After Listening to Endless Fish Stories, I Come Back With Tall Tales of My Own.
“I’m never doing this again,” is my first coherent thought when the alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning. But I’m determined to go fishing at least once to find out what all the fuss is about. (If you haven’t heard any fuss, you don’t know any sport fishers.) So I drag myself out of bed, into shorts and a t-shirt and, after a pit stop at the coffee machine, to the car.
My husband, Mark, and I meet our friends Paul and Rob at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, where we plan to launch Paul’s boat, Famous Grouse, into Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay. We hit the water just in time to watch the last traces of night disappear, pushed off stage by the warm and mesmerizing glow of rising sunshine, which mirrors itself on the water. Grudgingly, I chalk one up for fishing.
I wonder how we’ll fill the next six to eight hours, and soon find out. When fish aren’t actively being caught (about 90 percent of the time), crew members on a recreational fishing expedition have one of two jobs: If you’re not seasick, you look for signs of fish; if you are, you try to avoid being literal about it (believe me, this effort can require all your attention).
One clue that there may be fish about: objects in the water, including lost buoys and other floating debris. Apparently, fish find the ocean so vast and featureless that any break in the monotony of endless water attracts their attention (and that’s the scientific explanation), creating fish congregations. Hallelujah.
However, the most reliable sign of fish is a bird pile – birds circling an area and making periodic splash-and-grab attempts. For a short while, we chase some red-footed boobies (sea birds common on the windward side of Oahu), who in turn seem to think we know where the fish are and start chasing us.
Since the boobies aren’t being helpful, we head out toward a buoy named “LL”, which is a Fish Aggregation Device (FAD), located 17 miles from the MCBH harbor. FADs leverage the principal that fish are attracted to objects floating in the water, and are used by both recreational and commercial fishers.
Tethered to the ocean floor some 7,000 feet below us, LL and its anchoring system (100 feet of chain followed by lots of nylon rope anchored to the ocean floor by more chain attached to cement blocks) serve as a gathering place for small fish. These, in turn, attract the larger near-surface dwellers we like to eat – marlin, mahi-mahi, ono and tuna – which swim in various elliptical patterns around the buoys.
Does it work? Tension builds as we approach the buoy. Our first pass brings a shout of “hana pa’a!” from Paul. This Hawaiian word means we have a strike! At this point I should mention that Paul can set a pretty attractive “spread” for his targets. While trolling, he typically has six lines on rods sitting in holders attached to the boat. These are baited with either rigged bait or manufactured lures designed to look like squid or flying fish. I should also mention that we’re lucky today – no other fishing boats are in sight, so we have the FAD to ourselves.
Captain Paul assigns me to an active rod and I reel in my first fish, a beautiful shimmering blue, green and yellow mahi-mahi. The fish isn’t the only one who’s hooked – the thrill of victory leads me to chalk another one up for fishing. Next, Paul gives me a hand-held rod he has readied with bait fish. I feel anxious that, since I’m even greener than the mahi-mahi, I’ll accidentally tangle this line in the others that are so neatly spread across the back of the boat. I don’t have much time to worry because within minutes Paul is shouting about mahi and telling me to reel in. With some pretty serious effort and a t-bar that lets me brace the pole against my thigh, I manage it and we welcome another fish aboard.
“Relaxed, content and enjoying the twin opiates of sunshine and endless horizon, most of us stop looking for signs of fish.”
In four passes over LL we hook six mahi-mahi, but two get away. Then we wander around for a few hours searching for birds and floating rubbish. Finding nothing promising, we head back to “LL” and make several passes, but catch nothing. After seven hours at sea, we start to make our way back to the harbor.
Relaxed, content and enjoying the twin opiates of sunshine and endless horizon, most of us stop looking for signs of fish. According to conventional wisdom on the Famous Grouse, any day on the water is a 100-percent day. If you catch fish, that’s a bonus. The simplicity and truth of this philosophy resonates with me, so I stop counting chalked up points for fishing. (If you want to know what the others are, you’ll have to go fishing yourself.)
Into the quiet of our already beyond-perfect day, the ever-alert Paul suddenly yells, “hana pa’a – mahi!” from his perch on the cabin roof. We’ve hooked one, and someone reels it in. Feeling like we just got an unexpected bonus, we smile and kick back again. But not for long. Now Paul is shouting “hana pa’a MARLIN!!” and urging us all to action. Game on, with what turned out to be a 136-pound fish. Or, in the spirit of the Tall Tale, at least 170 pounds.
With the fish fighting, my husband working the rod, and Rob expertly driving the boat, Paul asks me: “Are we releasing him or taking him to market?” To which I decisively respond: “We’re bringing him in.”
After witnessing the violence of the subsequent battle, I feel a little guilty about my cavalier decision – especially given that all I do once they begin wrestling the spear-wielding marlin onboard is stay the hell out of the way. Thankfully, though the palms of Paul’s new fishing gloves are shredded by the time the marlin surrenders, the fishermen are all intact apart from a few scrapes and bruises (which are proudly shown off when the story is re-lived later over beer).
Once we return to shore, we bring the marlin to the Honolulu Fish Auction, where he later fetches a handsome price: $367. We share the mahi-mahi among ourselves. All in all, a fantastic experience. Mahalo to Captain Paul and my Famous Grouse crewmates for a day well spent.
Will I do it again? Absolutely – as soon as my reeling shoulder no longer needs ibuprofen to get through the day and someone comes up with a foolproof cure for seasickness. Until then, I’m happy to have taken at least one small step on the road to fishing enlightenment, which has helped me to understand one of life’s big mysteries: What makes people spend hours in a boat tossed by ocean swells with no promise of anything in return. My take? It’s the camaraderie, the restorative power of the ocean, the thrill of pitting yourself against nature, and the eternal hope of catching the next Big One.
Note: Fishing charters are plentiful on Oahu and can be found departing out of Honolulu, Kapolei, Waianae, Haleiwa and Kaneohe.