story by Ashley Stepanek
photos by Erik Aeder
One morning last summer, Maui’s windfishing community got together to host a test of who’s the best, an unofficial annual competition in which the biggest fish wins. When the starting gun went off at 10 a.m., Jamie DeBussey took off, dragging three enormous lures, looking for birds and the current, reading telltale signs of underwater activity as only a true fisherman can. He searched the water vigorously. Then, suddenly, came a loud, buzzing sound from the drag on the reel.
“I hooked a kava kava that I guessed was twenty pounds,” Jamie says with a flicker of pride. He dropped his gear to reel it in, but a shark beat him to the chase and snatched his bounty. Jamie was able to save the fish’s head; he hoped its weight alone might be enough to win the tournament. He shoved it in the bag attached to the nose of his board, rigged back up and sailed on.
He hooked up again. But with the new fish came another shark. To distract it, he threw it the fish head that he had just caught. A good call, Jamie thought, reeling furiously to pull up the second kava kava, then tucking it into his bag. But then he saw two more sharks near his board. And he had a fleeting thought: Maybe he could catch a shark to win the tournament.
When it comes to the ocean, the Hawaiian Islands are all about innovation: This is the birthplace of surfing, ground zero for tow-in surfing and kitesurfing, and—lest you doubt the waterman’s ever-present combo of courage and creativity—even canoe kitesurfing. And now there’s another entrant on the sporting scene: windfishing, where boards meet bait, where catching wind and catching fish are one and the same goal.
As its name suggests, windfishing is a hybrid of windsurfing and fishing. It works like this: An eleven- to twelve-foot, narrow sailboard is fitted with multiple fishing rods strung with 100-pound monofilament test line and brightly colored lures. A sail rigged to the board captures the wind and provides the speed. Harnessed in, working the sail through the boom, windfishermen head straight out from the beach to cruise within the inner reef, or they sail to the outer reef for deep-sea sport fishing. They troll for ‘ahi, mahimahi, ono and more and don’t exclude marlin, sharks and other marine predators. Categorize these guys as opportunistic hunters—but it’s one thing to mess with aggressive sea beasts from a fishing vessel, quite another to do it from a sailboard.
And that’s where the skill comes in. It’s an anomalous thing, really, windfishing, because most would-be entrants into the sport are either sort of this or kind of that: either salty, bearish, Old Man and the Sea types; or flashy, colorful, cartwheeling wave shredders; or a just-miss combination of the two. This is a sport that requires an acute understanding of wind and wave action; advanced windsurfing ability; a working knowledge of fishing; preparation and caution; and an intuitive, bold, calm personality. It’s a patchwork of essentials. You have to be good at all of it and ready for anything with the understanding that you’re a very small fish in a very big sea. It’s literally unsafe if you don’t think this way.