“You are so motivated to make sure the trip goes smoothly, because you know that the organs of these two kids are now going to save the lives of more than just a handful of other kids.”
The Best Blue Marlin Fishing in the World
I sit in the fighting chair aboard the 33-foot charter sport-fishing boat Reel Addiction, mesmerized by the churning wash of a stream of white bubbles into the clear, sapphire-blue South Pacific Ocean. Behind and above me on the bridge, at the helm, is skipper Steve Campbell, a 60-year-old tanned and sinewy ex-New Zealander.
We have five rods embedded firmly around the transom, their lines extending beyond the stern at various lengths, held in positions apart from each other to prevent tangling by long “outrigger” poles. Tag lines run off the poles and are attached to the 60-kilogram-test Dacron fishing line with rubber bands. When a fish takes the lure—a giant plastic purple-and-black-skirted squid measuring up to 20 inches in length being pulled along briskly at eight knots, skipping and gurgling through the waves—the force breaks the rubber band and line tears off the reel directly. Simple but ingenious.
The reels are huge, expensive, calibrated cranking machines filled with braided line the length of six football fields.
Instantly, in the blaze of the afternoon sun, after trolling more than 60 nautical miles all morning without so much as a hint of a fish, I am startled from my woozy half-nap by the sound of Campbell yelling: “Marlin! Marlin on the port long!” He throttles down the engine and I dive for the thick rod with the shrilly whining gold reel. I somehow manage to wrestle the butt back to the chair and into the socket.
I’m holding on for dear life, heart pounding, my whole body electrified. The line is speeding up in a screeching buzz. Fifty yards out in the shimmering blue haze, a massive silvery shape with dark bill and huge eyes, plainly visible this far away, erupts from the water. Imagine a fish the size of a sports car. The stunning blue marlin rockets into the air once, twice, three, four times in a series of spectacular leaps.
I reel with frenzied energy, accomplishing nothing. The giant chrome predator of the sea is in charge. My eye follows the line, now curving and coming toward the boat. Suddenly the fish is in the air again in a geyser of salt spray. It crashes back into the water and my line is slack. The fish is gone. I look back at Campbell. He reads my forlorn face.
“Nothing you did, mate,” he says. “A fish is either hooked or not—if it falls out there’s not a lot you can do.”
When Campbell invited me to fish with him last year, I jumped at the opportunity. He has guided anglers seeking the ultimate bluewater prize for a dozen years, amassing an astonishing record of more than 1,500 blue marlin hooked and brought to boat, including several increasingly rare “granders”: fish of 1,000 pounds or more. (The vast majority have been released alive, to support the species and sustain the fishery he loves.) To put this number in perspective, many noted marlin guides in other parts of the world have boated one-tenth as many during a similar stretch.
Campbell’s success has nothing to do with luck. He has a keen, analytical mind. He has recorded the details of each blue marlin caught or lost over the years, using the information to see behavioral patterns and develop fresh insights. Most blue marlin experts, for example, had long believed that the fish were solitary hunters—strikes, after all, were single strikes. Campbell started towing a fisheye video camera.
“In a flash, we’d see a fish right next to a lure,” he says. “Then, suddenly, there would be one, two and sometimes three more in view. They were a little deeper, just watching the spread.”
Campbell points out that blue marlin are precise—not crash-and-bash—predators. From watching hours of video, he learned that some of them “lit up” before the strike. Others billed the lure but never appeared to have any intention of biting. Some took a look and veered away. Still others followed closely for a long time, changing from lure to lure.
“I would speed up or make a dramatic turn,” he says, “and sometimes that was enough to provoke a strike. I guess blues have character, attitude and a touch of personality blended with genetic predatory disposition. That’s what makes them such exciting sport fish.”
Where in the World Is Tonga?
Tonga is a chain of 176 islands in the South Pacific, southeast of Fiji and south of Samoa. It’s about a third of the distance (roughly 500 miles) in a south-north line from New Zealand to Hawaii. There are three principal groups of islands: Tongatapu, Ha’apai and Vava’u.
Tongatapu is where the modern-day king lives; he lords over the last Polynesian monarchy. Ha’apai, the middle group of islands, is well known to naval historians and fans of Marlon Brando’s foppish performance as ship’s master Fletcher Christian in the classic 1962 film, Mutiny on the Bounty. Here in April 1789, the real Christian and 22 supporters took control of his majesty’s 90-foot armed vessel. Vava’u, the northern cluster of islands, is the favorite of divers, snorkelers, sailers, seasonal whale watchers, birders and, of course, anglers. It’s where I spent two weeks last October.
Tonga was first settled by Polynesians some 3,500 years ago. The first Europeans to arrive were Dutch explorers, in 1616. By then the Kingdom of Tonga was a well-established hierarchy of traditions, including the ceremonial roasting of human flesh. Captain James Cook, the legendary English explorer, might not have become so legendary had Tongan chiefs decided to have him for dinner during his visit in 1774 to what he called “The Friendly Islands.” His luck ran out five years later at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, when some not-so-friendly natives stoned him and stabbed him to death.
If you want to go play in the Tongan sunshine, don’t worry: it was way back in 1910 when the last cannibals ate two Presbyterian missionaries.
If You Want to Go
You’ll find information about visiting Tonga at thekingdomoftonga.com. High season for bluewater fishing and whale watching runs from July through October. To inquire about or book fishing at Ika Lahi Lodge, Vava’u, visit tongafishing.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +67-670-611. Lupenpau’u International Airport, which welcomes private jets, is 10 kilometers from the town of Neifu, the hub of the Vava’u group of islands. To arrange your schedule, go to tongaairports.com.