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In the late 1950s, a spectator watching giant blue marlin and yellowfin tuna being weighed from a palm tree on the lawn of the historic Kona Inn led to the founding of one of the sport’s most enduring events: the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament.
That spectator was the Kona Inn’s manager at the time, Peter Fithian, and he was truly amazed by the sight of these impressive gamefish. With his experience organizing the Masters golf tournaments back on the mainland, he wondered if something could be created to showcase not just the great fishing but the sport’s legendary captains and anglers as well.
After talking to a few of the local fishermen—including Henry Chee, who was inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame in 2008—the idea of a fishing tournament was discussed. Some basic rules were drawn up, and with the help of the IGFA, the first tournament was organized for August 1959. To make the event even more interesting, invitations were sent out to fishing clubs in the US and also to Hawaii’s Pacific neighbors in Australia and New Zealand for what became known around the world as the HIBT.
As the years went by, the number of records broken for blue marlin continued well into the 1970s, and in 1974, the IGFA 50-pound-test record was smashed with a 762-pound fish. That record stood for over a decade, until it was completely blown away in 1986 when angler Gil Kraemer landed a 1,062.5-pounder in the HIBT.
Many anglers thought Kraemer’s fine effort would be a tough one to knock off until Ray Hawkes from the Balboa Angling Club in California landed a monster blue weighing 1,166 pounds in 1993. That incredible capture remains the IGFA world record today and is yet another testament to the excellent billfishing in Kona.
After nearly a four-year wait, the anglers finally returned to Kona in 2023 for this long-standing celebration of the sport. It was nice to see the traditional pre-tournament Hawaiian entertainment for the event had not changed. To make this competition fair, the teams enter a boat draw to fish aboard a different vessel every day.
The first day’s fishing was picture-perfect, with sunny blue skies and flat-calm seas. As always, it didn’t take long for the radio chatter to be interrupted when Capt. Kevin Hibbard aboard the 43-foot Allied 2nd Offense called in a hookup. Angler Martin Dallow from the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club of New Zealand was fighting an estimated 200-pound blue marlin on 50-pound. The blue was successfully tagged and released.
The Japanese team of Masaharu Matsushita and Daisuke Yamazaki from the Kona Game Fishing Club Taiyo, fishing on the 38-foot Bertram Maverick, were the ones to quickly hit the tournament lead when they tagged and released two blue marlin. The bigger of the two marlin Matsushita released with a satellite tag he had sponsored. A total of five blue marlin and five spearfish were tagged for the day.
By midweek, the billfish action continued as one of the other Japanese teams, the Ohana Fishing Club, was battling in a close dual with the Kona Taiyo team and only a few points separated them. The Kona Taiyo team angler Matsushita also caught and tagged a spearfish to give his team valuable extra points to keep themselves in the lead.
Quite a few lady anglers entered the fray; in fact, 20 percent of the anglers were females. Heidi McBride from the US Mission Bay Game Fishing Club is hardly a stranger to the HIBT, and she had two blue marlin on the scoreboard and was determined to get a satellite tag in another. McBride got her wish on the second-to-last day with a satellite tag firmly placed in a solid 300-pounder.
Heading into the final days, the two Japanese team leaders were neck and neck, and despite the Kona GFC Taiyo team leading all week, they failed to add any points on the last day. Luckily, they held on to their narrow first-place lead to take home the Governor’s Trophy as the top team. The Ohana Fishing Club team was the runner-up.
But the highlight of this memorable event would belong to Hibbard and his team on 2nd Offense, who created HIBT history by winning the Henry Chee Memorial Trophy in two consecutive years. This prestigious trophy was established in 1965 to recognize the charter boat captain accumulating the greatest number of billfish during the tournament, and it is a fitting testament to the skill displayed during this annually held tournament.