A Real Humdinger

Captain Jeff Fay learned from the pioneers of Kona big-game sportfishing

Captain Peter Wright

By Captain Peter Wright – Reprinted with Permission

This article first appeared in Marlin Magazine in October of 2007


“Marlin” I yelled at the top of my lungs. I felt like I was being deafened by the rattling, clanging, metal, dry stack exhaust that was churning out the unforgettable deep throated sound of an early model 6-71 Gray Marine Diesel engine. I wanted to make sure I could be heard over the noisy exhaust by Capt. Jeff Fay and his clients on the lower deck of the Malia. I wanted get their attention before the fish struck the artificial lure.

That fish was only the first of 5 blue marlin that attacked our Hawaiian style lures that day. I had come to Kona, Hawaii hoping to learn something about the lures (sometimes called “Kona Heads” on the east coast) from some of the people who had first used them and whose deckhands would eventually make them popular world wide during their travels off island .

Hawaiian anglers and skippers had told me that blue marlin in the Pacific did not show themselves behind a lure, like we were accustomed to having them do in the Atlantic with natural dead baits, but invariably “crashed” the bait without warning. Every fish we raised that day proved that belief to be wrong. (The fact that few skippers of that time ran their boats from the bridge was undoubtedly a major factor !) We caught 3 out of the 5 marlin that bit our lures. At that time it was my best single day ever for blue marlin.

I first met Fay in Hawaii some 35 years ago. At that time Freddie Rice was the owner of the Malia. Rice and one of Malia’s customers, the late Morton D. May, chartered me for a single day in Australia while waiting for my good friend Dennis “Brazakka“ Wallace to become available for their 10 day charter with him. At the end of their trip May and Rice had invited me to join them in Kona to fish aboard Rice’s boat. (see side bar Henry Chee’s Malia).

Fay was born in Ventura, California on April 4,1947. He has a faint recollection of catching his first fish in a pond in a cemetery “in the Berkley area.” He does not remember anything about the tackle he used, except that the hook was gold colored, and the fish was used to fertilize his grandmother’s rose garden. His biggest fish as a young boy, a carp, also became fertilizer for the roses.

By age 13 he was riding a bicycle to the Sacramento River estuary system to fish for striped bass which he caught using a small bait casting reel and rod. Fish under legal size were hidden in his pants for the triumphant bike ride home. These striped bass were food for the boy, not the rose garden.

In 1962, at age 15, after his mother had passed away, Fay moved to Kona, Hawaii, and lived there with his father, Fred Fay . He did not get to fish during his high school years at Konawaina High School. After graduation Fay went to Honolulu to start his freshman year at the University of Hawaii.

During his Christmas break he came home to Kona. One day Captain Terry Truman invited him to go along on a “Holo Holo” fishing trip on an old sampan style of boat named the “Kua Lua”. (On a holo holo trip there is no charter on board and no wages are paid, but if fish with commercial value are caught the mate gets a share of the fish money .)

There were only the two of them on board Kua Loa that day. When a 160 pound marlin struck their live bait, Fay got to catch his first blue marlin. His fishing fever was rekindled. He never returned to U of H, but began to work full time as a fisherman.

Fay credits a local Kona commercial fisherman, Olny Roy, for teaching both Truman and himself many advanced techniques for fishing for marlin and tuna, in particular the use of small tuna and bonito as live bait. This tactic worked especially well along the projections and indentations of the section of the 100 fathom ledge north of Kona airport that was known to locals as simply “The Grounds”.

“Olney Roy had unbelievable fish sense.” Fay says today. “He made both Terry Truman and Bart Miller into good live bait fishermen, but never got the credit he deserved. Bart got his reputation catching blue marlin on live bait and it was Olny Roy who taught him.”

“Olney was fishing with Terry a lot when I started working for Terry. Olney got the fish money and we got an education about fishing that only a handful of Hawaiians could ever match. Before we had GPS or even good recorders he knew where to go and what moon phases were best for a whole bunch of different species of fish. He could catch all the pelagic fish, marlin, wahoo, mahi mahi, and tuna, not to mention every kind of bottom fish, and small bait fish. It was all in his head, and Olney was never selfish about explaining things to us.”

When Henry Chee passed away Freddie Rice bought his famous boat. Rice, a cattle rancher and rodeo champion, fished the boat on weekends and hired a young Hawaiian captain, Wes Vanatta, to run it as a charter boat when Rice was not fishing. Fay was hired as mate and learned new fishing skills in a direct line of instruction that started with Henry Chee, ran through Vanatta, and now on to Fay.

“With Terry we pulled lures only when we could not get live bait, lures were definitely second choice. Wes had fished with Henry and while we still used live bait a lot of the time, we pulled lures way more than Terry and I ever did.” Fay told me.

Henry Chee Jr. known to all his friends as “Butch” Chee has inherited the mantle of his famous dad and Butch still has his old man’s mitre box. The mitre box allows any man to cut the exact angle on the face of a lure that Henry Chee had developed through years of trial and error, and eventually with enormous fishing success. Butch catches more huge marlin, by himself, in a fiberglass Mako, than most charter boats I can think of.

Today, lures made by Henry Chee have a value (and, some say, a mana) that transcends even their rarity. The angle of the cut that Chee developed for a lure’s face works on almost any size and shape of both hard and soft lures.  In the late 1970s, when Fay and I started experimenting with home made, soft headed, lures we frequently asked Butch to let us use his dad’s mitre box to cut the magic angle into our latest effort. What little I know about old Hawaiian fishing methods Butch and Jeff showed me.

Fay has had the great good luck to be in the right time and place to intersect the pathways of two, almost genealogical, passings of the baton of fishing skills and knowledge. A major factor in Jeff’s success, including winning the Henry Chee award a record three times (now an unprecedented four times since the publication of this article), has been his ability to switch back and forth between the two fishing styles, depending upon the availability, or lack thereof, of tuna for live bait.

By the middle 1960’s Fred Rice was having trouble getting insurance on Chee’s tired old wooden boat so he had a replica built in Honolulu with only a couple of minor changes. He added a powerful electric solenoid to the new Malia’s old manual gear box to allow quick and easy automatic shifting- sort of.

Fay taught me early on to avoid the big manual shift lever that stuck several feet up through the wheel house deck. If someone poked the button that operated the solenoid while the boat’s operator was slipping the clutch in forward or reverse when fighting a fish (somewhat like a modern day trolling gear) the lever would SLAM forward or backward and was capable of inflicting injury that would instantly raise the deepest male bass voice to a high soprano! The “nut cracker” was one of the kinder names for this device.

The old Malia became Fay’s first major command when Vanatta left for another job, and he was proud to bring Rice’s new Malia home to Kona from her construction site in Honolulu.  Her outriggers were vertical bamboo poles affixed to the cockpit deck and bridge overhang.  Her flat line rod holders had large, scooped , palm shaped, castings to ease the strain on wooden rod butts and the flat line rod tips projected outboard making the flat lines’ lures farther apart than the outrigger baits.  Malia continued to be queen of the fleet and both Fay and Rice caught many marlin aboard her. The Rice family even took the women’s world record for Fred’s wife, Sally, with only Fred, Sally and two babies on board. Fred was sure the mana was good on his new boat.

In 1972 Fay took a job with Captain Alistair Dodds for the season in Cairns on board “Lady Margaret” . They got the first marlin of Fay’s career over 1000 pounds. Now Fay was also learning the Aussie style of trolling dead bait for truly huge marlin. In addition, there is no group of skippers on the planet that is as good at using heavy tackle as the most mediocre members of the Cairns fleet and Fay absorbed it all.

The three seasons Fay spent on the Great Barrier Reef added new dimensions to his skills as both a wireman and a skipper.  In all the time I have fished with Jeff I have never seen him break the leader on a fish we wanted to put in the boat. This is a far better indicator of the skills of a wireman than the ability to merely hang on and break the leader and call it a release. Jeff is one of the best.

In 1973 Fay fished with me in Cairns on Restless II. We got 6 granders together before he had to leave early to return to Hawaii. He was, and still is, a better mechanic than I and it took all of both our skills to keep Restless II running. At an 11 knot cruising speed her tired old Perkins engines used a quart of oil each for a day’s fishing.  If we pushed the cruising speed to 14 knots on the run in and out, we burned a gallon of oil per engine per day. I also learned that a man could depend on Fay when things went wrong at sea. Twice a propeller shaft fell out of a coupling in rough seas in inopportune and dangerous moments. We fixed that problem one evening and knew when we were done that we would pity the man who had to ever pull that shaft out again!

That year I first learned that Jeff was truly an expert cook. When it came to cooking fish he told me that, “You can make ANY fish taste good if you prepare and cook it right. Olney Roy taught me how to make a simple, but delicious, fish stew or soup. Truly great chefs can even take a hard to deal with species, or an internal organ and make it taste good.”

When I passed through Kona in 1975 Fay was “on the beach” running a milk truck, and I was unsure as to where I was headed career-wise. We decided to get a charter boat and start a fishing business in Hawaii. We went to California to buy Walter Voss’s old Dreamgirl, but wound up in Florida, where we became the proud owners of a 37‘ Rybovich named Humdinger.

We financed the boat 110% via a lease through a Cadillac store owned by one of Jeff’s customers, and became the brokest Rybovich owners on the planet. As we told Rice later, “Humdinger may be older than the new Malia but she has two engines.”  Our first fish on the new boat was Fay’s first giant bluefin tuna in the Bahamas. That fish put us temporarily into first place in the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament. We then trucked the boat to Oakland via low boy trailer, then barged her to Honolulu. We hoped that the boat’s luck would hold out in a new ocean.  After putting the flying bridge and tower back on the boat in Honolulu, we ran her to her new home in Kona. There we had to endure 3 fish less days before finally breaking open a bottle of champagne to celebrate our first marlin. Only after the fish was in the boat did we realize our first marlin in Hawaiian waters was a ‘rat’ (small) black marlin. We joked about how much money we had spent for a marlin that would not have rated much more than a yawn on the GBR.

Luck and skill continued to favor us and my biggest Pacific blue marlin ever is still a 902 pounder we got on Humdinger while cruising at 17 knots with a prototype Mold Craft Wide Range Softhead in our wake.  Our partnership lasted for 5 years and even when the pressures of coownership and cocaptainship split the partnership we managed to maintain a close friendship. We had built a good business from scratch, had caught world records and together we had added another Henry Chee award to Jeff’s successes.

One of my best fishing memories after Jeff assumed sole proprietorship is of riding along with Jeff and Butch on the Humdinger one day. I was observing and taking pictures when Deborah Dunaway caught a spearfish on 4 pound test that filled her hand with an existing world record for every species of billfish.  The ultra light line turned the member of smallest species of all the billfish in to a giant of a fish. Catching that record required all of Deborah’s angling talent, and Jeff’s light tackle boat handling skills. The tension was as tight I have seen on any world record attempt and the following celebration was world class.

SIDEBAR – Henry Chee’s “Malia”

Built in 1968 , the “Malia” that existed in 1972, when I first met Rice, and then Fay, was a recreation of one of the world’s most famous charter boats. Superstitious to a fault, Rice, a fifth generation Hawaiian who is descended from an old missionary family, had saved the steering wheel, koa wood tackle drawers, marine toilet, engine and gear box from a tired old wooden boat and had an exact replica recreated. His intention was to also recreate the “mana” (miraculous power and spirit) that the original boat was deemed to have when it had been skippered by the legendary Capt. Henry Chee.

The owner of the original “Malia”, Henry Chee was a world renowned captain and it is he after whom the award given to the winning skipper of the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament is named. I never met Chee but many friends of mine, who fished with him on board the original Malia, tell me he was an extremely clever and innovative fisherman.

Capt. Chee is commonly credited with inventing the tag line and rubber band system system used by many modern boats when trolling artificial lures. Other systems used in Chee’s era including using clove hitches of the fishing line around wooden match sticks which broke and released the line when a marlin or tuna struck and must have chaffed the linen line they used in those years.

Tag lines and rubber bands were the superior system long before modern outrigger pins and anti-chafing gear had ever been thought of, and Chee caught blue marlin over 1,000 pounds on “Malia” many years before any captain in the Atlantic ever got one over the long time Atlantic world record of 742 pounds.  Many anglers and crews believed that the Malia must have had almost mythical abilities to be able to attract so many fish, and such big marlin. I think the fact that Chee was an outstanding captain was the major factor in his boat’s success!
(The belief that single screw boats raise more marlin than twin screw vessels may even be true, but is likely to be so due mainly to the skills of the men who run them and who have grown up with single screw rigs. Not many businessmen or professional men retire and buy a wooden, Carolina built, single screw, charter boat! New fiberglass, air conditioned two engine rigs are more their style and they do not have the fishing experience of the single engine guys.)

Skip Smith- “I mated for Fay when he started running the old 53 Hatteras “Hooker” for Dunaway. I first learned about fishing for marlin with lures, how to put on new skirts, making hook sets, where to run them on a wave, all that stuff from Jeff. We used a lot that of old Henry Chee lures in those days. Now there is a soft head named the “Hooker Lure” that I came up with by recutting the heads of soft lures with poor hook up ratios. It all started with things I learned from Fay.”

“What I remember most though was how when we hooked a good one he still got excited and hyperventilated or something and his gag reflex kicked in. I used to joke with him, I’ll wire, you gag!”

Sally Rice- “Jeff has been family since he started working for us as a teenager, mating for Wes Vanatta on Malia. Now he is one of the elite old timers of the Kona captains. My son McGrew got started mating for Jeff weekends and summers on Humdinger and became a great captain in his own right. His son, my grandson, Oskie also worked for Jeff in high schook and now he gets to fish and wire thousand pound marlin all over the world. Jeff has really done a great job of passing on his knowledge to a couple of generations of upcoming fishermen.”