54th annual Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament kicks off


Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament founder Peter Fithian has quite a bit to reminisce about as he looks down the Kona coast on the eve of the 54th edition of his event.

More than half a century ago, Fithian was the manager of the Kona Inn, sitting in his corner office watching fishermen drag their catches ashore, thinking that Kona would be the perfect place for a large-format sport fishing tournament

“I didn’t go out in the world to find a place to have a fishing tournament; I wanted the rest of the world to see that Kona was the place to have one,” Fithian said. “Kona is an asset. Despite all these new places that pop up, 50 years later, Kona is still one of the top places for people to visit in the world.”

Two days after Hawaii officially became the 50th state, the HIBT premiered. Now, 54 years later, it’s an iconic event, not only within the confines of the Kona community, but around the globe.

“The HIBT has introduced Kona to people from all over the world, and it’s causing those people to come back multiple times,” said Rick Gaffney, who hosted a talk earlier this week on the history of the HIBT in Kona.

Fishing starts tomorrow and runs through Friday, but today the HIBT kicks off with opening ceremonies at the Kailua Pier.

The Hawaii County Band will welcome the 39 teams by playing the national anthem and raising the flags of the 10 countries represented. The event also features food booths, craft vendors and entertainment for all ages.

The opening ceremony is a departure from recent opening ceremonies, where a parade proceeded through Kailua Village. The new format gives the public an opportunity to engage in the festivities in a different way.

“It’s great for the public to be a part of the event,” Fithian said. “We are trying to go back to what the event was back in the day when we celebrated on the pier. We want the community to own a piece of this event.”

While the majority of the action will be on the water, and at the pier at 4:30 p.m. daily for weigh-ins, another event that the public can enjoy is a science night beginning at 6:30 p.m Tuesday.

“There is a lot of fish conservation that goes on in this tournament,” Fithian said. “It has been a great relationship not only with sport fishing, but also fish conservation.”

The lecture will be hosted by Stanford marine biologists Dr. Randy Kochevar and Dr. Aaron Carlisle, and will present the findings of how animal tagging research is being used not only to better understand the biology of migratory marine animals, but also for fisheries management and marine conservation.

Science helps build a better future for game fishing, but the allure of landing a grander is why teams travel to the blue Kona waters. Just the thought of landing a world record fish can make even a veteran captain giddy.

“People see granders regularly in this tournament, but you just need to be in the right place at the right time,” Gaffney said. “On a really good year there can be up to seven granders caught.”

Last year there were 142 fish recorded, including the heaviest boated fish of the tournament — a 642-pound blue marlin caught by Steve Spina of the Malibu Marlin Club of Calif.

The HIBT transcends sports and friendly competition. It has served as a way for people from different nations to form lifelong bonds through fishing.

“It’s fantastic for growing international relations,” said Gaffney. “Anglers and captains meet up here and then up end up fishing with other clubs in tournaments in different countries.”

The international aspect of the tournament also gives the IGFA a platform to share problems from around the world, with people passionate about the future of sport fishing.

“By having officials from the IGFA here, everyone gains a better understanding of the international issues and problems that we face,” Gaffney said. “Having different nations here is important because people from all the nations get a better understanding of the problems and can weigh in on them.”

China is one of the newer nations on the game fishing scene and has seen a huge spike in interest in recent years.

“What we are witnessing with the Chinese now is that they are just beginning to get involved in international sport fishing because it’s not something they have access to in their home country,” said Gaffney. “There is a similar parallel with the Japanese. When I fished the HIBT for the first time in 1964, the first team from Japan came here — the Tokyo Trollers. They really did not have a clue and a lot of coaching was needed.

But since then, the Japanese have gone from barely understanding game fishing to being very enthusiastic international participants. They have become extremely passionate about international game fishing and have a number of world records and tournaments in their own waters.

The Chinese have four teams entered in the HIBT this year.

For a full schedule of events and more information visit www.hibtfishing.com or stop in at the event headquarters at the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel.