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October 25, 2001

Midway: A World Apart

An historic outpost in the middle of the Pacific ocean offers fast action over the reefs and in blue water.

"My god! Did you see that strike?" George Handgis yelled back from the bow a couple of hours later as I fumbled for my camera. We'd just started to work the outer reef crest. Gaffney kept the 22-foot Glacier Bay positioned just outside the curling surf so the Kona, Hawaii, angler could cast a huge Yo-Zuri Surface Bull lure right into the surge as his wife and world-record holder Sharon looked on.

It's only fitting that in such an incredibly turbulent realm of pounding waves and jagged coral, giant trevally (ulua in Hawaiian) -- one of the largest and hands-down most brutal of all jacks -- like to patrol. Here, these thugs of the reef prowl surge channels and undercut coral "caves," waiting to ambush hapless prey with an awesome, turbocharged assault.

When 50 to 70 pounds of GT spots its prey sprinting along the surface and that prey happens to be a top-water plug, the crash offers a to-die-for rush that no angler can forget. And this crash, on Handgis' lure, was a beauty, one that Gaffney aptly described later as "looking like a washing machine someone had dropped from a helicopter."

With the heavy Shimano spinning stick bent in a tortuous arc all the way down to the thick butt, Handgis palmed the already-clamped-down spool. No stranger to the ways of big trevally, Handgis set the current International Game Fish Association GT 30-pound record at Midway with a 105-pounder in 1996. Though his skill was a major factor in landing that one, he's quick to say luck also played a part, since that fish didn't cut him off in coral when it could have.

I fired off a few photos of the battle, and that was all I'd get. Handgis had about as much hope of stopping the trevally on that 100-pound superbraid as he would have a locomotive. Zzzz -- zzzz - zzzz. The reel complained loudly as it gave up line in rapid-fire bursts, and we watched the green string head up, right onto the shallow coral reef crest.

I caught a glimpse of a big black shadow riding the back of a wave; then, with a resounding "Snap!" it was all over. Handgis reeled in nothing more than a frayed mono leader. Another big trevally, somewhere over the reef, was probably shaking off another big plug (always with single, barbless hooks) and thumbing its nose at another poor schmuck who thought he could best it.

That's trevally fishing; that's Midway.

Infected With GT Fever
Actually, that's not all of Midway, but only one well-known fishing facet of this lonely coral ring sitting -- literally -- in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As you might expect from an isolated atoll with no commercial fishing pressure around it, Midway also offers blue-water fishing, and first-rate at that.

I feel compelled here to share an admission. "I want to fish blue water," I had told John Bone, who runs Midway Sport Fishing, before I arrived. "After all, there's been some press already on the big GT out here, but would people come all the way out here just to fish GT?"

I was as mistaken to wonder about that as I was thinking 100-pound line would stop these Herculean fish. People do come out -- and keep coming back -- specifically to fish GT. Call it GT fever: It's real. I know because I caught it.

About halfway through my week at Midway, I found myself saying, "Well, we might as well fish in the lagoon for GT today; it's really pretty rough outside." The 15-knot wind had blown the seas to all of 4 feet: not much for the island's two 38-foot Bertram sport-fishers but enough for an excuse to work the lagoon and reef edges to tangle with what many reasonably consider the world's toughest game fish.

Of course, GT are hardly exclusive to Midway. They range from the major islands of Hawaii (providing an important shore fishery) to Australia and across the Indian Ocean to the shores of Africa. But Midway offers something different from many areas where anglers fish GTs: an essentially virgin population, and one that should stay that way thanks to strict regulations in place to protect Midway's reef/lagoon game fish. That means all catch-and-release (a de facto practice, anyway, thanks to the pandemic ciguatera here) with single, barbless hooks.

Exceptions can be made for fish that appear to be of record size, which can be brought in for weighing. Indeed, a number of records have been set at Midway, and more are sure to fall -- and not only for giant trevally. The 5- to 20-pound thick-lipped trevally (called by its Japanese/Hawaiian name here, butaguchi) can be abundant. Despite their odd lips, as reminiscent of carp as they are of jacks, butaguchi give a tough account on light line.

Other jacks of Midway's lagoon and reef include amberjack, bluefin trevally (one of the prettiest and, pound for pound, toughest jacks, although they rarely exceed 20 pounds), rainbow runner (a 24 1/2 pounder from last summer awaits approval as the new women's 16-pound-line world record), leatherback, golden trevally, black trevally, barred jack, African pompano and the occasional Japanese yellowtail, similar to the California yellowtail. Ferocious grey snapper (known as uku in Hawaii) turn up frequently. Silver-blue and much longer and more streamlined than most snappers, greys are also tougher than most in their family; they have to be, no doubt, to live and compete with the likes of giant trevally.

Outside the Reef: Bait, Birds and Blues
While some big grouper prowl the deeper reef slopes, you won't find a great deal of reef-dweller diversity beyond this. Midway, the atoll farthest northwest in the Hawaiian Island archipelago, is also in the coolest water. Reputed to be the most northerly home to living coral, its cool-water reefs don't teem with a seemingly infinite variety of warm-water-loving game fish. But the sheer productivity of the area can be astounding, with great bait schools everywhere.

A trip outside the reef to fish blue water on almost any day confirms the presence of baitfish, as schools of wheeling, diving birds pockmark the horizon near and far. Blue water, by the way, starts little more than a stone's throw from the channel through the reef and just 15 minutes from the dock. As a true fringing atoll, Midway's reef is really the ring marking what was once the shoreline of a volcanic island peak jutting from the Pacific. As Darwin figured out, and later high-tech drilling confirmed, long after the island has sunk deep below the surface, the coral keeps building upon itself. That means the outside edge of the reef is nearly vertical and drops quickly to thousands of feet.

"We're still so new here, we just don't have a handle on all the fishing opportunities yet," Bone says. "Last year was only our second full season at Midway." The "season" to which he refers begins in early May when the first marlin, typically stripes, begin to show. Blues join them later in June and hang around in good numbers into October, which marks the end of the main fishing season at Midway.

What Midway Sport Fishing has found so far, though, is pretty encouraging since it includes lots of marlin. A 1997 trip for marine biologist, photographer and SPOR T FISHING contributor Bill Boyce offered evidence galore. "In five days, we hooked up nine blues," Boyce says. "The smallest was 350 pounds, and the largest would have gone about 750. That's good fishing for anywhere."

Indeed, last year's statistics from the two boats' catch logs show them hooking up well over 60 blue marlin in June and July alone. But good fishing continued into August when a family of California anglers hooked and fought a blue -- far beyond the grander designation, according to Capt. Chris Sheeder -- for over eight hours and finally lost it near the boat to a broken leader.

Boyce adds that this was all done strictly pulling plastics, the primary technique employed by the two Bertrams, Enterprise and Yorktown, in the operation's first year. "I guarantee you that had we been using bait and drop-back techniques, we'd have caught more of those fish." That's particularly true here, Boyce believes, since "compared to blue marlin I've seen in many other places, these fish don't come back to bite over and over because there are so many skipjack and so much other feed around Midway."

Now, however, the boats are equipped with tuna tubes and regularly put out livies. Last season, that paid off many times, including the day before I arrived when Boyce had a 450-pound blue come off a teaser to eat a small yellowfin. The next day "a 500-pounder came up behind us. All we were pulling was hookless teasers, and here was this big marlin, all lit up," thrashing one teaser, then the other, its head out of the water. Boyce says, "It wouldn't take the bait, but I caught it all on video."

Yellowfin, sometimes footballs but often 100- to 150-pound fish, roam offshore in such abundance that they can be a nuisance. "That's how good the fishing is," says Michael Fowlkes, producer of the popular Inside Sportfishing television series on Fox Sports who's made three trips to Midway. "You actually end up trying to run away from schools of tuna to have a shot at marlin."

The same can be true for wahoo. Find a log, as we did, and the chances are good it'll be seething with hungry 'hoos crisscrossing in the clear water below. And the chances are good you will find logs or other natural FADs (fish-aggregating devices) since Midway sits amid major ocean currents that sweep in new flotsam frequently. While the wahoo I saw and caught ranged from 30 to 60 pounds, larger 'hoos come in each season as well.

"We knew they had to be here," Bone told me when I asked about swordfish. Last summer, a guest determined to catch a broadbill made the effort and brought in a 116-pounder on stand-up gear. During my visit one evening, after they'd cleaned up following a day offshore, Capt. Chris Sheeder and his brother Mike decided to run out and try dropping baits with light sticks (something they hadn't tried before). They brought to the boat, tagged and released another swordfish of about the same size. Other night-fishing attempts have produced mako sharks and a real surprise: bluefin tuna of 125, 170 and 191 pounds.

On the very night the boys on the Yorktown were tagging a swordfish somewhere in the blackness not far beyond the reef, I sat in an exquisite, honest-to-God French restaurant (The Clipper House) at the water's edge sipping Chablis and eating wahoo as only a French chef could prepare it. After coffee and dessert, I'd return to "Charlie barracks," which on the outside look largely the same as they did for the many decades the U.S. Navy filled them with officers. But inside, these officers' quarters have been completely refurbished, and the air-conditioned accommodations rival those of a luxury hotel. On the way to the marina the next morning, I'd have to steer my standard-issue bicycle around the hundreds of albatross dotting the road. Truly, Midway is a world apart and offers any angler a unique experience among fishing adventures.