Jody Bright: Most miles without a fish

Kona Catch Report Dec. 22 — “Sea Strike” reports that it is still waiting for a good one.

If you were to read the log books of Captain Cook, it would be fair to conclude that the world’s greatest explorer was one of the world’s worst fisherman. As in really bad.

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It is almost impossible to go fishing in the Pacific today and not travel in the wake of Captain Cook. He sailed through some of the richest marlin and tuna waters on the planet — but to his reader — he might as well have been traveling through the Dead Sea.

In the logs of his first voyage there is only one mention of catching a fish in the ocean. It was caught as he approached the Tuamotu Archipelago, near Tahiti. Tahitians called him Tute, pronouncing Cook as “Too-tay”

He called it a “kingfish.” Hmmm, really? Well, I mean, consider who his boss was.

Job security. That’s what ol’ Tooty was thinking there. Gotta be.

The Tuamotu’s are a vast collection of atolls in the South Pacific, peopled by Polynesians, some ancestors to Hawaiians. They traveled by canoe, lived on specks of land which supported tiny gardens, but relied mostly upon their ample stocks of fish for food. And Cook caught only one?

Cook continued west for 4,250 miles and it was not until he got stuck for a long period of time in Australia, fixing his boat at the Endeavor River, that he mentions fishing again.

“I sent a boat to haul the Sean, who return’d at noon, having made three hauls and caught only three fish; and yet we see them in plenty jumping about the harbour, but can find no method of catching them.”

Auwe.

In that same point on the time line of history, here in Hawaii, people fed koa to keep fish around, as others might feed chickens. They figured out how to read nuances of ocean current and how it influenced fish congregations relative to bottom structure. Then, they fed them sweet potatoes and other vegetables so the fish would figure out that it was easier to grab a feed by hanging around the koa, than go hunting elsewhere.

From opelu in the shallows, to the aku on the continental shelf, Hawaiians put it all together, caught what they wanted, traded the rest, but always left enough in the ocean to sustain the stock. When the big pelagics moved in, they knew what to do.

Cook crossed the entire Pacific Ocean and his logs detail wind, weather, astronomy, latitude and longitude, currents, sea birds and even more detail about the flora and fauna of the lands he found. He even goes into great detail about the diet, religion and sex life of the people he encountered, but he ignored fishing until he got to a freshwater river!

Maybe he was interested, but he just sucked at fishing. If that was me, it wouldn’t make my log either. Who’d want that record?

Hundreds of years before Cook arrived on the scene, Hawaiians had this all sorted out. From this foundation came many of the techniques employed in what is known as big game fishing, all around the world today.

And just as it was, long ago, much knowledge is still passed down today, generation to generation.

This past August a gathering of the clan fell together, as so often through time, around a wedding. A few of the captains who helped put Kona fishing on the map of world “hot spots” back in the 60s and 70s gathered with their sons and friends at a local watering hole, Jackie Rey’s.

Capt. Peter Hoogs came to Kona from Oahu, because of the fishing. Pete started skippering his sampan “Pamela” back in the days when all the boats had to hang on moorings in Kailua Bay. There was no Honokohau Harbor. Today, you park a boat in the harbor as you would a car at Walmart. Back then days were long and during storms you slept on your boat, with one hand hanging down. If your fingers got wet and it woke you up, you were sinking. Rise and shine!

Capt. Pete’s son Teddy is now the successful skipper of “Bwana” and he grew up in tandem with Robbie Brown, the groom in the room, also a fisherman extraordinaire. Robbie’s dad is Capt. Bobby Brown, known for many exploits on the Kona coast. Bobby still holds the standing world record for Pacific Blue Marlin — a colossal fish of 1,376 pounds — caught just about a mile off of Kaiwi point.

When asked if these two were competitive in the old days, Capt. Pete was quick to remark.

“Oh, I never looked at it like that,” he said. “You can’t focus on what someone else may be catching. It’s hard enough to catch your own fish.”

Bobby nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, except in tournaments. They are competitive,” Bobby said. “But on any given day we were all doing different things, and we were all friends, so it wasn’t a competition amongst us.” Bobby then started laughing, “Except for maybe Bart. The way Bart did things, he just made you want to out fish him.”

The “Bart” Bobby was speaking of was the notorious Capt. Bart Miller, skipper of “Black Bart.” Naming your boat after a glamorized, outlaw image of yourself could give a casual observer an insight into the type of guy you may be, and it did.

To say Bart was controversial would be like saying Dennis Rodman is well dressed. Maybe Bart was just ahead of his time, a fishing version of gangster rapper Ice-T. Regardless, one thing his controversy could never overshadow was his fishing ability. He did push himself, and his crews. As one story goes, Bart even pulled a pistol on an angler who wanted to quit on one particularly stubborn marlin.

Pete and Bobby have a leg up on Bart these days. They are still with us, whereas Bart is off fishing in another time and space now. There is a service and tribute for him and the impact he had on Kona fishing to be held Dec. 27 at the Hawaii Big Game Fishing Club. The gathering starts about 4 p.m.

The August lunch at Jackie Rey’s featured some other notable characters from the annals of Kona Fishing. Capt. Jeff Fay of “Humdinger” was there, as was Capt. Tioni Judd. These guys are all “classmates” from the same generation, spending time on the deck, learning from the true “old timers” before taking the wheel of their own rigs, learning the craft to the state of an artisan, before climbing the ladder. That’s how it was in those days, just like learning to read current and koa.

Arguably, these things appear of less interest today than peering into a high tech screen, but there are still young fishermen spending their time in the ranks.

Capt. Fran O’Brien is one who prefers the deck “rank” over that of skipper, and he’s not exactly young either. He was there. Fran has wired more marlin over 1,000 pounds than anyone else in Hawaii. Fran even jumped from “No Problem” to “Black Bart” to wire the 1,656 pounder. If you see Fran, ask him about that story. Not enough space here for that one!

Capt. Rob McGuckin was at Jackie’s. Rob has spent time working the deck for almost all of these old salts, and is now skipper of a “you beaut” game boat “Pair o Dice”. Rob also serves his country as Sergeant at Arms of the Hawaii Big Game Fishing Club.

Toby Hoogs and I got to sit with many of these legends and capture some of their insight into the old days on video. One of the long term goals of the Hawaii Big Game Fishing Club is to establish a museum. Getting their stories down will be good reference for generations to come. Back in their days – after fishing – all roads led to Huggo’s and nobody fought. Well, mostly.Rounding out the collection was Capt. Bob Tremaine. Until motors were introduced to watercraft, fishing was primarily for food. Every one of the skippers in attendance had spent time as a commercial fisherman before moving into the “sport fishing” world, which would overlap. Bob stayed in the commercial fishery most of his years.

In Hawaii there are two sorts of commercial fishing, small boat and big boat. The greater majority of small boats fish a blend of ancient and modern techniques with hand lines still being prominent and all techniques and gear employed create a sustainable fishery. The big boats fish with “long lines” and can be considered “industrial” grade fishers. The sustainability of large scale commercial long line fleets is highly debatable and subject to much propaganda, but the Hawaii fleet is the most regulated fleet in the Pacific.

Because small boat fishing for food and trade is still alive and well here, Hawaii has yet again had an impact far from the shores of our islands.

President Trump is well known to have a penchant to toss out Obama era legislation. Ironically, Trump signed on to an Obama law that helps Hawaii’s “little guys.” The Billfish Conservation Act ensures the viability and sustainability of Hawaii’s small boat fishers, and the small boat fishery. Obama signed it, but it had a technical flaw. Supporters had to return to D.C. and insert one word to truly represent the intent of congress. Trump signed the amendment.

Another irony is that most of the local small boat guys have never heard of this legislation. Why? Because it doesn’t change anything, it preserves their way of life. Think about it. If you were seeking support for a piece of legislation, how do you tell someone effected that successful passage of the bill will mean that they are unaffected?

On the mainland, the sale of marlin and sailfish is unlawful because stocks are at a fraction of what they were before “industrial scale” fishing began. Mainland conservationists discovered that the USA was one of the largest markets for imported billfish products and they wanted to shut that off. In their mind, Hawaii was just a state like any other, and thus catching and selling billfish must be treated the same as any other state — as unlawful.

Local folks involved in fishery management said, “Now hold the phone. Not so fast.”

They explained the centuries old custom of fishing for food and how even today, local folks fishing on small boats traded what they didn’t need. Small boats don’t have the capacity to wipe out fish stocks. Managers also explained that Big Island and Maui billfish were not exported to the mainland anyway. There are thousands of small boat fishers in Hawaii and only about 100 active long line boats, yet only the long line boats landing in Honolulu exported marlin. Because of their industrial capacity and the demand for marlin on the mainland and abroad, they were catching more and more, while small boat catches dwindled.

In the meantime, the sport boats fishing from Honokohau had all but stopped selling marlin anyway. The tournaments were running at 96 percent catch and release, doing their part for conservation and sustainability. The Maui charter boats reported that they too, only traded marlin on their island, and did not export and practiced tag and release. Kauai boats had similar results to contribute.

On top of that, the greater percentage of the sea food consumed in the islands is imported. Why should the industrial size fishers monopolize the catch of fish that belong to everyone, only to export it?

Of all the entities that supported a total shut down of the sale of billfish, Wild Oceans (wildoceans.org) was the first to understand the “local perspective.” Only with their support did local input persuade the mainlanders to not just shut everything down. Today, Hawaii small boat fishers can continue to catch and trade as they have for centuries.

This will insure that local people are getting local fish and fair prices, and not having to buy frozen, imported fish because the industrial fishers are exporting Hawaii fish to the mainland where they will pay higher prices. Fishing with “long lines” was never a type of fishing practiced by traditional fishers anyway.

What was going on was unfair. Now, fair is fair.

***

After group photos at the August lunch, everyone put their smart phone cameras away and were exchanging final laughs. As they made their way toward the door, Tioni Judd told everyone, “Hey, wait! I want some pictures too!”

He whipped out one of those old disposable cameras with, yikes, film in it! Everyone laughed at this relic, and some smart aleck with no sense of sympathy for the old timer (maybe Teddy Hoogs?) blurted out, “you can’t even get those things developed here anymore!”

Tioni laughed along, but ignored them. He was going to do what he has always done, just like those who are going to fish like they always have — and more power to them.

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Too much is changing too fast anyway. You can’t read a koa on a high tech screen and Tioni doesn’t take pictures on a smart phone. That’s OK.

And ya know … if Captain Cook had just one of those guys on board, his log book might have read more like a story in one of Jim Rizzutto’s columns than the Dead Sea Scrolls.