Fish Hook

Last    Contents    Next

Fish Hook

     It was in the summer of 1975. A year before, we had moved to Hilo, Hawaii. Patti and I had landed there with Johnny, 3 1/2 years old. We always had good house Karma, and this was no exception. By a timely bit of good fortune, there was an ad in the Hilo Tribune for someone to run a rooming house in town, in exchange for rent. We answered the ad and got the job.

     Kimo Cunard, part Hawaiian, was the owner, and the deal was straightforward: we kept the rooms rented, cleaned the common areas, mowed the lawn, collected the rents, and we got the penthouse apartment. We paid $75/month just to keep the shoe on the right foot, and he left us alone to handle everything. This was just like the gig we had just left: running the Newport Hotel in Ocean Beach, San Diego, three blocks from the ocean.

     Haili Street runs straight up through from the Hilo Bayfront to the base of Haili Hill, an ancient volcanic cinder cone, with a road winding up to the top. The house was a large ohana style house. It seemed to stand almost three stories tall. The mostly above ground basement had three bedroom units, the laundry and a bathroom. The main level had four bedroom units, a common bathroom, and a large kitchen that was shared by all the renters.

     Up an interior staircase off the entry hall was our pad. It was almost unbelievable good fortune, except that is was the latest in an long series of cool digs we had occupied since we first got together in college. It was a one bedroom apartment, which had its own kitchen and bathroom, but stepping through the sliding shoji panel doors, you entered a large traditional Japanese tatami room, classic straw mat floor, a tokanoma on one end, two sides with sliding rice paper shoji doors opened to a 5 foot wide glass enclosed sun porch that wrapped around sides of the room to the East and South.

     Hilo Bay lay below us, a spectacular view day and night. Often in the clear of the morning, you could see the day's weather lining up off into the distance being carried directly toward us by the 11 mph trade winds. You could look out there and see, "Well, its going to rain until about 11:00 and then be sunny all afternoon", for instance. Or vice versa. It was good information to have, since it rained almost every day. Off to the south you could see the clouds passing over Puna, then coming to a halt at Volcano and backing up further and further down slope toward the ocean. The days you could expect the most rain were days when enough clouds backed up enough to let this whole cloud mass to stall over Hilo and Puna. Then it would rain long and hard.

     There was an odd mix of characters that lived there, some for a short time. Some people who passed through became lifelong friends. These two guys, I am sorry, I don't remember their names, were working divers and sometimes fisherman. I'd heard plenty of their tales of the nightmarish conditions they had experienced deep underwater. In dim and murky sites of many projects, 100 ft. below or more, they had commonly used acetylene torches to cut away large steel structures that had become obsolete or damaged, and needed to be removed. Cutting through a particular girder could bring a collapse the larger structure, invisible outside the area lighted by the torches, bringing down more steel and cables, cascading through the darkness.

     Anyway, I was never tempted to join them in that kind of work, but this one time, it seemed like a good idea to go fishing with them. Ahi is Hawaiian for yellow fin tuna. Fully grown they weigh more than 200 lbs. Its delicious dark red flesh is a favorite for sashimi, sushi, and the way we cooked it most often, inch thick steak braised over a wood fire hibachi. During the summer the conditions for ahi fisherman are ideal. The sea is largely calm; the weather balmy and great runs of ahi follow swarms of squid along a great current that runs from the northwest between Maui and the north end of the Big Island and on to the southeast into the Pacific. It brings a great bonanza of deliciousness to the island fish markets, and in the big grocery stores the price could occasionally dip down to $1.00 per lb.

     My cohorts from Haili Street had a 30-foot boat, with little wheelhouse and cabin, largely open in the back, like a big flatbed truck, with waist high rails. It was a no frills working boat for divers/fishermen with plenty of room to stage the dive gear, or haul a small cargo, or haul in and secure some really big fish. One night they had a really big catch. Between the two of them they had brought in nine of the 200+ pound ahi, and at the wholesale price that day they each made over $1000 in one night. They were eager get back out there and repeat their good fortune, but realized they could have done even better with a third man on board. They invited me to join in.

     Ahi fishing takes place at night far from shore. By the late afternoon we'd got the boat cleaned up and fueled, and as the sun goes down behind Mauna Kea and the air begins to cool, little fishing boats like ours are starting their engines down in small boat harbor on the Wailoa river near the Suisun Fish market where the boys had been off loading their catch 10 hours before.

     The two were exhausted from lack of sleep and hard work the night before, and as we started out of the harbor, they bustled around in their usual routines. Our boat cleared a marker buoy and the boys corrected course to the north; then they went down into the cabin to eat their sandwiches, pop open some beers and relax. I stayed up on the deck of the prow with my meal just to observe my exit of the bay for the first time. As time went on, it looked to me like we were heading toward the manmade jetty that shelters Hilo Bay. I shouted down into the cabin over the sound of the diesel engine, "Hey, I think we're heading toward the rocks!" They shouted back up, "It just looks that way, you'll see."

     So I'm the new guy here and ready to learn; respectful of my mentors of the moment, and I watch in the darkening dusk for the gap in the jetty to appear. I gave them all the benefit of the doubt I could, but at about thirty or forty yards from impact, I decided better to risk being a fool, I shouted, "We're going to hit the jetty!" They scrambled up to see and sure enough, we were about to crash. In their tiredness, they had made the right turn toward the open ocean after the first buoy, not the second, as they had always done before. I had earned my pay before we left the harbor.

     I hadn't anticipated there would be any danger of crashing into rocks that night, there weren't any rocks where we were going. After we cleared the harbor, the plan was to chug northeast through the dark open ocean until a certain alignment of identifiable lights on the Hamakua coast told us we reached the Maui current, about 40 miles from shore. This time they really could ignore piloting the boat; we were just going to go the same speed in the same direction for at least 3 hours. The kind of hazard I thought I would face was to get seasick from the motion, the smell of the diesel exhaust and fish guts, the sandwiches and warm beer, but that wasn't what the night held. The most unexpected things happened that night. The ocean was rising and falling so gently that no real swell was evident; the diesel smoke blew off to the west when we were moving and the food was sitting well in my stomach.

     Finally we reached a spot they judged to be ideal and we stopped. Out of a box in the cabin they pulled a 30 ft. coil of electrical wire with an ordinary looking light bulb in the middle of it. They strung it down into the water so that it hung under the keel, and they turned it on. It lit up a 50-foot underwater orb of light, and in a few minutes hundreds of squid, mostly 8 to 10 inches long, came rising toward it. We each had a gig, which was a 5 foot bamboo pole with an array of fish hooks attached to one end reaching out in all directions, so that sweeping it down through the rising squid it was easy to snag them. In 10 minutes or so we had a couple of buckets to use for bait for the rest of the night, and the light was turned off and brought back on board.

     They started up the engine, and moved another mile farther east, then shut down again. This was the spot. We baited four lines with squid, and dropped them off the corners of the deck. I don't remember how the leader and hooks were set up I only did it twice, then never again; but the line that came over the gunnels and into my hands was like a quarter inch cotton rope. We were going after these big fish with hand lines.

     Then we waited quietly. My buddies were going to try to get some sleep slumped down with fishing lines in their hands, and my job was to be a little more alert. I, at the third line, was half dozing in a dreamy state. The light trade winds slowed, then turned into a breeze, then a whisper, then became completely still. The surface of the water had no ripple. There was absolutely no swell. The boat, with us stationary inside it, sat as still as if it were lodged in cement. The whole ocean became flat like a quiet lake. It was completely still like a vast sheet of glass.

     The Hawaiian islands are the peaks of very steep mountains rising from a very deep ocean, so when you are offshore 40 miles to the East of the easternmost island, you are on waters 3 miles deep. I didn't know that could happen; out upon the deepest ocean, the surface could become motionless.

     A mist rose off the water and hovered. There was no movement of air to scatter it. The intentionally minimal light from the cabin's radio equipment was just enough to give definition to the deck and gunnels, the objects and people within; and as the fog thickened you could no longer see the island shore lights off in the distance, just a shrinking circle of grey mist above flat glass. The vapor stood 8-10 feet above the water, so that if you looked up, you could see through it to the bright stars of the Hawaiian sky.

     Except for the conked-out forms of my captains, I was surreally alone there for nearly an hour to contemplate the vision and explore the allegories: a completely unexpected meditation in the "desert with its life underground".

     Then, BBbzzzzz, BBbzzzzz, BBbzzzzz! At once our three lines were hit violently as three big ahi took our bait. And we gave them a hard yank to set the hook. Each of these fish outweighed each of us, so the strategy was to team up on one fish at a time.

     I tied off the line I had been tending, and went to help the others. One of them had quickly turned on a light and we set to work pulling in the big fish and gaffing him over the rail. The first one had quite a bit of fight. With 200 lbs. of muscle desperately flapping around on the deck, it could easily knock you off your feet. The second one was less trouble as it had been towing the boat around for ten minutes, and it was spent. The third fish, "my fish" since that was the line I was tending and the hook I set, had nothing left. It was like pulling sack of rocks out of the water hand over hand until it reached the surface; then we gaffed the nearly lifeless fish and hefted it from the water.

     That was the last fish I ever caught. That was the last time I ever went fishing. It was about 1 in the morning. We baited all of our lines again, and cut the lights, but we didn't get another bite that night. At about 3 AM they decided to call it quits and head back to Hilo with the three Ahi we had, each over 200 lbs.

     Pulling an exhausted fish out of the sea. The food chain doesn't need my participation at that level. I'm happy to pay a man for a fish he caught to support his family. That works for me. Which is what I was doing that night; catching a fish so that I could take $100 home to my wife and my little boy, 1975.

     Now about this fishing lure: this kind of fishing lure is nothing like the gear we were using that night. We just had big sinkers, big hooks, and squid. This lure had nothing to do with the biggest fish I ever caught, except in the mind of my little boy. Not long after this fishing expedition, my wife and I parted ways, and I went back to the mainland for about six months. This fishing lure was an offering that my 4-year old son found at a Pahala yard sale and gave me when I returned, because he had heard this story and he thought of me as a great fisherman.

     I'm never going to have another fish story to top that one, so I quit while I was ahead. And this lure is my trophy from Johnny's Hall of Fame.

Not a Garage Sale. That's just the name of the book.

Last    Contents    Next

 © 2022 John Oliver
All Rights Reserved