On the afternoon of the third day of the five-day Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, we left Kailua Harbor on the Kona coast of Hawaii aboard Kenny Brown's Dorado. We were seven: Brown, a Honolulu architect and a nephew of the celebrated Hawaiian golfer, Francis Brown; Joan, his wife; their daughters, Laura, 12. and Francis, 9; mate Tatsuo Nagasawa; Duke Kahanamoku, the venerated Olympic swimming champion who is as much a tourist attraction of Honolulu as Old Faithful is of Yellowstone; and myself. Brown's team, the Kawaihae Fishing Club, was at that point leading the tournament, Kenny having boated a 596-pound Pacific blue marlin the previous afternoon.
A man of extensive kindness and character, Brown is something of an anomaly among tournament fishermen. Early each afternoon he would crank in his lines, leave the fishing grounds—which, pleasurably, begin directly outside Kailua's deepwater harbor—and pick up Joan and the kids at the dock. It was, simply, a value judgment as to which was more worthwhile: to gain perhaps an hour's fishing or to give his daughters a boat ride.
Brown's I would call the reasonable approach, but it had nothing in common with the cavalier attitude of some competitors. As a member of one of the Denver teams confided one night: "It was a good day's fishing—lots of booze and gin rummy and no strikes."
The tournament, which took place last month, is called international because three of the 77 teams—Mexico, New Zealand and Peru—represented foreign countries. It is called billfish because a vast catalog of fish, all of which have long funny noses, are eligible catches. Except for two striped marlin, however, which weighed 42 and 43 pounds, only Pacific blue marlin were taken.
The Dorado, with its twin Chryslers putting out 400 hp, was the fastest boat in an improbable fishing fleet that ranged from 16-foot skiffs to 40-foot sampans to 63-foot converted Navy AVRs. We cleared Kailua at 34 mph, throttled down to trolling speed and almost immediately hooked into a marlin. There is, perhaps, no sound as sweet to a fisherman's ears as the harsh, urgent music of line stripping off a big reel. This fish, which we didn't see breach, was on for some five minutes, taking out almost all the line; then it was off. When Brown disconsolately reeled in, we found that its tail or bill had broken the 575-pound-test cable leader.
A man of strength
Another strike came shortly afterward as we ran south toward the dark fingers of the 1950 lava flows and the beach where Captain Cook was slain. This time Brown told Duke to take the rod from the holder. Duke has caught few big fish. As he said, wistfully, he always winds up driving the boat. He is still, at 71, a man of strength, and the muscles in his big arms were swelling, for, unaccustomed to fighting a fish, he used his arms rather than his back. He-brought the marlin in at a commendable rate until the rubber band that had attached the line to the outrigger approached the rod tip. Then, as they say, the marlin must have seen the name of the boat, for he made a long, violent run, undoing Duke's work, and began to jump. There is, too, perhaps no sight as thrilling to a fisherman's eyes as a big blue marlin jumping clear of the broad and barren surface of the ocean.
Duke sat in the chair, his dark, honorable and independent face intransigent. He was silent, too. Only the sweat working down his cheeks from his old white hair and along his large, fleshy nose told of the quiet ceremony of the battle. Eventually he tired, and we told him to rest: Duke has had two heart attacks in recent years. When he resumed fighting, the marlin sounded and Duke lost more line than he was able to retrieve. We told him to tighten up on the drag, and perhaps he put on too much. For the radically bending rod broke suddenly with a sharp report and Duke was left, bewildered, with a ludicrous stump and a reel in his large hands. The fish, which Duke had fought for 45 minutes, was automatically disqualified under the tournament regulations.
The line had not broken when the rod did, and we were determined to save the fish. (Marlin was selling for 20¢ a pound on the pier.) Tatsuo, a little brown sparrow of a man, and I grabbed the line, lifted it clear of the boat and kept up the pressure while we put on gloves. Then followed the long work of hand-lining him (everything in Hawaiian pidgin is "him") up. The marlin was still green, and every once in a while he would put on the brakes or head for the bottom. At those times Tatsuo and I couldn't heave too hard, for we didn't know how well the hooks were set. Finally he came to the surface and as I held the leader Tatsuo put the flying gaff in him and lashed him to the stern by the tail and the base of the bill.
The Duke's trophy
"Strange things happen," said the Duke, dazed and worn in the fighting chair. He draped the broken rod about his neck. "That's a new kind of lei," he said. "If you can't break the record, break the rod."
And, proud and regretful, we towed the fish to Kailua, beak riding absurdly on a pillow, throat gravely throbbing,-great blue ball of an eye wildly regarding the sun. The Duke said he would remember the marlin for the rest of his life. He spoke with gravity, as though the fish were a going-away present.
When he was hoisted' on the beam scale, Duke's marlin weighed 441 pounds. He would easily have won the tournament for Kenny Brown. As it was, Kawaihae finished second with its 596-pounder, getting an additional 100 points for biggest fish of the day and 100 more for biggest of the tournament. The eventual winner was the Balboa (Calif.) Angling Club team No. 1 (Elmer Hehr, Betty Tucker and Joe Koons). Fishing from various charter boats, they caught a 147-and a 443-pound marlin on 130-pound test and a 192-pounder on 80 test, the latter carrying a bonus of 30%.
Balboa No. 1 also boated two ahi (Allison, or yellowfin, tuna), which were entered in a separate competition. The largest ahi of the tournament weighed 241 pounds (the all-tackle record is 266½ pounds) and was boated by Thomas Waldon Jr. of the Pearl Harbor Naval Station.
It was a successful, easy-going and well-run tournament. Forty-one marlin were taken and none was smaller than 42 pounds; 10 were more than 200 pounds and five more than 300.
Perhaps the most notable catch of all was made by Jeanne Martin, an exceedingly pretty young lady who has been fishing seriously for only a year, or since she married a fisherman. Jeanne got herself a 221-pound marlin on 50-pound test line, which is 13½ pounds shy of the Pacific blue world record for both men and women.
"It's a ridiculous sport, but I adore it," Jeanne said. It is. It reminds me, in its curious mixture of boredom and kicks, of when I was a kid and the worst baseball player in the northeastern U.S. I was, therefore, banished to right field, where the fewest balls are hit and the grass is never mowed; in this Siberia for the unfittest they at least give you some hay to chew on. I would stand out there, remote, restless and brooding, until a fly ball would miraculously descend like a falling star and I would be charged with excitement and then horrified that I might drop it. So it is with marlin fishing: for the 41 fish boated there were 254 strikes, 155 hook-ups—and a lot of long boat rides in the desolate reaches of right field.