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There Is More Than Sun and Beaches on Hawaii's Big Island, Making It Easy to Get Hooked on Kona's Coast : BIG MARLIN IS THE LURE

February 18, 1986|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — About 10 years ago, near the halfway point on the west coast of the big island of Hawaii, engineers detonated 50 tons of dynamite to blast a small-boat harbor out of an ancient lava flow.

It's called Honokohau (Ho-no-ko-how) Harbor, and it doesn't look like much. Nobody ever landscaped the place, and somebody forgot to put in stairs. In some areas, to reach the boats, you have to leap off a rock wall.

No matter. Welcome to the big-game fishing capital of the United States.

Before Honokohau, pioneering marlin-fishing skippers anchored 10 miles down the road, in the natural harbor at Kailua-Kona, where the boats weren't fully protected from storms blowing in from the southwest.

One recent morning, Phil Parker, in his second-story office at Honokohau Harbor, looked out the window at the Kona Coast marlin-fishing charter boat fleet. About 60 boats were tied up against the spectacular backdrop of Mauna Kea, the world's highest mountain, measured from the ocean floor.

"Everything you see out there, including the harbor, can be traced to Henry Chee," he said. "Henry Chee originated marlin fishing on the Kona Coast. He developed it, he pioneered it, he taught everyone how to catch those big blues.

"There are a lot of young skippers here today using techniques that they don't even know Henry started. It's no exaggeration to call Henry Chee our Babe Ruth."

Phil Parker, 65, who runs a booking office for Kona marlin fishing trips, was talking about the good old days. From 1954 to 1964, he was a charter skipper in Kona, and his brother George has been a Kona marlin skipper since 1945. George, at 74, is the oldest fishing guide in Hawaii.

"In the old days, when I started running a boat here in 1954, there were four boats," Phil Parker said. "Now look out there. There are something like 54 to 60 now. I can't keep track of them. Looking back, it seems like there were more fish then. But then, we lost a lot of marlin. Our gear wasn't as good as it is today."

Today, marlin fishermen arrive daily, check into any of a number of resort hotels perched on black hunks of jagged lava, and book $450-a-day fishing outings with any of 50 or 60 full-time Kona area skippers.

But once, it was only the Kona Inn, and only Henry Chee.

Butch Chee was showing a reporter a scrapbook of photographs, letters and newspaper clippings about his father's long career as a marlin skipper, and talked of 1965, the year his father died.

"He had a stroke one day while gaffing a marlin, and died (at 55) three days later," he said.

"One of the last things he told my mother was: 'Don't let Butch fish for a living. Encourage him to go to college, develop a career and fish for fun.' "

Butch, it turns out, executed an artful compromise. He did go to college, to BYU Hawaii, and became an elementary school teacher. Today, at 35, he teaches fourth graders during the week and takes people marlin fishing on weekends, on his 23-foot Mako sportfisher.

In Kona, you don't need a big boat. Most of the trolling activity is within a mile or two of the shoreline. Several years ago, someone on a 19-foot boat caught a blue that weighed more than 1,000 pounds.

Butch relishes telling new acquaintances the story of Henry Chee's homing pigeons.

"When Dad started out here, in the late 1930s, there was no such thing as radios on boats," he said. "So he was in partnership on his first boat with a man named Charlie Findlayson, who owned a bunch of pigeons. So if someone fishing with Dad caught a marlin, he'd write a note on a tiny piece of paper, put it in a capsule on the pigeon's leg, and release it.

"The pigeon would fly back to Kona, through Mrs. Findlayson's kitchen window. She'd spread the word around town. If it was a big fish Henry would be bringing in, she'd arrange for the newspaper photographer to be there, at the pier."

Henry Chee was not from a fishing family, but he got hooked by the sound of a screaming reel.

"Dad's father was a Hilo banana farmer," Butch said. "Neither one had ever been in a boat, until the day in 1935 that Dad went fishing with someone here. He went out with Findlayson one afternoon, and they caught a marlin. Dad told me the sound of that very first screaming reel stayed with him all those years.

"Findlayson was one of the original skippers in Kona, and he and Dad went into partnership on a boat called the Malia in 1936.

"He'd become quite well known as a good fisherman by the time World War II started, when he went to work for the Navy, running tugboats at Pearl Harbor.

"He returned after the war. Dad had to work a lot harder in the old days, when skippers had to dry out the line every night, to prevent rot. Dad would wrap it a few times around his back and roll his shoulders, trying to break it. If it broke, he'd throw it all out and load up with new line.

"He started using the first plastic marlin lures in Hawaii in the 1950s. And he made them himself.

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