The Magician
A Story of Two Tournaments and Why Hawaii Fishing is the Best in the World
by Mike House

There is no place on earth that can make the claim that two granders (Marlin in excess of 1,000 pounds) were caught in a single tournament, and therefore, no fisherman can make the claim that he took second place in a tournament after posting one.  That is, no place on earth except in Hawaii. 

Funnily enough, the “double grander” (two fish weighed in at more than a thousand pounds) has happened twice in this fishing paradise, and believe it or not, one skipper was involved in both tournaments. 

That skipper is Russell Tanaka, of the charter vessel Magic.

On the Leeward Coast of Oahu, smack in the middle of Waianae, lies a small boat harbor known as Pokai Bay.  It now serves as the home for the annual Ahi Fever Tournament, which at a state mandated limit of 260 boats is the largest fishing tournament in Hawaii by far.  Before the Ahi Fever was created in 1997, the big tournament on the leeward coast was the Pokai Bay Rendezvous.  This tournament was a total weight event, and held a history of some great fishing.  But no story ever measured up to 1982, when it became the first tournament in the world to post a double grander in the same event. 

In 1982, Russell, then skipper of the old sampan, the Mary I, a charter boat running out of Kewalo Basin, decided to enter the Pokai Bay Tournament.  He was no real stranger to the tournament, and he knew the harbor, the seas, and the good spots to fish. 

Russell’s Pacific Blue Marlin weighed in at 1,032 pounds (when you stop by the Magic in Honolulu, you’ll see the photo of a younger Russell in the back of the booth), but he also that day had lost a spearfish.  Poor guy, people must have thought, having “only” a grander to weigh in for the tournament, but Russell would soon come to learn that another boat had caught a grander, and the loss of that Spearfish would eventually haunt him at the scales. 

Though the other boat’s grander was a little smaller than Russell’s, they also boated a Spearfish.  Combined, these two fish outweighed the 1,032 pounds recorded by the Mary I, thus the crown was theirs.   Russell knew he could have won and probably should have won, but the luck just wasn’t with him that day.  But then, how could anyone be all that upset about weighing the largest Marlin in the only tournament ever held in the world that recorded a double grander? 

Leap forward to 1997 and the famous Lahaina Jackpot tournament held around Hallowe’en weekend each year.  With the distinction of having the largest tournament caught fish ever - Bruce Matson’s Cormorant got a 1,201 in 1993 - the Lahaina Jackpot had some tough precedent to uphold.  But this is Hawaii, and if Matson’s great story isn’t enough to satisfy a fishing maniac’s lust for greatness, the Jackpot struck again in 1997.  Russell, who had boated a 398.2 lb Marlin to win the event in 1992 aboard the Mary I, went to North shore of Molokai in the 1997 derby 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, both Magic and Shirley Y struck fish that they knew were potential winners.  Russell 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, Russell 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 Russell resulted in the playful suggestion that Yamashita cut his line, because Russell 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 Russell knew Yamashita was still out there.  Russell 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.  Remember, he had been in this situation before. 

Exhausted but excited, Yamashita finally made it back to the dock to a crowd whipped into a frenzy by the reality 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.  It became yet another piece of the hallowed history of Hawaii’s fishery, and the ultimate claim to fame for one of Hawaii’s top fishermen.  

Russell Tanaka holds the distinction of being the only skipper in the world to have caught the largest fish in a tournament where two fish came in over a thousand pounds, and he’s done it twice.  He also holds the distinction of winning the only tournament in the world that brought in two fish over 1,100 pounds.  And he is the only person to claim a second and a first in a tournament having two fish over a grand.