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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, August 11, 2001

Founder's return boosts billfish tourney

By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer

Peter Fithian's decision to take a job with the Kona Inn led to his interest in fishing and the start of the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament.

Rick Gaffney • Special to The Honolulu Advertiser

Daily bill
• Where: Kailua, Kona
When: Today through next Saturday
• Who: Approximately 25 international teams

Today -Skipper briefing; Tomorrow - Boat draw; Monday÷Fishing, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Tuesday÷Fishing, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Wednesday - Golf tournament (no fishing); Thursday - Fishing, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Friday - Fishing, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Next Saturday - Awards banquet, 6:30-11 p.m.

Some fish stories can go on and on and on.

Peter Fithian likes it that way.

Fithian is the founder of the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, long considered one of the best big-game fishing tournaments in the world. At 73, he is still active on the HIBT board of directors, although he says his role now is mostly to serve as "like a coach for everybody else."

The 42nd HIBT will start today off Kailua, Kona. Fithian is making sure of it.

"This has meant a lot to me in my life," he said. "I've been doing it this long, I might as well keep going."

His 43-year fishing tale with the HIBT consists of a little bit of everything — a prized catch, the one that got away, a great fight.

It started more than 45 years ago, when Fithian was offered a choice of jobs upon arriving in Hawai'i: O'ahu Country Club or the Kona Inn.

"I didn't get into this as a result of being an avid fisherman," he said. "My background was hotel administration."

Fithian chose the Kona Inn, and soon discovered the rich — and still relatively untapped — fishing opportunities in the nearby water. After just two weeks in Kona, he caught his first marlin. Later that same year, he landed a 387-pounder, which is still his personal best.

"In those days, there wasn't much to do in Kona, so I went fishing on most of my days off," he said. "I imagine if I took the job at O'ahu Country Club it would have been golfing instead."

Golfing's loss became fishing's gain.

In particular, Fithian was inspired by a 1954 Sports Illustrated cover shot featuring a 1,500-pound marlin.

"That stuck in my mind," he said. "I realized that the sight of big fish electrified everybody."

Ironically, Fithian looked to a golf tournament as a role model. The year before he moved to Hawai'i, Fithian helped manage the Augusta National Golf Course. Yes, that Augusta, the same course where The Masters is held every year.

He was especially impressed with the way The Masters was run behind the scenes.

"It was almost all volunteers," he recalled. "When I thought about starting a fishing tournament, I knew that was going to be the key — getting the volunteers."

He started by volunteering himself.

"It was never a source of income for me," he said. "I always held another job, sometimes more than one. But the tournament was something I really wanted to see work, so I didn't mind not making any money."

Even today, the tournament is still run primarily on volunteer power. Only five staff members are on the payroll, and Fithian is not one of them.

"This tournament would not be around today if not for Peter," said Sue Vermillion, the current HIBT director. "He has a very strong ethic of professionalism. He's always wanted this tournament to be the best."

For several years, it was. The inaugural tournament was held in 1959, with no prize money and little fanfare — just the lure of big fish. By the late 1960s, the HIBT was drawing more than 80 teams, making it one of the largest organized fishing tournaments in the world.

"It really was something, not just for the tournament, but for all of Kona," Fithian said.

What's more, Fithian standardized a set of rules that became the blueprint for many other future tournaments.

"The HIBT has been around as long as I've been alive," Vermillion said. "Many of the big tournaments that came up after the HIBT looked at the HIBT as a way to run tournaments."

Most of the rules remain, including no cash prizes. When other international tournaments started to offer large cash purses in the 1980s, HIBT entries dropped.

"Sure, it's keeping people away," Fithian said. "But that's also what makes us special. We don't want fishermen looking for money. We want fishermen looking for big fish."

Still, the disinterest in the HIBT reached an all-time low in 1999, when the tournament was postponed for the first time because of administrative difficulties. That also happened to be the year Fithian tried to step away from the decision-making process.

"It would be terribly immodest to think that the tournament can't run without me," he said. "But what I saw was that this tournament could have changed into something other than what we originally had in mind."

Marlin Parker, who has served as a boat captain in the HIBT for 25 years, said it was not just a coincidence that the tournament sputtered in Fithian's one-year absence.

"In my eyes, it's not the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament without Peter Fithian," Parker said. "He is the godfather of the whole thing. I think it was pretty clear that he needed to come back and be a part of it."

So last year, Fithian again "volunteered" his services and helped select many of the key officers, including Vermillion. This year, he expects about 25 teams to enter the HIBT.

"There's no question, we're fighting to rebuild this," he said. "But now that we've seen it go the other way, we're careful to take care of it so that it does stay around, even with a small number of teams."