Fish University 103: Expectations and Etiquette

Fishing in Hawaii:  Your expectations at sea.

You are thinking about chartering a boat and going fishing in Hawaii.  You’ve heard about all these giant fish that are caught all around the state, the warm, indigo waters, breathtaking scenery, and expert captains driving “hot rod” sportfishing vessels.   But someone, maybe a friend or a relative, or even the little voice inside the back of your head, told you, “Hawaii is fished out” or “that’s an expensive boat ride.”   Curious anyway, you make a few calls to some skippers.  They all tell you the fishing is good and they’re the best so book with them.  You’ve got only so many days for your vacation and your budget isn’t unlimited, so you want to have good value for your dollar.  Now you’re not sure what to expect.

For certain, chartering a boat is expensive, but there are two things to remember about that.  First, on an hourly basis, compare the rates to that of getting your car fixed, hiring a backhoe to dig a small ditch in your yard, or even a ride in a taxi in your hometown.  Second, many don’t realize all the costs involved in running a high quality charter boat year in, year out.  In addition to paying for the crew, the skipper, fuel, bait, lures, and line on a regular basis, the engines and pumps need servicing and ultimately a major overhaul or even replacing after about 15,000 hours of use.  Add on slip fees, insurance and advertising to pay for, and when days of bad weather knock out a week’s worth of business, captains have to tighten the old belt just to make ends meet. 

We make no bones about it that charter skippers are in the business as a labor of love, and while you as the potential charter guest might see the sparkling boat and a smiling skipper and crew anxious to take you to sea, it is important to remember what got the skipper to this level in the first place.  But this article isn’t about what the skipper did to get here (that’s fish university 103); it’s about your expectations at sea.  

So what should you expect from your charter experience?

First, you should expect to be greeted by a couple of people who generally won’t be wearing a uniform.  Though they will probably be wearing matching t-shirts, one of the perks of this dirty job is the ability to wear comfortable clothing instead of a suit and tie.  But regardless of what the crew is wearing, you should see them smile, offer to shake your hand, and welcome you aboard in a cordial and friendly manner.  At that first point when you are on the back of the boat, from both the feel of the boat and the friendliness of the crew you should have a general warm, fuzzy feeling that they are truly glad to have you aboard.

Some skippers collect payment before the trip; some do it at the end.   That is just a matter of personal taste and we’d hope either way would be fine with you.  Some skippers will get the boat going right away as you stow your things, while some will take you through the safety briefing before leaving the harbor.  Either way is fine if the weather on the outside is good and everyone is anxious to get going.  Flat or fairly calm seas are fine for going through the information while underway.

At some point early in the trip, the skipper will set the course for where he thinks you have a chance of catching fish, and the crew should take you through a “chair drill;” allowing each member of the party to practice the technique of reeling a fish from the fighting chair for as long as they like.  Many people, even experienced anglers, have never felt a rod and reel of this size before, and the equipment does take some getting used to.  You have every right to sit in the fighting chair and practice until you feel comfortable with the equipment, and you shouldn’t feel strange for asking.  Remember, about 75% of all people who go fishing on a charter boat in Hawaii have never big game fished before, so don’t feel foolish about wanting to practice… aren’t alone!!

On the islands of Kauai, Kona and Oahu, most of the time the lures will be set immediately or within a very short run from the harbor.  On Maui, most boats on most days will run out about 30-45 minutes or so to get to known more productive areas.  Unlike places in the Gulf of Mexico or the East Coast of the United States where there exists a shelf ranging from 20 to 75 miles out, Hawaii has extremely deep water very close to shore, and many a Marlin or tuna has been caught within a stone’s throw of the shore.   For example, in Kona, the 1000 fathom line (6000 feet) is only 4 miles from the harbor.  Many people visiting for the first time are amazed to see skippers begin fishing right from the navigation aids!

As you settle into trolling speed, watch as the crew sets out the lures.   Ask questions and try to understand the technique involved.  Many people can’t believe that a funny looking plastic head with a squid-like tail dangling off the surface about 50-100 feet behind a big, heavy boat churning up the water will result in fish being caught, but these are the techniques that have been employed for years and are the most proven to raise and strike these types of fish.  Large leaders, heavy line, and big-headed lures have all proven to be very successful over time.

Generally, five lures will be run in the pattern, each connected to a separate rod and reel.  All skippers run their patterns differently, but all generally have a short and long corner, and short and long rigger, and a fifth rod that either runs in the middle in the “pocket” or way back behind (known as a “stinger”).  The lures generally run on the front of the waves generated by the boat.  Some lures will swim around side to side, some will dive, plunge, cause a bunch of spray, and others will do a little less.  Some lures will be colorful, some dark.  The skipper and crew will choose the lures based on the time of year, what’s been working lately.  Sometimes it’s a science, sometimes it’s an art.

After about an hour of trolling, maybe there has been a strike, maybe not, and the boat is out away from the shore and getting into the most productive areas.   It is at this point where the anticipation of the trip wears off and the mind set becomes more focused on the fishing.  It is important to understand at this point that your skipper and crew have done this for years in these waters, and they know that in Hawaii, a big fish can strike at ANY time.  The trick is being prepared for it, which means being relaxed and focused at the same time.  You might not realize it, but your captain and crew are very in tune with the surroundings, i.e. the depth of the water, bottom structure, current, and many times they can predict a strike while you have no idea what is even happening.

The real key to understanding and appreciating a fishing trip in Hawaii is believing in your mind and heart that the fishery is unique, special, and for every day it is the most spectacular place on earth, sometimes it is unforgiving.   For every trip that results in a Marlin, many don’t.  For every trip that results in a nice Ahi, more don’t.  For every trip that winds up with multitudes of Mahimahi, some people go home empty.  And understanding this is like understanding the lure of Las Vegas.

When a person visits Las Vegas, they don’t go with the expectation that they will walk away as the next Vegas millionaire; they go with the understanding that they will have a good time, enjoy the shows, the food and the sights and sounds of Vegas.  But maybe, just maybe, they’ll be the one that walks away from that crap table or slot machine a huge winner.  It’s about the dream, and the pursuit of a dream.  Absent the compulsive gambler who throws his or her whole life away with the spin of a wheel, the average person seldom walks away from the table feeling they were ripped off or taken.  People understand the risks, the potential rewards, and simply look for ways to enjoy their spending as long as possible.

It’s much the same with fishing in Hawaii.  So long as the skipper and crew are friendly and courteous, the boat is in good condition, and you are pursuing the fish with enthusiasm and enjoyment from beginning to end, one should never walk away feeling empty if it at the end the result is no fish on the boat.  

As an example of big fish biting at any time, I’d like to share an experience where I was out on a trip taking photos and writing a story for one of the charter boats we represent.  I had a chance to talk with the people on board; it was a group of six passengers from all over the country.   By two o’clock, there hadn’t been a single strike, and the trip was scheduled to be over at about 3:30 or 4:00.  Some of the passengers were asleep, but one was feeling rather gloomy, proclaiming “I’d just be happy if we got a 30 pound fish at this point.”  I turned and said to him, “Don’t think that way.  Understand this fishery and enjoy it.  You can get a 30-pound fish anywhere, but Hawaii is one of the few places you can get something huge.   You keep thinking good thoughts about that large fish you’ve always dreamed about, and whether it happens or not, just enjoy the scenery and the company knowing you had you chance at it.”

No sooner did I finish my speech did a fish make me appear to be the prophet.  The center rigger dropped hard and within seconds a 450 pound Blue Marlin was stripping out line, leaping and jumping all over the place.  The focus on the boat went from comatose to sheer pandemonium, from slumber to an all out roller-coaster-like adrenaline rush.  Everyone understood within the blink of an eye what we had all been talking about all this time by seeing a fish that was as powerful as it was majestic. 

The angler got into the chair and the fight was on.  45 minutes later, the fish was under the boat, as strong as ever.  A few minutes later, the fish was let go unharmed, and the mood on board changed from a group of people who knew nothing about each other to one of name and address exchanges.  Hands danced as they pointed to the sea describing the action of the fish as it leaped to the sky.  Frowns turned to smiles, and for this day, the captain was a hero.  The angler mounted the fish based on the estimated measurements, and the others that witnessed the great Marlin were the first ones to the photo developers that afternoon. 

The Marlin was the only strike of that day, but the sight and feel of that powerful fish made believers of everyone. 

Many people believe they’d be more interested in staying inshore and going for smaller, more plentiful fish as opposed to going for the one shot at a big fish.  The trouble is, in Hawaii, the water is so deep so close to shore that there are no inshore species to speak of such as in Mexico or Florida.  We don’t have grouper, roosterfish, or many of the jack species found elsewhere.  There’s no tarpon, bluefin tuna or bonito.  Hawaii’s main target species are Blue, Black and Striped Marlin, Yellowfin Tuna (Ahi), Wahoo (Ono) and Dorado (Mahimahi).  You’ll also come across Skipjack Tuna (Aku), which is the principal bait for Marlin, Kawakawa, Short nosed Spearfish, and the occasional Barracuda, Giant Trevally, and Amberjack.  There’s a few species of shark, including thresher and tiger that might occasionally hit, and of course, you might see a Sailfish, a Broadbill Swordfish, or a Moonfish (Opah).

Make no mistake about it though, you’ll be out there looking for the main staple fish of Marlin, Ahi, Mahimahi and Ono, and anything that hits your line in the deep water could be anything from a 4-pound Kawakawa to a 400 pound or larger Marlin.   Same baits, same areas, same time of day or week.  Whatever, wherever, whenever.  It’s that simple. 

The chances of hooking into something during your eight hour charter are very good, probably 90% or better for most of the year.  A reasonable expectation is 3 to 6 strikes in the course of a day, though some days will be much better and some days will seem like the train will never get to the station.  Some days you’ll find multiple catches of Mahimahi, but with the exception of the springtime, you shouldn’t expect it.  Some days you’ll get 4 to 6 Marlin bites, but you shouldn’t expect it.  Some days you’ll get a couple of Ahi bites, and in the summer, that’s a good expectation.  The bottom line is to expect a good time, let the skipper and crew do their job, and be prepared for when the reels go off.  

In Hawaii, you just never know what will hit your line, and like Las Vegas, it could be a little payoff or a truly big score.  However, unlike Vegas, your effort and the crew’s skill will come into play.   Plus, your odds are much better overall.

As they always say on the Hinatea, one of the Maui boats Sportfish Hawaii loves to book, “don’t wait until the fish bite to start having fun!”  Enjoy the boat, enjoy the day, and who knows…you might end up with the fish that you’ve dreamed about all your life.

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