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The Other Hawaii
Fishing opportunities on Maui, Oahu and Kauai

By Doug Armfield

I have a quick quiz for you. From what island in Hawaii was the world’s largest tournament Marlin, a 1201 pound Blue Marlin on Bruce Matson’s Cormorant in 1993, caught? Here’s a clue: it was the same island that produced the world’s only double 1,100 pound Marlin in a tournament on the same day (1,106 pounds caught by Russell Tanaka on the Magic and 1,101 pounds caught on the Shirley Y with Captain Rahn Yamashita in 1997). Getting warmer? No, it wasn’t Kona….it was Maui, home of world famous Lahaina and the House of the Rising Sun at Haleakala.

Question number two. What island in Hawaii is recognized as producing the world’s largest Marlin ever landed on rod and reel (Cornelius Choy’s Coreene C got a monstrous 1,805 pounder in July, 1970 but didn’t get the IGFA record because more than one person handled the rod)? Clue: it is the same island where the world’s first tournament to land two Marlin over 1,000 pounds took place. Nope, not Kona again….this time it is Oahu, home of Diamond Head, Waikiki, and Pearl Harbor.

OK, question number three. What island in Hawaii currently holds the IGFA record for the largest Pacific Blue Marlin at 1,376 pounds and is generally thought of by most anglers when considering a fishing trip in Hawaii? Yes, this time it’s Kona, but I had you going, didn’t I? These staggering statistics clearly show that it is Hawaii, not just Kona, that produces great fish, and while I have no intention of reducing Kona’s great record over the past forty plus years as I myself have some fond memories from there, this article is about the rest of Hawaii – the "other" Hawaii.

When I first got into the charter business, I thought Kona would be the place to go. With the calm waters, unsurpassed history as the "Billfish Capital of the World" and fleet of world-class sportfishers, it seemed the logical choice. However, as I got into the planning phases of the business, I really had to look no further than my own back yard in Maui. The island I had been living on and fishing from for many years was producing lots of great fish as it was, so rather than pick up shop and move to Kona, I decided to run it from the town of Lahaina. I’m glad I made that decision, because many of my customers have enjoyed the waters, scenery, and great fishing offered from this island.

Each island offers its own unique features and benefits, and many people who like fishing around the world like to book trips on each island just to see these differences. From styles of boats to styles of fishing, it’s hard to imagine that the four main islands in Hawaii, with only 200 miles of separation at the most, have so many differences. Yet they do.

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Ahi action in the cockpit of Start Me Up

Maui has one of the great features in that the harbor is bustling with ocean activities, and as visitors to the island walk the docks and look out at the inviting, shimmering sea to the islands of Kahoolawe and Lanai, many simply can’t wait to try their hand on a fishing trip. And once aboard, there really is something about the area known as "the playground" (so named because of the annual migration of humpback whales that congregate here) that makes people feel as though they’ve arrived in heaven. The scenery and views from this harbor truly are worth the ride in and of itself, but when the boat hooks up, the smiles coming from the faces of the charter guest beam so wide that everyone knows the reason for being out there: big fish. Top Maui boats are modern sportfishers with first class amenities. My boats, a couple of identical Bertams running 42 feet of overall length, and other boats such as the Hinatea, a Hatteras 41, are about the average size for Lahaina. Some vessels, such as the Marlin Mischief, are a little larger at 47 feet, and some, such as the Ho’okela are a bit smaller at about 35 feet. Generally, the boats in Lahaina fish a little further from shore than those in Kona because there is a bit of a run to and from the fishing grounds each day.

Seasoned anglers will notice differences in fishing styles between the islands, too. In addition to most boats running lighter tackle, Maui waters are not as mill-pond-like as those in Kona, and thus several adaptations have been made over time. Many charter boats in Maui will use roller trollers instead of rubber bands on their outriggers, primarily to make easier the fine-tune adjustments between up-sea and down-sea conditions. We’ll also run slightly heavier lures to reduce lure-hopping, and in many cases, we’ll run one less rod in the pattern to reduce tangles when the trade winds are blowing. 

Though Maui waters are a little rougher than Kona’s, don’t be misled into thinking we have to brave "victory at sea" conditions. The island of Lanai just to the South of Lahaina provides a terrific lee, and the nice assortment of buoys and Fish Aggregation Devices make that coastline every bit worthy of the veteran angler’s time. Furthermore, when weather conditions permit, we take our customers to my personal favorite fishing grounds: the fabulous North Shore of Molokai. From Kalaupapa in the center of the island to Cape Halawa on the East end, the North Shore of Molokai might be one of the greatest kept secret fisheries in the world. The pristine, unspoiled beauty of the world’s tallest sea-cliffs shearing to immense depths close to shore juxtaposed with a low-pressure fishery that has produced untold numbers of great fish make for conditions blue water anglers salivate for. And not only is this area accessible from Maui boats, many Oahu skippers will work the area as well.

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Angler Pete Silva of Westchester, PA
stands with his 939lb Marlin caught off Oahu
aboard the Wild Bunch in 1999

Speaking of Oahu, the island beneath the capital city of Honolulu and Waikiki, the charter fleet has still more differences. The boats are generally larger than those on Maui, with about 45 feet being the average size. Magnificent vessels such as the Magic, a 50 foot Pacifica, and Wild Bunch, another 41 foot Hatteras, exemplify the quality of the fleet running on Oahu’s South Shore. The top boats from this harbor have produced substantial numbers of fish both in size and quantity over the years. Thus, any angler on a business trip or vacation to Honolulu that wants to get some fishing in but hasn’t got the time to go to other islands can easily fulfill their need to strip line here.

Oahu has a fantastic fishery of it’s own right. Areas to the East such as the Penguin Banks, South to the HH Pinnacle, and West to the Waianae Trolling Alley have consistently produced multitudes of fish, both large and small, over the years, and it was off the Kahe Power Plant outside of Nanakuli (off the Southwest corner of Oahu) that the famous 1,805 pound giant came aboard Captain Choy’s boat. In addition to the great fishery off Oahu, Honolulu has an abundance of hotels and other activities that give the angler every excuse to bring the family, and on any budget. Fine shopping, dining, and a myriad of activities can be partaken in while the angler of the family goes fishing, and when the family rendezvous at the end of the day, chances are the shoppers will have out-spent the anglers…with no dinner to show for their efforts!

Because many visitors to Waikiki have never deep sea fished before and the island truly is a melting pot, Oahu boats have traditionally catered to less experienced anglers. As a result, the boats are set up a bit differently. The equipment is generally heavier duty, the reels are loaded with heavier line, and the boats have quite a few amenities on board to entertain those interested in being comfortable. This isn’t to say these skippers aren’t world-class anglers, on the contrary, but crews need to find formulas to keep themselves in business, and if that means putting a television on a fishing boat, so be it.

The island of Kauai, the oldest of the main group in the Hawaiian chain, is perhaps the most spectacular and scenic, with its shear, jagged cliffs and stunning shorelines. Kauai is also one of the most enjoyable to fish from for a number of reasons. First, like Kona, its water is ridiculously deep very close to shore, meaning the large predators such as Marlin can be caught within a stone’s throw of the beach. Second, it is the least populated of the main islands (excluding Molokai and Lanai), and thus receives the least amount of fishing pressure on a given day – usually no parking lots at the buoys.

Third, most of the anglers in Hawaii know that when the Ahi (yellowfin tuna) runs get hot at various times in the year, Kauai is the place to fish bar none. Fourth, most of the charter captains have a history in commercial fishing and have maintained good relationships with anglers that still fish commercially, which is important for locating fish in a short period of time. Having a good buddy up North tell you the fish are there can often be the difference between turning North versus South and making a great trip instead of a long day.

Strangely, though Kauai boats experience the roughest waters on average of all the major islands, they aren’t the largest in the fleet across the state. Furthermore, at an average of about 35 feet, the Kauai boats have more emphasis on fish-carrying capacity than flashy extremities. Sure, boats like Lahela (34 foot Radon), Kai Bear (Bertram 38 and 42) and Maka Hou (38 Bertram) have the outriggers and nice rods required to impress their guests, but there truly is an emphasis on caring for the fish. Only a few of the boats are air-conditioned (both Kai Bear boats are), but because they see windier conditions, the flow-through breeze and sweet-smelling ocean air experienced by this majestic island more than make up for it.

So how is the fishing on these islands? Isn’t that why we’re here? OK, let ’s look at that for a second. Based on the "Cost-Earning Study of Hawaii’s Charter Fishing Industry," performed by Marcia Hamilton in 1998, the islands are almost identical. On a day for day, pound for pound, boat for boat basis, Kauai leads the state with an average of 57 pounds per trip caught. Lahaina was second with 50 pounds per trip, Kona was third with 46 pounds caught, and Oahu was fourth with an average of 44 pounds caught per trip. A spread of 13 pounds hardly makes for any statistical significance, and is clear evidence that fishing throughout the state is relatively even.

Now, let’s qualify the numbers. First, the study was done based on a survey of charter skippers over a period of about a year, and the skipper’s figures are taken and used for fact without verification. Some harbors have more boats so data tends to be more accurate, while other harbors whereby data is tough to come by tends to skew numbers a bit. Second, the totals average out over the course of a year everything caught and landed by the skipper. Third, these numbers don’t take into consideration any tag and release figures on Billfish. Fourth, these numbers are the AVERAGES, and in no way representative of the top skippers in each harbor. But anyway you slice it, Hawaii skippers around the state are producing, and it doesn’t matter a lick which island you visit.

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Marlin action off Kauai on the Maka Hou II

On the subject of tag and release, what is the stand on conservation around the state? Are these "Other Hawaii" boats up to the times in tag and release? Ask this question five to ten years ago and the answer was most likely "no," but ask that question today and you’ll be happy to hear that the vast majority of the charter skippers around Hawaii are releasing considerably more fish on their trips. Just like skippers who adapt to their customer’s requests by installing air conditioning, the release of billfish is something more and more charter guests are demanding and therefore more and more skippers are delivering. What is even more refreshing, though, is not only are these skippers releasing fish when their customers demand it, they are increasingly becoming apt to release fish on their own volition when the guest leaves the decision up to them.

One fascinating difference in fishing styles used among the islands is evidenced in Hamilton’s study, namely her discussion on the type of gear used in charter fishing. 50% of the boats on Oahu use exclusively lures to fish, while 42% more use a combination of lures, live and dead bait. Boats in Maui and Kona the skippers overwhelmingly use the combination of trolling and live or dead bait regularly (86 and 93% respectively). Now, contrast this with Kauai, where 40% fish using trolling and miscellaneous methods, 20% use exclusively lures, 20% use lures and bait, 20% use lures and also bottomfish, and 20% use the "green stick" method. For skippers in a clump of islands in the middle of the Pacific to utilize such different philosophies is truly a testament to the diversity in the culture and styles of fishing.

The bottom line on fishing in Hawaii is this: if you are visiting Hawaii for a convention, vacation or other business reason and you have limited time, fish the island you are on. If the purpose of your vacation is to fish and you want to experience diversity in fishing boats, methods, and scenery without sacrificing your odds of catching the fish of your dreams, try them all. For both the serious veteran and the novice angler, Hawaii will provide you with an experience to remember. And if you don’t believe it, just ask the anglers that fished the "other" Hawaii and ended up with some of the greatest catches ever.

Doug Armfield is owner of the charter business "Start Me Up" based in Lahaina.


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