For Kona Fishing, 100-lb Ono Rarer than Grander Blues

This week’s throwback story comes from May, 1999 and appearred in The Kona Fishing Chronicles 1999

100-pound Ono Rarer Than Grander Marlin


In Hawaii waters, hundred-pound ono are rarer than grander marlin. So it was big news last week when Sam “Waha” Grace handlined a 104-pounder from his 14-foot aluminum skiff A’u King.

DSC_0006The aging giants of the ono clan are said to live secretive and wary lives along the remote stretches of coastline from Honaunau to Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the United States. True to the legend, Grace got his wondrous wahoo down off Milolii. And we got the story from fellow Milolii fisherman Lee Hefner who brought the big ono to the Fuel Dock scales for him.

Milolii is a remote fishing village way south on the Kona Coast where a family like the Graces gives its address not in streets and numbers but in descriptors like “the first house past the yellow church right on the other side of the volleyball court just beyond the sign that says you can’t drive any further.”

Grace and Hefner keep their small boats in a fishpond seaside of the church and watch out for each other as they follow their parallel paths to fish the koas for ‘ahi and opelu and the buoys for anything else that shows.

Waha, a retired bus driver of indeterminate age — but call 69 a good guess — and “the greatest person in the world,” according to Hefner, fishes the Milolii koa because he believes there are always fish there even when nothing is showing.

This day, Hefner had wandered off in his little boat Ono Lady to fish the buoy (which was dead) and then  came back to the A’u King when he noticed it had drifted far outside thekoa.

“When I came up to Waha, I saw him standing in his boat with a big tail sticking out of his box so I figured he caught an ‘ahi,” Hefner said. “Then he lifted the top of his box and I almost died. This ono‘s head was so big it no longer even looked like an ono.”

Grace had caught the ono in the traditional handline method called “dropping stone” in which the bait is carried down with a round beach stone released at the right depth with a jerk on a slipknot in the line.

As events proved, the ono was destined to be caught by the seasoned fisherman. Tuna have been uncooperative lately, so Grace had switched to a very light nylon leader, 80-pound test, and small circle hook for a better chance of fooling one. By rights, even the smallest ono should have slashed free of the hook with the razor sharp teeth for which the gamefish is famous.

But the circle of metal had caught the fish in the corner of the jaw and through the hour-long fight the fish could not ever catch the soft plastic with the edge of a blade.

After the ono was boated and dead and could be safely examined Grace found a 300-pound leader sticking out of its mouth and traced it to a familiar hook in the fish’s belly. He remembered a day a few months ago when a fish had taken one of his lines, pulled the buoy under for a long time and then cut through a 300-pound-test leader to take a hook just like this one. “This is my old leader,” he told Hefner, and he might just as well have said “this is my fish from birth.”

Hefner transferred the ono to his box because it was bigger but the fish still had to be bent to cover it with ice. Then he began the long trip to get it weighed. Back to the fishpond. Carry it over lava rocks to the parking area. Drive up the mountainside to the main road and then many miles up the coastline to Kailua. The final weight was 104 or 109, depending on which of two certified scales you believe.

Grace’s boat has an optimistic name (a’u means marlin) for a craft so small he can fish it for a week on six gallons of gas running through a 25-horsepower outboard.

He catches them all the time from the small boat, says Hefner. “I saw him hanging onto his handline with a marlin jumping around the boat three or four times last year.”

But maybe the name is a tribute to a catch made by the Grace family two decades ago. In 1977, Harry Grace Sr. and his young grandson, Harry, caught the biggest marlin of the year on their 18-foot skiff near the same spot. The grander weighed 1340 pounds — after its entrails and tail had been removed to aid handling on the long trip to the scalesObservers who saw the fish said it easily topped 1500 pounds when whole.

That year, by the way, saw two other granders caught, but no ono over 80 pounds. As we said, 100-pound ono are scarcer than marlin granders are.

The Year No Billfish Spawned?


Was 1998 the year the billfish didn’t spawn off Kona? There was much talk of that here last summer among billfish scientists gathered here during the 40th HIBT.

Some said it was the legacy of La Nina — the water was just too cold to put the blues in a romantic mood. But no one could say for sure because little is known about the early part of the marlin life cycle.

Andrew West, an Australian scientist raised in Hawaii, is in town to conduct pertinent research along the Kona Coast.

Knowledge of the early life history from birth to maturity is vital to developing management strategies, West says, but to date, little is known about billfish as juveniles.

“We know that they hatch at around 2.9 mm in length, and grow into magnificent fish of over 1,700 pounds,” says West. “But the growth process and early life biology (and behavior) of billfish are still unknown.”

Why Kona? For reasons both familiar (the blue marlin capital of the Pacific?) and not so familiar.

“Billfish are known to gather on the leeward side of Pacific islands, taking advantage of calm waters during late summer to spawn,” West said. “However, many scientists believe that blue marlin, for climatic and other physical reasons, failed to spawn in the waters off Kona last year, and they observed irregular population fluctuations.”

Kona’s clear, clean water also suits the latest sampling technology, he said, many of which techniques allow marlin juveniles to be accurately studied without being harmed.

West’s research is designed to help answer major lifecycle matters such as where billfish spawn, where the juveniles live as they grow up, how fast marlin grow and when they arrive.

  1. Maryann Malabey

    Thank you for publishing this article. Harry K. Grace was my grandfather.