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Big-game anglers often refer to the Kona coast on the Big Island of Hawaii as the "land of the giants." Few places in the world offer a better shot at hooking 1,000-pound-plus Pacific blue marlin so close to shore. It's ironic, however, that a good number of billfish enthusiasts end up in Kona seeking not the largest member of the billfish family, but the smallest - the shortbill, or shortnose, spearfish.
Were it not for their rarity, it's doubtful that spears would evoke such intrigue and curiosity from big-game anglers. These fish average only 35 pounds, yet the same sportsmen who scour the globe searching for grander blues and blacks often find that the last feather missing in their cap is the elusive spearfish. And since Kona plays host to one of the world's largest spearfish populations, anglers usually head to Kona when looking to complete their quest of landing all nine billfish species for the coveted royal billfish slam.
Of course, for every spearfish caught in the context of a grand, global billfish venture, a good many more come to novice anglers who never even knew the species existed. Atlantic spearfish inhabit the waters off the East Coast of the United States, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, but it is usually an incidental catch by anglers targeting other species. In Kona, spearfish often grab a lure rigged on tackle geared toward a big blue, making the encounter brief and more of a curiosity than a conquest.
Anglers looking to purposefully target spearfish often go with a captain who will scale down his gear to fit the target. With that in mind, I interviewed three of Kona's more experienced captains who cater to this special pursuit of spearfish, including Marlin Parker, Guy Terwilliger and Gene Vanderhoek. These skippers graciously let me ride along on a charter during the height of the 2009 spearfish season so that I could tap into their significant reservoir of knowledge.
Son of the late George Parker who pioneered big-game fishing in Hawaii more than 60 years ago, Marlin Parker continues the family tradition. He's highly regarded in big-game fishing circles, racking up numerous awards and tournament wins, including the Bisbee's Black & Blue. Parker also carried on his father's tradition of building custom lures, and his beautiful Marlin Magic Lures enjoy a huge following around the world. I interviewed Parker from the bridge of his 54-foot custom Allied Marine, Marlin Magic II.
"The most incredible thing about spearfish is that I never saw them in the 1960s," Parker says. "I'm born and raised here, and my dad and Henry Chee pretty much started the sport-fishing industry in Kona in the '40s, but only into the '70s did we start catching spearfish. It was a whole new species to us."
How do you explain that? Were you using totally different lures?
"No, we would have been catching them way back if they were around. Yet now when the spearfish are here, you can get three to eight shots in a day. I have a lot of people come here specifically to target spearfish because it's their last billfish to catch."
What types of lures will you use for spearfish, and how will you run them?
"I make a lure called the AP, and it's a small 7-inch lure that they absolutely love. They'll eat any lure in the 7-inch range, but they'll also attack a bigger lure at times. I'll run a 7-inch AP on the far-back long rigger or in the stinger position, and when they are around, you're pretty much guaranteed one a day."
Does the season for spearfish vary from year to year?
"If you come between January and May, you have a pretty good opportunity to catch them. This year  the spearfish stayed here in the summer, which is odd. When there's a lot of big marlin around, the spearfish get eaten. I use 130s for big marlin, and spearfish aren't that much fun on that tackle. Earlier in the year, we'll throw a 16 or a 30 out there and they're a blast to catch, a lot like a sail. Many fly enthusiasts come out and chase them, which is a lot of fun because they tease really well. On our first attempt at a spearfish on a fly, we got one on 16-pound tippet, and it was a good 41 pounds. The largest one I've caught here, which I think is the second-largest spearfish caught in Hawaii, was 69 pounds. I think the largest was 72."
If you have five or six lures out there and you have one on a 16 or 30, what percentage of the time are they going to go for that versus the larger lures with bigger tackle?
"About 75 percent. They tend to hit a little bit longer, from the short rigger out. Rarely do they come in for short baits, unless you're running all small lures. If we have a guy who's targeting spearfish, we won't run any big lures."
What colors do spearfish prefer?
"The standard blue, silver, pink or sometimes pure pink. If there are a lot of squid around, we like to use purple, silver or blue. They're not picky like tuna or blue marlin. They're lucky to catch anything, as slow as they are."
How do spearfish usually come into the spread?
"They don't have much of a tail, so they're not very quick. I'm usually trolling 8½ to 9 knots, but if I slow it down to 8, I'm going to catch more action with spears because they're not sprinters."