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California Dreamin part 3

offshore fishing

With the assistance of very friendly and helpful locals, Christmas Island had exceeded all expectations. Both the crew and guests had been pulled on and had pulled back on fish they had only read about, great trevally (GTs) – tackle busters for sure – voracious wahoo, blue marlin and bonefish by the dozens.

The gang had been reduced into an aching, sun-baked bunch ready to resume their ultimate fishing adventure into a Jurassic Park of sorts.

After making sure the deck-loaded “Innovator” was secure, Captain Groesbeck stowed the gear and completed his final inspection as he walked around the OP. Satisfied that everything was properly stowed, the anchor was hauled and a southerly course was set for the slightly less than 1,300-mile leg to Pape’ete, capital of French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti.

As the boat, guests and crew settled into a comfortable cruising mode, Groesbeck remained in the enclosed wheelhouse, checking the course and speed while scanning gauges to ensure everything was in order.

He couldn’t help but recall his first real deckhand job aboard the “El Tigre,” owned by  Allan Carlton with Captain Kenny Dickerson in the late 1970s, never imagining that he would have an opportunity to not only make an extended voyage such as this one, let alone be the captain of such an undertaking.

“In preparation for the trip, we didn’t have Internet,” recalled Groesbeck. “So my first step was to research the weather history at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Their information was invaluable. I used their storm track history to plan the trip’s itinerary which allowed me to reach the right decisions about where to hide when we encountered trade winds and typhoons later in the trip,” he recalled.

The OP’s library was filled with Zane Grey‘s fishing books including “Tales of Tahitian Waters” written in 1931. Everyone aboard passed the time devouring the stories, especially the ones about Tahiti, where Grey caught his record 1,040-pound marlin. That fish was mutilated by sharks. Had it not been, it would have weighed 200 pounds more. There were other stories of fish so large they had to hang them in trees to weigh them.

Fish, fun and frolic dominated the week-long run, punctuated with howling clickers and yells of hookup, follow on long rigger and I’m running out of line, reverberating on deck.

Late one evening, the OP slowed to a stop and the now familiar hum of the mains quieted. The sudden silence awakened Jenks, Dempsey and Millet. Rushing to the salon and flinging the doors open, they dashed onto the deck.

There stood Father Neptune, complete with matted hair, a crown and an eerie, greenish outfit clutching a trident and attended by his helper.

“No one crosses my Equator without a proper ceremony,”

he bellowed, as the helper motioned for the three to sit in the deck chairs lined up before them. As the assistant removed their t-shirts and smeared some gooey, smelly concoction on their face and chests, Neptune declared, “You must be cleansed!” They were doused with buckets of saltwater, followed by the draping of leis of sardines instead of flowers around their necks. Then, Father Neptune presented each with a coin, instructing each to toss it over their shoulder as he intoned … “You may now continue your voyage.”

Finally, he handed Jenks a certificate commemorating his crossing. Laughing, and reaching for their cocktails to toast the crossing, the men sprung to their feet in celebratory dance.

Then, running to the deck head and throwing open the door, they peered into the toilet, but Jenks said glumly, “The water is still swirling in the same direction”. It was nearly an hour later before the water rotated in the opposite direction (clockwise), a sure sign the Equator was behind them!

Late Halloween night, they dropped the anchor in Pape’ete Harbor planning to provision, process ships papers and replenish their fuel before heading to Moorea Island, 16 miles away where Cooks and Opunohu Bay lie side by side.

Choosing to anchor in the latter where HMS Bounty had sailed and anchored resulting in the 1932 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, “Mutiny on the Bounty” and the background for the filming of “The Bounty” in 1984. This would be their base of operation for the following six months as they fished, dived and explored the fertile waters surrounding the islands.

Rounding Moorea’s headland, they spotted several small, odd-looking outboard runabouts with extended tillers. The setup allowed the Tahitians who were driving them to stand at the bow of the craft. With their binoculars, they watched as the drivers raced toward schools of terns, and they could easily see the unmistakable turquoise and gold colors of mahi mahi feeding beneath the birds. When the small craft reached the schools, the natives would fling wooden jigs with uncanny accuracy at the frantically feeding fish, much to the delight of the cheering spectators who watched from the bridge and wheelhouse of the OP.

They learned the odd-looking crafts were “Poti Mararas,” loosely translated “pumpkin skiffs” conceived by Leonard Deane Arue in 1962. They were basically plywood or fiberglass 15- to 24-foot V-hulls, combining power, agility and shaped to handle the waves of the high seas with a cockpit near the bow, which allowed them to follow the fish.

From the forward position, the angler/driver was closer to the prey and a broom handle fashioned as a joystick was used to free one hand for spearing while allowing for maneuvering sharp turns in pursuit of the swift prey on the surface … all the while trolling high-speed jet heads that often hook mahi mahi, tuna and marlin.

During OP’s visit, one such craft landed a massive 1,200-pound blue on a jet head. Still used by commercial and recreational Tahitian fishermen today, you can see impressive photos of their catches at Poti-Marara Facebook.

Of course, the volume of gamefish was an indication of plenty of baitfish, which attracted other predators as well. Captain Rick Gaffney, Kona, Hawaii, shared an interesting story of his encounters with some of them during his visit to French Polynesia aboard the Ocean Pacific.

The OP was anchored in the lagoon in Moorea, mainly because a couple of brothers, old friends of Jenks from California, were owners of Club Bali Hai, one of the sweetest hotels in all of Tahiti – with over-the-water bungalows.

“The Innovator was in the water,” Captain Gaffney began, “and we headed out early onto the deep purple-blue waters of French Polynesia, trolling a spread of lures as the day heated up, thinking of the monster blue marlin that Zane Grey caught when he fished these waters over a half-century earlier, off his mother ship, and reveling in the extraordinary beauty of Moorea, viewed from offshore.”

“Around mid-day, after not raising a thing, Jim (Jenks) says to me: ‘Rick, you seeing any signs? Like Pete and Jim, I’d been scanning the skies for birds; watching the glass-calm surface for activity from baitfish, even for floating objects or sea weed … anything. If there were any signs I’d missed them, so I said, ‘Nope, haven’t seen a thing.’” “‘Watch this,'” Jim says with a broad smile on his face. One of the live Atule (scad) is pulled from the live well, secured on a hook and dropped over the side. Instantly a big bronze whaler rose from the depths and snarfed the bait, followed by a few of his friends. Fishing deep blue water, well off the reef, with none of the usual indicators of any life at all, the minute that live bait hit the water, the man in the gray suit was on it! It was little wonder that Zane Grey’s monster blue marlin was so badly mauled before he could get it onboard his launch.”

Underlining the shark problem, Groesbeck added, “If we had a strike on one of the lures, I had to stay at trolling speed until all the lures were cleared. If we stopped, there would be a shark on every lure. One time, we had a 600+ pounder that we were going to keep. However, I knew that if I stopped the boat, the sharks would be all over us. I decided to run down-swell, open the transom door, back into the stern wave and float the huge fish through the door. It worked, except that there were three huge sharks clinging to the marlin’s tail as it came through the door. All the while, Jenks tried frantically to fend them off with shots from his 9mm pistol!”

Needless to say, the fishing in the French Polynesian waters was so extraordinary that it yielded many memorable stories. “During our stay there we caught over 50 blues including two over 600 pounds, we pulled the hook on one over 800 and another one over 1,000 pounds,” Jenks marveled recently. They were able to find the big-eyed scad used for bait just outside the anchorage. With two large bait tanks, they kept one filled with scad and used the other as their aquarium for unusual critters that couldn’t be identified in any of the fish identification books on board.

Hilde Bryant and her late husband, Jim Bryant, from Newport Beach, Calif. arrived in early December for their first trip to Tahiti to celebrate their wedding anniversary and Jim Bryant’s birthday, both on the 12th. During their stay, they had the boat to themselves (except for the captain and crew) because Jenks had returned home for the holidays.

Their most memorable day was actually on December 12. Groesbeck took them to an area 7- to 11-miles off the island where he had been averaging a handful of shots a day. “Tacking up-swell I spotted a fish swimming a few feet below the surface … like a tailer, except nothing was showing,” Groesbeck recalled. “The fish spotted the long rigger lure, lit up and crashed it. Since it was Jim’s birthday, it was his to fight.”

He continued, “We couldn’t believe how many times that blue jumped before it sounded. While we released most of the fish, this one came up dead and was impossible to revive.”

Back at the anchorage, the Bryants recalled the story about Zane Grey weighing a fish hanging from a tree on the island. Since they had the blue, they decided a photo of their catch hanging from a tree would be a fantastic way to memorialize Jim’s birthday and the Bryant’s anniversary on this trip of a lifetime.

Friends were made in unlikely places. During their stay at Cooks Bay, Groesbeck became friends with the engineer on the Libertad, a small cruise ship that made weekly visits to the harbor. Groesbeck always made sure there was plenty of fresh fish for the Libertad. In turn, the engineer would fabricate any parts, such as pump shafts and fittings that couldn’t be acquired through normal sources for the OP.

During their stay, they made several expeditions to surrounding islands and atolls. The first was to Bora Bora, a 252-mile R/T run. Leaving in the evening, towing the Innovator, and offloading Jenks and his friends at gray light the following morning 40 miles from the island, allowed them to catch both yellowfin tuna and blue marlin as they trolled toward the island. While at the island, replenishing their live bait supply was as easy as dropping a line over the side at the anchorage. Then, just beyond the bait spot, was where the 80- to 200-pound tuna hung out.

One side note: This was where Robin Leach, host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” filmed a segment about Jim Jenks and Ocean Pacific for the show.

Another was to Rangiroa, a 384-mile round trip from Cooks Bay. Rangiroa the second largest atoll in the world has two entrances and since it is so large, the water flows in and out very quickly. To dive it, the trick was to drop the divers off at one end of the pass and pick them up at the other end. They found a remarkable number of types of sea life inside the pristine lagoon and in the waters surrounding the atoll; feeding marlin and tuna were common.

On the return trip to Moorea, one of the many blue marlin hooked from the big boat headed for a huge school of skipjack that were common throughout the area. As the Innovator backed down on the small blue, the line went slack. The angler reeled in his trophy and for his effort; the head of a three-something-hundred-pound blue was all that remained after a pack of voracious sharks had attacked the hooked fish beneath the skipjack school.

Jim Jenks and his crew left a lasting impression in Tahiti. They are credited with helping organize the first Tahitian International Billfish Tournament in 1986. Observing International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules and weighing-in the qualifiers on a 2,000-pound metric scale donated by Jim Jenks and Ocean Pacific, this tournament still takes place annually off the island of Moorea.

During one of the many information-gathering luncheons, Jenks volunteered. “Talk about a small world,” he chuckled. “I was in Biggs Harley-Davidson® San Marcos’ parts department, when a mustached, goateed, counter dude with a bone-hook dangling from a rawhide cord around his neck, asked, ‘Are you on file here?’ I shrugged my shoulders and replied that I didn’t know.”

“The counterman searching the data base, murmured. ‘Jenks, Jenks, did you own a boat that was in Cook’s Bay? Anchored in front of Club Bali Hai, Moorea? A really big boat with a day-boat?’ as I nodded, he continued, ‘Hey, my names Kelly, I still have a time-share there,’ he proclaimed! ‘In fact I married a native there.’ And he whipped out his wallet to show me a picture of her!”

“Frikkin’ small world,” Jenks sighed.

After six months, it was time to move on. The next destination was to be Fiji after crossing the nearly seven-mile deep Tonga Trench, home of the giants by all local accounts and also believed by many to be a nursery for blue marlin. Underscoring that belief, as they trolled across the trench, they had a quadruple of what they thought were short-billed spearfish. Two fell off as the crew reeled in the other two. Kenny Hughes hollered to Groesbeck, “Come down here for a second!” Peering over the transom, they watched as two small blues in the forty-pound class swam behind the swim step.

For the first time, the weather changed and what could only be a typhoon roared toward Fiji. Relying on his Scripps weather research, Pete turned toward American Samoa, a safe place to hide out while the dangerous storm weakened and blew itself out.

Jenks had returned to the states to begin manufacturing 31-foot Innovators, designed from the original prototype built as the day boat for the Ocean Pacific. The new 31-foot Innovator was well received and he already had an order for six Innovators to be delivered to Hotel Palmilla by trailer. He decided to have Groesbeck return to California to assist with the Innovator startup.

So, soon after OP’s arrival in American Samoa, Jenks, accompanied by Captain Jon Ingram arrived. Ingram had just finished a project overseeing the construction of John Lyddon’s 72-foot Elliott, “Don Juan” before assuming the responsibility as Captain for several years traveling up and down the coast from Southern California to mainland Mexico.

With Groesbeck’s departure, OP resumed its journey toward the holy grail of big game sportfishing: Australia’s “Barrier Reef.” The nearly week’s crossing to Port Vila, the capital and largest city of Vanuatu, allowed Ingram time to become familiar with his new employer, as well as the boat and crew, as they fished their way along the 1,169 nautical mile passage.

By the time they arrived at Port Vila, it became clear to Ingram that Jenks was always rushing to reach the next destination instead of checking out the places along the way. As they departed, Ingram turned to Jenks as they both stood in the wheelhouse, and counseled politely, “Jim, there are many islands up this chain and it would be a shame to not explore them as we go.”

Jenks remained silent for a few minutes watching small boats skittering by. “You’re right,” Jenks replied smiling. “Let’s do just that. You lead the way and thanks for the input.”

For the next several weeks they fished, dove and explored the cluster of islands, both small and large, that surrounded Vanuatu before Jenks and his guests left for home.

Finally, it was time to head for Brisbane, Australia for haul-outs and maintenance for both the mother ship and day boat in preparation for their next adventure at Lizard Island and the Ribbon Reefs. And, that, too, is another story.

Meeting with a group of friends, including the two captains and the owner, plus many more who enjoyed this adventure, and reliving the details of the 8,000 nautical mile trip to many tropical islands, atolls, trenches, I have thought about this trip, dreamed about it, laid it out on a Google map, discovered where islands were located, and calculated just how long each leg of the trip had taken. I feel as though I, too, have been on the trip.

And now I’m forced to leave the crew spending the summer of 1986 in preparation for the fourth and final part of this incredible South Sea journey of the equally incredible Ocean Pacific … the OP. We’ll meet in part four.

 Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Photo Credit: Capt. Rick Gaffney and Ocean Pacific Crew, Pacific Edge

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Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world records and in his first year as a member of the Tuna Club of Avalon, he received more angling awards than any other first-year member in the club's 109-year history. He's been involved with many California angling clubs and is the Baja California Representative for the International Game Fish Association. 
Gary's a conservationist as well as a writer and photographer. In addition to two books on saltwater fly-fishing, hundreds of his articles and photographs have appeared in publications around the world. Graham has devoted his life to finding new fisheries and developing new techniques — all of which he shares through his guiding, speaking, photography and writing.