by Rufus Kimura
photos by Monte Costa
Illustration: Ralph Kagehiro
The ‘Alenuihaha Channel is a sixty-four-mile stretch of raging water between Maui and the Big Island. It’s a place where monstrous waves couple with gale-force winds to create a bounding, disorganized sea—and that’s on a good day. The day I was out there it was stormy, and we were in a sailing canoe with a 200-pound blue marlin in tow.
A few minutes before the fish hit, we’d been skimming along in Maui waterman Mike Spalding’s forty-four-foot Maka Koa . Our sail was full, and famed North Shore surfer Jeff Johnson was expertly steering us around the avalanching white tops of the house-sized waves. In the distance, the sands of Maui’s Makena Beach beckoned. Then, a boat length behind us, a hungry blue marlin rose from the depths and seized the pink-and-white nine-inch jet head lure that we had naively used on our hand line.
That morning, as we were getting ready to depart the North Kohala coast of the Big Island, I’d watched Mike set up our fishing lines.
"I think that’s a marlin lure, Mike," I’d said. "It’s pink and white, makes lots of bubbles."
"You think?" Mike asked, as he continued tying the lines together.
"Yeah, I’m pretty sure. Look how huge it is. That’s bigger than most of the fish we catch."
"Really?" Mike said, deftly attaching the lure.
Mike smiled. "Well, maybe we’ll catch a mahimahi," he said.
When the marlin hit, it felt like we’d run aground. The sail was still filled with wind and our canoe was intact, but our forward momentum had disappeared. The Maka Koa was stalled in the trough between two particularly nasty looking waves.
It was then that I looked back and saw, perfectly silhouetted in the approaching wall of water, the eight-foot fish.
"Fish on," Mike said with typical understatement.
"Cut the damn thing loose," growled Jeff. "It’s going to sink us."
I was about to agree with Jeff when a twelve-foot wave crested, broke and washed over us in a foaming melee of seawater.
Hawaii is not a hunter’s Mecca. No big cats roam the valleys; the hilltops are free of kudu and wildebeest. The rainforests don’t shelter elk or caribou. In fact, all we’ve got are feral pigs, a bunch of goats and some axis deer—hardly a challenge for anyone on a rifle-toting safari. Yet, despite our lack of large, furry animals, we’ve got game.
Our tepid tropical waters shelter a multitude of creatures and a diversity to match any African plain: We’ve got bold ‘ahi, giant marlin, speckled jumping mahimahi and countless reef fish in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Our oceans may not be as bountiful as they were a hundred years ago—fishermen now must be careful not to take too many fish and not to take juveniles—but they still offer challenge and reward.
Those who pursue the ocean’s quarry call themselves "fishermen." It’s true, of course, but the catch-all doesn’t tell the whole story. There are sportsmen, spear divers, tropical fish collectors and many other unique sub-categories within the world of fishing. There are weekend warriors with T-shirt tans and coolers that hold more beer than fish. There are those who, like the Hawaiians of old, use the ocean as their personal larder. And, there are those for whom fishing is a job, a career and an almost superstitiously tempered scientific pursuit.
Captain Russell Tanaka,
Russell Tanaka is such a man. He is the captain of Magic, a fifty-foot boat that makes its berth in Ala Moana’s Kewalo Basin. With a ninety percent catch rate, Magic is one of Oahu’s premier charter boats.
I was anxious to spend a day aboard fishing. Ninety percent odds were sure to make things exciting.
We left the harbor at five a.m. The boat’s twin diesel engines purred in the dawn of a still-slumbering Honolulu, and at the harbor’s entrance, a few die-hard surfers jockeyed for position in glassy, chest-high waves. Our course was 240 degrees northwest, a few clicks left of Kauai.
By midmorning, we were trolling along twenty-four miles from land. I climbed the ladder to the fly bridge and took a seat next to Captain Tanaka.
"See that?" he asked, pointing to a few black specks on the horizon. "That’s what we’re looking for. Those are frigates, or aku birds. They follow schools of baitfish, which lead to the bigger pelagics."
We were closer now, and I could see the birds, folding their wings and dive-bombing headfirst into a churning pile of sardines and skipjack tuna. Suddenly, the glistening backs of two dozen porpoises broke the surface.
On board, both corner outriggers snapped down and the gold Penn 80stw reels let out their ratcheting screams to signal we’d caught something. God, I thought, maybe we’ve hooked Flipper.
When I voiced my fears, the deckhand quickly reassured me that porpoises are far too smart to go for the plastic lures. What we’d got was one of the yellowfin tuna, or ‘ahi, that commonly follow the feeding porpoises.
Once I was in the fighting chair, I was handed one of the fishing poles. Its tip arched downwards; line was still peeling out of the reel. Slowly, I tightened the drag, just enough to stop the fish’s initial run. Then began the long and arduous task of sport fishing. Sure, it may be glamorous—man pitted against the beast and that sort of thing—but after an hour of arm-burning exertion, I was ready to let the fish win.
In the 1956 text, Hawaii Goes Fishing , author Jean Scott MacKellar notes that yellowfin get their name ‘ahi from the Hawaiian word for fire: "When using the hand line technique employed by the Hawaiians... the line went over the side so fast that it actually smoked."
This ‘ahi lived up to its name. It ripped line out 100 yards at a time and fought me desperately for each foot I regained. All the modern equipment at my disposal did not make an ounce of difference. The sun was well overhead before the fish rose from the depths, circling and drifting clockwise in a drawn-out ellipse. Shimmering green and gold, it flashed angry metallic hues that lit up the blue water. With a last burst of energy, it made a final run but, spent, managed only a few yards before following the pull back to the boat.
The ‘ahi was leadered, gaffed and hauled aboard in one deft motion. Magic ’s crew is well-versed in landing these fish. A few years earlier, it boated a record sixteen in a single outing.