May 13, 2021
CAPTAIN’S TACTICS: BLUE MARLIN KONA-STYLE
Pelagic Pro Team Captain, Kevin Hibbard, dives deep into the world of fishing off of Kona, Hawaii - the undisputed mecca for giant blue marlin - giving his insider tips, tactics, and rigging techniques for targeting some of our ocean's largest billfish.
Hooking a blue marlin any day, anywhere, and any how is truly special. However, for me, catching a BIG KONA BLUE MARLIN registers on another planet… I swear if our marlin weren’t in the water, they would breathe fire and roar!
Fishing off Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island is different than any other place in the world. For one, Kona provides a year-round fishery for blue marlin; and not just any blue marlin, but true sea monsters – 1,000+ lb. “Granders”, which can strike at any given moment of the year, month, day, hour, minute, or second.
Pelagic Pro Team Captain, Marlin Parker (right top), along with Captain Steve “Stymie” Epstein (right bottom) and angler, Roy Hudson, landed one of the largest blue marlin ever seen off Kona back in May 1990.
Fishing here can be one of the easiest places in the world to fish, but also one of the hardest. Kona is legendary for the size and quality of fish caught as opposed to other marlin hot spots that are renowned for the numbers they put up. In so, being on your game every day and playing each day like it’s going to be the biggest fish in the world will keep you prepared for single moment when it happens.
One of the best things about fishing off Kona is the proximity to the fishing grounds. In fact, upon exiting Honokohau Harbor, lines go in the water!
The first thing that comes to mind when fishing off Kona is to keep it simple. We use 130-lb tackle, preferably two-speed Shimano reels with custom beefed-up drag plates and washers, along with stiff custom rods and a working tip. We pack the reel with 200-lb PowerPro Hollow Ace braided spectra backing spliced to 250-yards of 130lb Amilon monofilament main line.
NOTE: the majority of Kona’s big game captains will almost unanimously choose Amilon as there mono of choice – there is no other mono that I trust on my reels as it has a harder outer shell than most other lines to help with premature chafing or drag chafe.
A lure-caught blue marlin makes it's presence known. (Kevin Hibbard)
To end the connection we use a 6-foot or smaller, double Bimini with a modified San Diego knot to a 600-lb double ring French twist swivel (made only in Hawaii). Our drag settings are 45lbs at the button, but we strike our fish w about 30-lbs. At full drag, or “sunset” as we call it, we can get about 65-lbs from a reel straight out of the box. However, we prefer to get the drag customized to allow us up to roughly 100-lbs of drag pressure.
Pelagic's President & Founder, Ron Marlin Kawaja, battles a large Kona blue marlin with Captains Kevin Hibbard (left) and David Crawford standing by.
I’m a huge fan of lure fishing for blue marlin. Don’t get me wrong, if bait is present and has established itself in an area, I’ll put a skipjack (tuna) out. But, to me, lure fishing is where it’s at. The excitement of watching a fish over 600-lbs crash bite your short corner lure out of nowhere in flat calm conditions is like nothing on earth. It never gets old!
A main reason I prefer lure fishing is because of its roots – where it started, and the heart and soul that is poured into every lure made. Kona, Hawaii is the pulsebeat of where lure fishing for billfish first evolved created by legends that surpass Elvis to me. My lure arsenal is simple: I’m a huge fan of Marlin Magic Lures made by Gary Eoff and Marlin Parker. Uncle Eoff puts the “magic” in these lures and has been hand-shaping them for forty-years along with his long time sidekick and master shaper, JB.
Captain Marlin Parker displays a few of his Marlin Magic Lures. (Carol Lynne)
I’ve also been getting into Tantrum Lures by Nick Durham. Both shapers have an impeccable eye for perfection, as do Uncle Steve Elkins, Steve Coggins, Andy Moyes, and Uncle Eric Koyanaga (Koya) all of which have heavy presence in my lure arsenal.
My typical spread consists of two big lures on the corners, a medium size lure on the left long, and typically a bullet shaped lure on the right long running at about 8.3-knots. My favorite lure color combos are blue vinyl over pink, black vinyl with yellow and purple underneath, and a blue/green vinyl over chartreuse. Typically, my bullets or jets will have a rubber skirting instead of the vinyl. My go to colors on those are blue/silver over black, pink/silver over white or pink, and one that we call “The General” which consists of a blue/silver outer over an orange, pink, and yellow stripe skirt.
One of Captain Hibbard's go-to blue marlin trolling spreads.
These lures are then rigged with 26-feet of 530-lb Momoi Xtra hard leader to a single hook rig. The hooks that have been working well for me and the rest of the (Kona) fleet are a needle eye hook made by Tantrum. My hook up ratio has seemed to increase since using them and there is no sacrifice to strength whatsoever. My favorite size, and probably most used, is the 10/0. The 11/0 is used for my bigger lures and the 9/0 goes into most of the smaller bullet lures.
Blue marlin hooks of choice for Big Island success.
When rigging the hook and cable, I use two methods: (1) a stiff rig (where the cable to the hook is beefed up with heat shrink), and (2) I have been experimenting without the heat shrink on the cable utilizing only electrical tape on the hook and cable connection, as well as the connecting part to the leader. Both systems work adequately for the situation and target species at hand. When running my swimming lures or “pushers”, I like to run the hook faced down with the coil or memory of the leader coming up the face of the lure. On bullet-style lures, I prefer the hook positioned up with the leader doing the same. I will then fix the hooks in those positions with either a rubber stopper or dental floss if the lure has jet holes.
Stiff (top) and semi-stiff rigs are the two methods used when building a successful blue marlin trolling spread. Note the shrink wrap on the stiff rig, versus the bare cable on the semi-stiff (bottom).
Now the fun part… When a large fish is hooked up it becomes a bit of a physics game with them. The faster the line dumps off the reel, at say 30-lbs of striking drag, the less amount of overall drag you want on that fish until she settles down. The more line that comes off the reel (and into the water) puts more pressure on the fish as it forms a belly in the line. This creates additional drag on top of what is already being put to the fish from the reel itself. Example, even if you have 30-lbs of drag on your reel, you could potentially be pulling 80-lbs or greater at the fish with the amount of line that is out. Therefore, we back the drag off to allow for less pressure at the hook.
Hawaii’s thermocline and oxygen rich waters extend a lot deeper than most places in the world which provides Kona’s big game species the opportunity to sound to greater depths during battle, while shallower thermoclines in other parts of the world seem to keep the fish and the fight up on the surface a bit more. When our marlin dig deep, getting down and dirty, it’s really time to pay attention as this is when a lot of big fish are broken off.
Profile of a blue marlin in its element. (Adrian Gray)
If while fighting a fish with a lot of heavy pressure and the line starts suddenly pouring off the reel at a rapid rate, you better be prepared to go into free-spool… your marlin is racing up to the surface, and fast! The speed of the fish heading to the surface creates an incredible belly in the line that simply can’t be kept up with reaching speeds of over 40mph. The line’s belly has a greater chance of breaking as the fish exits the water which creates a massive amount of inertia and usually resulting in a parting of you and your fish.
A hooked blue does its dance just off the Kona coast. (Kevin Hibbard)
There are also a lot of circumstances where a fish will go deep, stay down, and sulk. This is your time to play that game of chess begin winning the fight. First off, we never pull on a fish that is straight up and down. We figure which way the current is going and use that to our advantage of lifting and “planning” the marlin up higher into the water column. Fish, animals, people, whatever you are, are always going to fight opposite of pain or pressure. By fighting a fish straight up and down, it is going to feel the pressure from straight above and want to go down. By pulling away from the fish at a different angle and into the current you start to create more of an angle in the line. This angle you are putting in the line starts to pull on the fish differently than straight up and down, which now, makes it want to come to the surface because the pressure is starting to pull (now) from below her. Again, she’s going to want to fight opposite of the pressure.
Never a dull moment when a blue marlin is on the line! The appropriately named, KONA BLUE, hooked up. (Kevin Hibbard)
Typically, we want to stay as close to the marlin as possible, so the initial part of the fight is crucial in keeping things in your favor. There are a lot of times that we are in full rack reverse right after the bite (we usually don’t run a stinger or a shotgun down the middle just for this reason) and if we can’t keep up with its initial run, we will turn and chase her down. The main reason for getting on them by chasing them down is quick is for greater chance of the fish’ survival upon release, and for some insane photo ops on the marlin’s initial run of typical aerial acrobatics.
Captain Kevin Hibbard wires an 800-lb-class blue marlin off Kona. Keeping the fishing moving and oxygenated boat-side will greatly increase a fish's rate of survival post-release. (Carol Lynne)
As for what we are looking for while on the water, it is relatively simple. Our focus is on which directions the currents are pulling, and the water temperatures. I love a good “north and in” current as well as a “south and in” (‘in’ meaning towards the island). Our fish do not stay here very long, so if a current is pulling away from the island, it is usually pulling the fish with it too. Ideal water temperatures are 80-82 degrees.
On a typical day, depending on which way the current is pulling, I’ll work our productive areas and known landmarks that have been taught by our captains and mentors of times ago. Once we find a consistent depth of where we are getting our bites or marking them on the sounder, we will usually stay in that general depth range the next day… do not ever leave fish to find fish!
Solid mark of a size XL marlin on the sounder corralling jags of bait . With bait presence and a nice mark like this, savvy captains will circle and troll in this general area anticipating troll spread detonation. (Kevin Hibbard)
Blue marlin have given me a true love and passion for the sea. I could go on and on about these incredible apex predators of the oceans and the staple fishing piece of our Hawaiian Islands. It all started as an addiction… now it’s an incurable disease!
Captain Kevin Hibbard | 2nd Offense Sportfishing | Kailua-Kona, HI
Click to visit Capt. Kevin Hibbard's PRO TEAM PROFILE
Photos courtesy of Carol Lynne, Adrian Gray, and Kevin Hibbard