Big Game Fishing, Big Island Style (Part Two) – Riding with the baddest anglers on the world’s biggest ocean
Riding with the baddest anglers on the world’s biggest ocean
Part Two (return to part one)
Aaron and I gratefully accept the gift of several of the long, deep green leaves for our own borrowed tandem. I’ve followed Hawaii kayak fishing long enough to know risk is ever present. Offshore winds are the most dangerous hazard. They can quickly blow a paddler over the horizon to face a lonely ending in the vast emptiness that surrounds the most remote islands on Earth. Mountainous waves and wicked currents are other threats. Today, the sea is calm. It’s a little awkward at first. The Hawaiians stay close to shore. We might be posers who can’t paddle. It’s a slow day. They’re testing us. Nothing happens, until finally Matt lives up to his nickname. As he passes a long tongue of lava that pokes into the sea, he sticks a sailfish. It jumps wildly.
This is why we came. Aaron jumps overboard with his camera to capture a unique undersea view of the battle. It doesn’t last long. Matt is implacable. Within minutes, the big fish is draped over his deck for photos, broad sail spread.
Like the others, Matt grew up fishing. It was as natural as sleeping, breathing and eating. He knew he’d hook up as he passed the point.
“Knowledge of the bottom structures that hold fish is passed down from generation to generation. This lava ridge extends into the water, channeling fish,” he explains. He is proud to continue an ancient tradition.
“Kayak fishing is like the old ways. Different, modernized, but still accomplished by muscle,” Reed says. And still full of secrets. For years, the Kona crew kept their use of live bait on the down low. Each has a custom bait tank on his kayak, crafted from fiberglass and cleverly hidden. The tanks sit flush in the well, with crates and other rigging piled on top. Small lids are the only giveaways. Even the plumbing is invisible, routed through the tankwell scuppers. The next day we launch from the internationally famous south Hawaii crescent of black sand at Punaluú on the Big Island’s weather side. Lively swells roil the water, and an insistent wind blows along the coast. “This is good weather,” Andy says. It’s a fishy area. Bait comes easily. The Cho brothers and Wong Yuen slay the ono. Even I connect on a borrowed bait. The run is blistering, then the hook pulls. I’m crushed. Andy is kind. “Sometimes they run with the bait without swallowing it. When they change direction, they pop off,” he says. Not for Andy. He converts every one of his hookups. When we land just after midday, curious tourists surround the locals and their kayaks, marveling at their fish. “Did you catch that here?” one particularly obtuse man in an ill-fitting swimsuit asks.
Andy winks at Rob and Steve. “No, I paddled it out. We only caught a couple small ones. If we could catch opelu we’d get them every time,” he says with a straight face. He lights up with a sly grin when the tourist turns his back and Rob catches his eye. “We try to keep it light,” he later confides. He says he doesn’t mind the tourists. It’s our final day. The Kona Crew paddles straight out from shore to a fish-aggregating device. Also known as a FAD, this buoy rolls on the oceanic swells four miles offshore of the south Kona coast. The water is more than a quarter-mile deep, a beautiful electric blue. As we approach the FAD, Rob scans the boats scattered nearby. On board, commercial fishermen tend rope-like hand-lines of thick 200-, 250-pound mono, large hooks baited with chunk bait. They aren’t catching. Rob keys his radio. “Nothing’s happening out there,” he says. “We’ll get ‘em,” Andy replies. Andy was once a commercial hand-liner himself. The first time he spotted fishing kayaks offshore, he didn’t think much of them. “I thought, those guys are crazy,” he says. Less than five minutes after arriving at the FAD, Rob’s bait is hit hard. He’s railed. He goes to work, boosting, short-pumping the powerful fish. Before long a silvery shape is swimming orbits in the blue water a dozen feet down.
Rob briefly cracks a smile. “Shibi,” he says, meaning a yellowfin tuna less than 100 pounds. He goes back to work, face impassive, just a day at the office. The tuna circles are tighter, the tail beats less frantic. Rob readies his kagé, a wicked straight-bladed fish spear. He strikes the silvery, lit-up tuna right through the head. It doesn’t so much as quiver. This shibi is stunned, stoned, motionless in a quickly spreading cloud of bloody water. With practiced moves, Rob sets the rod into a holder and sinks a gaff into the fish, then plunges a 6-inch knife through the top of its head. For good measure—you can’t be too sure—he smacks it a half-dozen times with a fish billy. “Before we started using the kagé, if you hit a tuna with a gaff it would go off,” Steve says, the knowing voice of experience. Rob’s tuna goes down easy. Brutally but humanely dispatched, the meat is in prime shape. It’ll stay that way. Rob has two fish bags in his hull, filled with more than 40 pounds of crushed ice. These guys take immaculate care of their catch. Rob’s shibi is an easy 50 pounds, and worth a delicious $250, $300 or more dollars. In winter, when tuna is harder to come by, they can get as much as $10 to $12 a pound. The Kona Crew doesn’t just fish for fun, although they revel in their work. They are paddle-powered commercial harvesters. Hawaii is perhaps the only place in the first world where the practice is possible. “We sell our fish to local restaurants or at the farmer’s market,” Andy later explains. Quality is everything. “If you want to get paid, you have to take care of the fish. They ask why it tastes so good. It’s ‘cause it is so fresh. Everyone’s all about organic. These are the green fish.” It is never a sure thing. They don’t have to buy boat fuel, but there are sunk costs every trip. Ice, gas for the truck, and tackle. When you fish three or four days a week, gear wears out fast.
“We need to catch at least one day out of three,” Rob says. Anything worse than that, they’re in the hole. Steve hooks up next, and then Rob again. The commercial fishermen on the powerboats look on with a mixture of envy and disgust. They aren’t light-liners and don’t mess with live bait. It is often more difficult to catch than the gamefish. “If we’re catching fish and they roll by, they keep going. They know there’s no sense stopping. They’ll get grilled,” Rob adds. Not just anyone can do it. “If you’re not learning something every day, you’re going backwards in the fishing game,” Andy says. His approach is systematic and patient, taking into account the moon phase, tide, current, water temperature, and a host of other factors. It’s next level, the major leagues even. As if to emphasize the challenge of fishing these waters, a juvenile oceanic white tip shark tears into the flasher Andy dangles from his kayak. At six feet long, it’s a small one, and stupidly curious. Andy curses under his breath as he reels in the fish attractant. The shark changes targets to Andy’s rudder. Andy smacks it with his paddle so hard, one fiberglass blade snaps cross-wise. A prod from Andy’s kagé is next, but it isn’t until we paddle over with an activated Shark Shield that the white tip fades.
Hawaiians who respect traditional beliefs have a complex relationship with sharks. They see them as ancestral spirits known as ‘aumakua. Rob explains: “I’ve got family in the water. We think they’re out here to protect us. They don’t want to eat us. They want to eat your fish,” he says. Still, he doesn’t like to dip so much as a toe. A few months later off Maui, a tiger shark will bite off kayak angler Patrick A. Briney’s dangling right foot. The loss of blood will kill him. “We try to be extreme but we’re not stupid about it. As long as you can get to land somewhere, you’re good,” Andy says. He and Steve have had several close calls. “I’ve seen waves as large as the cliffs at South Point. One day when the wind turned suddenly when we were only a short way out, we paddled hours to make it back,” Andy adds. They can rely on fellow fishermen if things go wrong. “It is tight knit out here. We know all the boaters,” Matt says. The next thing we know, Matt’s kayak is racing toward the horizon. He’s leaning hard on his rod. Water is foaming at his bow; a wake trails behind. He’s flying. The Bill Collector is back in business. The crazy streak? A few minutes before his sizzling sleigh ride, he’d laced a 5- or 6-pound skipjack onto a light, 60-pound rig. “I think it’s a shark. I haven’t seen it,” he yells when we eventually catch up after a long stern chase. But I know otherwise, as do his friends. We won’t have to wait long for confirmation. The spear appears first, then a massive head. It thrashes the water, then tail walks and leaps skyward. It’s a blue marlin, no less than 350 pounds. Matt is undaunted if under gunned. “Mean!” crackles Andy’s excited voice over the radio. “Go Bill Collector!” Steve adds happily. Matt doesn’t dare put too much pressure on his slender connection with this bruiser of a fish. It jumps again and again, then sulks deep. Matt resorts to pulling in lengths of line by hand, cranking the reel handle to collect the slack. “I’d like to land it,” he says with confident resolve. An hour later the blue has towed Matt a mile south and a long, long way out. The FAD is a distant memory. He’s on his own. He can just see the leader. So close! Maybe 10 feet. But the fish is still green. Matt has to give up line to gain a measure of safety when it decides to fly again. Another hour passes. Steve has chugged his long way over to back up Matt. The brotherhood is strong. Steve has one fish chilling under the hatch, but he’s sacrificing his chance at another. “It’s bigger than Andy’s, isn’t it?” Matt asks, referring to the world record. Steve nods, and keeps a respectful distance. It’s at color again, flashing brilliantly as it swims just below the surface. Matt readies his kagé, ready to collect. He wants to take this blue, and maybe Andy’s long-standing record too. That’s when Matt’s tortured 60-pound braid finally gives way. Just like that, the fish is gone. Matt is silent. “It was still bright. It wasn’t ready yet,” Steve says, then leaves his friend to collect his thoughts.