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Hemingway and Fishing with Christie Brinkley

Ernest Hemingway on the slopes of Mauna Kea with a Bighorn Sheep. Photo: Leslie Wishard

By Winston Conrad

(this is an excerpt from Catching Paradise in Hawaii, an account of the author’s long-term travel adventure to the Kona coast where he relocated with his family.)


Uliuli kai holo ka mano. Where the sea is dark, sharks swim. (Sharks are found in the deep sea. Also applied to men out seeking the society of the opposite sex.)

—Mary Kawena Pukui, Olelo Noeau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings, 1983


The night before the Kona expedition, Paulette and I went to Lulu’s, Kona’s hot nightspot. It was packed with revelers, both locals and tourists of all kinds. On the bar was a plaque inscribed “Hemingway pissed here.” As I had spent two years writing a book titled Hemingways France: Images of the Lost Generation, I was happy to get away from anything to do with the writer. Yet, it turns out that Hemingway most likely did piss there. In 1941, while on his honeymoon in Honolulu with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, he was summoned over to Kona to verify what was believed to be a world-record black marlin at 815 pounds and thirteen feet in length.

Hemingway found that the Kona skipper Charlie Finlayson had cleverly invented a fighting chair that could have changed the sport, but after Hemingway’s insulting letter to the International Game Fish Association, the contraption fizzled into fishing history. “The Clapp catch used a fishing chair built something like a rowing seat. The rod butt was in a socket, which was a part of the chair. The rod and reel were attached to the chair, the back of which would be rolled back and forth by the attendant. Being attached to the chair, the pull of the fish would pull the chair and the rod forward. The guard or attendant would then pull the back of the chair back, thus gaining line on the fish, which the angler would only need to recover by turning the handle of the reel.” Hemingway concluded that the seat unfairly advantaged the angler, Charles Clapp, and couldn’t be considered legal for the IGFA: “The entire fishing device was designed to make it possible for anglers who had never fished before to catch big fish without being subjected to any strain on any part of their bodies except their reeling hand.”

Hemingway, always in the limelight of the world, then disappeared for a few days. He went up the slopes of Mauna Kea.

In Waimea, just a couple of weeks before our night at Lulu’s, Harry Wishard, a talented artist of island scenes, had handed me a black-and-white photo of the famous author standing beside a man on horseback with a bighorn sheep slung over the saddle. “My grandfather Leslie Wishard let the Hemingways stay in his guest cottage for a few days, and he arranged for the paniolo to guide him hunting,” Harry said. “The paniolo assured Hemingway that all the way up Mauna Kea, they had very fine wine.”

“Yes,” I said. “He liked fine wine and preferred Margauxs and Bandols.”

Harry said with a sly smile, “But when it came time to serve the wine, after the arduous journey, guess what? Screw-on-cap sherry. When those paniolo of ‘O‘okala came into town, all they bought was rice and bottles of cheap sherry.”

“Pretty simple living up there then?” I asked.

“Yah, sheep, sherry, and rice,” Harry said. He knows the territory and is an expert hiker and hunter in the outback of Hawai‘i.

From Kona the Hemingways returned to Honolulu, finishing their trip at the Halekulani Hotel. Martha wanted a honeymoon and wrote about the islands, “This is a place where hospitality is a curse and no one can be alone.” Their belated honeymoon had gotten off on the wrong foot, right from the beginning, when they had stepped off the SS Matsonia in Honolulu and were adorned with no less than eighteen leis around their necks. Martha later wrote in Travels with Myself and Another that Ernest said, “I never had no filthy Christed flowers around my neck before and the next son of a bitch who touches me I am going to cool him and what a dung heap we came to and by Christ if anybody else says aloha to me I am going to spit back in his mouth.” (Their marriage didn’t last long.)

Before departing for Manila, Hemingway prophetically stated, “Japan will attempt to tie us up in the Pacific.” It was only ten months later that the Japanese imperial forces bombed Pearl Harbor.

Like Hemingway, I had become an aficionado of deep-sea fishing, and the Kona coast is ideal for it. The morning after partying by the plaque at Lulu’s, I was steering the Wahanui through the Honokohau Harbor. Mario was fiddling with the tackle, and along the sides of the canal, people in wide-brimmed hats fished with long poles for mullet, mackerel, and other pan-sized fish. Waves were breaking on either side of the channel entrance, and we idled in the clear turquoise water inside the break wall. After a set of south swells passed, I nosed the boat out while Mario squared the deck. Soon we were skipping over the water like the flying fish leaping beside us. Just a few hundred yards offshore, there is a bountiful reef—a haven for billfish, tuna, and wahoo. When we reached the deep ultramarine-blue ocean, Mario threw out the lines.

A course was set, and there was little to do except talk story. With a cigarette dangling from his lips, Mario cracked open a couple of beers, turned the passenger seat backward, facing the lines, and sat down. I thought of the line from John Williamson, the lieutenant on Captain Cook’s voyage who wrote, “A Seaman in general would as soon part with his life, as his Grog.”

Between swigs, Mario spoke of his sport charter days. His favorite client had been Christie Brinkley, the supermodel and ex-wife of Billy Joel. “What did she wear?” I asked.

He paused and gazed out to sea with longing adoration, as if he were envisioning a goddess. “Auwe! I was tending the lines, and she come out da cabin wearing a white see-through shirt, a pink bra, and white shorts. Da kine short shorts.” He took another sip of his beer and reminisced as if it were yesterday, even though over fifteen years had passed. “Den she wen’ go fore-deck fo’ sun tan. Take off dose short shorts and shirt and all she have is one itsy-bitsy, tiny-weenie pink bikini.”

“Was anyone else on the charter?”

“Well, der was one husband. No remember much of him, ’cept dat I t’ought ’bout push ’m over da side, den stay forever fish wit da kine.” Mario took another drag off his cigarette and looked back at the fishing lines wistfully.

Contemplating the clouds on the horizon, he searched for diving seabirds, which would indicate where the baitfish were. As there were no working birds at that moment, he talked story about taking a group of “Japanee” businessmen and one of their daughters out on a fishing charter. His mate knew a little Japanese from a couple of classes, but the rest he had learned from porno movies, and he frequently mixed up the pronunciations. The mate tried to say, “I like fishing with your family,” but instead it came out “I’d like to fuck your daughter.”

“The father of the young woman was the head of a large corporation . . . Mitsubishi, Sapporo, all same,” Mario said. The men had laughed in embarrassment. Thinking he had a hit, Mario’s mate repeated the phrase several times. The Japanese went below and remained there until there was a fish on. Mario was dismayed that they didn’t leave a tip. Only later, once the mate mastered the language after many classes, did he learn the actual meaning of his words. The following year, the same girl was back in Kona, enamored with the idea of living the island lifestyle. The mate invited her for sushi. They hit it off and eventually got married. “Only in Hawai‘i!” I said to Mario, and we laughed until we were interrupted by the scream of the reel. Mario grabbed the rod and lifted it over his shoulders, then leaned back and set the hook. The fish was pulling so hard that he put the rod back in the gunwale. I strapped on the harness. Once the line slowed down, I clipped the harness to the reel and placed the butt of the rod in the cup of the waist holder. The rod bent in a pulsing rhythm, and I felt the weight in my belly, arms, and shoulders. Mario pulled the throttles in reverse, and waves slopped over the transom, drenching me, but what did I care—I was hooked into the fish of a lifetime. White beads of water ran along the line, taut as a steel guitar string. The fish dived deep, stripping out most of the line. I could feel the force of the beast’s power; it felt as if I were fighting an amphibious mustang.

Unknown, James Cromwell, Duke Kaahanamoku. Photo: courtesy of Hope Cromwell

Then it stopped diving. It ascended. I reeled in the line like crazy. A long-beaked shape leaped across the water like a water-skier jumping the wake. Marlin! After skittering across the surface in a series of half jumps, it landed, sending an enormous column of white spray into the air. “A blue!” shouted Mario.

It dived again, taking most of the line. For an hour, I wrestled the fish until my arms ached with fatigue. Finally, that magnificent creature came alongside the boat, its sides streaked with silver, lavender, and blue; pectoral fins spread wide; and that scythe-like tail moving side to side. Mario grabbed the cable leader with one gloved hand and pulled the fish closer. With a swift jerk, he stuck the gaff into its neck. The fish thrashed and thumped the side of the boat. Mario next sank a large hand hook in its back. “Tie dis to da cleat,” he yelled. I wrapped the white rope around the cleat. With the gaff in his left hand, he held the struggling fish tight to the boat. Then—thwack, thwack—he smashed the blue head with a silvery steel bat. It went still. I grabbed the tail, and Mario lifted the front portion over the side of the boat; it landed on deck with a thud and lay there gasping. At that moment, it wasn’t just a fish but a colorful being of the sea, a strange visitor from another world. It flopped violently, and its swordlike bill stabbed at the air. I thought of the Kona fisherman whose eye had been poked out by a marlin after it jumped into the boat. Mario handed me the club. I struck it twice. Blood splattered on my legs and arms, and the white deck of the boat went crimson. Then the marlin died. Exhilarated by the struggle, we hooted with joy and shook hands. Mission accomplished!

After hosing off the deck, Mario covered the fish with a wet canvas tarp. A shrouded corpse. I peeled it back for another look: blood trickled from its mouth. I touched its flesh, cold. Emptiness and a certain sadness overwhelmed me. I had never felt that way about a fish before—definitely not about an ono, with its teeth snapping, or even a glittering salmon destined for our dinner table. Just a few minutes earlier, that marlin had been a beautiful living animal, swimming fast and free with its blue, green, black, and white colors ever changing in the light of the bright sun. Now it was a man-sized cadaver, and I the murderer. Every fisherman has a heart, and mine was heavy at that moment.

Back at the dock, the fish weighed in at 180 pounds. Far from a grander, but great Kona fishing.  (#62 )

A week after I sold the boat, Mario stopped by the house. He cracked open a beer, and we sat in fishing chairs on the porch over the pond and fed breadcrumbs to the tilapia. In a moment of weakness, I admitted that I missed the Wahanui. Mario said, “You know what kine boat’s mo’ bettah?”

I’ve loved to talk about boats ever since I was a kid and read up on all the different models in yachting magazines. I brightened at the prospect of another tale. “Whaler? Tiara? Azimut?” I said.

“Nope,” Mario said. He took a sip of beer, shook his head, and stared out across the pond. “Odda people’s boat.”


Winston Conrad’s work has appeared in Smithsonian, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and other publications. In Hemingway’s France, Images of the Lost Generation, he retraced the footsteps of Hemingway and the artists of the 1920s, in Paris and the back roads of France. His first book Fabled Isles of the South Seas with insights by Literary Greats, is considered one of the best portraits of the South Pacific. Conrad lived in Hawai’i as a young man and returned to it twenty years ago. He spends his time in the islands photographing, surfing, canoeing, diving, and delving into the islands’ history and anthropology.

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