Hawaiian Ahi: The Aloha State's Lesser-Known Tuna Fishery

Carol 1 [Photo by Carol Lynne]

By Mark Johnston

Exceptional ahi (yellowfin tuna more than 100 lbs) fishing in Hawaii is often overshadowed by an outstanding blue marlin fishery. Many anglers don’t realize Hawaii has one of the best – and easiest to access – ahi fisheries in the world. These hard-hitting gamefish distributed throughout Hawaiian state waters are worthy opponents for any big game angler. Ironically, anglers from around the world trolling for blue marlin often think they have a big marlin on when an ahi smashes a bait.

Commercial ahi fishing is found throughout the Hawaiian archipelago, but for charter sportfishing, ahi are regularly found off three of Hawaii’s main islands- the Big Island, Oahu and Kauai. Ahi fishing techniques on Hawaiian charter boats include trolling, live bait and/or the green stick. A few charter boats on the Big Island and Oahu that regularly fish porpoise schools employ all three methods on a regular basis. These captains regularly catch a lot of ahi each year. On Kauai, where the ahi are thick under huge bird piles instead of porpoise schools, there is no need for a greenstick.

adrian [Ahi are exceptional fighters and make for top-quality tablefare. || Photo by Adrian Gray]

What’s a green stick you might ask? A greenstick is an extremely effective way to present baits (artificial squids) to line shy ahi. They are very effective in Hawaii around heavily fished porpoise schools. A green stick is the generic term for a 25- 40-foot tall, heavy-duty fiberglass or graphite pole used to elevate and tow a large wooden bird behind the boat. The heavy bird serves two purposes; (1) keep the mainline taut, which is critical to get the proper action for the lures, and (2) to act as a teaser to attract fish to the surface. From the mainline, 4-8 artificial squid baits are dangling from leaders or “branch lines” just above the water’s surface. When fished, the baits fly in and out of the water in a “dipping” motion. The bite on a green stick is amazing. Usually the ahi hits the bait while it is a couple of feet above the water. On the strike the mainline breaks away from the greenstick, similar to an outrigger, and the battle begins. While the fishing gear is a little heavier than traditional trolling or live baiting - the bites are explosive and multiple hookups are not uncommon.

Big Island

Ahi can be caught off Kona year round. The average weight is around 130 lbs., along with big bruiser’s well over 200 lbs. In the spring and summer, ahi are often caught in “the blind” while trolling. Meaning they are caught away from the porpoise school while trolling for blue marlin or travel-trolling while looking for the porpoise school. Blind ahi strikes are awesome, if you don’t see the bite – you’ll be thinking big blue marlin at first.

Russ1 [A nice haul of quality Ahi. || Photo courtesy of Capt. Russ Nitta of Lepika]

Big porpoise schools (they are really pan tropical spotted dolphins) are regularly found in calmer waters off the Big Island and Oahu. Captains’ specifically targeting ahi will normally look for a porpoise school; as the ahi are typically around or mixed in with the porpoise. If ahi are caught while trolling by the porpoise school, marked on the recorder or seen feeding, some boats will put out live bait or put up the greenstick. As mentioned previously, a greenstick is a unique way of fishing, and is an incredible bite to witness. It’s not every day you see a 140- to 250-lb. ahi fly through the air and nail an artificial squid six feet above the water’s surface. It’s truly an awesome bite!

Kahl [Doesn't get much better than perfect weather, screaming drags and the end result - big Yellowfin tuna! || Photo courtesy of PELAGIC Pro Capt. Jeff Kahl]

Ahi are also found around the fish attracting devices (FADs) that have been placed offshore by the state of Hawaii, along with other offshore structures that attract lots of bait fish. Bait is usually easy to catch and these areas are very productive at times for both live baiting and trolling.

While the ahi fishing is good year round off Kona, it’s worth noting however, if you’re looking for quantity- March and April are the best months to fish and you’re looking for size - November and December is often the best time.

Oahu

Rubin [PELAGIC Pro Capt. Chris Rubin with a stud Ahi caught off Oahu.]

Excellent ahi fishing opportunities abound off Oahu in a variety of places. One suggestion for ahi would be to fish out of Waianae Boat Harbor northwest of Honolulu. There are several reasons for this, but ultimately it’s because the proof is in the pudding. They catch a lot of ahi out of there – one boat catches 150 to 180 ahi a year, weighing anywhere from 90 to 220 lbs. Being on the leeward side of the island, this area has calm seas and is home to big porpoise schools. The porpoise prefer the calmer seas too. Travel trolling to the porpoise school and live baiting opelu is the preferred method of fishing and it’s extremely productive.

opelu [Opelu are the preferred live bait when targeting big Ahi.]

Another good option is fishing out of Haleiwa on Oahu’s beautiful North Shore. Live bait is easy to catch and there is a big drop directly in front of the harbor that is perfect for ahi and other big gamefish species. If conditions are rough, an option is to run south to the leeward side of the island and look for porpoise schools to live bait or put up the greenstick.

Frazier [The fruits of an epic day of Ahi tuna fishing. || Photo courtesy of Capt. Shannon Frazier of Live Bait Charters}

Kauai

Kauai has some of the finest ahi fishing in the state. Ironically, some of the biggest ahi are caught off the small, enchanted island. One of the factors that make ahi fishing in Kauai unique is the thousands of birds that nest along Kauai’s magnificent cliffs. Unlike the Big Island (Kona) where there are fewer birds and most captains look for porpoise schools. The captains fishing out of Port Allen on Kauai’s southern end simply look for the bird piles offshore. There are times in the channel between Port Allen and the tiny island of Ni’ihau that the water is literally boiling with ahis for miles. You can experience a surreal “Blue Planet” moment here- being surrounded by ahi for a mile or more in all directions, with thousands of birds going insane screaming and diving.

Fishing out of Port Allen, on the southern end of Kauai, statistically is the hottest fishing area and also has the nicest ocean conditions found off of Kauai. Getting to the fish from Port Allen is quick with the 500 fathom line only two miles off the beach and 1000 fathoms at 3.5 miles. The ahi found here are between 100 to 250 lbs. beginning in March with the bite staying strong through August and September. Kauai captains mostly fish lures but sometimes live bait opelu also.

Lynne2 [Another big Ahi leadered and getting ready for the gaff. || Photo by Carol Lynne]

Ahi are just another reason why fishing in Hawaii is so great. Come see for yourself!