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Pamela's Pistol Pete and Rookie Ross
How novice anglers can compete and fare well in the world of Big Game Fishing

By Mike House

"Freespool it, freespool it…..come on, back that drag off!" came the cry from the helm as Ross Smillie wallowed in a case of lockjaw, overwhelmed a by the fact that he was about to be connected to a rod and reel for an encounter with his very first Blue Marlin – a fish that could potentially be worth over $100,000 in prizes. "Oh my God, we’re in trouble now!" came next from above as Ross freespooled the drag out of control and built a small "bird’s nest" on the reel.

Going through closing on a new house in Vancouver and needing a break from his sometimes crazy business, Ross flew to Hawaii from Vancouver, Canada only a night before. Temporarily free from the normal encumbrances of daily life, an opportunity to mingle with a different crowd than what he was used to produced a social evening lasting well into the night. Stories of great fish filled the air, witnessed over the years by the stars above the Hawaii Big Game Fishing Club, and soon stories yielded to anticipation. It was time to compete.

The following morning, as tournament control counted down the final 10 seconds to the fleet of 50 outside Honokohau harbor, the sea filled with churning water and diesel smoke. Some of the world’s most talented crews assembled teams to compete in what has become one of the more popular tournaments in Hawaii - The Firecracker Open, one of a series of eight tournaments in the Maui Jim Hawaii Marlin Series - held the nearest weekend to the July 4th weekend each year in Kona, and in 2001, the action had been hot all year.

Pistol Pete Hoogs is a legend in Kona. Fishing for years on his first boat, a wooden sampan bearing the same name, Hoogs developed a reputation for recognizing currents, knowing when to use bait versus lures, and being able to consistently place in fishing tournaments. As his prowess continued to develop, he switched over to a Bertram 38 Sportfishing machine, and since the day he has owned it numerous improvements have been added. Several bait wells, tuna tubes, outriggers, fighting chairs and other enhancements have been secured to Pamela over the years, and she is a true thoroughbred with her 485HP Detroit Diesels.

We headed North as the fleet began to spread out. Pete had been catching Marlin almost daily in the North corner of the grounds, and while the fleet all knew about it, for some reason few followed. In most competitions, there is a strange feeling about being alone in the field, like a sense that one might be missing something, but fishing with Pete brings an eerie calmness to it, like perhaps he knows something they don’t. After picking up a couple of baits, we headed to the drop off and began to set up for the live bait slow troll. I told Ross that many people gauge their fishing careers by their first experience, and further tried to explain to him that Blue Marlin fishing is about patience, understanding, the hunt, fishing with good people, and more patience. I told Ross that someone was going to win this tournament, be it with one fish or 20 fish, and that "someone" might as well be us. Former athletes in our youth, Ross knew we were speaking the same language, and he jumped at the chance to fish with our team in this year’s Firecracker.

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I consider myself to be an average angler fairly knowledgeable in most aspects of the sport, but certainly not pros like Pete and his son Teddy, also a licensed captain. These guys are among the top of the heap, and few reach the levels they have in the sport. But fishing with pros is how an average angler such as myself, and a novice angler like Ross, can get the upper hand. Smart anglers will always let the pros do their job to get the boat prepared for the moments when the luck kicks in, so Ross and I worked on getting the luck in gear by focusing on music selections and that they were being played at the right volume for the fish to hear us. Sounds foolish, yes, but in a sport where it takes a combination of skill and luck to win, it makes sense to have a team in harmony instead of discord. The comparison would be like going into a 4 on 4 basketball tournament with the right players to compliment strengths offset your weaknesses. And for this weekend, it was like Ross and I were playing with Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neill, so there weren’t many weaknesses to offset.

Ross said he needed to see how the process was done before he tried it, so I was up first. I managed to angle and release our first Blue Marlin by about 10:00 am, ESPN camera crews right on top of us. We were on the board, and now Ross was getting the fever. Later in the day, it was his turn. We had one bait out, and as the tide changed around 2:00pm, we saw a huge dark shadow pass through our stern. The adrenaline level raised instantly, the music was muted, and suddenly, we felt the tug on the 130 pound class gear. With the lead boat landing one fish and releasing two more and another boat having two releases, we were in a 9 or 10 way tie for third with just the one fish thus far, so this was an important moment. One more release and were solidly in position to place or even win it.

"Come on!! Freespool it!" Pete yelled from above in the heat of the moment. Ross was in the hot seat now. The fish that came through the pattern looked like it was 400 pounds or more. This fish would move us to the driver’s seat. And since the tournament rules are strictly by the book in accordance with International Gamefish Association (IGFA) standards for submitting world records, nobody could help Ross by any means except verbally. Ross backed the drag off but without controlling it, causing a minor nest in the line. Thinking the fish that just came past the back of the boat was the one that just bit the bait, the team felt a collective lump in the throat, because a backlash in the reel would not be good if that big Marlin suddenly decided to take off.

Somehow, perhaps miraculously, Ross managed to get the lash out of the reel as the Marlin kept swimming slowly, and when we felt the hookup was solid, we urged Ross to move the drag setting to "strike" and Pete hit the throttles to set the hook. The fish surfaced and jumped immediately, and Ross eagerly climbed into the chair behind the rod like a pilot flying solo for the first time. He was into his first Marlin ever and was angling for a chance to win a tournament, something he never could have even considered without the professional talent we were with. Within a few minutes, his angling skill - or lack thereof - was evident, but because of the adrenaline and coaching, Ross was able to maintain his composure, keep the line tight, and reel in the fish in accordance with the rules. There aren’t that many rules to keep in mind while actually battling the fish, so it didn’t take too long for him to adapt.

Soon, another Blue Marlin in the 150-180 pound range was boatside, and we released it to put us into a tie for third. Looking up at Pete’s face, the feeling was clearly one of confidence. Having fished with him before, I knew Pete was in the groove and we were firing on all cylinders. I knew the following day we were going to be in the same spot, we’d be fishing the same way, and I also knew we had as good a chance of winning this tournament as anyone. Probably better.

Saturday was a lucky day for us. Not with the Marlin themselves, but with the bait. I hated to admit it shortly after the tournament, but we literally had more trouble with our bait than with the Marlin. We lost some to sharks, some to Ono, some the line broke from trying to retrieve them too quickly, some from coming loose from trying to go too slow. We lost baits for about any reason we could lose bait, but once they attracted a Marlin, we were on the top of our game.

Sunday was different, though. Now we were dialed in. We reviewed our errors that could have cost us, improved on the techniques a little, and after another exciting 7am shotgun start, we headed back to our "spot," the place where it was working for us. Expecting to see a load of other boats, we were surprisingly alone. We picked up a couple of baits and put them in the tuna tubes. We got a couple more and ran to the drop off where we promptly hooked into our third Marlin. I angled the fish to the boat in short order from a flurry of adrenaline, and we now were in a tie for first, by 7:30am.

A couple more baits were procured, and at around 8:30 am Sunday morning, we got a double strike on live bait. The ESPN film crew was on us in a flash as Ross sat in the chair and lightly tended to his fish while I brought mine in as fast as possible using the second gimbal in the chair. Though I didn’t have the leverage the chair did, my fish was a little better behaved and was more willing to come to the boat. Shortly thereafter, release number four was completed, with number five live and active on the rod Ross was holding in the chair.

Ross, now on his second Blue Marlin in as many days – not bad for a first timer – had literally overnight developed the confidence to reel in his fish with some authority, and his technique was vastly improved. Lift the rod, down for a reel in, lift the rod, down for some line. Within minutes, a feisty 180 pound Blue Marlin was within grasp of deckhand Teddy’s hands, and the fish was brought to leader, where an all out leader war ensued. Teddy is Pete’s second son. With the name Ted his natural nickname should be "Terrible," but somehow it just doesn’t fit. A licensed captain who literally has never had a "job" and has always earned his living from going to sea either on a charter or headed to the seamounts for tuna in the winters, Teddy is one of the most approachable and likeable people in the Kona fishing circuit. Unassuming, quiet, and incredibly catlike on a boat, his knowledge and understanding of the sea and its fish are readily evident even at his ripe young age of nineteen. He doesn’t offer up much in the way of chatter, preferring to let people ask him questions of their interest, then answering them with the confidence and accuracy of a marine biologist three times his age.

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Team Pamela takes 1st place

He studies the sea like a kitten studies a ball of yarn. Infinitely curious, Teddy’s mind is filled with ideas on how to make a rig a little better, an outrigger a little more responsive, a reel a little smoother. It is obvious he learned much of it from Pete, but also obvious he learned just as much from sheer time spent on the water, and the confidence we had in the team of Pete and Teddy was as high as the tower stood above the water on the beautiful Bertram.

A leader war is the final battle between the fish and man. This is the point where the angler can rest their muscles as the deckhand has the leader in hand, and, if all goes well, under control. This fish wasn’t so cooperative, and swam hard, left and right, up and down, doing everything it could to tear Teddy from the boat. Watching the young Hoogs manhandle this angry beast was poetry in motion as he took the right amount of leader and wraps in his hand, stayed with the fish, and calmed it to the point where it could be tagged and photographed, then ultimately released unharmed – all under the excruciatingly watchful eye of the film crew – showed poise well beyond his years. And because of it, Ross and I were part of a fluid team that was now solidly in first place with five releases for the tournament.

We later added one more Blue Marlin release for our fourth of the day and sixth for the tournament which won the tournament readily, and for good measure I was interviewed by the film crew back on shore. Wanting to know how we did it, all I could really say was when I decided to fish with professionals I significantly increased my odds of winning…and for that weekend, we just chose the right crew. Teddy’s poise, reactions, unending process of preparation, and his control of the fish, combined with Pete’s maneuvering of the boat, ability to read the currents, select the baits and hit the right locations for that weekend were the intangibles that often go unnoticed in big game fishing. All too many people think it’s about luck and just happening to drive over the right fish. But luck is a part of any sport, and even driving over the right fish takes a great deal of skill. Pamela’s ability to consistently place in tournaments over the years is a matter of true skill, something that is earned with time and experience, and being able to tap into that ability is the very essence of what makes big game fishing fun for anglers of all skill levels.

Every sport has its features that will draw some individuals to it and turn others away, and fishing is no exception. For most sports, however, the right to play at the highest levels like the major leagues, the PGA or the Pro Bowler’s Tour, is reserved for the top talents of the game. And while it is true that a complete team of angling professionals well versed in their roles on board does increase the odds of winning a little more, perhaps the greatest asset of competitive big game fishing is the ability to incorporate less skilled people into the team in order to share tournament fever, making for a truly enjoyable and memorable experience.

I know Ross will be back for more.

December 2001 Update: "Pamela" Top Maui Jim Tournament Series Boat

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