Big Game Fishing, Big Island Style – Riding with the baddest anglers on the world’s biggest ocean
Riding with the baddest anglers on the world’s biggest ocean
By Paul Lebowitz
Photos by Aaron Schmidt
Andy Cho is in his element, slow-trolling a live bait in 1,000 feet of water. He’s stalking giants from his kayak miles offshore of the Big Island. Years ago, the native Hawaiian pulled a 225-pound marlin from these waters. It remains the largest fish ever landed from a kayak without powerboat support. Now Cho is about to face another formidable challenger.
The Bad Company is a deluxe 54-foot sportfishing yacht, famous for racking up wins in the high-stakes world of competitive marlin fishing. In 2007 it claimed a $1.4 million purse at the Bisbees Black and Blue. Like Cho, Bad Company is on the hunt. A full spread of trolling lures dart in its foaming wake.
The yacht is a high-tech killing machine, driven by twin Cummings turbo-diesels and fueled by money. It powers inexorably toward a speck on the vast ocean. That speck is Andy Cho on his humble plastic kayak, paddling steadily across the ocean swells in the tradition of his Polynesian ancestors. Cho and the sport-boat are running head to head, on a collision course.
Bad Company doesn’t stand a chance.
“I’m not gonna give up my line,” Andy says, remembering. “I’m gonna play chicken with this guy. He’s gonna veer off.”
They close quickly. Andy doesn’t flinch. He will not yield. Finally, the Bad Company surrenders rather than plow over the proud Hawaiian. As it steers away, Andy hooks up a tuna. The local has won.
“Ha, that captain just got grilled by a kayak. I pushed him off the line,” Andy says, confident. “This is my place.” His island. His native water.
It took years of trust building for Andy to share that story. Hawaii’s fishermen warm slowly to outsiders. You have to earn their respect.
I first heard of Andy in 2008, when he won the inaugural Makahiki Pro, a yearlong big game marathon that passes for a kayak fishing tournament among Hawaii’s watermen. He crushed that fierce competition with catches such as a 71-pound ulua, known to mainlanders as the great trevally. For five more years, until 2013, the Makahiki Pro would know no other champion. Cho became a giant in the world of kayak fishing, even a legend, but not much was known about him or the other islanders who pushed the sport’s boundaries year by year. Just tournament statistics, a few grainy photos of triumphant locals posing land-side with dead fish, and GoPro video clips of crazy big game action.
I followed along on AquaHunters.com, the islands’ online kayak fishing community, until finally I could take it no longer. Hawaii is the sport’s great frontier. I had to see it for myself. So last spring, I emailed Andy to ask. “Aloha. I’d like to bring a shooter out and get on the water with you,” I wrote, with little expectation.
“Sure. Come on over. Call me when you get here,” he wrote back.
Good enough. On faith, photographer Aaron Schmidt and I fly to Kona in October, grab a rental car, and navigate the green, winding road to the rustic red tin-roofed Manago Hotel, built in 1917 in upcountry Captain Cook. I call Andy. “We’re here,” I say.
“Okay, I’ll round up the crew. Meet us at the Fujihara Store at 5 a.m.,” he says.
Three trucks toting kayaks roll up in the inky morning darkness. Andy doesn’t get out. He simply gestures at us to follow. We drive farther south, then turn off on a rugged side road that plunges down the mountain, across black-scorched lava flows, and through a hardscrabble village huddled against the narrow beach. It is shortly after daybreak. There isn’t a tourist for miles.
We pull off the road at a small, stony cove. There are no beach facilities, no welcome signs, no shops selling hula dancer figurines made in China. The Kona crew exchange shakas and smiles with the locals. Later, when Aaron and I return to the beach alone to grab some gear, stern eyes will track our every move. But when we’re rolling with Andy and crew, it’s all aloha.
Andy hops out of his truck, smiling broadly, and offers a gentle handshake. “This is my brother Steve. He helped me paddle in my big marlin,” he says, introducing a goateed older version of himself.
Quick to smile and to share a joke, Steve crews on commercial fishing boats in Alaska half the year, then splits the rest of his time between his native Hawaii and Southern California. He was the first of the group to pick up a paddle, around Christmas 2007. Soon his brother followed suit.
The new kayak anglers were met by derision.
“The uncles, they’d say ‘You dumb. You gonna get flipped,’” Steve says with a laugh.
Steve was a shore-caster back then. At first, he used the kayak to paddle his bait out farther. On that first trip with Andy the pair pulled an ulua off the reef. They thought it was a great accomplishment. “Who’s dumb? Not us,” Andy recalls thinking.
The bar is much, much higher now. The Kona Boys are all about big game. They hunt massive tuna; ono, the blisteringly quick, razor-toothed greyhounds of the sea known elsewhere as wahoo; and billfish, the top of the mountain, marlin and sailfish, each wielding a lethal harpoon.
Matt Reed is also along on this trip, with his sleek old-school Ocean Kayak Prowler. Affectionately dubbed “The Bill Collector” by his friends, the outwardly mellow construction tradesman took his first kayak spearfish in 2008. The faint shock of grey hair on his forehead will reveal its nature before long. It’s a streak of crazy.
Rob Wong Yuen rounds out the foursome. He’s tall, fiery and relatively new at this game, a hard-charger making a name for himself. While fishing solo in early 2013, Rob busted a 114-pound ahi in front of his action camera. The YouTube footage is a raw, indelible look at the realities of big game kayak fishing. He proudly wears a T-shirt proclaiming his origin. “Kaú grown,” it reads. As he readies his kayak, he weaves a couple broad ti leaves into his fishing crate. Tentatively, I ask why.
“They provide protection. Our ancestors carried them on their voyaging canoes,” he says. Of all in the group, he is the most open to sharing his traditional beliefs, and the most reticent to talk about fishing techniques and locations.
“Don’t say where we fished today,” he says. Okay.
CONTINUE TO PART TWO