By Elliott Stark
Kona, Hawaii is a wonderful place. In terms of distance from a continental landmass, the Hawaiian archipelago is one of the most remote strings of islands in the world. Kona sits on the western edge of the Island of Hawaii—the Big Island. Its rocky coastline is the result of millions of years of volcanic deposits piling atop one another. The Hawaiian Islands are mountains that jut from the sea floor, covering thousands of feet beneath the waterline and thousands more above it. The mountainous interior of the Island of Hawaii creates a giant wind block, large enough to create a permanent lee and break apart hurricanes.
Thousands of miles from the nearest large river mouth and input of nutrients necessary for green or brown water, the waters that encircle Kona are bluer than blue. Not only is the water blue, so too are the majority of the marlin that transverse them. Many of the largest blue marlin ever tamed on rod and reel were Hawaiian-caught—most of them caught out of Kona. Grander blue marlin have been caught in every calendar month here.
The combination of calm waters, big and consistent blue marlin, remoteness, and Hawaiian hospitality has created one of the most unique and influential cultural traditions in sportfishing. Over the years, what has happened in Kona has touched the sportfishing world at large in many ways.
Captain Bart Miller, fishing aboard the Kona-based Black Bart, is credited by many with having the tuna tubes. Many of the lures you see dragged everywhere in the world were first designed in Hawaii—the tradition of master lure makers here is too great to mention. Kona is also on par with any place in the world when it comes to crews coming to accumulate knowledge. For many, the place is so enamoring that what was intended to be a stint working in the cockpit of a Hawaiian master soon becomes a longer-term job or the place they make their career.
There are many charming things about Kona. These charms relate to the fishing and the place generally. If you enjoy being offshore or have ever dreamed about catching a bruiser blue marlin, you should fish here. The following provides some context to this claim.
If This Dock Could Talk
One of the most charming things about Kona (even more so than the fact there are wild mongoose running all over the place!) are the people who fish here. The careers and catch statistics, which are measured chiefly in the number of granders hung, are second to none. The lineup of captains and boats fishing out of Kononkohau Harbor could just as easily be found in the pages of a Zane Grey or Ernest Hemingway novel. There are too many great captains and boats fishing there to list here.
Most anyone who has spent any time fishing here has seen his or her share of big fish. As the fishing community is close knit, there are plenty of firsthand accounts of Bobby Brown’s world record Pacific blue marlin or Choy’s 1,805-pound monster or the exploits of Capt. Bart Miller. Captains are as excited to speak of the big fish they’ve seen and lost as they are about the granders they’ve captured. You can ask the question, “Have you ever seen anything bigger than the biggest you’ve caught?” in plenty of places. But when a man who has hung multiple granders and seen plenty of others weighed gets the faraway look in his eyes while recalling a sea monster lost, it makes you sit up a bit straighter in your chair.
To put this in perspective, we asked Capt. Fran O’Brien this question. When Bart Miller hooked up to the fabled 1,656, he called O’Brien in to leader it. There might be someone in the world with more big fish credibility than Fran, but I’m just not sure who it would be. In response to the query about whether he had seen anything bigger than what he had caught, he recalled this story…
“You can’t ever really know for sure, but one time we had been fighting a fish for 14 hours. It was the middle of the night… she took a big run and came up jumping. You could hear the splashing,” O’Brien recalled. “I looked up at the captain and he said, ‘We’re ___ed.’” The fish would go on to break the line.
A PhD in Lure Fishing super
While it has been years since most places in the world succumbed to the dink ballyhoo revolution, Hawaiian captains still proudly pull plastic. In some of places where lures still appear, their selection is haphazard… the old, “Grab that one over there and throw a hook in it” type thing. In Kona, lure fishing is equal parts science and applied engineering with a healthy dose of aesthetic appeal mixed in.
The scientific approach to lure fishing makes sense. Many of the lures used around the world were designed here—some by captains still fishing out of Kona. Many captains still make their own pulling lures (producing a batch whenever they need some themselves—keeping some, selling a few others). If you were to ask around, you’d probably find that by percentage there are about as many “craft lure makers” among the charter fishing docks in Kona as there are craft beer makers in a neighborhood full of hipsters.
The hook sets and rigging procedures are equally dialed in. Where mates in other places might spend the ride out rigging dredge mullet or swimming ballyhoo, Kona mates will meticulously adjust hook sets to match the day’s conditions. “Hook up for slant heads, hook down for everything else.” In 2019 it is a unique proposition to set out for a day’s marlin fishing without a cooler full of dead baits.
The global domination of dink fishing has been accompanied by the prominence of smaller and smaller high-performance reels, fitted with strong drags and hundreds of yards of braid. Kona has largely been immune from this. Hawaii, along with perhaps Bermuda, the Great Barrier Reef and Nova Scotia, is one of the last strong holds of the 130. Whereas some boats fishing the Northeast or the Gulf or elsewhere pull out a couple 130s to look cool, the big guns are used here for a reason.
Big fish and deep water have spawned a saying that we heard more than a couple times, “They’re big reels but sometimes they are not big enough.” Captain Gene Vanderhoek runs the Sea Genie II, a charmingly appointed 39-foot Rybovich. Vanderhoek is credited with four grander blue marlin here— and he has released another. A more than capable conversationalist whose perspective is as wide-ranging as the stories he launches into, Vanderhoek provides context for the captains’ preference to use the big stuff.
“We had a father and son fishing with us. They wanted to catch a big tuna on 30-pound. We caught them one, and they wanted to put the 30 back out. There had been a good class of fish around—a grander had already been caught. I suggested that we stick to the 130s as a very special opportunity could present itself,” Vanderhoek begins. “We put out the 30 as a shotgun. A little while later, a grander came up and guess what it ate? It looked to be 1,100-pounds…I warned them.”
There is more than a bit of charm to watching lures bounce behind the boat, cockpit equipped with four hooked 130s. This type of charm emanates from the fact that, statistically speaking, a day fishing in Hawaii has a greater chance to produce the largest blue marlin you’ll ever catch than do most places. Any bite can be that bite. Most captains seem to prefer to remove chance from the equation, 130s spooled to the brim. While other places a captain’s success is measured in numbers of releases or grand slams, the king metric in Kona is number of granders brought to the scale.
A slow day of fishing in Kona is given solace by the fact that after catching a massive blue in the afternoon, nobody in the history of fishing has ever cared that the morning might have been a little slow. There is additional comfort in the fact that it is most always calm fishing out of Kona and that big fish have been caught in every calendar month. This same charm does not extend to places where sailfish bite best in 8’ seas and it’s 40-degrees outside. When you’re having a slow day of sailfishing— cold, wet and getting your teeth kicked in, there is generally no hope that thing that will break the cycle of monotony might weigh 900 pounds.
But the Flight is So Long?
This is perhaps the biggest objection to someone from the eastern or central time zones planning to fish Kona. There are a couple of approaches to resolving this dilemma. Sure, it’s a long trip and it takes a bit of time to adjust to jet lag. But you can take solace from the fact that if you are tired while fishing, you’re still trolling around for giant blue marlin in one of the most productive, historically and culturally influential destinations in sportfishing.
You can also think about it another way, considering two scenarios.
Scenario One—Four Days of East Coast Marlin Fishing: Say you live in a spot on the East Coast and plan to go marlin fishing for four days. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the ledge or canyon you are targeting is 75 miles from the dock and that you come and go from the dock each day (no overnighters). Let’s further assume that your boat cruises 25 knots and that there is no travel time between your house and the dock. Your total travel time for four days of fishing is 24 hours—three hours out and three hours back each day—six hours total per day, for four days.
Scenario Two—Four Days of Kona Marlin Fishing: Say you live in the same place on the east coast and decide that instead of marlin fishing out of your place, you decide to fish four days out of Kona. Assume that you decide not to cheap out on plane tickets and book a trip that includes one layover. You fly from
the east coast to LAX and then to Kona. Your total travel time each way is 12 and a half hours. Next you factor the run time out of Kona… the first day fishing with Gene Vanderhoek aboard the Sea Genie II, we nearly snagged the dock with our long rigger! (Not really, but you get the point…there is no run in Kona.)
For those keeping score, the total travel time, combining flights and runs to and from the fishing over four days, is within an hour or so of being equal. If you were so inclined, you could next factor the cost. The fuel tab on your four-day east coast endeavor would dwarf the charter bill for your Hawaiian marlin fishing expedition. The options for a day’s rate on a great boat out of Kona would set you back in the $1,000-$1,500 range, before tip. After all, costs are low when the fuel burn is minimized, and there’s no ballyhoo tab. A final benefit? You can get a much more awesome Hawaiian shirt in Kona than you can at your local marina store.
Beyond the draw of big blue marlin, Kona sits squarely on the list of most people who are serious about the Royal Slam. It’s perhaps the best place in the world to tick off the spearfish (the species that might be the most common bottleneck in the quest). The tuna bite here can be good too and certain times of year there is a great wahoo bite. So now that you’re thinking about booking your ticket, when should you come?
Captain Gene Vanderhoek provides a breakdown of Kona’s fishing seasons. “Up until about five or ten years ago, we had good winter runs of small stripies and spearfish. Now it seems that the blue marlin fishing is good year round—it has been the past two years. The best times to come for blue marlin would be June through September. The best days are dictated by the tides and the moon—Kona has always been a dark of the moon type of place. That said, this year there was a grander caught on the full moon—so who knows? There are blue marlin, tuna… everything. Lots of spearfish in June and July,” the Kona veteran describes.
“In the spring, April and May, there are lots of wahoo around. The Sea Genie’s boat record is 28 in five and half hours. The spearfish are best in May, June and July. The big tuna show up in late May and June, through August. We typically catch them on jets and lures… 200 is a big one here.”