Story by David Thompson
Photos by Brad Goda
It’s the second night of the Hilo Casting Club’s annual ulua tournament, and a dozen fishing poles lean from the shore out toward the sea, unmoving. Robert Texeira tends to one of them while nearby his buddy Fredo Desha starts to explain slide-baiting to me.
We are at Smoking Rock, a remote fishing spot on the Big Island’s southwest shore, where the island abruptly ends and the blue water begins: The sea floor here plummets to 2,400 feet less than a mile off the cliffs. Big Island fishermen invented slide-baiting for spots just like this, where you can cast a line straight into a hundred feet of water. They invented it to catch ulua, the biggest, baddest game fish a shore-caster can land.
The technique works like so: Sink a fishing line to the bottom, then send a giant piece of bait—an octopus leg, half an eel, whatever—sliding down the line. The bait stops a few feet short of the bottom, out of reach of the eels that would otherwise devour it before an ulua could even get a whiff.
If an ulua does get a whiff, and if it takes the bait, it’ll head for the horizon like a freight train. It’ll weave among coral heads or dive over ledges, all to slice the line. As it flees, the pole holding that line will flex and bend and clang its bell.
Desha is demonstrating that flex and bend by curling and straightening his index finger when a clang rings out, and the tip of Texeira’s pole starts to flex and bend. With his finger still in the air, Desha glances at the pole. “Just like that,” he says. “See?”
A moment passes.
“Whoa!” he cries. “Strike!”
Slide-baiting talk has just been pre-empted by slide-baiting action.
Texeira, who seems to operate with a perpetually bemused sense of calm, doesn’t say a word as he slips the stout ulua pole out of its holder and assumes his fish-fighting stance. Desha, the more excitable and talkative of the two, moves in beside Texeira, ready to do the over-under dance with the other poles to keep the lines from tangling as the battle progresses.
Me? I just stand there dumbfounded. I’d come to see these guys fish, but I hadn’t really expected to see them catch anything, because catching an ulua is a big deal. Experienced guys can fish for days or weeks and come up empty-handed. Some guys try for years and never catch one. To get to Smoking Rock I had crawled over a forbidding landscape of ‘a‘a lava in a jacked-up four-by-four, hiked on dark rocks out to a little point jutting into the sea and then dashed across a sagging footbridge between swells. I hadn’t even been standing there long enough for Fredo to explain what happens after the pole starts to flex and bend. Yet suddenly it’s hana pa‘a? Fish on?
This couldn’t be happening.
Except … this is Robert Texeira we’re talking about.