HOT ON THE TRAIL OF BIG MAMA

A gathering of young and old gaffers searched the seas off Hawaii for the wife of the world's biggest marlin. She got away, naturally, but the fishermen hooked a record catch along the way
August 16, 1970

At first glance, a marlin-fishing tournament would appear to be about as exciting a spectator sport as the nose-wrestling championship. Like, what is there to see? Most of the action takes place over the horizon. Most of the fight, on the fishes' part, occurs about three football fields straight down. Though teamwork is important it is not of the slam-bang, Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance variety, but rather of the school that says, "Yeah, Fred, gimme a little sip of ice water and then pour the rest on the reel cause the drag is getting damned hot." Even when the day's catch is weighed at the dock—the closest thing to a grand moment that the sport can provide—there is a faint odor of supermarket about the whole business. The fish has long since lost its color and appears about as dramatic as a used truck tire. "There it is, folks, a Pacific blue marlin, 358½ pounds of blazing oceanic fury." In terms of socio-economic reality, that translates into a two-year supply of fishcakes.

But wait a minute. For all of that de-glamorization, the 12th annual Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament (H.I.B.T. to its friends), which free-spooled to a finish last week on the stone wharf of Kailua-Kona, provided all the ingredients of a classical sporting event. There was a down-to-the-wire finish in which four teams could have taken, well, the fishcake. A crowd of nearly 1,000 aloha-shirted fans waited anxiously under a sickle moon until 9 o'clock on the last evening to see who had won. It was a big guys vs. little guys confrontation in which the little guys won (finally), and a simultaneous Hometown vs. Outlanders battle that ultimately went to the furriners (drat).

Oddly enough, the winning team included both little guys and furriners. Victory went to Jim Conway's crew from Portland, Ore., who fished from a 19-foot "mosquito boat," using the lightest line permissible in the tournament—50-pound test—and employing a strategy of tough fighting that proved superior to the tactics of the local Hawaiian teams which placed second, third and fourth. Conway, a sporting goods dealer who has his own hunting and fishing television show in Portland, took advantage of a tournament rule that gives double the poundage points for fish taken on 50-pound line.

All week long, fishing from an unstable platform and catching their own live bait (mainly small bonito), Conway's team consistently piled up marlin in a manner that more experienced tournament fishermen said could not work. On the final evening, just half an hour before the tournament's end, the Oregonians hooked up their last fish—a 158-pounder—and fought it well into the dark. Not a truly large fish, it nonetheless gave them a total of 1,355 points, nearly 100 more than the second-place Anaehoomalu Bay Trolling Club, the third-place Kona Mauka Trailers, and the fourth-place contenders from the Honolulu-based Ala Moana Sportsman's Club (which had won the first two H.I.B.T.s). Conway's untiring wife, Pat, helped considerably by nailing a 146-pound marlin at midweek, fighting the fish upright and without the aid of a shoulder harness.

But even before the first hook-up, a heady mood of anticipation ran through Kailua like the omnipresent mongoose. A few weeks earlier, practically on the eve of the tournament, a Honolulu charter captain had boated a 1,805-pound marlin—not just the largest billfish ever caught in waters around Hawaii, but the largest taken anywhere on rod and reel. It exceeded the existing world record of 1,560 pounds by the weight of a better-than-average marlin.

But the big fish was not and never will be a record. Cornelius Choy, the skipper, is not a record hunter. A canny, cost-conscious, commercial pro, Choy prefers to keep his tackle intact, and will not let his customers set the hook when a strike occurs (thus obviating International Game Fish Association recognition). It also means that he loses less leader and expensive lures and gear than other captains. But even if Choy had let his party handle the whole fight themselves, it is doubtful that the fish could have been landed. The anglers were three California car salesmen and their wives who, among them, had caught just one fish previously—a trout about the size of the truite meuni√®re at Chez Pierre.

Sharing pump time on the rod, and with Choy backing down furiously, the trio brought the fish to gaff in 45 minutes—a blink of the eye compared to the half-day battles that it has sometimes taken to boat earlier billfish records. Was it a plastic marlin, a blowup billfish planted for publicity? No, sir. The reason that the fight was so short was that the big marlin had a 150-pound Allison's tuna in its throat when it hit Choy's Kona-head lure. Ethically, at least, the fish died of greed, but Choy's friends, and even his competitive enemies, agree that it probably died of suffocation as it tried to regurgitate the tuna which blocked its gill intakes. All Choy had to do was back down on the fish and let his clients crank the reel handle. Even at that, Choy handlined the fish into the gaff at the end, a maneuver which disqualified him even further for any possible record.

Nonetheless, the simple fact that a short ton of marlin had been caught in Hawaiian waters was enough to set all of H.I.B.T.'s contestants on edge. Even the bearded, beaded longhairs who have lately infested the Kona coast were talking about Big Boy. "Man," said one of them with a wide-eyed flop of his locks, "they musta spiked that tuna with acid before they stuffed it down the marlin's throat. Why else would he have copped out so quick?" In bars and boites from Waimea to Captain Cook, late-drinking billfishermen raised rummy toasts to Big Boy and promised to search out and hook up with his Big Mama—female marlin being considerably larger than the males.

No one did, of course. The largest fish of the tournament tipped the scales at 538 pounds, which was 271 short of the H.I.B.T. record set by Jim Kimberly of West Palm Beach in 1966. Still, the overall catch of 95 marlin (plus 14 Allison's tuna, maximum weight 204 pounds) broke a tournament record. The previous high was 63 fish in 1967. So if marlin are the stuff that dreams and fishcakes are made of, plenty of mini-dreams came true.

Take the case of Team 69. Its captain, Bob Rodgers, 47, is a hard-drinking Honolulu machinist, the grandson of a Portuguese whaler and the owner of a minuscule 25-foot Bertram inboard-outboard called Osprey. The boat barely made it through the high seas that separate Oahu from the Kona coast over 190 battering miles. Bob's wife, Dottie, also 47, is an ebullient, amber-eyed swinger with a weakness for dogs (two toy Pomeranians and a mammoth Dane-German shepherd mix named Alii Akai-ka, or Strong Chieftain) and 8 a.m. cocktails. The Rodgers' crew consisted of one strong-armed young man, Dave Gittins, who had worked on many a charter boat but had never caught a marlin in his life. None of the H.I.B.T. regulars thought much of Team 69—they drank too much, laughed too much, and, what the hell, nobody even knew them.

On the first day of the tournament, when 72 other team boats surged past the Coast Guard cutter Cape Small under the arc of a red flare, Osprey was still tied to the wharf. Later that day, Team 69 failed to hook up or boat a fish. Tournament rules require each team to report its strikes, hookups and fish three times a day, but all Bob Rodgers could report was "puka, puka, puka" which, in Hawaiian pidgin, means zip, zip, zip. That night it rained hard, but Team 69 was too zonked out with the beer and the bouncing waves to notice.

Next morning, when the red flare dropped, Team 69 was ready. "I'm going to try Zone Lima" said Rodgers, "because my grandfather's name was Lima. What the hell, there's fish—big billfish—everywhere along here. Trolling these Kona-head lures, you got as good a chance of hooking up a big one as anyone else. With live bait, or just skipping a dead bait, you might get the smaller marlin, but then again you might get a shark, or both." Half a dozen beers later, Rodgers abandoned Zone Lima (an outside reach of purple water south of Kailua) and headed for Zone Uniform I, an area marked by broad, black lava flows from a local 1963 volcanic eruption. Radio reports indicated a dozen strikes in Uniform I. "By-by Gramps," said Rodgers. "We gotta go where the action is." And it was. Shortly before 3 p.m., the port reel—a 16/0 Penn Senator named Ernie—went zizzzzzzz. Then it went zizzinnnngggg. Gittins piled onto the rod just as the marlin made its first bill-waving jump. Dottie, who was at the wheel, slammed the engine all ahead flank and whooped like a Comanche. Rodgers cranked in the four other lines, simultaneously it seemed. "Keep your cool, keep your cool!" he bellowed, more to himself than anyone else. "Somebody soak a paper towel for Dave's head when he gets sweaty; somebody get the flying gaff. Somebody get me a beer. No, let's wait on that."

Fifteen minutes later the marlin was aboard—a short but broad-shouldered 185-pound fish that died in living color with the gaff through its eye socket. The tip of its bill broke off when Rodgers and Gittins wedged it into the narrow-beamed well-deck. "Oh, phoo," yelled Dottie, "that'll disqualify us." "No it won't," said Rodgers. He was shaking with excitement, his ruddy eyeballs filling with tears. "It can't and it won't." Then he vomited over the side. A short time later, Dottie went topless. Gittins watched and smiled. "Wow," he said. "My first marlin."

Though the mini-dream of Team 69 came true, the maxi-dream of one Peter Goadby did not. In fact it became something of a nightmare. Peter Goadby, 41, is a tall, strong, gray, and very human Australian, a total fisherman who once held the world record on tiger shark (360 pounds, "but that was back in the days of linen lines"). He is one of the few anglers—only 60 have ever turned the trick—to boat a marlin of more than 1,000 pounds. In 1968, he took a 1,137-pound black marlin on the Great Barrier Reef, the smaller of a pair which had followed up his lures. Ostensibly a sales manager for Union Carbide's ocean systems division, Goadby actually is Super Angler. If anyone really could have caught Choy's 1,805-pounder, it should have been Peter Goadby.

No fisherman in the tournament was better prepared than Goadby. His faded plaid fishing shirt was leached to just the right degree of pallidity; his sunglasses and cap were tied down with just the right lengths of 30-pound monofilament. His hand-built lures—polished with Macleans toothpaste to a high, clear gloss—covered all the stops in the spectrum of marlin-enticing colors. His vessel. the Kaihuloa, a 36-footer out of the Maalaea Boat & Fishing Club of Maui, was piloted by none other than Charles M. Cooke III, that crew-cut, kindly, eminently fishwise old salt who for years held the world's bonefish record and who helped to develop the Kona coast into one of the world's hottest big-marlin grounds. If anyone was set to catch Big Mama, it had to be Goadby.

But by the last day of the tournament, Peter had caught one mahimahi and his team had lost five marlin. As he trolled his big Kona-heads past the lava flows—"Use big hooks for big fish"—Goadby turned philosophical. "There's a sign down in Panama that reads, 'Eternal vigilance is the price of marlin.' You have to be ready, you have to concentrate all the time. Nobody knows the exact moment when the big fish is going to come, in a tournament or wherever. That's the luck part, but afterwards one must be ready."

There were two strikes during the day, but neither hooked up. "On the first day," Peter mused after one of the failures, "I had a 200-pounder right up to the boat. Just as it was dying, belly up, it slipped the hook and sank. Nothing we could do but watch. It's been that kind of a week."

An hour before the tournament's end, Charlie Cooke spotted a school of Aku—oceanic bonito—working a school of bait just outboard of the Kona Hilton. "Let's get some live bait," said Peter. Only three quarters of an hour of competition remained as Goadby coolly hooked up the 10-pound Aku and began skipping it for his honor-saving marlin.

The minutes ticked past like seconds, and the sky grew darker under the umbrella of clouds that builds up over the high island in the afternoon. Goadby's pale fingers played on the heavy monofilament like a man fingering a subtle guitar. "Billfishermen! billfishermen! billfishermen! One minute till stop fishing," came the radio voice of Longnose, the tournament moderator. Goadby sat in dead silence, his fingers the only moving thing about him. Then Longnose said: "Stop fishing." Peter did.

"Well," he said as he unhooked the now-dead Aku, "I've had my luck. I've caught a 1,000-pound marlin and some people have fished all their lives with that end in mind, and never caught one. Others have fished only once or twice and caught the fish I still dream about. They think it's an easy game, I suppose."

And there it was: The stuff that dreams and fishcakes are made of.

PHOTOIt wasn't a record, but Pat Conway's marlin helped her and her husband (at right) to win. PHOTOOne marlin won't win a meet, but it stirred up billfishermen Dave Gittins and Bob Rodgers. PHOTOThis was Big Boy, 1,805 pounds of non-record fish that spurred on the Hawaiian tournament.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)