The Aquahunters – Earning it with Hawaii’s kayak fishing visionary

Paul Lebowitz

Earning it with Hawaii’s kayak fishing visionary

Photos by Aaron Schmidt

Chompy

In the video Isaac Brumaghim is alone aboard a fishing kayak a mile off the westernmost tip of Oahu. He’s pulling hard on a bent rod and reeling quickly, approaching the end game for the fish on his line. It’s routine for Isaac; he looks intent but relaxed. When the change comes, it comes without warning.

The video camera is on the nose of Isaac’s kayak, pointed back. Isaac is front and center in the frame. There’s a flash of silver behind his right shoulder, and the merest impression of a fish leaping out of the water—a 15-pound kawakawa. On its tail, the silhouette of a large Gallapagos shark leaping clear of the water in chase.

It happens so fast, many viewers miss the details, but there’s no missing Isaac’s reaction. Moving in bullet time, he reels the stunned kawakawa to the side of his Ocean Kayak, grabs the wire leader and shakes the rod to knock the fish off. Despite his hurried movements, it’s obvious he’s keeping his fingers and toes away from the water. That’s when the shark comes back, just off camera, sending waves splashing as it bumps the bottom of Isaac’s Trident Ultra and claims its meal.

In Hawaii, kayak fishing is extreme even when it is routine. Sometimes it is wild enough to surprise even the most capable.

Isaac lets out a startled “Oh my god,” shakes the nervous energy out of his arms and shoulders, then smiles broadly and laughs. By the end of the dramatic minute- long clip, he’s already calming down. He’s ready to get back to his routine. You doubt? After the encounter he goes back to fishing, ultimately decking another kawakawa and a shibi.

Extreme kayak fishing in Hawaii with da Aquahunters.
That was the first many people saw of Isaac Brumaghim, the founder of Aquahunters: catapulted to fame by a ‘pet’ shark he fondly named Chompy. To date, his YouTube video has been viewed more than 11 million times in just over a year. It played on TV, locally on Hawaii News Now and on outlets across the globe. The British Broadcasting Service picked it up.

“I love Chompy. Chompy was the gateway for everyone to notice what Hawaii was doing all along. To open up the window,” he says.

Isaac’s no viral flash in the pan. He’s a kayak fishing visionary, although I didn’t realize it when I first met him in at a Big Island kayak fishing tournament in 2006. He remembers.

Extreme kayak fishing in Hawaii with da Aquahunters.

“I told you back then. I’m trying to take kayak fishing to another level. Big wave surfing is a prestigious sport,” he says. “Kayak fishing in big water is a lot like pro surfing. You have to build yourself into an athlete, train hard and live the lifestyle.”

A top surfer earns a comfortable living. There’s prize money, endorsement checks, a measure of fame and adoring fans. Is it crazy to think a world-class kayak angler could do as well for the love of the sport, for sharing the stoke?

“If you want it, you have to earn respect. That takes work. That takes development. Kayak fishing is not there yet. We don’t get paid like that, but we have epic shit going on. It could take 10 or 20 years. I’m not worried,” he says. He’s been working on it since 2003.

Earning a Spot

“Just like surfing, you have to earn your place in the lineup,” Isaac had said the night I arrived at his home in the Kapolei area. The house was alive with domestic sounds—kids home after a busy school day, his wife Juanita, a skilled canoe paddler, lovingly chasing after energetic little Pancho, not yet two, as he tried to scale the kitchen counter. A happy place. Once the kids were in bed, we retreated to Isaac’s back yard to talk.

“There was a time I was the new guy. You just stay humble and you give,” Isaac said, trying to impart Hawaiian values to a visitor from off-island. Not only do you need to earn your place in the lineup, you have to earn your place in society. You can’t just show up somewhere and expect a welcome. That doesn’t just apply to tourists; it is true for locals like Isaac too.

Done: A successful kage strike stones a 50-pound shibi. 
Done: A successful kage strike stones a 50-pound shibi.

I thought about his words the next day as we made the slow drive up Highway 93 west and then north, always north. We met the sea at an ugly, industrial power plant, then drove past modest neighborhoods and a succession of uncrowded white-sand beach parks with nary a tourist. No fancy hotel high-rises, no rental convertibles, none of the glitz of Waikiki. Only locals.

We passed the turnoff for Waianae Boat Harbor, slowed for surfers crowding the road at Makaha beach where foaming rights crashed just offshore, past the green of Makua Valley and its sacred cave, finally reaching the end of the road at Yoke’s. Ahead, a long line of sea cliffs marched toward Kaena Point. The wind whistled a keening moan as it crested the 1,000 foot tall ridge that backed the beach to blast straight offshore toward the distant, unseen island of Kauai some 100 miles northwest.

The Uyeda Brothers on patrol. Kevin sets the trolling lines. The sail and pulling on fish is Gareth’s department.
The Uyeda Brothers on patrol. Kevin sets the trolling lines. The sail and pulling on fish is Gareth’s department.

“This is a sacred area of powerful spiritual energy,” Juanita had told me the night before. Isaac had readily agreed, adding that ancient Hawaiians believed spirits departed the world from Kaena Point. Now, standing at the beach and watching the big swells rumble in from the North Pacific, Isaac again speaks of the power of this place. “There’s a lot of mana here,” he says.

I can feel it.

The big waves curl around the point, where the water boils to the clash of ripping currents. The surf piles into the steep beach, pitching and pounding, surging high up the strand.

Makahiki Pro champ Chris Paglinawan always catches fish.
Makahiki Pro champ Chris Paglinawan always catches fish.

Isaac gives me a pep talk, of sorts. “I only roll with crazy guys. You better be on your game or don’t come. There’s no stopping. There’s no putting down your paddle.” No wonder Isaac’s shoulders are broad and muscular. He paddles nearly every day in these wild, demanding waters, where normal conditions far exceed a typical mainland kayak angler’s comfort zone.

I launch anyway. Over the next four days fishing with Isaac and his friends Chris Paglinawan and Aloha Gannon, I’m tormented by the wicked winds that never cease. When I dip my foot, a Man o’ War wraps its fiery arms around my ankle. The current drags me towards oblivion; the angry surf threatens to break me on the beach. When I finally hook up on a live opelu borrowed from Aloha, I’m nearly spooled. I fight the line back, only to have it fray and break when the tiger shark tires of the game.

Isaac Brumaghim off Kaena Point, Oahu.
Isaac Brumaghim off Kaena Point, Oahu.

Fishing is slow, as it sometimes is. Isaac grinds out a 50-pound shibi, and his friends hook into ulua, uku and kawakawa.

Earning his spot at this remote Oahu beach and offshore among the fishermen who hunt tuna, ono, mahi and other blue water pelagics took more than skill and muscle. It took time and a steady demonstration of respect, for the people and the place.

“I’m not from this part of Oahu,” Isaac says. “I took care of the lifeguards every single day, with fish when I had extra. There weren’t kayak anglers around. I had to show them I knew what I was doing, that I wouldn’t get into trouble, that I would do things the right way.

“Yoke’s is the last place you end up, not where you start out.”

The Aquahunters

“What and who are the Aquahunters? Sometimes I have to think about that myself,” Isaac says. The name comes from an online bulletin board Isaac founded in 2004, Aquahunters.com. It began as a place to share information. Before long, it became a gathering place for a growing brotherhood of kayak anglers and divers.

There are no official memberships. Watermen of all kinds are welcome to register for the forum, even outsiders. Respect is earned. In some sense, any member of the wider Hawaii kayak fishing community is a member, whether they post or not. The OG, the inner circle, protect the group’s collective values.

Extreme kayak fishing in Hawaii with da Aquahunters.

“We’re a hui. We all believe the same things. We have our roots. We’re bringing back the truth of the old time. We’re restarting a culture, developing stewards of the ocean. We want to carry that on,” he says.

The Aquahunters message board hastened the growth of the Hawaii kayak fishing scene, as well as the rediscovery of traditional fishing skills and the development of modern techniques.

“We made each other better. We’ve been doing this eight, ten years. We enhanced each other’s games. It’s snowballed. Now everyone knows the key skills, knows how to catch live bait,” Isaac says.

Most Aquahunters fish for sustenance. Catches come home to feed the family.
Most Aquahunters fish for sustenance. Catches come home to feed the family.

In early 2009, a vicious whiteout squall caught three kayak anglers just outside Honokohau Harbor, knocking two into rough water and pushing another onto the jagged jetty rocks. Kona fisherman Robert Dean Lewis drove his boat dangerously close to the rocks to render assistance. When his engine failed, waves pummeled the boat against the jetty. In the confusion, Lewis struck his head. He died on the scene. The kayak anglers survived, and though they helped Lewis’s wife escape, some Aquahunters felt the kayak anglers who got into trouble were ultimately to blame for Lewis’s death.

Extreme kayak fishing in Hawaii with da Aquahunters.

Isaac took the tragedy hard. “I was brought to tears and anger. We as a community will be looked on as irresponsible, reckless, gambling with our lives. As far as I’m concerned, very deserving,” he wrote on the Aquahunters forum back then.

Deep soul-searching followed, on the importance of personal responsibility and preparation, on the need for self-reliance. The difficult aftermath drew the Aquahunters closer together. “We need to back one another when it comes to teaching safety. Don’t go if you there’s any doubt you can handle the conditions,” he says.

 

The Makahiki

In 2008 Isaac launched the Makahiki, an ambitious season-long marathon of a fishing tournament that pits Hawaii’s best against the best, whichever island they call home. For big thinker Isaac, the Makahiki is more than a contest. It is a showcase for the best kayak anglers in the world. They compete for points in a pro division; scores are weighted to level the playing field between the Big Island’s giant fish and crowded Oahu’s typically smaller catches. Newcomers battle it out in a recreational division. The best earn promotion to the Makahiki major leagues.

Aloha Rich Gannon at Kaena Pint, Oahu.
Aloha Rich Gannon at Kaena Pint, Oahu.

“Winning the Makahiki takes dedication, a lot of experience, and the balls to fish competitively 40 tough days. If you’re one of the top guys in the Makahiki, you’re one of the top guys in the world,” he says.

The results prove his point. In 2010, defending champion Andy ‘FBI’ Cho, trailing late, paddled out from the Big Island. When he paddled back in, a 225-pound blue marlin was strapped to the side of his kayak. It is still the heaviest kayak- caught fish to make it to a scale. Cho won again in 2011 and 2012, notching one amazing catch after the other. He seemed unstoppable. No one had a better claim. He was Hawaii’s own, perhaps the world’s best kayak angler. The champion attracted the media spotlight Isaac had sought.

Extreme kayak fishing in Hawaii with da Aquahunters.

In 2013, Oahu’s Chris Paglinawan finally broke through after consistently challenging Cho’s Makahiki reign. “Andy catches a whole bunch of big fish. I catch a lot of small fish that are worth a lot of points,” he says modestly.

Paglinawan has immense respect for Cho. “Me and Andy, we have so many years of experience. We know our ground so good, if something’s not working we change it up. Other people might just stick with what’s not working. The fish are there, you just have to get them to bite,” he says.

Isaac puts it into perspective. Paglinawan’s win takes nothing from Cho’s legacy. In any case, it isn’t really a head to head battle. The Makahiki is an individual journey.

The Record Setter

Cho isn’t the only Aquahunter to hold an unofficial but widely recognized kayak fishing record. His Big Island neighbor Devin Hallingstad holds two. Earlier this year he brought in a 212-pound black marlin, solo, the second heaviest kayak-caught fish to reach a scale. Hallingstad’s kayak record 176-pound yellowfin is even more impressive given his chariot at the time, a Hobie Revolution only rated to carry 350 pounds of man, gear and catch. Landing the big ahi nearly sank him.

Then there’s Paglinawan again. The all-around waterman speared an 87-pound ono while diving out of Yoke’s, the state kayak record. Oahu brothers Kevin and Gareth Uyeda tag-teamed a 194-pound blue marlin while fishing off a tandem.
After the fish gassed out with 900 feet of line out, it took the pair three and half hours to pull it in one handful of line at a time.

“We’re all about big fish. It’s the greenest way to fish. We don’t use any gas besides getting the kayak down to the beach,” Kevin Uyeda, the more talkative of the two brothers (he’s a teacher), says.

In 2006 when I first met Isaac at that Big Island tournament, he’d asked whether I, a sportfishing writer who came up through kayak fishing, could help him find sponsors. At the time Hawaii’s kayak anglers were unproven, the market small and far away from the center of the action in North America. I thought he didn’t have much of a sales pitch. He proved me wrong; I won’t doubt him again.

Extreme kayak fishing in Hawaii with da Aquahunters.

Today, Hawaii’s foremost kayak anglers boast plenty of industry affiliations. Isaac, Chris, Andy and his brother Steve, the Big Island’s Rob Wong-Yuen, and Oahu’s appropriately named Aloha are on Johnson Outdoors Watercraft’s fishing team. The Uyeda brothers, Oahu’s David Elgas, Maui’s Jon Jon Tabon, and Devin all fish for Hobie. Penn sponsors much of this crew, as does Bending Branches. It’s taken a few years, but there’s no doubting Hawaii kayak fishing has earned its attention.

“I have a dream of inviting all the world’s best kayak anglers to come to Hawaii for a tournament circuit,” Isaac says. It’s late at night. We’re back in his backyard, just the two of us by then, a little drunk, a little high and very full. I’ve gorged myself on shibi poke, noodles, rice, some kind of spicy seafood salad, and all kinds of other local delicacies fresh from the ocean, brought to Isaac’s happy house by the Uyedas, Chris, Aloha, and more friends and their families for a luau.

“We wanted to invite you into our home, to show how we live. Aquahunters is an ohana,” he says. And then, “I have a lot of respect for the guys at Extreme Kayak Fishing. For the guys catching big fish from kayaks on the west coast, in Australia and South Africa. For everybody who buys in, who fishes hard. The sport is growing globally. The beginning has taken so long, but now it’s coming quicker and faster and easier. The money will come. You’ll see. We are here and we are doing it.”

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