TUNA SAMURAI by Captain Bart Miller
Updated: Jul 3
The year was 1974 and my new Merritt, Black Bart, had just arrived in Honolulu. We had made it just in time to be dry docked and readied for the first Hawaiian International Allison Yellowfin Tuna Tournament to be held at Pokai Bay. Fifty teams from around the islands had signed up for this tournament. This was a real plus for me as it would allow me to secure a good shakedown cruise, still keeping me in the proximity of excellent marine service in Honolulu if we needed it. My team, the Japanese team of Miake Island, Japan, qualified for the title ‘International Team’. Team captain, Shigeyuki Tachibana, and his friends would be my anglers and sponsors for this event. Capt. Tachibana, whose name means Wild Orange in Japanese, is the most intense angler and personality I had ever met. Known as Shige by his friends, Tachibana literally considered himself some kind of modern-day Samurai. For him, losing was simply out of the question. He would boldly say, “Losing is not an option.” I liked this kind of attitude, especially in a sponsor and angler like him. He was a fierce warrior of big game fishing. I had always considered myself an intense person, but when placed along side of Shige, I was overshadowed by his defiance and optimism. (Shige said the same of me.) I had never fished the fertile waters off the Waianae coast of Oahu and was really looking forward to this new challenge. I checked with the top local captains to find where the local tuna hotspots were. Most of the free information came back telling me to fish the 1,000 fathom curve inside the lee of the island, straight out front of Pokai Bay. I was told to just stay in that zone and eventually the ahi would come right to me. I intended to follow this strategy for the five day tournament.
What I did not like about the plan was that most likely all the captains who said that this zone was the hot spot would be fishing that very same area. When fishing tuna and trying to win a tournament, I prefer to find a hot spot just for myself, a place where I am not sharing tuna. This, of course, is easier said than done.
Mr. Tachibana and his interpreter quizzed me the night before the tournament. They checked all tackle, mostly hooks and tuna lures. We had plastic boxes each filled with six lures, hooks and leaders, all ready to fish. Our spare lure program numbered at least sixty lures. We would not be doing any re-rigging along the way, so we made certain that we had more lures, hooks and leaders ready to fish than we would require for the entire week.
The Japanese style was to fish hard, fish well and waste no time; leader and lure would stay with tuna after it was boated. The word ‘serious’ does not adequately describe the method a Japanese angler applies to himself; ‘perfect’, ‘extreme’ or ‘intense’ would be a better descriptive.
A SAMURAI’S PREPARATION
When the morning of the tournament arrived, everyone was doing his and her special thing, whatever that might be. The diesel engines were all humming and ticking; the smell was that of tournament time. This is when a calm washed over me that told me that I was ready. I became a very private person at these times and I did not like to socialize when the start was near. Tachibana liked this in me. This morning he bought deluxe Japanese breakfast for all, and had also purchased Japanese lunches for our team. My crew consisted of brothers Dirk and Bart, and Uki, a Japanese crewmember supplied by Mr. Tachibana.
The competitors and boats were all lined up for the start. I loved the feel of wood and the power of the great diesels. As the words came across the radio to start fishing I eased the throttles ahead bringing the RPM up to thirty knots cruising speed, fully two to three times as fast as most of the other boats in the 1973 Hawaiian fleet. My new Merritt reached the 1,000 fathom curve shortly after the start, ahead of all the other boats. This was my first use of a tuna tower. Small pitches and rolls that were barely felt by men with sea legs when standing on the bridge or in the cockpit were magnified many times at the thirty foot extension of the tuna tower. It’s a mathematical geometric progression that causes the top of those towers to swing pronouncedly to and fro even in fairly calm seas. And I knew that the tower is where I would perch throughout the better part of the tournament.
My skilled crew worked feverishly to set all the lines in tournament fashion. We fished four eighty pound rigs. The lures were all mother of pearl and abalone shell, lead weighted to swim just beneath the surface. The lure size choices were assorted six, seven and nine inch. Our leaders were 300 pound test. We also had leaders of 200 pound test standing by in case the tuna were shy. The hooks were double hook rigs set at 180 degrees. Our hook sizes were assorted 7/0 and 8/0.
The lines were positioned and tournament ready. There was high anticipation aboard by all. Those feelings waned as the fresh morning air turned into the bright light of noon, then later in the day turned into afternoon.
“Stop fishing, stop fishing,” echoed across the radio, transmitting the end of the first day's tuna fishing. Two ahi were caught this day by the fleet of fifty boats and they were small ones which weighed in at 130 and 137 pounds. Not a good day for most. The weather had been balmy and the seas were flat. These were not good conditions for tuna fishing. Brisk winds and steady currents make for more optimal tuna fishing.
My crew, Dirk and Bart, paced themselves and were waiting for the opportunity that would strip line from our reels and empower our spirits. Disappointing as it was, we did not have a strike or any other opportunity for the next four long days. The seas continued to stay calm; the normal trade winds had vanished, as had the ahi. Tournament competition had given way to parties that lasted late into each night.
Friday was the last day of the tournament. We had endured four long and arduous days, with no birds, no bait, and no fishing clues. I was blistered from the heat and long hours of nothingness. My Japanese team had not given up nor had the crew; all we needed was a good bite and we could still win this tournament. That was all anyone needed. The tournament glory was open to all as the few ahi that had been caught were small, each under 200 pounds. Stop fishing and the end of the tournament was 4 p.m. I looked at my watch as I had so many times that week. The time was 3:15 p.m.
My view from the tower was almost birdlike. It was a place where tuna fishermen live while fishing tuna. I could see each of the four lures swimming just inches below the surface, their pearl shell heads glowing. The entire package fishlike; each lure carving its own path, a temptation that no fish could possibly resist. We were ready, willing and able . . . then it happened. I saw what I had so patiently been waiting for: ahi on the flat lines. I could see they were both going to bite. They were big, fat Allison yellowfin tuna, each one over 200 pounds. Allison tuna are bomb like in shape, with colors of emerald green, black, blue, gold, pearl pink and creamy white, and are painted with the brightest yellow fins in the world. I will never tire viewing these deliciously perfect denizens of the deep. I could taste victory with this hungry vision, and I whistled loudly and yelled out, “Ahi on the flat lines!”
The strikes came almost simultaneously, first one, then the other. There is no mistaking a tuna strike from any other species; the positive downward pull is uncommonly perfect. Yes! Both of our anglers were dealing with screaming reels. The rigger lines were cleared quickly and I was moving my new Merritt in reverse, trying to help the anglers not waste any energy on line that did not need to be dumped. I called in a double ahi hookup to the tournament committee boat. I could almost feel the frustration of the fifty teams in the tournament trying to deal with my good fortune. Our lazy blue days had now turned bright red. We were filled with the thrill of action, and ultimately satisfaction.
Victory was ours to hold high as we raced back to port. Our two ahi flags whipped proudly in the Hawaiian breezes. I looked down from the bridge at the two tuna being washed down and covered with crushed ice. I will never forget the beaming face of Tachibana, the Tuna Warrior. This was what he had come for, a Samurai victory. We shook each other's hand, we bowed and vowed to meet each other next year to defend our title at Pokai Bay.
THE AHI TOURNAMENT OF 1975
We met often and worked late into the evening to be ready for the 1975 ahi tournament. Our plastic tackle boxes and trays had the finest collection of handmade tuna lures, leaders and hook rigs one could ever imagine. They were all Japanese perfect in every aspect. Such a mother lode of fishing gear I had never seen, not even in my wildest dreams. We were ready to meet the challenge.
Black Bart and I had bonded well and, best of all, I had the same crew with me for this event as the previous year. Several days before the tournament we took the Merritt to Honolulu, then to Pokai Bay via Kona. The trade winds were howling, creating conditions that showed promising signs of a hot tuna tournament.
Tachibana met us at the docks while we were washing the boat down and getting ready for his Japanese team. Although he was a hardnose task commander, he also was a charming sort of Samurai. He knew when to smile, when to furrow his brow, and how to get action from his team members. He invited me to the captains' meeting, knowing that I would turn him down. He smiled and left.
“See you in the morning, Bart,” followed with a, “don’t worry, you are ready, Captain.”
Most everyone had gone to the hotel for the captains’ meeting and buffet. The harbor was quiet, just the way I liked it. This was a time to meditate and prepare for the next five hard days of competition. There was no turning back now.
I decided to hunt down a meal within walking distance, and soon located a bar and cafe by the name of Mother’s Place. Little did I know that when I went through those doors my whole week of fishing, and my life as I knew it would be altered beyond any imagination I possessed. The place was empty except for three men drinking beer and talking at the bar. They were talking about ahi and their location. But these were not tournament fishermen, these were commercial longline fishermen. I knew this because they looked different and they were talking of tuna caught by the tons.
I seldom drink, but something told me to nestle up to the bar and order a beer. I made conversation with these men. They knew something that I did not, the exact position of the tuna I was about to hunt for the next week. I could not believe it, just three commercial fishermen and me. All of this information was available just a short walking distance from the harbor. My antisocial tournament behavior was about to pay off big time. Of the three men talking, one looked quite a bit different than the other two. He was dressed in finer clothes and had a leadership quality, tone and style that was immediately evident.
I introduced myself to the man doing most of the talking. I told him who I was, where I lived, and told him of the tuna tournament about to start the next morning. He told me that his name was Mr. De Silva, and he said he owned some longline boats. He said that he flies his private plane and spots tuna for his commercial fleet and spoke of large schools of ahi forming on the windward side not too very far offshore. He also said that he had not seen tuna fishing this good in years. I promptly bought my new friends several rounds of beers. We talked of fishing, his style and mine, and he offered to lead me to the tuna if I ventured into his area while he was spotting. “You will see us, my boats are colored blue and I will be flying near to them,” he said.
The zone he was talking about was at least 40 miles from the Pokai Bay start line, and was most assuredly not in the lee of the island. Quite the contrary, it was directly facing and into the trade winds. I asked De Silva what the weather had been like.
“Good tuna weather,” he proclaimed, “but not good if you are a man in a boat.” He shrugged his shoulders and added, “When you get into the tuna, you will see many frigate birds gathering. I will be like one of them, flying, excited, and hungry. When I see you and your Merritt, I’ll buzz you and then circle over the good areas, the places where the ahi are feeding. You'll have lots of fun and win the tournament.”
We had a good time talking but I was nervous with anticipation. What I had just learned, if it were true, and there was no reason to believe it wasn't, would set me apart from the rest of the fleet, and at worse give me a great head start. I went back to my boat with every fiber in me turned on and ready to go ahi fishing. Sleep came by with much difficulty that anxious night before the tournament; my crew slept better, not knowing what I had discovered in the bar that evening.
Tachibana showed up early as expected with Japanese breakfast and lunch. I could read in his face that he knew I knew something. Since his English was less than desirable and my plan was based around drinking in a bar with three guys I had never met before, I figured I best keep my mouth shut and just go for it.
Start fishing began at 8 a.m. I was curious how many boats would head for the north shore, as I had planned to. There was a definite lee side, and then there was the north shore. I made the turn at Kaiena Point and headed straight into the massive and unforgiving seas. The winds were 30 knots and gusting, small craft warnings were posted and the seas were ranging from 6 to 15 feet. I looked back and saw that no boats were following. Lucky me, I had these killer seas all to myself.
I had to get into the tower because I could not see anything for the wind and spray which was exploding just beneath the foot stand in the tower. My crew knew to batten down all hatches, and secure all items that otherwise would be tossed around. They also knew that this day would be no picnic.
I turned Black Bart around down seas just long enough to climb into the tower. The lesson I had learned the previous year about the violent gyrations, the thrust and torque the tower would make, became clear to me immediately upon my arrival to its uppermost point. What I experienced in the tower was a rude awakening, at first I was being tossed and slammed around like a raggedy Anne doll. My aluminum stilts that perched me high above the sea now seemed less alluring and more life threatening until I jury rigged a harness that worked like a safety belt of sorts, aiding me in staying on board all the while the wild sea was trying to throw me off like a bucking bull sheds his rider at a rodeo. There was no mystery. I knew I was coming apart at the seams, the physical destruction and constant abuse was just part of the big game I must endure, regardless of the consequences, discomfort, pain, or other orthopedic failures being tested to the fullest. The sea has many faces not all of them peaceful, playful, or fun. To know the sea is to respect her all the while you love her and your reward is a good ride from time to time.
“Mind-over-matter, Mind-over-matter,” is the thought that permeated my brain. And then it all became so clear. We had a tournament to win, a title to defend. Now the pain had become secondary, there were bigger matters to deal with. My mind had gone to an ‘other worldly’ place, but it had not abandoned me completely. I risked boat, life, and limb, for this obsessive-compulsive act of competition. I have never experienced anything since or before quite like it. The crew later revealed that they had serious concerns as to my sanity. They also said that Mr. Tachibana and his guests feared for their lives, and were quite ill.
As for me, I just prayed to reach through and past one wave at a time. Often I thought of quitting. It was just too much to endure, trying to get to the zone where De Silva said he would be. We were 40 miles plus when I saw my first glimpse of the long winged high flying frigate birds. With this sight all of my pain and anguish just seemed to vanish. I could now see what appeared to be two boats. I was getting closer to them, when out of nowhere I heard the roar of an airplane. De Silva was buzzing me as he said he would. He came so low and close that I could see him giving me thumbs up; he was waving and pointing for me to follow. My crew looked up and smiled. I heard Dirk say, “Nice one, Captain!”
Immediately Dirk and Bart went to work preparing tackle to begin our day of ahi fishing. De Silva was circling a spot near to where we were. Once there we put out the first lures. Before we could get them in the rigger both lines were solidly bit. We had been trolling less than a minute and already had a double hook up of large 200 pound plus ahi. The ahi were soon boated and placed in my brine box tuna coffin. Tachibana quit complaining and pointed the way to the airplane circling a spot off our portside. This was it; we were thick into the schooling ahi. The real challenge was my daily battle dealing with Mother Nature who was showing us no mercy; catching the ahi was merely a byproduct of the extreme difficulty we had to endure.
The fishing was great, the boating aspect pure hell. At the end of the first day my crew was beaten and exhausted. We were ahead in the point standing, but at what cost to the boat and crew? They said I looked different when I climbed down from the tower. I was not the man who had climbed up there only ten hours earlier. And to this day I admit that the man standing on the deck of Black Bart never was the same. I had no strength left to help haul our tunas ashore or to help clean the boat and prepare it for the next day of competition. It took all the strength I had left just to climb up onto the dock and feel solid ground. It was only when I stood on that dock looking back into Black Bart that sanity returned to me. The pain in my ribs returned, as did my sanity. Whoever that man was who stood in the tower that day, it was not the same man who was now standing on the pier. While I remained business like and professional in my approach to preparations for the following day's tournament quest, I was more like myself, and not the driven maniac who had inhabited the tower this day. I received some strange looks from Tachibana and the crew. They looked at me like they no longer knew me. But Tachibana would admit that he liked that character who was up there being tossed around in the tower. That lunatic was going to win him the tournament and, to him, that was all that really mattered.
An inspection of my side revealed a horrific purple bruise to my rib cage. The pain remained with me; breathing was very difficult. (Later x-rays would reveal that one rib was fractured, several others were badly bruised).
There was dread on board Black Bart as the plan to return to the previous day's spot was made known. Tachibana knew and agreed, if we were to win this tournament, and there was never a doubt that we had the passion for this quest, then we had to go where the tuna were. And the tuna were not in the lee of the island, they were in the teeth of the maelstrom. Get ready men, we're going back!
I cinched my ribs up using duct tape. It was still very painful to touch that area and, aside from the fact that we might capsize and lose the boat and our lives, our next most serious concern was that I might be too incapacitated to perform in the tower. I prepared myself mentally for the challenge. There was no way I was going to give up.
Immediately upon stepping onto the deck of the Merritt, my mind took me to that place where it had gone the previous day. I was possessed, nearly insane, with the obsession to complete this job and to win this tournament. We would make it back out to the tuna grounds and we would fish all day, or we would die trying. Either result was perfectly all right with me.
The second day of fishing was a mirror of the first. Tachibana sent his Japanese crew but chose not to accompany us. However, the longline boats and spotter plane were there each day with us as we struggled out to the same spot. The crew got sick, and my ribs were killing me from being tossed about. I kept telling myself, “It’s mind over matter. I can do this.” The boating conditions were awful again, but as bad as that was, the fishing was that much better. We caught tuna, nice, big, fat 200 pounders, morning, noon and afternoon. By the time we got the word to stop fishing, we were loaded up. This day I allowed the crew to drive us home in the following sea. I stayed below and rested my weary body and aching side, but I maintained my mental rigidity throughout it all. And then, when we were safely parked in our slip, I stepped ashore and again, as it had the day before, my sanity returned. My crew was looking at me in a most peculiar way. I think I scared them.
Days three and four were no different than days one and two. We fought heavy winds and seas each of these days and I continued to be slammed around in my rudimentary harness at the top of the tower. My crew was exhausted from four days of punishing conditions. I was beyond that, but I would never give in. I just wasn't built that way. I would pay the price, then finish the job. Making decisions like these is easy when you are doing what you believe in and love. And we continued to catch those furious, fiery bombs, and we continued to pull ahead in the point standings.
These conditions continued to exist for the entire tournament. On the fifth day Tachibana took his place in the cockpit and all boats lined up and followed me to the north shore. Only six of the fleet of one hundred managed the feat successfully. I had a one hour head start on the other boats and that was just enough time to catch three good size ahi. We caught three more after the other boats arrived. There was no need to continue fishing. My crew took over allowing me to rest on the downhill ride home. Sleep and peace of mind came easily. Our swords were back in their sheaths. Our Samurai victory was complete.
This was then, and still is now, the greatest victory of my career. One hundred boats competed in this 1975 Hawaiian International Allison Yellow Fin Tuna competition. I won this tournament by a separation of over 2000 points between first and second place. But the victory was much more than prize money and a trophy. This was not merely the competition of Black Bart and its crew against the 100 to one odds competition of the fleet. This was a defining moment in the building of my character. This was a point from which I could never return. A new man, a bigger, tougher and wiser man climbed down from that tower on the last day of the Pokai Bay Tournament of 1975.
Each of the six man team received traditional fresh Plumeria flower leis. Each team member was smiling for the cameras while catching and kissing their trophies. A winning celebration is always blessed as a memorable occasion. This victory win meant the most to me simply because of the tests and challenges I had to meet along the way from day one to day end. It is now thirty years later and my winning record score of 2975 points for that tuna tournament has never been equaled.
My fresh Plumeria lei has long since faded into dust. My beautiful tuna trophy has been misplaced or lost. All that is left for me is this story that I am now relating lest I forget, I should include that special place, eyes shut, time standing still, wind-swept blue water, vivid memory of youth passionately in love with life at its very best.
Aloha, Captain Bart Miller