and repeat the lifting movement every few seconds as the oama are headed for your bait. Lift early, before the oama has tasted and rejected your bait. This takes practice; watch how the oama pros do it.
• When the oama aren’t actively eating but are mildly interested in your bait, you can try dragging it sideways
on the bottom. This makes the bait look more like the critters they feed on and sometimes gets them to bite.
• Oama tend to bite better when the tide is moving. If the oama are really not feeding, wait until evening when
they normally binge before looking for a place to sleep.

Handling of Live Oama

• Pinch down the barb of your hook so the oama can be removed quickly. This will cause you to lose quite a few but it’ll be less damaging to the fish.
• If possible, tuck your landing net on your body somewhere so you can guide the hooked oama into the net rather than holding the net with one hand and the rod with the other. Unhook the oama in the net gently and place it in your floating bait bucket with as little trauma as possible. Once in the bait bucket, the oama will calm down. You can place quite a few in the bait bucket as long as there’s good water flow.
• When pau fishing, transfer the oama in the floating bait bucket to your 5 gallon bucket filled with cool, clean sea water. You should not keep more than 15-20 in the bucket for more than an hour or so. A little sand on the bottom of the bucket helps calm the fish down. Turn on your portable aerator and make sure there’s good oxygenation. If that aerator stops, the oama will suffocate in a few minutes.
• If you’re not planning to use the oama right away, take an extra bucket or two of water home so you can do a water change. The oama release ammonia which is toxic to them.
• Keep the oama container shaded and covered so the oama are less traumatized.

Keeping the Oama Alive at Home

• If you plan to use the oama the next day, they can remain in the 5 gallon bucket in a cool, shaded place. Make sure your pump will keep running over night. In fact, it’s worth investing in an electric pump which won’t cost much more than the battery powered ones. You can buy those at a pet store that has aquarium supplies.
• Change the water daily. Remove any dead or dying fish. To get the most out of your sea water, treat the water with Ammo Lock, which neutralizes the ammonia the fish are releasing. You can also buy Ammo Lock at pet stores.
• If you want to keep your oama longer than a day or two, get a large, black, circular plastic tub from a pet store or garden supply store. The darker background will calm the oama and the circular shape prevents them from running into a corner. Use an electric aerator that puts out a lot of bubbles. And if you really want to keep them happy, add a power head that circulates the water. The electric aerator and power head should be less than $40 together. The plastic tub could run you anywhere from $20 – $100 depending on the size and quality.
• To keep the oama from fouling their water too quickly, you can add Stress Zyme, which contains live, good bacteria that consume the gunk produced by the fish. This can be purchased in pet stores.
• If you want to keep your oama alive a long time, you’ll need to add a filter. I use an external canister filter that extracts physical waste and adds water circulation.
• It’s not easy raising wild, saltwater fish. After many die-offs, I can now keep most oama alive for a few weeks, with some living for more than 3 months.

Using the Oama for Bait

• Ideally you can fish the live oama with as little terminal tackle walk out to reef dropoffs and “free line” their oama with just a hook. Dunkers use a lead line and shorter leader tied to a large MZ hook, or maybe a thin gauge circle hook. Slow trollers, like me, hook the oama in the head with a second hook dangling near the last fin.
• If you’re able to make a soft cast, you can lightly hook the oama behind the dorsal fin to cause the least amount of possible, you can hook it from under the lower jaw, out through the top of the head, but in front of the brain so you don’t kill it. Since I very slowly troll mine on my longboard or kayak, I hook mine through its nostrils so it can still gulp water.
• Lively oama get bit better than sluggish oama, but even dead ones still work.
• If your oama die but are still in pretty good shape, you can freeze them for use later. First lay them out and salt them with Hawaiian Salt or rock salt. Let them sit that way for a few hours, in the fridge. The salt will draw out water from the fish, which minimizes freezer burn. If possible, vacuum seal the oama, then freeze. The oama will look a little dehydrated from the salt but will plump up when you use them in water. Or you can just fry ‘em crispy and eat ‘em!