Ask Peter Fithian why he created the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament 50 years ago, and he'll tell you he thought it would be a great way for him to spend more time in the gorgeous Big Island community of Kailua-Kona.
Fithian is a legend in Hawaii, not only in sportfishing circles but also in the state's travel industry. After working a few years at hotels on the Big Island and Oahu, he started his business, Greeters of Hawaii, in 1957. It was the first company to offer a traditional welcome of leis, bright smiles and kisses on behalf of clients who couldn't meet arriving visitors at the airport themselves.
Fithian also served as chairman of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Before landing his first job in Hawaii, however, Fithian worked at the Augusta National Golf Club. It turns out the inspiration behind one of the world's most iconic sportfishing tournaments today can be linked directly to that gig in Georgia.
"Fishing was embryonic out here in Kona at the time I arrived," Fithian said. "But obviously we were catching Pacific blue marlin here like nowhere else in the world. There was just something about this place that attracted them, and I wondered if you could adapt some of the procedures of the Masters golf tournament into a fishing tournament."
Anglers ranging in age from teenagers to those in their 70s will make up the nearly 50 two- to six-member teams taking part in this summer's HIBT golden anniversary competition. Squads include participants from South Africa, Portugal, Bermuda, Australia, Tahiti, Korea, Japan and the U.S. mainland. Packed with five days of competitive fishing as well as cultural activities, a parade and a golf tournament, the nine-day event schedule begins July 18.
Fithian said the HIBT's popularity over the last half-century has helped Kona's charter fishing industry grow dramatically.
"In the harbor today, there's probably a hundred charter boats," he said. "When we first started, we had about eight or nine."
Ever conscious of the visitor industry's nuances, Fithian described Kona's chartered fishing business today as something of an "unsung" opportunity, pointing out that most boats offer agents at least a 15% commission on rates that usually average about $1,000 per day. "And you can catch a 1,000-pound marlin in this town any month of the year," he added.