September 25, 2018
The ever-present tinge of salt clung to the night air, and as dawn neared, the breeze increased slightly to meet the coming sun. I could just start to make out my hands holding the rifle in the monochromatic gray, and like countless hunts before, I knew the time was close. A minute passed, and I could discern my feet standing on a small platform of wood perched a few feet off the ground. Like a European shooting stand, the platform was just high enough to see over the low brush stretching out in all directions. The scene was more reminiscent of South Texas than what I had envisioned for Hawaii.
But what did I know of Hawaii? Hawaii to me was eight seasons of Magnum, P.I., the King Kamehameha Club, and beautiful, big-haired, bikini-clad women. But not this. Not rugged, uninhabited wild country, with a crazy other-worldly mix of evergreen-covered mountains, arid desert, scrub brush lowlands, and rainforest jungle – all muddled together into a 10-by-18-mile package.
No, it was not the Hawaii I had expected, but it was everything I could have ever hoped for.
Before the sun could peek over the ocean, there was movement in front of my stand. It appeared to be a branch held vertically moving through the dense brush. It disappeared before I could register it for what it was: the classic three-pronged main beam of the beautifully spotted axis deer. My disappointment at the missed opportunity was brief, for as quick as the axis vanished another one appeared. Equally as large, mahogany beams passing through the bullet-impenetrable brush. While the rack was clearly seen, the buck passed, like the first – not breaking stride, never offering a clean shot.
Starting to feel a bit dejected over my luck, I caught movement off to my right. There, in one of the few open patches, a lone axis doe stood, ears up, surveying her surroundings before contemplating her next move. This hunt was as much about meat as it was antlers, so I quickly raised my rifle and put a bullet behind her shoulder. Bucking, she took off through the brush that erupted in a crescendo of brown hides, white spots, leaps, and heel kicks as bucks, does, and yearlings made their escape. I stood in awe, not attempting to raise the rifle for a second shot, just appreciating the sheer density of the deer on this modern-day Treasure Island.
After a short, frothy, blood-spattered walk, I ran my fingers through the hair of my first axis deer, larger than I would have expected and ten times more gorgeous than any whitetail, with a chocolate coat accented with white spots. I loaded the deer into the Polaris General to take back to Lanai City and a waiting cooler before the sun tipped the mercury to its consistent, tropical, 85 degrees. After my first morning in Hawaii, I was a bit shell-shocked – few tourists, unmatched scenery, miles of open beaches, and unimaginable opportunity for fishing, diving, and hunting.
The History of the Isle
On the short ride back into town, I got a glimpse of what other game the island had to offer: African francolin, California quail, pheasants, and chukar scurried from bush to bush; doves and sandgrouse flew to water; flocks of wild turkeys strutted by the dozens; and enough deer appeared to realize that getting a trophy buck wasn’t going to be a problem.
So how did a deer species, native to the Indian subcontinent, end up on this isolated island in the middle of the Pacific? That story is interesting and goes back nearly 150 years. On January 19th, 1868, King Kamehameha V sourced from Jardine, Matheson & Co. in Hong Kong eight axis deer. Those deer were turned loose on the island of Molokai. In the 1920s the Molokai herd had grown exponentially, and a dozen animals were rounded up by Harry and Frank Baldwin (reportedly roped by a local cowboy) and transported to Lanai where they were turned loose. Nearly a hundred years later, that stock has multiplied to an estimated 15,000. To put that in perspective, the current Lanai population represents 107 deer per square mile – actually it’s far denser than that when you subtract the third of the island that isn’t suitable habitat for deer. Consider that the best counties in the fabled deer Mecca of Wisconsin range between 20 to 50 whitetails per square mile!
Like the deer, the story of the island itself is unique and interesting. Comprised of a windward and leeward side with a range of mountains in between, Mount Lanaihale stretches up as the highest peak at an elevation of 3,366 feet. On the windward side, the island is reminiscent of the desert Southwest and hosts the island’s only other big-game species: the mouflon. Basalt rock, red sand, cliffs, and constantly blowing wind characterize this side of the island, and the hunting is physically difficult. The leeward side is much calmer, as the name suggests, lusher in vegetation, sometimes bordering on jungle.
Lanai was not widely inhabited by early indigenous people and, as local lore has it, was believed to be haunted. In 1854 a group of Mormons was granted a lease on the island to form a settlement. In 1862 Walter Gibson came to the island to reorganize the group and ended up in negotiations with King Kamehameha to purchase the island for the Mormon church – he bought the island with church money but filed the deed in his own name. This got him quickly excommunicated, but he retained ownership of the island and a place in history as one of the very few people who flipped the script and actually conned the church.
In the 1920s Lanai was purchased by the Dole company and run as a pineapple plantation. In 2012 it was purchased by Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison and recognized as what it should be: paradise. With plans of investing hundreds of millions into the island, Ellison’s goal is to make this the only completely sustainable green place in the world where hunting holds an equal place with eco-tourism, horseback riding, sunbathing, and snorkeling.
Striking It Rich
On the second morning, Jon Dubin, owner of Pineapple Brothers (the sole hunting outfitter on Lanai), and I loaded up in his Polaris General and headed toward the mountains in a bit of an exploratory trip to see some new country, all the while keeping an eye out for a mature buck. The sand two track circumvented the city of Lanai (population 3,000, representing 97 percent of the island’s total residents), past the island’s original hotel, built in the 1920s, then up the steep mountainside, going through thick jungle and forests of mature tropical hardwoods, before breaking out on top with an expansive view of the ocean on all sides and the Garden of the Gods.
“Yeah, this island is paradise,” Jon reflected in amazed, hushed tones as we glassed for deer. “It is the unspoiled raw nature of it that makes it so special. This is what I want visitors to experience when they come to Hawaii – not the commercialized tourist traps, but untouched paradise.” As I looked over the thousands of acres of land surrounding virgin beaches I had to agree. I could see why “Uncle Larry,” as he is called by the residents, wanted to preserve it for future generations. It was refreshing to see something that had gone from missionary colonization, through large-scale industrial agriculture, to be owned by someone with the vision of returning it to nature and my kind of sustainable tourism.
We hadn’t glassed long when Jon said, “There’s a group of bucks and does down in the valley. Looks like a pretty good buck in the lead. The wind is right. Want to try a stalk before it gets too hot?” Working our way down the ridge, we eventually got down to their level and discovered that finding the group in the tall grass and brush was going to be a difficult chore. Unable to accurately judge distance, I feared we may have gotten too close. Just then, I caught movement. Not of a deer, or a spot, but simply the yard-long mass of bone in the brush, discernible only by slight movement and the glint of the sun as the buck fed. Less than 50 yards away and no opportunity for a shot – I realized then that Hawaii hunting could be frustrating and if not for the sheer density of deer would not be nearly as successful.
Then, sensing something was amiss, the buck paused in his feeding. He lifted his head, and I could clearly see his jaw line and a bit of his neck. It was far from an ideal shot, but at 50 yards with the aid of shooting sticks, it was doable. The crosshairs bobbed in the breeze more than I would have liked, but when they settled momentarily at the juncture of head and spine, I squeezed off the shot. The buck dropped instantly out of sight, being rendered from living organism to dinner.
Tags were filled and the hunting pressure was off, so over the next couple of days I explored what else Lanai had to offer. The snorkeling within yards of my room was the best I have ever experienced, and talking to the locals, the fishing and diving were equally as good. The sporting clays range was world class – difficult, but not so difficult as to make you look bad and placed in arguably the most beautiful setting ever. For the motor afflicted, the island hosts miles of trails and two track for UTV and Jeep exploration. Never professing to be a golfer, I didn’t attempt to embarrass myself or my hosts, but the three courses on the island looked pristine, and for those desiring to bring a spouse, there is nowhere else that offers as good a couple’s retreat.
On our last night in paradise, the sun set over Manele Bay as the wood in our fire burned from yellow flame to coal and the fresh axis tenderloins were slapped onto the hot grill. Sizzle mixed with smell as Jon topped off our glasses of good Argentinian Malbec. I was hooked. I doubt all of Hawaii is this good, but Lanai surely is the stuff dreams are made of. Now if I could just talk Mr. Ellison into letting me live in his guesthouse, find a friend with a brightly painted helicopter, and a brace of Dobermans named Zeus and Apollo, I might just give up the writing game, hang out my P.I. shingle, and stay permanently.