A Fish Story (pt. 1)

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A Fish Story (pt. 1)


This is part 1 of 4, from an article series written by Lorrin Thurston, on his recent trip to Palmyra. Here he describes how large game fish are caught aboard a typical sampan fishing vessel. This particular event took place at Kingman Reef, on the way to Palmyra, and includes a dramatic account of fishing for these big fish among a large group of sharks, who were regularly fighting with the fishermen for their catch.

Thurston owned the Honolulu Advertiser at the time, and had a vested interest in the commercial success of Palmyra, so a number of articles like this were run to promote interest in the atoll.


Lorrin A Thurston




Honolulu Advertiser




Public Domain



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A “Fish Story”

Trolling for Big Game Fish - How a shark stole a giant tuna from under the very noses of the fisherman

Kingman Reef and Palmyra Island Series by Lorrin A. Thurston

The stories in this series are not fiction - not even “historic fiction.” Neither are they padded nor exaggerated. They are literal records of actual happenings.

“Say, Thurston, you said you were going to give us some fish stories, so I’ve been watching The Advertiser for them ever since; but instead of fulfilling your promise you’ve been handing out stuff about the why and wherefor of the high price of fish and lessons in geography - which are all right in their way; but never a fish story! When are you going to ‘come through?’” said a man to me the other day.

I acknowledge the corn and right here and now will fulfill the “fish story” promise!

After the fishing sampan Palmyra had sailed for five and one-half days straightaway ?? Waikiki beach, early last May, without sighting a single fish, or anything else but soaring sea gulls, in the 900 odd miles of deep, blue water of the Pacific, a great patch of white breakers tossing their foaming heads high in the air, appeared on the horizon, and a few moments later the deep blue of the ocean turned first to a peacock blue, then to a dark, and finally to a pale green, while a ragged growth of coral became visible on the bottom.

A Transformation Scene

Suddenly a transformation scene took place! To say that a “school of fish” surrounded the sampan gives no adequate comprehension of the scene! A faint idea of it may be conveyed by the statement that the ocean seemed to be alive with writhing and undulating forms, reaching from the very gun’l of the boat as far as the eye could distinguish. It did not take more than a glance to segregate the nearby forms into individual sharks!

I stood on the heaving sampan as she souzzled up and down on the great seas, counted 15 greenish gray monsters ranging from eight to 15 feet in length, within a radius not to exceed 50 feet, following close behind, or like outriders on each side of the sampan. This does not include the “small fry” who were weaving in and out, here, there, and everywhere, too rapidly to be counted.

“No Man’s Land”

We had arrived at the “No Man’s Land,” Kingman’s Reef, one of the few practically unknown spots on the earth’s surface - unknown because it consists of a great expanse of uncharted and dangerous reefs, which come just to or under the surface of the ocean, so that mariners know it only as a place to stay away from; a spot, which has not been visited by man since 1896; and yet that swarm of sharks seemed to know, instinctively, that the sampan was a tentative source of food.

We tried them out by throwing overboard some papers and debris from around the deck, winding up with an empty packing box. Each and every item instantly disappeared down a yawning maw!

Overhead were Padgett and Dranga, each at a masthead, watching out for uncharted coral heads. As the boat rolled they swung outboard for 10 feet or so beyond its side of the vessel. As they looked straight down into the writhing mess of sharks they afterward admitted that the mastheads were indented by their fingernails as they clung, with visions of themselves, serving as shark bait if they lost their hold.

Time for Action Arrives

Meanwhile the time for action aboard the sampan had arrived!

The shoal water along the outer edge of the South Pacific coral-encircled atolls affords trolling ground for big game fish in such numbers as are probably found nowhere else in the world.

Trolling hooks and lines had previously been prepared and were quickly thrown overboard, each with a slack line about 100 feet long. The bait on each hook was a bunch of greenish black rooster tail feathers, tied firmly around the shank of the hook, concealing it from view.

No sooner were the hooks overboard than “strikes” began in rapid-fire succession, sometimes two fish being hooked at the same time.

How Game Fish are Landed on a Sampan

There is no “sporting blood” on a fishing sampan. The main object in life of the fishers is to get fish - the maximum of quantity in the minimum of time. No impulse to give the fish a “sporting chance” for life enters the soul of a sampan fisherman!

The instant a “strike” is made, a fisherman grabs the line barehanded, with the exception of a glove-like tip on the forefinger, over which the line is allowed to play, and “snubs” the fish in a succession of jerks. As the sampan is traveling at the rate of nine knots an hour, this speedily forces water down the throat of the fish. The sampan is then slowed down and two men on the line yank the fish in as fast as they can pull. When he gets alongside a great steel gaff on the end of a six-foot pole is driven into his gills and his is almost instantly hoisted aboard.

Thirty Minutes of Intense Experience

During the next 30 minutes I passed through one of the most intense experiences of my life! Great ahi (yellow-finned tuna), ulua, ono, “Hawaiian salmon” and other game fish of the tropics were hauled aboard in quick succession. None of them were under two feet in length nor weighted less than 25 pounds, while numbers were from four to six feet long and weighed up to and over 100 pounds each, with now and then one so big that it even drew exclamations from the normally stolid fisherman!

What Happened to a Giant Tuna

The third fish hooked was a giant “yellow-finned tuna.” The hook was only 100 feet astern and just under the surface of the water, so that the action of the fish was plainly visible. He came up from behind like a streak, inspected the bait and then shied off some 20 feet to the right, evidently to think it over; then concluding that the strange looking fish was all right, he made a dash at it with a motion so swift that he looked like a mere fleeting shadow. The instant the hook took hold he sprang straight up, clearing the water some six or eight feet, where, for an instant, he was silhouetted full length against the sky.

Had he been attached to an eight ounce line with a sport fisherman at the other end, off Waikiki or Catalina, he would have been good for a two-hour battle; been turned into a stuffed trophy, and been the subject of numerous tales recounted to successive circles of admiring friends.

An Item in a Shark’s Bill of Fare

As it was, however, he was to become a mere item in a shark’s bill of fare.

The prosaic snubbers on the deck of the sampan, giving no attention to the magnificent opportunity for a battle royal, dragged the tuna remorselessly to the gun’l of the sampan. Just as the gaff was about to be thrust into his gills, a giant shark rushed from the depths straight at the tuna.

A Hundred-Proud Mouthful

Talk about “turning on his side” or back before he could bite! - they do not raise that kind of shark at Kingman’s.

Right side up and straight ahead, without a moment’s hesitation, the shark came straight ahead and at one gulp snapped off the entire body of that giant tuna, cutting it off just back of the gills, as clean as though amputated by a cleaver. Leaving the head, 15 inches in diameter, as the sole evidence that a 100-odd-pound fish had hung there an instant before.

This took place so close to the side of the boat that I could have reached down and touched the shark on the nose with my hands!

The next “Fish Story” will describe the methods by which sampan fishermen protect themselves against sharks, and some tragedies in silence.



Lorrin A Thurston, “A Fish Story (pt. 1),” Palmyra Archive, accessed August 12, 2020, http://www.palmyraarchive.org/items/show/227.