The Making Of A Mecca

by Jeanette Foster from
Marlin - The International Sportfishing Magazine - Sept 96

The Year is 1957.....

Ike is President,
the Hula Hoop fad is sweeping the country, and a hip-swaying singer named Elvis has the No. 1 hit record. In a small fishing village in Hawai`i, a young transplant from the East Coast has a crazy idea about promoting Kona through fishing.

"The truth is, I didn't start out to produce an international fishing tournament," admits Peter Fithian, the 68-year-old "grandfather" of fishing tournaments. "I was part of a movement in Kona to get a harbor, maybe set up an organization to help sell fishing charters and unscramble some world records."

In the 1950s Fithian was the manager of the Kona Inn, a small hotel on Kona's waterfront, used mainly by Honolulu residents who ventured to Kona for R&R. Part of the R&R including fishing in the calm, productive waters right offshore. "Every time someone came in with a fish, we would weigh it outside the Kona Inn, and I would haul out my old Speed Graphic camera and take a picture, and then send it to the Hawaii Visitors Bureau," says Fithian. "The photo not only had the fish, but also Kona Inn in the background. I thought I was promoting the Kona Inn, but after awhile, I came to see that I also was promoting the magnificent fishing Kona offered."

On weekends, the tall, slender Fithian went fishing with a local fishermen, Henry Chee, who had strong hands, a ready smile and an innate fishing knowledge. Newcomer Fithian couldn't have had a better teacher, not only about fishing but about the kind of fishing Kona offered.

"The two of us would go out alone, and Chee would talk about the fish he had caught," Fithian says. "These were no fish stories; he had caught hundreds of marlin. I started to think--where else in the world do they catch hundreds of marlin?"

When Fithian looked into this question, he found what he termed "discrepancies" in the world records.

"When I wrote for information on the IGFA world records, I found some discrepancies--they were calling blue marlin blacks, and they were calling black marlin silvers," he says, suddenly sitting forward in his chair, eyes focused with the same intense dedication he probably displayed some 40 years earlier. "And the fishing community couldn't understand the lure fishing we were doing in Kona. I knew that we had to unscramble the record situation before we could do anything else."

Fithian arranged for every marlin caught in Kona to be shipped to Honolulu and frozen so an ichthyologist could identify the fish--to verify whether they were blue, black or silver. Then he stepped back and let the scientists convince the record keepers that Kona was catching big blue marlin, not black marlin.

"The scientists reported to IGFA that in fact we were catching tremendously large blues," Fithian says, smiling at the memory. "No one had ever heard of blues that big. The IGFA recognized our marlin for the true species they were --giant blues."

Timing Is Everything
With the fishing community now talking about these giant blues, Fithian knew he needed to act fast to invite the world to come fish Kona. Relying on his experience with The Masters Golf Tournament in Georgia, Fithian came up with an idea to hold an international fishing tournament.

"We didn't have any money to pay people--this was just an idea to promote Kona--but we had no trouble getting volunteers," he says, then adds with a laugh: "Every kid growing up in Kona at that time wanted to fish. Every civic organization from the Rotary to the Chamber of Commerce pitched in."

But fishing is different from golf. Spectators can follow the golfers around and watch the action. How was it possible to make a fishing tournament interesting to people not participating?

"I knew that if people couldn't follow the action, this idea of a fishing tournament would never make it," Fithian says.

One day he watched the US Coast Guard cutter in Kailua Bay and suddenly he got an idea on how to bring the tournament to non-participants.

"I asked the Coast Guard cutter if they would contact each boat at appointed hours and find out how the fishing was," Fithian says. "We didn't have ship-to-shore radios in those days. The boats relayed the results from boat to boat, the cutter relayed the results to us--and everyone in Kona stood by to hear how the tournament was going. 'Roundups,' we call them today; I think they helped create the excitement in fishing tournaments."

The first tournament, which took place in 1959, had 22 teams--three from out of state--which was about the number of charter boats available in Kona at that time. They fished for four days.

"I was disappointed in the results of the fishing," Fithian says. "We had gotten the teams, gotten the volunteers, had the parties, but where were the fish?"

Fithian had the marketing ability, the organizational skills, the connections in the community to bring the tournament off, but he knew he didn't have the fishing knowledge. So he turned to his old fishing friend Chee and the other Kona fishermen, who explained the importance of timing. They told this energetic community organizer that they would have done things differently. First, they recommended scheduling the fishing tournament during the week of the new moon, and on the rising morning tide--the fish seemed to bite more during that time. They also explained to Fithian if they could fish nine hours instead of eight, then they could have a shot at two tides in one day and a shot at catching more fish. Throw in an extra day of fishing for good measure and, most important, move the tournament to July or August, when the majority of big blues were in town.

"Best advice I ever got," Fithian admits with a wide grin. "I had arranged the first tournament in September to fill the hotel; it was a slow time of year. I listened to the experts, and we have been operating that way ever since."

Moving the tournament into August the next year dramatically increased the catch--and the reputation of this new fishing tournament in Kona.

The Early Days
Fithian had such big dreams for this tiny fishing tournament, he named it the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament (HIBT). Some people laughed-- an international tournament in Kona? By the early 1960s the tournament had lived up to its name, with some 86 teams entered from around the globe.

The number of charter boats rose to meet the demand not only for the HIBT but for the tourists who were now coming to Kona to fish during the rest of the year.

Fithian added a (Tag &) release category to his HIBT in 1986, and in 1994 a team won the event for the first time exclusively with tag-and release points.

"Our focus was always to promote Kona, but we realized that we also needed to focus on helping to build our charter-boat fleet and to promote fishing year round," Fithian says. He solicited the help of actor Richard Boone, who enjoyed fishing in Kona and owned the local charter boat, Goodbye Charlie. Boone not only underwrote some of the costs of promoting charter-boat fishing in Kona, he made movies along the Kona coast and went across the country with Fithian, extolling the virtues of fishing in Kona.

"Richard was like a brother to me," Fithian says. After Boone's death, the board of governors of the Hawaiian International Billfish Association (the organization which operates the billfish tournament) decided to create an award in his name, to go to the best charter boat in the tournament as judged by the participants in the HIBT.

"The Richard Boone Award is now the most prestigious award a charter-boat skipper can get in the tournament," Fithian says. "It says that their charter peers voted them the best. No other tournament has this kind of award. And we set up the charter-boat fee the next year based on how the boat ranked in the Richard, Boone Awards."

In 1959 you could book a Kona charter boat for $85 a day; today Kona charters range from $350 to $1,200 a day. After nearly a decade of charging the same tournament entry fee, the HIBT finally raised its entry fee this year from $900 to $975 per person for a four-person team (excluding charter boat and hotel costs).

The cost of running the tournament has increased dramatically since 1959. Fithian estimates that it costs well over $1 million to run the annual Hawaiian Intemational Billfish Toumament and its preliminary event, the four-day Pro-Am.

"In 1959, we had 22 teams, 50 volunteers, a cocktail party sponsored by the Rotary and dances on the lawn at the Kona Inn," Fithian says. "In 1995 we had 72 teams, 25 in the ProAm, 200 volunteers, a fund-raising dinner for PORF, cocktail parties and a huge banquet for both events."

The Hawaiian Intemational Billfish Toumament, like most international tournaments, could not exist today without sponsorship.

"Our sponsors ('96) contribute both goods and services, and we couldn't have a tournament without them," Fithian says. "We always had sponsorship of a sorts--the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, and later Aloha Airlines. But today our sponsors, especially our primary sponsor Penn Reels along with all the rest of The 40th HIBT Sponsors, make it possible to have such things as the tournament coverage on ESPN".

The HIBT, which started out to promote Kona, now contributes some $3.7 million to the local economy, according to a study conducted by the University of Hawai`i at Hilo.

For more information on the HIBT, contact the
Hawaiian International Billfish Association
PO Box 4800, Kailua-Kona, Hl 96745-4800
808-329-6155; fax 808-329-1148

By the mid-1970s, the promotion of charter-boat fishing in Kona had been more than successful. Fithian then turned to another goal--adding scientific studies to the tournament.

"We have always been interested in helping scientists because the more they know, the more they can help us with what we love to do--fish," he says. "We tested the first FAD device, we've helped oceanographers look at currents, we've tagged marlin, now we're even tracking marlin by satellite."

The board of governors of HIBA created a nonprofit scientific organization called The
Pacific Ocean Research Foundation (PORF) to help scientists study fish and the pressures on the marine environment. They set up a laboratory in Kona, and at every HIBT for the last two decades, a team of international scientists has conducted hundreds of studies on everything from what marlin eat to where they go when they leave Kona.

The research eventually led to a movement to conserve fishing resources, and in 1986, tagging and releasing billfish became part of the tournament. In 1994, the San Rafael Billfish Club did what scoffers said could never be done--they won the prestigious HIBT entirely with points scored by tagged and released fish.

New Problems
The 1980s brought the HIBT new problems--competition from money or jackpot tournaments, which started siphoning off teams.

"The jackpot tournaments affected us," Fithian says, frowning at the memory. "They drew away many local teams who paid out $600 with the chance of making enough money to buy a boat. It was hard to compete with that. But the hard part for me was to see the guys running the jackpot tournaments take what we had spent years developing and use it to put money in their pockets. Then they had the audacity to use our volunteer system, sometimes with our volunteers, all to make money."

By the time the 1990s rolled around, Fithian had a more complex set of problems--a worldwide economic decline.

"The economic situation has impacted us significantly," sighs Fithian. "The early 1990s saw a decrease in the number of teams, as some countries were hit very hard by the downturn in the economy. But 1995 seemed to be the turning point, and we're seeing an upswing in entries now.

As the 38th Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament gets under way this year, Fithian looked to the future of not just his tournament, but of fishing and billfish tournaments in general.

The still straight-backed chairman, whose only sign of age is a little less white hair and a few more wrinkles, says he is looking to new leadership to someday take over the helm of the prestigious international event.

"We are attracting bright, young guys for our board of directors and we are training a number of young fellows who are coming along in their abilities to run the tournament," he says, but adds with a laugh. "This is not a retirement speech -- I want to be involved for a few more years at least."

Fithian's hope for the future, not only for his event, but for fishing around the globe, is in scientific research and conservation.

"I'm confident in the work that PORF is doing, as well as that of other excellent scientific organizations around the world. This complex situation of studying fish and the environment is important," he says. "It's our future."

Editor's notes: Jeanette Foster lives and works on The Big Island with her husband
Rick Gaffney, who also writes extensively on fishing and both are active in other related issues facing the marine/fishing industry in Hawai`i.

Soon after the conclusion of the 40th Anniversary HIBT ('98),
Mr Fithian reluctantly announced his retirement

*Hele On

Last modified: Tuesday - 19980826.14:59 EDT
The contents of this page Copyright 1996 Jeanette Foster & Marlin Magazine
Republished with permission by HoloHolo Internet Publishing, all rights reserved.