Wright On: With Hilo Trollers, even small bites are a big catch

  • CJ Lewis and Kawaipilialoha's caught this 45-pound ono last season during the Hilo Trollers' season.

A strange thing happened when CJ Lewis first set eyes on the 16-foot boat up for sale.

This was “four or five years ago,” to the best of Lewis’ memory. The boat was being sold by a friend of his father. CJ was around 24 or 25 years of age at the time, born and raised in Hilo, yet he had been in a boat only twice in his life.

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It happens. Not everyone grows up on the water, even when you live on an island. He wouldn’t even self-identify as a novice boater, but in this moment, that truth was beside the point. On that day, CJ Lewis saw a more meaningful truth.

An epiphany struck him. It was as though a veil was lifted that had previously obscured his vision. He was looking at the boat, but he was seeing ohana. He saw the smiles on the faces of his older brother, Nathan Orezillo, and his younger brother, Caleb Lewis. He saw them all together.

“I was thinking about my brothers, my family,” Lewis said the other day, “and I was thinking this could be something that could bring us together more, get us to see each other more, talk story, all of that.

“I didn’t know anything about fishing, but that had nothing to do with it.”

Lately, fishing has a lot to do with the free time Lewis can find between his job at the water department and his new role as president of the Hilo Trollers, a local, community-business supported club. They organize a series of tournaments from April-September — six this year — that involves members trying to catch the biggest marlin, ahi, ono and mahi mahi they can find.

The club is small, with no intentions of growing bigger and selling out to corporations for bigger prizes for the winners.

“These are local people who enjoy each others’ company as much as anything,” said Craig Severance, a former competitor who now serves as the weigh master for the club that includes “40 or 50” members. “We have mechanics, a lawyer, a dentist, we have Japanese, Hawaiians, an occasional haole like me, we are about as multicultural as it gets, and everyone has fun.”

About that fun part, one of the rules of the club is that the grand champion each year, the one who compiles the most points in the summer-long competition, becomes the president for the following year and installs his own board to fill the various duties.

“Oh man,” Lewis said, “that part is going to take a while, I’ve got a lot to learn.”

The reward is indicative of the club’s priorities. You become champion, you immediately give back to the club with your time and effort, and you bring in others to help. It’s an admirable policy.

If Lewis learns how to administrate anything like he learned how to fish, it shouldn’t be a problem. Last year was the first time Lewis and his brothers, in their boat Kawaipilialoha competed in the monthly tournaments. Here’s how they did:

First place — Largest Ono, 45 pounds

First place — Largest Mahimahi, 27 pounds

First place — Largest Ahi, 167.3 pounds

First place — Largest, and only, Marlin 502.6 pounds.

Fisherman of the Year — 741.9 pounds of each of largest.

In all, they won five perpetual trophies (returned at the end of each year), total weight, got the only marlin and won the Opala award, with its perpetual trophy.

They did it all ohana style, with brothers in arms working together with a sense of humility and gratitude.

“I think we got lucky maybe along the way,” Lewis said. “We just took our time, tried to learn what we could and it turned out pretty good for us.”

At 29, CJ Lewis is a deep-water ocean fishing champion five years or so after he bought his first boat with no intention of ever entering these tournaments. His idea was to get his brothers together go out on the water just relax and see what the island looked like from out there in the deep blue.

“Everything we learned was by trial and error,’ he said. “People are so friendly, they want to help you, everyone was happy to talk to us and maybe share some wisdom, it all helped.”

In the learning process, they ran into members of Hilo Trollers who encouraged them to join, touting the inexpensive price of the $50 membership. Lewis discussed with his brothers, but they agreed they lacked the experience.

Then they heard about the Opala Award, which is given to the boat in each tournament that brings back the most ocean trash, plastic floaters, tote bags, bins, coolers, all the non-organic junk that can be found. Two years ago they competed in the Opala category and that involvement brought them closer to an understanding of what it takes to fish.

“We weren’t sure we could do the (fishing) competition, but the idea of picking up trash, helping the environment a little, at least as much as one boat can in this little spot in the middle of the ocean, was something we thought would be fun and good to do at the same time.

“That ended up getting us into the competition,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were ready to compete, but we were ready to try.”

Lewis and brothers approached the season tentatively, trying to implement some of the ideas and particular tactics they had learned.

There had been a new appreciation of where they lived, the beauty and thrills of being out on the water that they were all learning together.

“Our idea was to get out on the water and enjoy the day,” Lewis said. “If we would catch something, that would be great, if not, we would still be picking up trash, helping the environment and having fun.

“No, no,” he said, repeating a question, “we didn’t go out there thinking, ‘win or else,’ that was never mentioned.”

Still, they were doing well. You accrue points as the season goes along and theKawaipilialoha was positioned to win the overall championship going into the last tournament.

“We we re keeping track, we knew where we were,” Lewis said, “but we were still looking for that big one, that big marlin.”

And they got it. After Severance performed his weigh master duties, the marlin checked in at 502.6 pounds, clinching the victory for the Hilo Trollers rookies, but when asked about it, the numbers and awards fall away for Lewis.

He remembers the rush.

“It’s hard to explain the feeling when something like that hits the line,” he said, “but it’s like your adrenaline goes to an all-time high, while, at the same time you are hit with all these nerves because you can lose that thing if you aren’t careful.

“All your emotions come together and at that point, it’s game on. You want to jerk that pole, reel it in with everything you have, but you know that doing that can make you to lose the fish altogether, so you are raging with adrenaline and emotion and at the same time; you have to be very careful and strategic.

“That’s where all the discussion with these guys who know more than me helped out,” he said. “You pick up things here and there, you make a mistake and you learn from it and try to do better next time, and it all kind of came together when we got the marlin.”

The other thing that happened that day was maybe less exciting but no less important to the environment. Lewis and brothers hauled in 48 pounds of ocean trash that day, securing a season win in that category.

“We are a group that doesn’t like to play with its food,” Severance said. “We share (the catch) with family and friends, we smoke an awful lot of it to keep. If you want big money tournaments, this isn’t for you, but if you like being accepted by a group of people who want to enjoy the ocean and do some good, you might like our group.”

The club is supported in part by membership and in part by sponsors S. Tokunaga Store, J.Hara Store and Boat House Hawaii. They can be contacted at HiloTrollersFC2gmail.com.

They don’t need to tell you that feeling that shoots from your feet to your head and back again when that big fish hits is the same raw emotion felt by the guy who paid a $4,000 entry fee in a big tournament.

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For CJ Lewis and his brothers, the emotion started with thoughts of ohana and ended with a 502 pound marlin striking hard. He couldn’t have scripted a better start or finish.

Tips, whistleblower alerts, questions? Contact Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com