Al Gustavson’s family loves to tell the story of how, as a 5-year-old boy, he would sit patiently, fishing pole in hand, over a bucket filled with water. There were no fish in the bucket; just water.
Decades later, Gustavson’s love for the sport of fishing — not just the act of catching fish — is quite evident.
It’s one of the main reasons why Gustavson was honored this week with the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament’s Richard Boone Award, which is given annually to the top scoring boat captain. Gustavson, who is the owner/operator of the Topshape, and his first mate, John Bennett, were recognized with the Boone Award for the work they did in the 2013 event.
Gustavson said that helping anglers deal with the disappointment of not catching a marlin, whether it be the world-class ones in town this week or the amateurs that he takes out on charter tours throughout the year, is one of the most important aspects of his job.
“This is one of the hardest sports in the world,” he said. “If you bat .300 in baseball, you go to the Hall of Fame. Here, the average is 1 in 10 to get a marlin. That’s 10 percent, so you deal with the negative a lot. For us to be able to have people have that good experience, that’s pretty cool.”
Gustavson, who has only been participating in the HIBT for the past five years after spending two decades fishing off the coast of Maui, has made a habit of providing good experiences for those who go out on the Topshape.
He was the runner-up for last year’s Boone Award and he should be in the running for next year’s award, if the Friends of Kenya team he helped land a 150-pound blue marlin on Monday was any indication.
“Fantastic service for people in Hawaii,” said Mark Allen of the Kenyan team. “He’s good. Little touches mean a lot.”
Allen should know. He runs a charter boat off Kenya. On Monday, just as he does every day of the tournament, Gustavson was speaking with the anglers he had aboard to find out about them and what they have learned through years on the water.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned about marlin fishing — every boat does it a little differently,” Gustavson said. “These guys have great experience because they get to see different captains and how they do things. Not everybody is 100 percent right and not everybody is100 percent wrong.”
Gustavson is quick to credit to Bennett, his first mate, for the high marks that the Topshape receives.
“A lot of it, we’re just a great team,” the captain said. “John, if we’re not out fishing, he’s cleaning. Our engine room is as clean as the outside of our boat. He’s a real pro, been all over the world, knows exactly what he does. (He is) one of the best mates in the harbor. Most of the mates come to him for advice.”
Sally Kurz of Laguna Niguel Billfish Club No. 1 has been very impressed by Gustavson and the Topshape.
“The boat is immaculately clean,” said Kurz, who lives in California but spends about a quarter of the year in Kailua-Kona. “They have all of the top equipment. Fun time on the boat. A great experience. They are very attentive to their guests.”
She said that Gustavson and Bennett know as much about people as they do about fishing.
“They are very customer-oriented,” she said. “Al is a businessman, obviously, but also, they know if you’re going to get that repeat business, you’ve got to go above and beyond.”
Gustavson said that winning the award is a feather in the cap for him, Bennett and the Topshape as a whole.
“To put on the resume that you’ve won the Boone Award, here in Kona — which is the marlin capital of the world, the only place you can catch a marlin 12 months out of the year — is a big deal, not only for us individually, but also for our business, Topshape Charter Boats,” he said.