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1999 Lahaina Jackpot - a Storied Past

After three days of intense fishing competition among 103 boats, the Goodfellows, owners of the Lahaina based Bertram 43 Taipan II and spreaders of goodwill throughout their company, managed to land a 307.3 pound Pacific Blue Marlin on day two to claim the title of the 1999 Lahaina Jackpot Fishing Tournament champions.  The fish was the second smallest to take the $25,000.00 first prize in its twenty-three year history, just a little heavier than the 272.4 pound Marlin caught on the Snoopy Too in 1991.
Tai Pan II entered the tournament with three sets of six anglers, eighteen in all, and gave their employees the opportunity to participate in one of the most enjoyable tournaments in all of Hawaii.  Despite having to pay an extra $2,100.00 to enter ($150.00 per angler over four is the rule), the Goodfellows use the Jackpot each year as a way to thank their employees.  After coming up empty on day one, they worked the North end of the Pailolo channel between Maui and Molokai on day two, and angler Bill Yarian got the lucky strike, boating the fish after an impressive fight.  As they brought the fish to the scales before a warm, cheering crowd outside the Pioneer Inn, they figured they had enough to take over the day one lead of 279.3 pounds caught on Kukana Kai, but they didn’t think the fish would hold on to win the big prize.  In fact, nobody thought it would hold up because of the grand history this tournament has seen. 

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Tiny Lahaina Harbor where all the action is

On October 28, 1977 at about 11:00 am, only four hours into the first Jackpot tournament in Hawaii had begun, Dave Rockett and his father Louis tied into what would prove to be the first tournament winner; a 559 pound Black Marlin caught in a mere half hour aboard Halcyon.   That fish remains as the only Black Marlin over 400 pounds caught in the tournament, and places eighth on the all time largest.   And since that eventful day almost a quarter-century ago, it’s noteworthy to consider this entire yearly pilgrimage to Maui may never have materialized if not for the efforts of local skippers Bill Moffett and Phil Cole.

After discussing the concept of a Jackpot format (as opposed to a “Corinthian” tournament like the world famous Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament), Moffett and Cole recruited help from Kenny Takashima and Rick Rose, and the four of them obtained a professional opinion as to whether or not a jackpot tournament would qualify as gambling and thus be illegal in Hawaii.   The Maui prosecutor’s office cleared the way with their thoughts that a jackpot was similar to Brahma bull riding for money in up-country Maui, and thus the road was paved for a tournament that would see some of the greatest fishing drama the world has ever known. 

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Weigh scale construction

To say there has been drama and controversy over the years in Lahaina is an understatement.  If the Indianapolis 500 is the “Greatest Spectacle in Sports,” the Lahaina Jackpot must surely be worthy of the title of  “The Greatest Spectacle in Fishing.”  Case in point: during the early 90’s, a couple of boats seemed to be coming in terribly late almost every night and they were filling up the weigh scales with hundreds of pounds of Mahimahi.  Despite the requirement that all boats stop fishing at 4:00 each day, the lack of radio contact with every boat in the fleet has made it very difficult to communicate information to everyone during the day and thus the “stop fishing” time is governed predominantly on the honor system.  Although there was never any proof of wrongdoing, the committee had a bit of a rough go with administering the situation, causing a little extra tension on banquet night when the time came to hand out the prizes.
Also during the early 90’s, the tournament committee recalled a boat that blew up shortly after the start, tossing the crew into the water with a hundred boats bearing down on them.  In another year, one of the skippers of a local commercial catamaran operation decided to enter the tournament, partly resulting of the increased growth in popularity of the tournament and partly because of the lure of the big cash prize.  They reportedly took the boat to the North Shore of Molokai, caught a couple of Striped Marlin, but were rewarded for their efforts by being terminated on the spot for unauthorized use of the vessel. 

Then there were the tag and release challenges.  All over the world, conservation has become part of the daily ritual for rod-and-reel fishermen, and Hawaii has seen its share of ups and downs on this issue.  In 1994, after two years of implementing the tag and release program, the committee had a logistical challenge to overcome while trying to make a forthright effort to make the tournament more conservation oriented.  With limited ability to contact boats by radio and thus provide instructions on validating their catch, there was no way to govern ties or prove fish had been released.  With only five qualifying fish caught and a 140-pound minimum in place, a decision was made by the committee to pay prize money for fish released in the tournament instead of issuing prizes of merchandise as had been the way in the past.  The word got out to the anglers during day two, and reportedly, some of the less forthright anglers began to employ questionable tactics and skepticism rang throughout the fleet as to the validity of the results. Since

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It all takes place right outside the famous Pioneer Inn

that time, the committee decided to pay jackpot money only for fish actually weighed, however, the Jackpot has continued to promote the release of small billfish by rewarding skippers with substantial merchandise prizes. 

The logistics of running such a large tournament in a tiny harbor has always been a challenge.  Lahaina harbor, just an egg-toss wide and a nine-iron long, only contains 96 official slips (Tahiti-style tie ups, really), yet because of the enormous foot-traffic filling up charter boats, dinner cruises, whale-watching trips, sailboats and ferries to Lanai on a daily basis, it remains the busiest in the state.  A couple years ago, the committee managed one of the biggest logistical challenges ever.  In addition to the 157 boats entered in the tournament, a cruise ship, a research vessel and two navy ships were all vying for use of the garage-sized harbor entrance, the severely limited dock space, and access to the fuel trucks that maintained a constant pilgrimage from the refinery to the harbor.  Some boats had to wait outside the harbor for hours to take on fuel, but somehow they managed to work their way through it and keep everyone safe. 

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The morning sun rises over the tiny harbor

The tournament pressed on, its popularity grew, and as this resilient group of participants and volunteers overcame challenges, the rewards that came with it became memories for a lifetime.   In 1986, the crew of the Cutty Sark II caught a 784-pound Marlin on the first day and decided to enjoy the fruits of their labor.   Shortly after the start on day two, they returned to port and secured, entertained themselves at the bar, then watched mortified as the Maka Iwa came in with a 654.4 pounder.  Figuring there were still some big fish out there, they decided they would be better served by protecting their lead, and went to sea on day three.  And though they managed to hang on to the lead and ultimately win the tournament, the scare served as a wake-up call, reminding everyone who fishes in tournaments that Hawaii is a fishery that can give great bounty, yet take it away as well. 

The late Cornelius Choy, skipper of the famed Coreene C that still holds the record for the largest Marlin ever landed on rod and reel (1805 pounds, caught on Oahu in 1970), fished this tournament every year without fail, and the committee recalls him always being a gentleman when he was in town.  He was always assigned team number 53, and though he never did win the tournament, his number was retired after he passed away.  To this day, team 53 on the fish board reads “Retired – Captain Choy,” and serves as a great testimonial to the level of esteem the committee held for the legendary Oahu skipper, and also serves as a great testimonial of the purity and charm of the tournament itself.

Scares, testimonials and other reminders notwithstanding, this tournament has produced some great winners over the years, and some skippers have won it twice.  In 1988 and 1989, Aerial, with skipper Chris Rose, son of Rick Rose, one of the original founders, managed to claim back to back victories with a 646.4 pound effort in ‘88 and a 542 pounder in ‘89.  As radio-room volunteer Nancy Lee recalls of the only skipper to win it back to back, “those boys can’t remember their team numbers to save their lives, but oh, they sure can fish!”

Oahu’s Matt Kahapea on the Ah Tina won the jackpot in 1984 with a 567.2 pound Marlin, and he took the title again in 1995 with a 508.6 pound effort.  And in 1998 Pualele, a well-known Bertram 35 owned by the Luuwai family of Maui that fishes tournaments all over Hawaii, won both the Wahine and open tournaments with a 534.3 pound Marlin in the Jackpot and a 199.8 pound Ahi in the Wahine.

Two other skippers have one this great tournament twice, and both of their stories were born straight from the world of dreams that rapidly entered the hallowed grounds of reality.   After years of tournaments in which the winner’s fish scored in the 400 to 600 pound range, the complexion of the tournament held in the small Hawaiian whaling village changed forever in 1993.  Bruce Matson, a well-known Hawaii fisherman and frequent participant in most of the major tournaments, managed to earn himself a reputation that to this day remains unchallenged: skipper of the boat landing the world’s largest tournament-caught fish. 

After winning the event for the first time with an even 500 pounder in 1982, Matson struck again.  On October 29, 1993, the first day of the tournament, Matson’s Cormorant headed to the back side of the tiny island of Kahoolawe.  Angler Doug Jorgensen then hooked into a majestic fish that everyone on board knew was well over a thousand pounds, so as the battle raged on, the focus remained sharp.  Eventually, the great fish was boated, and Cormorant returned to the scales with their giant.  The word began circulating around town that a great fish had been caught, but the people of Lahaina were used to big fish winning.  However, nobody realized just how big this beast was.

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Cormorant's mount of his 1993 winning fish
on the wall of Lahaina Yacht Club

As the folks in the radio room tried to diligently go about their business of securing boats and directing the fueling schedule, they could not help but be distracted by the goings on at the weigh scale.  Matson’s fish was so long that the photo platform had to be removed.  It was also so heavy that the hoist used to lift up the great fish showed signs of strain to the point where the tournament committee elected to remove the entire crowd from the bleachers. 

As word got around, the crowd grew by leaps and bounds.  People all over the island drove to the harbor and appeared from the woodwork to catch a glimpse of the fish.  As they finally got everyone situated in a safe place, the tension mounted while the fish was raised.   The hoist strained as the chain tackle lifted the fish straight to the top, leaving only an inch or two of clearance for the bill.   The fish settled in as the crowd shouted their guesses and then hushed in anticipation. 

"One thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine pounds” came the call.  The crowd went crazy in disbelief as the crew celebrated in the knowledge that they had not only won the tournament, but also caught a fish that placed them on their own podium in fishing history.  In addition to becoming the largest tournament fish caught in the world, it earned them a spot in the IGFA 1000-pound club, and the IGFA 5 to 1 club.  The fish was later officially recorded at 1201.8 pounds when the scale was re-certified for IGFA requirements.

Most tournaments only gain a reputation for a single magnanimous event, but this is Lahaina, and if Matson’s great story isn’t enough to satisfy a fishing maniac’s lust for greatness, the Jackpot struck again in 1997.  Another former Jackpot winner, Oahu’s Russell Tanaka, who boated a 398.2 lb Marlin to win in 1992 aboard the Mary I, went fishing on the Magic at the North shore of Molokai along with much of the fleet.  One of his friends, Rahn Yamashita, fishing aboard the Shirley Y of Kaneohe, also was there.

Sometime around noon, they both struck fish that they knew were potential winners.  Tanaka and the crew worked their fish to the boat in just over an hour, and headed straight to the scale with their giant.  Aware that Yamashita also had a giant fish on, Tanaka called periodically to see how the fight was going.  As Yamashita’s fight progressed, the fish sounded and eventually went below the boat in a state of rigormortis.  The next call to Tanaka resulted in the playful suggestion that Yamashita cut his line, because Tanaka knew that 500 yards of line out with a dead fish straight down meant the weigh scale was going to be very interesting that evening.

Yamashita and the crew began the process of raising their dead fish from the deep, working the current and gaining line when they could.  Finally, after hours of work and an unbelievable strain on the line, the fish came to the surface.  As they secured the gigantic beast to their thirty-foot boat, a Spearfish was ejected from the fish’s mouth.  The mouth was then tied shut, the fish secured to the side, and the crew began their Hemingway-like four hour trudge back to the harbor.  After overcoming the odds and actually securing the fish, they now had to face the prospect that sharks could come and steal their quarry at any time. 

Meanwhile, Magic had made it to the scales and weighed in at about six O’clock.  After hoisting the fish and developing a reading of around 550 pounds, puzzled looks came across everyone’s face.  Unfazed, the tournament committee lowered the fish, reset the scale, and re-hoisted.  The fish scaled this time at 1106 pounds, giving Magic the early lead, but Tanaka knew Yamashita was out there still.  Tanaka and the crew were planning to go to dinner, but when they got word that the Shirley Y was coming in soon, they scrapped that idea and waited at the scale.  You see, Tanaka had been in this situation before. 

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Radioman Ned Downey on the mic for his 22nd year

Only once before in the history of fishing throughout the world have two granders been weighed in a single tournament, and Tanaka was involved there too.  In 1982, Tanaka weighed in a 1032 pound Marlin in the Pokai Bay Roundup held in Waianae, Oahu.  His fish was bigger than the other Marlin, but because the winner of that event was based on total weight, Tanaka got second place when a Spearfish was also placed on the scales.   Tanaka remains the only person in the world to have been involved in a tournament double-grander. 

Exhausted but excited, Yamashita finally made it back to the dock to a crowd whipped into a frenzy by the thought that not just one, but two granders were going to be weighed that night.   Donnell A. Tate, official tournament photographer, recalls the moment as he saw the second fish.  “Shirley Y’s fish looked much bigger than Magic’s but I later realized it was because the belly was all bloated and ballooned out from a long tow home in the water.” 

The committee hoisted the fish up to the scale, and the agonizing process of watching the fish raise up the tower ensued.  Magic’s crew was riveted to the screen while Shirley Y’s gang was relieved to not have had sharks ruin their fish.  The fish settled into the top of the hoist as the crowd awaited the call of 1101 pounds.  “It was the most amazing thing we’ve ever seen,” recalls radioman Ned Downey (aka “Moneybags”).  “Nobody could believe that two fish of this size could come in on the same day, and to have the tournament decided by five pounds was beyond belief.   Maui talked about it for months.”

Later, Tate cut open and inspected the belly of the fish and found a partially digested Spearfish that was approximately 20 pounds, and a 15 pound Mahimahi was removed from the gullet as well.  Combined with the original Spearfish that was ejected while the crew attempted to secure the great Marlin to the boat, the stories that followed the tournament ran rampant.  People claimed the three fish were cut from the stomach before the weigh-in, or they fell out of the Marlin’s mouth as it was hoisted up the scale.   Some even said the committee wasn’t experienced enough to handle fish this size.  In the end, it didn’t matter where the stories came from, because tales are a part of the lore of the game, and the scene spoke for itself that night: two fish over 1100 pounds weighed in a single tournament was a new record, and became yet another piece of the hallowed history of this great tournament. 

So as the final boat, Tale Walker of Kona, came to the scale under tow from a minor mechanical difficulty and weighed the final fish of the tournament (a 37.6 pound Mahimahi) the 1999 Lahaina Jackpot came to a close with The Goodfellows of Tai Pan II taking the checkered flag.  What was originally intended as a way for the charter fleet to take a day off from the business of fishing (and a way to maybe get rich quick), the founders of this three-day event could never have imagined the stories that would unfold as time went on. 

But then again, this is fishing in Hawaii, and stories like this are told every day.   

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