Kona’s Winter Fishing Update

Great fishing has continued throughout the season this year

A sport-fishing crewmate brings a marlin boatside.
A nice Kona blue marlin, ready for release. Carol Lynne

The fishing in Kona, Hawaii, has been outstanding this winter, after an erratic summer. It started to get good in November, which is not unusual. What is unusual, though, is that the action remained above average through winter and into spring.

This run of blue marlin has continued into April, defying most preconceptions and exceptions. Still going strong, this officially qualifies as a fishing event, even if there is actually no one to “officialize” such things.

On Friday, March 4, alone, at least seven blue marlin 500 pounds or better were reported, with three weighed, and four caught and released. Two marlin were weighed after they did not survive release: one was 501 pounds on Mauna Kea, and the other was a 657-pounder from the new Marlin Magic. Of the marlin released, two were called 550 pounds, and the other two were let go at 650 apiece. The next day, Sundowner reported their 50th marlin for 2022, with 12 released at over 400 pounds for the year.

Hawaii has a different system than the US mainland when it comes to taking marlin. Although the charter fleet releases about 95 percent of all marlin caught, some fish simply do not survive the release. Islanders abhor waste, and when a fish doesn’t make it, it can be brought in, where it will be consumed, as has been done here for centuries.

The largest fish landed in early March weighed in at 798 pounds and was captured on a small skiff, which is pretty common in Kona waters. What is uncommon is that this catch began when the crew of Lolo Malolo ­spotted something on the surface that Capt. Paul Gouveia initially thought was a ­capsized boat.

After pulling in their lines, they saw that it was a large marlin belly-up, not a boat. It appeared to be kicking slightly, but when they eased up to it, the fish did not spook. Close enough to touch it, they marveled at the spectacle of the big fish while also trying to figure out what was going on.

They determined that the marlin was very fresh but appeared to be near death for some reason. Not wanting to see the great fish wasted to sharks, a conversation ensued about what to do with it. While they talked, Paul Hofflich grabbed his spear gun and planted a spear in the head of the marlin from a short distance, wondering what would happen next.

Then nothing happened. The fish was done for. So they pulled it alongside the boat by the spear line and continued their “Now what?” discussion.

It took some doing, but they towed it in, where it was taken to Hilo for processing. In the end, they had made the right move; the fish was not wasted to sharks, but no one could ever determine what caused the fish to die.

Reports from later in March include: Beast Mode, 3-for-4 in one day, with the largest called 650; Marlin Magic caught one they called 600; Sweet Sadie let one go at 600; and Last Chance went 3-for-5 on smaller blues.

A few days later, Marlin Magic scored another 600-plus-pounder, and Camelot edged out Lolo Malolo with a 799-pounder. On the same day, Bite Me II let one go in the 500-pound range. A couple of days later, young Jack Leverone caught a Kona Slam, consisting of a blue marlin, striped marlin and spearfish, all in the same day.

A look at the SeaView current charts doesn’t show the usual conditions that generate good fishing around here. As with the 798-pound marlin’s mysterious death, no one seems to be able to say for certain what is going on, or why.

An assorted collection of sport-fishing lures.
While live-baiting has produced a number of huge blue marlin over the years, trolling a spread of lures is by far the most popular ­technique in Hawaiian waters. Richard Gibson

In the world of marlin, all the big ones are female, and they usually come to Kona in summer to spawn. This past summer, however, not one of the females brought to the scales in the Hawaii Marlin Tournament Series was in spawning condition. Likewise, the big females processed this winter have been barren of eggs. So, if marlin aren’t spawning in summer or in late winter, something else is going on.
A study published by the UK ­Commonwealth Marine Economics Programme states: “Climate change is expected to have profound effects on oceanic fish habitats, food webs, the fish stocks they support and, as a consequence, the productivity of fisheries…. Based on recent distribution modeling, tuna populations are expected to move eastward and to higher latitudes due to climate drivers.”

This report focuses almost entirely on various tuna species because the economics of the tuna industry drives the funding for most fishery studies of tropical and subtropical species. However, where there’s tuna, there’s marlin—sooner or later.

If this paper is correct, then what the Kona skippers have been ­experiencing could, at least in part, be attributed to this eastward shift of stocks. It might also explain why none in this stock of fish are in spawning condition. Perhaps they didn’t come to Kona to spawn; they just got shoved over here from where they usually hang out. Capt. Tracy Epstein put it this way: “The body of water we have around us now just seems to be holding a lot of fish.”

When you spend years and years out on the ocean, you learn to visualize and understand the concept of movements of large bodies of water within the massive Pacific Ocean. Pockets of life are created by a combination of factors such as trade winds, currents and bathymetric features. So, what happens if we get more marlin but they stop coming to spawn? On this topic, the paper says, “The influence of such climate variability can impact the survival of larvae and thus subsequent recruitment, and also redistribution of the most suitable habitats,” which indicates that it is possible that spawning grounds will change.

However, the comment is so general that more studies are needed to address this specific scenario.
Here in Hawaii, Wild Oceans has kicked off a research program it calls the Kona Project, which aims to improve knowledge of the spawning activity and larval distribution of marlin in the Kona Gyre. This eddy turns in the lee of the Big Island, but the far side of the gyre can be more than 200 miles offshore, affecting the seamounts and Penguin Banks, for starters. Scientists believe this ecosystem to be the single most important spawning ground in the entire northern Pacific.

Although every captain agrees with “I’ll take it!” when it comes to better fishing, it is with uncanny timing that the Kona Project has commenced to ­figure out why.

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