KAILUA-KONA — Some words from veteran angler Martin Firestein following the first day of fishing at the HIBT proved to be prophetic: “It’s a long tournament.”
The 60th edition of the historic, five-day event proved to be even a little longer than scheduled, as a hook-up just before ‘stop fishing’ by a contending squad forced an overtime of sorts on Friday for the final day of fishing.
The father-son Firestein duo of Martin and Mitchell jumped off their boat at Kailua Pier in first place, having led the tournament wire-to-wire. However, their faces did not read like a team that had just made history with a record fourth title for their Laguna Niguel Billfish Club. Instead the pair remained stone-faced behind their blue-tinted sun glasses, awaiting the news about the fish that Houston Big Game Fishing Club-Team Hilo had hooked.
They were not ready to celebrate just yet — and it would be a while.
After four marlin tags on the first day of fishing netted the team 1,200 points and a few more through the week — including a short-nose spearfish on Day 5 — the Firesteins finished with 1,600 points, just just ahead of Japan’s Olympian Dream Fishing Club (1,450 points) and the Flying Fijians from Denarau Game and Sportsfishing Club (1,450).
Mitchell Firestein had done the math, and while the Houston Big Game Club had just 1,250 points, he knew they were vulnerable if the fish that was being fought was a marlin over the 300-pound minimum. If it turned out to be the heaviest fish of the day — over 334.8 pounds — they were doomed.
“From the get-go today, it was nerve-wracking,” Mitchell Firestein said. “Every time the radio would crackle we would jump up to see who it was that was hooked up. But by the end of the day, the last hour or so, we just told ourselves we had no control over it.”
In the HIBT, if a team hooks up before stop fishing, they get the chance to fight the fish, no matter how long it takes. The Houston Big Game Club started their fight at 3:51 p.m., just nine minutes before stop fishing. As the field of anxious anglers awaited the word on the fish, old-timers told stories about instances in the six decades of tournament history where they had waited until the wee hours of the night to weigh the final fish. It was shaping up to be one of those nights, as hours passed on their pier without much news.
But just after 6 p.m., HIBT director Roberta Fithian took to the mic in the Shouting Room tent on the pier to give an update.
“I know you guys want to know what happened to that final fish that was hooked up,” she told the crowd of anglers. “It was an ahi and it was eaten by a shark.”
Mitchell Firestein — who had been sipping on a few drinks in an effort to brace for the worst — clenched his fist in victory and could finally relax. The HIBT Governor’s Trophy was theirs.
“I asked for something stiff and told the bartender it was either going to celebratory drink or a sad drink,” Mitchell Firestein said. “With fishing, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Luckily, it worked out for us today.”
But the celebration wasn’t quite over. His dad wasn’t around to hear the announcement, so Mitchell broke the news to him in front of the scoreboard, giving him a mighty embrace.
It was a record fourth win for a Laguna Niguel Club at the HIBT, moving them out of a tie with multiple other clubs that had three. It was the first victory for the Firesteins, whose previous top finish was second place.
When asked for a quote about the win, Martin Firestein kept it short to save time after the extended afternoon.
“Wow!” he exclaimed, patting his son on the back. “You don’t need a recorder for that one.”
Thanks to a big first day fishing with the Firesteins, Capt. Kevin Hibbard on Second Offense took home the Henry Chee award. The award was established by the board of governors in 1965 to recognize the charter boat captain accumulating the greatest number of billfish points during the tournament.
Hibbard finished with 1,800 points, just ahead of Keven Nakamaru on Northern Lights II (1,774.5).
Hibbard’s crew included Brandon Wilder and OB Morten.
Showing up the blokes
India Thompson has been on the water as long as she can remember, joking that she probably had a fishing pole in her hand before she could walk.
Thompson fished with the St. Helens Game Fishsing Club, becoming the first team to represent Tasmania — Australia’s only island state — at the HIBT. She was also among a small group of female anglers in the tournament.
Thompson’s tournament ended on a high-note, hauling in an estimated 150-pound blue marlin.
“It was a good fight,” Thompson said of her catch. “The fishing has been outstanding here.”
She hopes that more women try out the sport and compete with the “blokes.”
“Honestly, I wish more women would take up the opportunity to get out here,” she said. “We have the potential to show the males up. The physical side of things doesn’t come into it and you are competing just like the men are. More girls need to participate — and once they do that, we can run the world.”
Fithian says aloha
The HIBT was founded 60 years ago, the same year Hawaii gained statehood, when a small group of local anglers assembled in Peter Fithian’s Kona Inn office. Since its humble beginnings, the tournament’s iconic status has evolved throughout the fishing world.
As the 60th year came to a close, Fithian gave a thank-you to the town that has evolved alongside the tournament.
“For 60 years, the Kona community has welcomed the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament with love and aloha. We are appreciative of the community’s support throughout the tournament’s history,” he said. “Mahalo to Kona for all you have given. It took a long time to build a tournament like this one. The first 30 years are really the testing grounds. After that, you find the commitment, but catching a fish is still the largest wildcard.”