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, 358� 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.