Game fishing is sometimes described as long periods of boredom punctuated by short moments of excitement or terror. While this quote originally referred to war, the idea of dragging lures around a vast blue ocean for hour after hour hoping to cross paths with the fish of a lifetime makes this an apt and often used analogy for game fishing. And when something does happen, like you hook a 200 pound marlin for instance, the saying starts to make a lot of sense …
This weekend I was lucky enough to be offered a seat on a small game boat owned by my colleague here on Oahu, Hawaii. Before this trip I was a game fishing virgin and I had always looked upon these boats with their oversized reels and super-short stiff rods with a certain bemused curiosity. Is it sports fishing or meat fishing? How much fun can be had with a broomstick handle attached to a winch? I guess I was about to find out …
My skipper for the day was ‘T-Bo’ and it was his boat, rods, knowledge and lures (some of which he made) that we would be using. We stopped at the petrol station and put over US$100 into the fuel tanks. Apparently game fishing is an expensive hobbie. We grabbed some food, snacks, ice and cold drinks and headed off to the harbor. We pushed in and were soon motoring out into the big blue.
T-Bo started putting lures out and explaining the pattern. Running five lures behind a boat without them tangling is obviously an art, but not something I had really given much thought to. Each lure is carefully positioned on consecutive waves behind the boat. More than this, each lure is carefully positioned on the face of its assigned wave, giving the fish the best angle of attack on the lure. I was learning fast.
The reports on social media were that the fish were biting in close. In a place like Hawaii where the water drops to obscene depths as soon as you pass the inner reef, ‘close’ can mean as little as 2-3 miles offshore. This is why game fishing out of kayaks is so popular here. We reached our first marker and there were birds mingling about looking expectant but our lures swam unmolested. In the distance we saw a much bigger flock of birds working the surface and trolled out towards them. As we got closer, the flock seemed to move further away. We chased and chased but couldn’t get a strike despite hundreds of birds and fish busting up. We saw a few of the fish and decided they were skipjack tuna (Aku) around 2-3kgs each. We downsized one of the skirted lures and I grabbed a small metal lure I had rigged up on a spinning rod and threw it out each time we got close enough to the melee. Eventually the small trolling lure went off.
I had the privilege of winding the fish in, but to be honest it felt more like winching than fishing. The fish came in easily, T-bo grabbed the leader and hauled it on board. We had a fish. It went into the esky and we kept on trolling.
Like a game of whack-a-mole, the school of tuna would go down, only to reappear from a different direction and location. The birds would take flight and try to score a feed of baitfish before the fish went down again. We trolled and occasionally I cast and we followed the birds and the fish further and further. Despite seeing fish around the boat we struggled to hook up. Eventually we did hook one more but the hook pulled as I lifted it on board. A little frustrated and fatigued from the endless chase we gave up on the Skipjack and started motoring back in. A quick look into the esky revealed that the tuna had coughed up a dozen tiny baitfish, no more than 3-4cms long. These were relatively small fish feeding on micro-sized bait and we were chasing something bigger. Also it was now 1pm and we were 15 miles offshore in 2000 metres of water!
The troll back was uneventful. We chatted and had a cold drink or two and kept an eye out for signs of fish. Every half an hour or so (I suspect he was making conversation or just trying to keep me involved) T-Bo would ask “how are those lures looking?”. I would look back and check to see if anything was tangled and that each lure was riding on the face of its wave. “All good” I’d reply. We did this a few times during the day.
Nearly back to the harbour T-Bo asked again, “how are those lures looking Gram?”. I casually swung around in my chair, I’d been distracted, processing the day’s events in my head. A big black fin surfaced behind the centre line. “Fin! Fin!” I yelled, “keep driving, keep driving! The fin disappeared and seconds later the right hand outrigger started screaming. Before I could even grab the reel handle a Marlin jumped perhaps 100 metres behind the boat. “Marlin!” we both yelled.
T-Bo cleared the other lines and provided the instructions. Despite 15 years of fishing, I’d never used gear like this, let alone fought a big fish on it. The rod remained in the rod holder during the fight, which only compounded the strange feelings while using this foreign gear. “Keep it tight, keep it tight” he said. When the fish pulled away we let it run. When it stopped running I wound as much line back as possible. I wasn’t holding the rod, and it only bent a few inches anyway, so it wasn’t always obvious (to me at least) how much pressure was on the line. If I couldn’t wind fast enough we would use the boat to drive forward and keep the line tight. After 10-15 minutes I happily swapped places with T-Bo. The fish was getting close and there was too much at stake to lose it to a rookie’s error.
Without the ability to use the rod as a lever to pump-and-wind, when the fish stayed down deep, an alternate technique was required. This involved grabbing the line above the reel with one hand, pulling in a foot and then winding that line onto the reel. T-Bo pulled and reeled, one foot at a time, as I drove and we made slow but steady progress. After another 10 minutes we had colour.
The plan had always been to keep any fish we caught, including a big one. Not for the glory of parading it around at the harbor, or to take a photo of it hanging dead from a set of scales. No any fish we caught would be eaten. My opportunity to come on the boat was because the regular deck-hand was preparing for a party for 300 people. On the end of the line we had enough fish to feed all of them but we still needed to bring it aboard. All 200 pounds of it, including that bill.
‘… punctuated by moments of excitement or terror’
We gaffed the fish, cleared the decks and hauled it on board. It’s only a small boat, so fortunately for us and our safety, the fish wasn’t too energetic at this point. Even so T-Bo jumped on top of it to immobilize it and held the bill tight. I found something hard and sharp and aimed for the brain, the Japanese technique of Iki-Jime. We’ve written about this before, and I continue to be sold on this practice. It’s quick and humane and limits the suffering of the fish. Even on a 200 pound fish, the effect was instantaneous. The fish went limp and the iridescent blue which had lit up the shoulders and tail faded.
Our relief was palpable. We exchanged high fives, fist bumps and shouted with excitement. Then we took turns to get a couple of photos with this most mighty fish. It was a team effort after all.
It’s hard to say whether T-Bo was more excited about landing the fish or by the fact that it had taken one of his hand-made lures. I’m sure fly fisherman and DIY lure makers can relate. Fooling a fish on one of your creations is supremely satisfying and adds to the sense of personal investment. The fish was too big to fit in the cooler so we piled ice bags on top of it and draped it in wet towels to keep it cool. Once we had the boat loaded back on the trailer and washed down we delivered it to the deck-hand for cleaning later that night, content that it was going to a good home.
On reflection, the whole experience was and still is very surreal. I think this is partly because I was a ‘passenger’ on this trip. It was my first time out and I had little invested emotionally or financially – at least compared to the outlay for the boat, rods and reels. I had only known about the trip for 24 hours so had barely enough time to get pumped up. I could imagine the same feeling might be true if you flew into a pristine location and went trout or bone fishing with a guide who put you straight on the fish. Sure it would be cool, and the photos amazing, but never quite the same as when you work up to that moment for days, months or even years by yourself. The other big factor in feeling somewhat disconnected from the fish was the rod. Not necessarily that it was as stiff as a broom handle, but that it was firmly secured into the rod holder. This meant there was no reason to hold it and I had no sense of the power of this huge fish. Physically and emotionally I wasn’t ‘connected’ to it. I’m sure the experience would be very different with a rod and harness, or using a heavy duty spin reel and if I were to go game fishing again, this would be my preference.
That said, witnessing one the ocean’s largest predators first hand and getting to see it, touch it and smell it (and hopefully eat it when a small steak is delivered to work this week) was a truly amazing experience. For this I am extremely grateful and it certainly made me forget those short few hours of trolling.