His vessel, Malia, was known as the ‘Grey Ghost of the Kona Coast’. He had the uncanny ability to venture solo away from fleets and find the best marlin fishing available. (Cisco)
“Neither (he nor his father) had ever been in a boat, until the day in 1935 that (Henry) went fishing with someone here.” (Chee; LA Times)
Born in Honolulu in 1910, Henry Chee and his wife Ellen moved to Kona in 1931. (IGFA) From a family of banana farmers, Chee entered the charter fishing business in 1935.
Interestingly, many believe bananas are a jinx and bring bad fishing luck. Not so for Chee. (Rizzuto) “He went out with Findlayson one afternoon, and they caught a marlin. Dad told me the sound of that very first screaming reel stayed with him all those years.” (Chee; LA Times)
“‘When Dad started out here, in the late 1930s, there was no such thing as radios on boats. So he was in partnership on his first boat with a man named Charlie Findlayson, who owned a bunch of pigeons.’”
“‘So if someone fishing with Dad caught a marlin, he’d write a note on a tiny piece of paper, put it in a capsule on the pigeon’s leg, and release it.’”
“‘The pigeon would fly back to Kona, through Mrs. Findlayson’s kitchen window. She’d spread the word around town. If it was a big fish Henry would be bringing in, she’d arrange for the newspaper photographer to be there, at the pier.’” (Chee; LA Times)
Throughout his lifetime, Captain Chee set an unprecedented number of game fish catch records which helped make his favorite fishing grounds, the Kona Coast, world famous. (HIBT)
“Henry Chee originated marlin fishing on the Kona Coast. He developed it, he pioneered it, he taught everyone how to catch those big blues.”
“There are a lot of young skippers here today using techniques that they don’t even know Henry started. It’s no exaggeration to call Henry Chee our Babe Ruth.” (Phil Parker; LA Times)
He started using the first plastic marlin lures in Hawai‘i in the 1950s. And he made them himself. (LA Times)
Plastic was new in 1949 and Henry was one of the first to experiment with it. Intrigued when he came upon a screwdriver embedded in resin hardened in a jar, and using the family kitchen as his laboratory …
Henry borrowed bar glasses for molds; inserted copper tubing, doll eyes and shell (for color and reflection); poured in fiberglass resin; boiled the glass on the stove; and removed the hardened blank.
He turned it on a lathe and hand-cut the attack angle with a miter box — all by eye so no two of his ‘straight runners’ were exactly alike.
Skirts were made from red inner tubes, fish skins and oilcloth tablecloths. Each lure was tested in the most scientific way: if it caught fish, he kept it; if it didn’t, he didn’t. (IGFA)
Elsewhere in the fishing world, anglers were convinced marlin would only take baits. The ‘obvious’ truth to bait fishermen: a marlin attacked food fish with its bill and then ate its prey only after it had battered the injured baitfish into submission.
Any lure-catch would, therefore, be a total accident, and there was no useful percentage in accidental catches.
But Henry and his followers were catching those ‘accidents’ every day including some astonishing world record blue marlin and yellowfin tuna. (Rizzuto)
“In 1955, when everyone but Dad was using bait, there were 175 marlin caught. Dad caught 63 of them, all on plastic lures.” (Chee; LA Times)
By the 1950s, Henry Chee’s fame had spread to the mainland. Pictures of celebrities standing next to huge blues caught in Hawaii began to appear in newspapers and magazines. He was the guide for Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Arthur Godfrey, Roy Rogers, Gordon McRae, Hal Wallis and Walter Lantz. (LA Times)
“‘In the old days, when I started running a boat here in 1954, there were four boats. Now look out there. There are something like 54 to 60 now. I can’t keep track of them.’”
“‘Looking back, it seems like there were more fish then. But then, we lost a lot of marlin. Our gear wasn’t as good as it is today.’” (Parker; LA Times, 1986)
Back then, caring for linen fishing line was a full-time job. (IGFA) “Dad had to work a lot harder in the old days, when skippers had to dry out the line every night, to prevent rot.”
“Dad would wrap it a few times around his back and roll his shoulders, trying to break it. If it broke, he’d throw it all out and load up with new line.” (Chee; LA Times)
Chee died in 1965. “He had a stroke one day while gaffing a marlin, and died three days later (at the age of 55).” (Chee LA Times)
The Henry Chee Memorial Award was established in 1965 by the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament Board of Governors; it is given to the charter boat captain with the highest number of billfish points scored on their boat during the five days of tournament fishing. (HIBT)
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Bill Jardine says
Thanks for this, Peter! Wonderful! My favorite lure on Nalu Kea is a Chee knock-off.