story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Brad Goda
Peter Dunn-Rankin leads me to a small bulkhead behind his Hawai‘i Kai home to demonstrate the Pili, a fishing lure that he invented twenty years ago and that, in certain circles, made him famous. He casts side-armed to avoid the small boathouse, still managing to toss the lure far out into the waters of West Harbor. The Pili is a topwater lure, made to float, and it dances across the surface as he reels it in. With little fillips of the tip of his rod, Peter makes the lure dive briefly and dog-walk back and forth across the line of retrieval. The commotion startles a school of mullet fry.
“Here, you try,” says Peter, handing me the spinning rod. I cast the Pili awkwardly out into the marina, fiddle with the bale and start reeling it in. But I can’t get the same action as Peter; the lure still dances, but it won’t zig or zag for me. Topwater spinning is an art form, and Peter Dunn-Rankin, with his innovative Pili lures, was one of Hawai‘i’s earliest practitioners. Over the years, he has caught at least six International Game Fish Association record fish, and his book, Fishing the Reefs, influenced a generation of Hawai‘i anglers and lure makers. Although, to the non-angler, the lure may seem like an afterthought, the history of fishing is largely the history of minor revolutions like the Pili. And if you want to learn about the history of Hawai‘i lures, Peter is a good place to start.
Peter was born in Florida, where he spent his youth fishing for bass and marlin and shark. After a stint in the Navy, he got a degree in educational psychology and took a job as a professor at the University of Hawai‘i. That was in 1964. Since then, fishing and teaching have carried him to the remote corners of the Pacific. “Back then,” Peter says, “I used to go down to these places and teach in the summer. That’s why I could go to Palau and Pohnpei and Kosrae.” His computer is full of files with names like Christmas Island, Midway, Belau (aka Palau), Fiji and Fanning. Each file contains trophy photographs, pictures of Peter and his friends with enormous fish. Often, the lure that was used to catch the fish still hangs from its mouth. Pili, Muli, Lolo: all lures made by Peter.
The Pili (which stands for Polynesian Island Lure Innovations) was Peter’s first lure and biggest commercial success. “I carved the first Pili out of a plug of wood when I was in Yap,” he says. “It had to be about 1980. I tried it out and it had really good action. It was so successful, I was scared to keep using it—afraid I’d lose it.” He brought the wood model back to Hawai‘i with plans to mold it in epoxy. And it’s the construction of the Pili that was novel: It was the first epoxy lure with a foam core. This made it heavy enough to cast, but still allowed it to float upright, mimicking baitfish. That wooden plug from Yap led to an innovation in the way people fish here in Hawai‘i.