By Elliott Stark
For much of the past six decades, Captain Kerwin Masunaga has been mugging fish of all kinds around Kona, Hawaii. While others care for limelight and accolades, Kerwin is concerned with catching fish and enjoying time on the water with his friends and family.
While Kerwin’s dedication to his craft is evident in his tournament accolades and catch log, if anyone were to mention the depth of his perspective and skill it would certainly not be him. Kerwin cares so little about recognition, in fact, that after winning back to back InTheBite Captain of the Year Awards in 2015 and 2016, our Hawaii correspondent practically had to hide in the parking lot and surprise him in order to get a picture for the magazine.
Kerwin grew up in Kona on his family’s coffee farm. After getting all of their work done, his father would take the family to the beach on the weekends. While his brothers and sisters would swim, Kerwin would fish.
After a tour in the Army, Kerwin came back to Kona with the idea of relaxing for a bit. On a trip to the outboard shop, the owner convinced him to take a job. He worked there for a while fixing motors and fishing on the weekends. Masunaga worked at the parts store long enough to purchase a boat, motor and trailer.
It was an 18’ skiff. Before long, he was fishing more and more, but people kept calling him to fix their motors on the weekends. In 1975, he took the plunge and started commercial fishing full time. “I’m still fishing now,” he says.
At the beginning, Masunaga bottom fished quite a bit targeting deep-water snapper on the Grounds out of Kona in 700-1,000’. “When we first started, it was all trial and error. There was no GPS, no depth recorder,” Masunaga recalls with a laugh. To find the ledges and bottom structure, they would tie a rock to a string and drop it to the bottom to measure the depth. Everything was handline.
“We’d drop down here, there…too deep, not deep enough. It was all trial and error. We would keep track of where we were by landmark positioning. Reading the currents was important—everything was by hand. Now, if you look at the landmarks, it’s all changed. Good thing for GPS!”
Captain Shane O’Brien began fishing with Kerwin when he was 13—they still fish together every chance they get. “He was this kid that was always at the harbor. One day we invited him fishing and found out he liked fishing, too. At first, he was a real jumpy guy…he would run to the rod anytime a line got knocked down. We’ve kinda calmed him down,” Kerwin says with a laugh. O’Brien has quite a bit to say about Kerwin.
“He bought a 19’ Glass Pro skiff and really excelled. Kerwin would fish dark to dark every day—all tuna fishing. He also did quite a bit of night fishing. His best night was 12 tuna all over 200-pounds. To let you know how well the boat was rigged for commercial fishing, all the tuna fit into boxes—nothing on the deck,” O’Brien describes. “He made his name there. Later he bought a 34’ Raddon, a big commercial boat for here.”
The Raddon’s name is Holly Ann…you can find it on the list of boats to have won the Blue Marlin World Cup.
“Kerwin was one of the first guys in Hawaii, certainly in the United States, to have a greenstick. He bought his off the greenstick’s inventor (who visited Hawaii from Japan trying to sell them) in the 80s. He killed it,” O’Brien says. “The greenstick was all on handline. He had a 1,000 pound mainline the baits would pop off straight to rope. If you had two or three on at the same time, you’d really have your hands full.”
“Kerwin would tuna fish quite a bit and bottom fish in the wintertime. He would marlin fish when everything else was slow. He fished five days a week, no matter what. He caught 500-700 pounders regularly,” says O’Brien. “He caught a grander solo on the Holly Ann. It went 1,140 and he fought it for seven hours. It died and he had to plane it up. He would run forward, then throw it in reverse to gain line. He had to run back from the throttles to crank. Teddy Hoogs came on board and helped him with the last 50 yards or so.”
“He’s been a staple of the commercial fishing community for a long time. He’s really good—you don’t want to live bait against him… he’ll hurt your feelings,” O’Brien, who at 30 has won his share of tournaments around the world, describes. “Kerwin has been involved in sportfishing for much of his life too. He crewed for John Llanes and Peter Hoogs.”
In 2008, Kerwin’s took a job running a 35’ Cabo, the Rod Bender. To illustrate Kerwin’s humility, here is his version of the story. “In 2008, my friend Carlton Arai invited me to Mexico, the owner was looking for one more guy.” He went on to describe how he met a guy that wanted to buy a boat, which turned into a job running the Cabo.
Here is Shane O’Brien’s version of the same story. “Kerwin went to Mexico in 2008. He ran the boat Karma. They fished the Bisbee’s and won the Los Cabos tournament. They won $559,000, which I think is still the record for the largest amount won.”
Masunaga has created quite a legacy as a sportfishing captain. “For many years, he was the most consistent captain in Kona. He was always placing, a consistent money winner,” O’Brien says.
In addition to winning the 2000 World Cup with a 633 aboard his commercial boat, Masunaga placed second after a last-minute fish by Capt. Bobby Brown edged him in 1990. He also caught a grander (1,043) to win the 2013 Marlin Magic Lure Tournament. Kerwin’s son Brent runs his cockpit. His daughter Heather is a frequent angler with her father.
Much of his tournament success results from his mastery of the live bait. To hear Kerwin describe it, “I live bait a lot during tournaments…or I could troll around and waste all this gas. I started live baiting to catch tuna. Marlin would bite in between the tuna…but it can be a long time between marlin bites, you know,” he says with a laugh. “I started using down riggers before people used them.”
When asked about the secret to successful live baiting, Masunaga is circumspect. “It’s a current thing. You’ve got to know what the current is doing. I used to live bait the ledges, then the buoys came.”
When asked the secret to Masunaga’s success, O’Brien puts it like this. “He can catch anything, he really understands the ocean. He reads structure and currents better than anyone I know. He also takes fishing super serious,” Shane relates. “He has something you can’t teach. His attention to the environment and what’s happening around him… What he sees is more than what you or I see.”
Having fished his whole life in Kona, Masunaga certainly has seen his share. “I was fighting an ahi (yellowfin tuna) one day, my sister-in-law was onboard. The fish was coming up and going down again. I thought, ‘What is the matter with this fish.’ Finally, I got it on the leader—it was about 150-pounds.
When I got it on the deck, I looked down and saw what I thought was a bunch of porpoises coming toward me. It was so big, I didn’t think it could be one fish. It was a giant fish coming straight (head toward the boat from the depths). It had huge eyes.” It was not a group of dolphins, but a single, gigantic blue marlin.
“I saw the 1805 (Choy’s monster)—big belly, big old eyeballs. Its shape, this fish looked like that one. Huge belly. The fish swam around the boat, its eye moving around looking at me. ‘What did you do with my dinner?’ it said,” Kerwin laughs. “It looked like the 1805 type…but who knows. It was over 1,500 any way. Huge…big belly.”
Do you have any comments or questions for us? We’d love to hear from you.