Sitting in the lobby at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel during the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament is no easy task for Peter Fithian.
The founder of the prestigious big game fishing tournament has seen so many faces during the tournament’s 55-year history he occasionally has to be reminded of the names of anglers as they approach him. However, Fithan always makes it a point to greet the competitors with a firm handshake and usually adds in a clever anecdote that elicits a smile.
Fithan took some time out of his busy tournament schedule to sit down with Stephens Media Hawaii to discuss the humble beginnings of the tournament, what makes Kailua-Kona the uniquely perfect host venue, and what he credits the tournament’s long lasting success to.
Q: How have you seen the tournament grow and evolve over its 55-year lifespan?
A: I don’t think I started out on the journey thinking I’d be doing this 55 years later. But every year you face challenges, and you grow from those challenges and they keep you going.
The first year we had 23 teams and probably 21 were from Honolulu and Kona, but it grew. This year, we have a team from Kenya. That is the kind of thing we enjoy particularly — getting people from other countries.
This was such a little town when we started. Probably for the first three of four years, we were weighing the fish at the Kona Inn. Later on, we moved to the pier with the thought that this was something people should be seeing.
The pier is such a unique venue — it’s the middle of the town. I think when Ironman came it was easy for them to figure out where to start.
Q: Why did you choose Kailua-Kona as the venue for the tournament?
A: The tournament was not just about having a tournament. The tournament was always meant to focus attention on Kona. We wanted to make this town a destination.
I graduated from a hotel school and had come out here in the Navy in the summer of 1948. I then had a chance to come here to work.
Before I came to Kona, I was the first manager of the Augusta National Golf Club. It hosted the Masters Golf Tournament. I don’t say much about that, but obviously it is very influential on my life.
An opportunity opened up with the Kona Inn and I was more than happy to take it. I brought my family here, and two of my best friends ended up being Henry Chee and George Parker, who were two of the leading captains here.
I left after a short time, but I think always subconsciously wanted to come back to Kona. I had done some thinking about doing a tournament during my time at the Kona Inn. I guess the influence of the Masters was always there to do something so significant that it would go on a long time.
Q: Unlike the typical fishing tournament, the HIBT has no huge payoff or jackpot for its winners. What was the thought behind creating a tournament that celebrated the pure sport and prestige of big game fishing?
A: When we started this, the money tournaments were what drew the most people and money was much more important than pure sport.
The money thing fills a need, and people like that, but it’s not what we are doing here. We have always publicized the town and having a good time enjoying the sport.
Q: The Great Marlin Race has been a great partnership between sport fishing and scientific research. What kind of a role do you believe tag and release plays not only for scientific study, but also for fish conservation?
A: I think it has a significant impact on both sustainability and scientific research.
We started doing tag and release in the tournament more than 30 years ago. When we started, we just caught everything there was. We had no idea where the small ones grew and if the big ones were.
We called the smaller fish “rats” in those days. When people brought in so many fish, we could not put them through the scoring system. So we said, fine, whatever you catch we will give you points. Doing that took most of the fish off the pier and let us focus on the ones worth looking at.
The Great Marlin Race has also helped us track the tendencies and travel patterns of the fish in ways we never thought possible before.
Q: What do you credit the tournament’s long lasting success to?
A: What is important to point out is that it’s not only me. We have people from all over who fill slots and help us make sure this tournament runs smoothly. They are all people who truly care about this tournament.
At the start, we must have guessed right on the format. Also, we have had tremendous people volunteering. Kona is a small town, but we have been lucky to have so many wonderful people coming out to help us out every year.
When we started it, it seemed like something worth doing, and people still think it is something worth coming to.