Case of the Disappearing `ahi

First published in November 2002.  Look for the article in Chapter 11 of The Kona Fishing Chronicles 2002.

Hawaii ‘ahi used to be bigger.  No argument, there.  But how much bigger?

The answer may be a difference of as much as 100 pounds, which sent us in search of the hilarious tale of Capt. Rope Nelson’s enormous disappearing yellowfin tuna.

DSC_0001We’d heard the story many years ago from the legendary Kona skipper, himself.  Rope passed on earlier this year, however, so any recounting has to be secondhand.  Luckily, Rope’s widow Laverne consented to jot her memories down for your edification and considerable amusement.  And we have reworked her notes by combining them with our own vision of the eccentric skipper waving a drink and entertaining the enthralled.

Laverne had heard Rope tell it many times, himself, but she cautions that her version may not include all of the details Rope, himself, related in his own elaborations. The significant essential, however, is there.  The huge tuna weighed 311 pounds — just about a hundred pounds bigger than the two 212.5-pound ‘ahi leading our list for this year.

It happened back in the late 1960’s when only a handful of boats fished here, facilities were rudimentary at best, catches were weighed at the Kailua Pier, and the town really was the sleepy fishing village of old-time lore.  

Rope and his son Peter had been out fishing holoholo when they spotted a big school of bait.  The splashes and bursts of aku were interrupted by big boils of tuna blasting through the bait and crushing five-pound skipjacks by the mouthful.

With the taste of fresh meat on their tongues, tuna often ignore anything else; lures whiz by unnoticed.

Even so, Rope circled the school repeatedly.  No strike.  Still, Rope always figured that fishing where the fish were was always “a good start.”  More passes and still no luck.  The fish wouldn’t “open their mouths for a lure,” as Rope used to say.  But just one more time.

Their final turn of the wheel hit the jackpot. A solid strike.

Rope took the rod.  Peter pulled in the other lines and then took over the helm.

A half-hour into the fight, Rope and the tuna were still at a stalemate.  Every turn of line Rope gained, the tuna took back. The battle attracted Captain George Parker who had seen Rope’s tug-of-war from the bridge of the Mona H.  When Parker came over for a closer look, Rope called on him on the radio and asked for some unusual assistance.  Would George try to turn the tuna by running the Mona H past the fish to prod it into changing direction?

“I doubt that Rope would have asked too many skippers to do that for fear that they would run over the line,” Laverne commented.  “But Rope trusted George’s skippering skills.  And the trick seemed to work because Rope finally began to gain line, slowly but steadily.”

Another half-hour of slow, steady gains brought the tuna close enough for Peter grab the leader and eventually gaff the tuna. The first sight of the fish astonished them despite their long experience with big tuna. It was far bigger than any they had ever seen before. The struggle to haul it aboard added to their estimate.  By the time they measured it on the deck, Rope was sure it would top 300 pounds.

“Now Rope was really excited because he knows he has a potential world record,” Laverne recalled. “Everything was done right, the equipment and every aspect of the capture was according to the IGFA rules. This ‘ahi now looked to be a gift-wrapped world record.”

After a quick dash to the dock, Rope watched the fish weighed and saw the scales confirm his guess.  Official weight: 311 pounds.

The only thing left to do to assure the record was to show the fish to an IGFA representative to verify the weight, identify the fish and approve the tackle specs.  

“It was very late in the afternoon and no one was around,” Laverne said.  “They were so eager to find the IGFA rep and nail the record down that they left the fish on the scale while they split up and headed in different directions to find him.”

Now the story takes another turn “in true Hawaiian style,” Laverne recalled.

“George Ponte was having a baby Luau on the following Saturday. This was a Thursday and Rope had promised George he could have the next ‘ahi he caught for the baby luau.  George worked at the Hukilau, looked out from the bar and saw Rope come in, weigh this “nice” ‘ahi, and then run off with no one around to watch it. So he figured that was his cue to go pick it up. With that in mind he called his uncle to bring the truck and come load up the fish, which he promptly did. After a frantic search Rope finds the IGFA man and brings him down to the pier to get the paperwork started on their world record ‘ahi.”

When they got there, the fish was gone. Rope frantically asked everyone on the pier “Where’s my fish?”

“One of the locals told him that a green truck had picked it up and they thought it was just going to the fish market,” Laverne said.  “Rope knew the fish market truck wasn’t green so he was frantically thinking who has a green truck that stole his fish.  That’s when he remembered George Ponte’s green truck and his promise to George.  No problem.  He would just dash on over to the Hukilau and tell George to lend him back the fish. But by then the fish had gone riding off to coffee land and the staging area for the luau preparations.  Worse yet, the uncle didn’t have a phone. So Rope set out on a new hunt, racing up to coffee land to find the uncle. You guessed it, there he found his fish cleaned, slabbed and ready to make poke and sashimi.”

Needless to say, Rope was an honored guest at the baby luau a few nights later. He graciously made a toast to all those people who were enjoying the taste of his world record ‘ahi.

He did end up with something that, for Rope, may have been a reward as great as having the record.  From then on, whenever he walked into the bar at the Hukilau, his drinks were always free.

  1. Patrick Nelson

    Mahalo Jim, brought back alot of memories and true stories…I have the pictures.
    I’ve been in the Fiji islands for the past 20 years and still a IGFA Rep…to bad at the time of Dad’s 311lb Ahi I still had hana bata nose!
    All the best,
    Patrick Kehau Nelson…last of the tribe