By Léo Azambuja
It’s a hot midsummer afternoon in Anahola. Charles Blake Pereira, better known as “Uncle Charlie,” is standing at the edge of the water at Smith’s Beach, his eyes focused on the shorebreak.
“It’s gonna take a while to see that fish in that water,” said the 87-year-old master throw-net maker, the Hawaiian Pidgin strong on his voice. “The first thing you gonna see is, when the waves curl like this, you can see that fish, they get some fish like that, mullet, probably the āholehole shines a little bit, then the manini is green.”
Uncle Charlie holds the net with his left and right hands, in a complex configuration that is second nature to him. In one smooth motion, he springs his whole body and releases the net. It flies out of his hands forward and downward, opening up perfectly in mid-air and falling flat on the water. But there was no fish to be caught.
“My time, fish was plentiful, today it’s not; they had overcatch some of the fish,” he said.
It’s OK, though. Just by being at the edge of the water was an accomplishment for Uncle Charlie — it had been two years since he had thrown net. “My legs are slowing me down,” he says. That day, however, he threw net twice, and both times he managed to do it perfectly.
Uncle Charlie has been making throw nets since he was 12 years old. He has sold his nets to fishermen on eight Hawaiian Islands, including Ni‘ihau. Millionaires have bought his nets just to hang it on their walls as a work of art. His story has been featured in many books about the island, newspapers, fishing magazines and even in songs.
Back in 2009, he and his wife, Loke, were nominated Garden Island Living Treasures by the Kaua‘i Museum. That night, he counted 62 nets he had made since his first one. Three days after the museum’s tribute, his wife of 53 years passed away. Since then, he picked up the pace, and estimates he is close to 100 nets. Not an easy feat considering the time it takes to craft an 11-foot-wide throw net.
“I average a net a month now; it takes me four weeks to make one,” said Uncle Charlie, adding he is on it everyday. “To me it’s a complete relaxation, it’s so nice.”
He learned the craft from his father and from some “old timers.” One of them was “Uncle” George Kaleohi, whose nephew, in turn, learned from Uncle Charlie.
“I’m so happy because it’s in the family,” he said of Kaleohi’s nephew. Many others learned from Uncle Charlie too, and some are still making nets.
Originally from Kalaheo, Uncle Charlie said his father learned to make nets from the Palama family. They moved to Niumalu when Uncle Charlie was still a young boy, he was 7 years old. He used to fish there, and remembers when the bay was dredged for the “big ships” in the 1940s. He used to watch other kids fish in the Menehune Fishpond, but today, he said, the fishpond is full of tilapia, a “junk fish.”
Throughout his whole adult life, Uncle Charlie continued to make throw nets and learn from others; even during his 20 years in the military, when he was stationed in Schofield Barracks on O‘ahu.
Fishing in old Hawai‘i “was the most varied and extensive food-procuring occupation of the Hawaiians,” according to the late historian Te Rangi Hiroa, in his book Arts and Crafts of Hawai‘i. Agriculture was of great importance, he wrote, but it did not require the varied tools and methods that fishing did.
Of all the many techniques Hawaiians utilized for fishing — catching by hand, spearing, fish traps, noosing and hook-and-line — netting was the most diversified and profitable method of catching fish, according to Hiroa.
However, despite the several types of nets utilized by early Hawaiians, throw-net fishing was actually introduced to Hawai‘i by the Japanese, according to Brother Noland, in his book The Hawaiian Survival Handbook.
Uncle Charlie said he can make many kinds of nets, but he sticks to throw nets. It is usually 11 feet wide, made of nylon fishing lines and weighed down by lead weighs that he makes at home. The “skirts” of the nets sport a circular trap where the fish enter but can’t get out.
Ancient Hawaiian nets were made of cordage and stone sinkers. Uncle Charlie’s first nets were made with cotton strings, and sometimes he would rub pig blood on them. But this would attract hungry rats looking for a snack — and the net would be damaged. In the 1950s, his father showed Uncle Charlie the nylon fishing lines, which were durable and sank faster than cotton strings, so he switched to nylon.
Because it is a labor of love that takes time, there is a waiting list for those wanting to get one of Uncle Charlie’s nets. He has two waiting lists; a good one and a bad one, the latter being for those who haven’t been real nice to him, he says jokingly.
Uncle Charlie can be found every Saturday at Kaua‘i Museum in Līhuʻe, demonstrating his net-making skills and sharing his unique island stories.