This cover story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Hawaii Fishing News.
Wind and swell direction are crucial factors when kayak fishing for marlin in Hawaii. Having the right gear and physical conditioning are obviously important too. And as my friend on the Big Island Andy Cho likes to say, you gotta get lucky too sometimes.
In early January, my friend Chris “Da Hammah” Paglinawan gave me a report on a strong marlin bite, so I relayed the info to my kayak fishing partner Joon Yang. We knew the spot, we just had to get lucky with swell and wind in order to reach it.
As Joon and I pulled up to Makaha beach before dawn on January 10th, we quickly determined we could not safely launch. Even in the darkness, we could hear waves cracking nearby; the ocean racing up the sand, only 50 feet from the road. The winds were forecast to be light and variable that day, so we certainly had that in our favor. Launching from a world-class break during a rising swell however, was untenable. As a backup plan, we drove a few miles and launched from the safety of a protected cove.
As the sun began to peak over the lush Waianae mountain range, we found schools of opelu in about 28 fathoms of water. After catching enough to keep our baitwells occupied, we began our trek out to 500 fathoms. I was on my trusted Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro with a Werner Corryvreckan paddle. Joon was paddling an Ocean Kayak Trident 13.
Weight vs. Drag
Keeping opelu alive on a kayak involves either a baitwell or a bait tube. The difference between the two is significant when padding 5 miles out (and back). A baitwell, which sits atop a kayak, certainly adds weight. A bait tube however, which is usually a PVC tube with pukas and attached via rope, adds considerable drag as it gets towed behind the kayak. We’ll get to adding drag a bit more later. Most skilled kayak anglers I know opt for the more elegant approach of a baitwell.
Some years ago, my fishing teacher Danford Hong custom-built a baitwell for me, specifically for the Scupper Pro. The fiberglass baitwell is beautiful by design, as it effectively replaces my front hatch and allows the added water weight to sit with a low center of gravity.
A Bloody Battle Ahead
We got to our destination by 9am. Joon stopped to check his gear as I began my initial pass through the zone.
Suddenly the drag started yelping on my Shimano Talica 16ii reel. I stopped paddling and let my live opelu do the selling for me. My Shimano Talavera rod is now also twitching. One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. It’s times like this when time slows down and the task at-hand snaps into focus.
I took my rod out of the pole holder and dialed up the lever drag a bit. There was something heavy on the other end, that was certain. It wasn’t fighting much at first though, typical of my experiences with a marlin when it’s first hooked from a kayak.
All of a sudden, the blue marlin erupted from the ocean. It was furious I had the audacity to hook it. And it let me know it by tail walking across the water, plumes of whitewash in its wake. I then did what I’ve done in my previous two marlin matches, I yelled in unbridled joy and got ready for the intimate, bloody battle ahead.
A Worthy Adversary
In the beginning, it’s always a moment of disbelief. Could that enraged, apex predator with a weapon of its own, really be attached to my line? Then when the line goes from a wide loop to a straight line and your kayak immediately changes direction, you get your answer. For now the sleigh ride begins.
As my kayak picked up speed that Sunday morning, the marlin tail walked a couple more times in front of me. It’s an indelible memory for me, getting towed by a ferocious predator roughly the same size as the kayak I paddled out in.
After the initial tail walks, the marlin tried to tow my kayak out to sea. As I’m already five miles out, this is a problem. As I learned from the Uyeda Brothers, true kayak fishing innovators, there’s a clever solution at-hand.
Since I was targeting marlin that day, I already had my drift chute attached to my kayak and within arm’s reach. I quickly deployed it and extinguished the blue marlin’s race to Kauai.
Now that it couldn’t drag me anywhere, the marlin dove deep. I let up the drag a bit, letting it take out line at the expense of its energy. When it stopped taking line, I cranked up the drag and boosted em!
In reality, my forearms were burning and I was thoroughly sweating. It became a tug of war, each side trading advances in a battle to the bloody end. It’s times like this where a two-speed reel like the Talica 16ii comes in handy. I engaged its low gear and winch by winch, gained ground on my fierce opponent.
As the marlin got closer, it began to spin me around in circles, which caused a problem with my drift chute getting stuck in the fishing line. Requiring apelike dexterity, I straddled the kayak to prevent myself from flipping over and used my right foot to grab my drift chute by the toes. As my foot passed the drift chute to my hands, I let up on the drag and was able to successfully remove my drift chute from the water. No sooner had I done that though, the marlin sensed it could move me at-will and thus resumed its travel out to sea.
I tossed my chute back in the water, stopped its pace out, and it quickly switched back to an up and down fight. This agitated choreography happened several more times: drift chute gets tossed in the water, which leads to us circling each other, which leads to the line getting caught in the drift chute, which then leads to drift chute coming out of the water.
At around the 25 minute mark, I could see my 100# mono making its way through my rod guides. I then knew the marlin was only 50 feet from me. At this point, a curious boat circled me, somewhat baffled and stoked by what they were seeing. I must admit, I did enjoy the attention.
As the marlin got to within 20 feet, I could see its white belly, a tell tale sign it was ready for me to pierce it with my kage. I untethered my bespoke kage, which was custom made for me some years ago by Uncle Ji Fay, and got ready to land a fish half the length of my own kayak.
As it got to within five feet, I plunged the kage into the bottom of its jaw and out its head: the threaded metal giving me its reassuring victory cry- ‘Thrraaapp!’
I next gaffed its head, which “Da Hammah” had given to me earlier that morning, and used my gloves to grab its bill. I then pulled it close to me and cut its gills.
Still straddling the kayak, marlin blood now streamed onto my board shorts, its bony scales rubbing the flesh away from my leg as we bobbed together in deep blue water. Its scales were now causing me to bleed along with it. There we were, opponents in an arena 3,000 feet deep, horns locked, in an up close, bloody battle to the very end.
After a successful 30 minute battle, I wasn’t pau yet. Not by a long shot.
The Long Paddle Back
Joon was nearby at this point, cheering and filming from his GoPro. I mentioned to him to take a lap around the grounds while I secured the blue marlin to my blue kayak. From my previous two marlins, I knew time was now of the essence. The marlin’s bloodtrail would eventually attract undesired company.
Along with the drift chute, I brought along some other kayak marlin gear: rope. Using a short piece of rope with surgeon’s loop knots on either end, I hopped in the water and secured the marlin’s tail to the kayak’s stern, near the rear hatch. This was not the optimum procedure though, as I had forgotten that securing the marlin’s head first is better.
At any rate, I swam down and grabbed the marlin’s bill as it torpedoed in thousands of feet of deep blue. With the bill in (gloved) hand, I kicked to catch up with my kayak, which was drifting towards Kaena Point. Mind you, the marlin’s tail was still firmly secure to the rear of the kayak, but covering those ten feet or so between the front of the kayak and the marlin’s head was still a bit of work.
I next wrapped another piece of rope around the marlin’s mouth and secured it as best I could to the front hatch of the kayak. Taking a quick peek below me to make sure there wasn’t a surprise visitor, I hopped back in my kayak.
It was now time to go in, as I was now the bait.
Covering an average speed of 1.8 knots, I steadily made my way back to Pokai Bay. I was fortunate that Joon accompanied me back, providing a sense of security should any large predators pick up on my miles-long scent trail.
Around 11am, wind picked up out of the south and steadily below across my starboard side, lapping an occasional wind wave into my lap. “Keep moving, don’t stop,” I told myself. Now was not the time to stop, take pictures, or celebrate.
Three and a half hours later, I found myself inside the protected cove of Pokai Bay. I had stopped for quick water breaks twice during my paddle back.
There were quite a few people at the beach that day, enjoying the amenities of Pokai Bay. Maybe a dozen of them came around the kayak as Joon and I dragged it and the marlin up onto the sand. Exhausted, happy, thankful.
I am keen to take it as an omen of big things to come in 2021.