NZ FISHING NEWS FEATURES OUR STEINLAGER I’A LAPO’A FISHING TOURNEY
An article featuring the American Samoa Steinlager I’a Lapo’a Fishing Tournament appeared in the January 2012 edition of The New Zealand Fishing News.According to the magazine’s audited circulation reports, they sell around 27,000 copies per month with over 300,000 readers of the magazine.
It features “Game Fishing in American Samoa” on the cover, with a 6-page article by Sam Mossman, who participated in the 12th Steinlager I’a Lapo’a Fishing Tournament last year, and recounts his experiences, and also gives a background of the ‘best kept secret’ destination in the Pacific.
The American Samoa Steinlager I’a Lapo’a Fishing Tournament is developing into a major game fishing event on the international scene and this year — its 13th year — Samoa News was told by the tournament’s director, Peter Crispin there could be as many as 18 visiting boats for this year’s tournament, which is slated for May 7 - 12. The article notes that “The 13th tournament is a ‘qualifier’ for the IGFA Offshore World Championship and will have cash prizes in the realm of US$20,000, along with a daily jackpot of around US$12,000.”
By Sam Mossman
The phrase ‘best kept secret’ is well overused in the tourist industry, but if there is a Pacific Island destination that it applies to the most, it is probably American Samoa.
In New Zealand we know American Samoa exists, but for most of us that is about all, and considering our close ties to Samoa (formally Western Samoa) and the fact that the two islands are only about 40 nautical miles apart, it is really surprising that we never seem to hear anything about the place.
I like to think that I know a bit about the fishing around most of our Pacific neighbours after a quar-ter of a century of knocking about the various islands, but beyond the fact that there were a couple of tuna canneries in Pago Pago and a fleet of purse-seiners based there, a few months ago I could have told you little more. I guess this is because, as an American territory, most of the news from there goes north to Hawaii and the US, while any from nearby Samoa, an ex-New Zealand protectorate, comes south. Consequently, what I found there during a visit in November at the invitation of the newly-invigorated American Samoa Visitors Bureau was a bit of a revelation.
The islands of American Samoa
(There are five main ones: Tutuila, Ta’u, Ofu, Olosega, Aunu’u and Nu’utele) have a total land area of 197 square kilometres. Tutuila (of which the town of Pago Pago – pronounced pango pango – is the main centre) contains about two-thirds of the total area and is home to 95% of the 65,000 islanders. It is believed that the original Polynesian explorers arrived there around 3000 years ago, and first contact with Europeans was with the Dutch in 1722.
American Samoa has been a territory of the United States since the signing of the Deed of Cession in 1900. The Pago Pago Harbor area was the site of a coaling station and a naval base that became of particular strategic importance to the US during WW2, when roads, airstrips, docks and medical facilities were built. Government now seems to be by an island version of the American political system. The Executive Branch is led by a governor and lieutenant governor, the Legislative Branch has an elected House of Representatives, and the senate is made up of village matai (chiefs). The judicial branch is part of the US judicial system, and AmericanSamoa has a non-voting representative elected to the US Congress.
To me, American Samoa had a little of the feel of an unspoiled and undeveloped Hawaii: a thin veneer of Americanism overlaying a strong Polynesian culture. Huge American pick-ups and 4X4s dominate the roads, and many of the local Samoans have an American accent.
The island of Tutuila is high and volcanic, with dramatic peaks (including Matafao Peak, North Pioa ‘the Rain-maker’, and Mount Alava, all of which tower over Pago Pago) and an ancient caldera forming a huge, deep, sheltered harbour. The people live and farm on the narrow coastal fringes, while the rugged central core is covered with unspoilt rainforest. The coastline is a mix of volcanic rocky shore, some magnificent white sand beaches, and coral reefs.
The standard of living is quite high by island standards, supported by US federal money and the main industry of tuna canning. Although the infrastructure is relatively well developed, tourism is in its infancy. To me this is a good thing, as many aspects are unspoiled. However, the thought of commercial tuna fishing had led me to consider that the fishing would not be up to much. I was certainly wrong about that!
Fishing American Samoa
Along with federal money, a large part of American Samoa’s economy is underpinned by its tuna canneries, which process commercial purse- seine and long-line catches from all over the Pacific, and supply a large percentage of the American main- land’s canned tuna. Consequently, you might think that the pelagic fishery around the islands would be shot – but you would be wrong. With a 50-nautical-mile exclusion zone around the islands for commercial boats over 15m and some excellent offshore structure, in terms of sheer action, the recreational fish- ing must rank as some of the best in the Pacific Islands.
Early on Saturday morning, charter boat skipper Andy Wearing picked me up from ‘Sadie’s by the Sea’ in a huge black Ford ute and took me down to the harbour where the rest of the team were waiting – Russ Cox (another ex-pat Kiwi) and Samoan Samuelu (Sam) Fuamatu. We were soon heading out of magnificent Pago Pago Harbour, passing by the handy structure of the Taema and Nafanua Banks just offshore, and past the local FAD, heading for the South Bank, a big seamount 36nm out. Fuel is relatively cheap in American Samoa, and we weren’t hanging around.
Arriving at the bank, which comes out of about 2300m up to 100m, we set the lures, with skirted trolling lures such as Black Magic’s ‘Pursuit Jellybean’ and ‘Freedom Grand Slammer’ being the hot favourites. I soon found out the reason why Bonavista II had two game chairs after a double strike of wahoo and dogtooth tuna, followed by a triple of yellowfin!
By way of exploration, we stopped and put some braid rigs on the bottom, the circle hooks baited with yellowfin belly meat. I use an old Shimano TLD 20 loaded with 24kg Rainbow Braid for this sort of fishing, and it proved ideal. In depths ranging from 100-200m the currents were strong, but we managed a bunch of tropical deepwater snappers, mostly goldbanded jobfish, as well as the odd small ruby snapper and grouper. Then it was back to trolling.
The afternoon bite was a hot one, and to someone who has been starved of yellowfin tuna action in New Zealand waters in recent years, pretty neat fishing. Not big fish – up to 25kg (it was too early in the sea- son for the runs of big ‘fin) – but it was fast and furious, with mostly multiple hook-ups and the odd dog- tooth, big rainbow runner and other pelagics thrown in. By the end arm muscles were cramping up and people were standing back, trying to con others into pulling in the fish. You couldn’t muck around too much though, as there were a few sharks around – I spent about half an hour pulling in a big whaler that had been foul-hooked in the side.
We ended the day with about 25 fish on ice, the bulk of them yellow- fin, and back at the dock there was no shortage of friends and whanau happy to get a feed of fresh fish. I ended a long day by watching the final of the Rugby World Cup in the bar at ‘Sadie’s by the Sea’, the hotel I stayed in, with a bunch of enthusi- astic ex-pats and Samoans, drinking beer and eating fish. A pretty good day.
As mentioned, there is a wealth of offshore structure around Tutuila, and the next day we explored more of it. It was another early start and this time I was doing a ride-along on Bonavista II for the Pago Pago Game Fishing Club’s Women’s and Junior’s Tournament. It was pretty much the same crew as the day before, with the addition of our designated angler, Rose Talalotu.
This day we headed for the East Bank, some 22nm out. It was not really firing though, so we continued on to another structure called the Two Percent Bank, a further 11nm out.
There was more life here, and we started with multiples of skipjack and the odd small yellowfin jumping the big skirted lures. Rose dropped one reasonable fish after a good run, then was broken – or cut off – by a reel screamer, a small blue marlin that jumped about a dozen times after the line parted.
In the Pacific Islands – and American Samoa is no exception – fish is a prime resource, and the importance of the catch as food is just as great as the fun had by catch- ing it. Consequently, the Pago guys tend to chase prime table fish such as tuna, wahoo, mahimahi and the like, rather than billfish. I noticed we were fishing on top of the banks, for example, rather than along the drop- offs where big billfish are more likely to lurk. Even so, they hook plenty of marlin and don’t complain too much when they do.
After yet another four-way of small yellowfin and skipjack was dealt with, a 37kg rig hammered down and the line screamed off. It had a more emphatic look to it, and I was not surprised to see a blue marlin take to the air! The fish carved up the sur- face about 200m out, jumping about 15 times. Then the hard work started for Rose. The harness was a bit big for her and she couldn’t get full pressure on the fish, but slowly won back line. The fish ‘stuck’ about 50m out and 20m down for quite some time, with Rose not winning or losing line. She stuck at it calmly and gamely, with a lifejacket stuffed inside the harness back helping. Finally I suggested circling the fish with the boat to break its pattern. I don’t really like doing this, as the changing angle can sometimes pull a hook, but in this case it worked and the fish popped up – a pretty 90kg blue – after a near two-hour fight. There were line cuts in the tail and anal fins, so it may well have been wrapped in the leader before we started running around it.
It was Rose’s first marlin, and it and one of her yellowfin cleaned up the ladies’ prizes at the tournament weigh-in later that afternoon. (She showed her blistered hands as a badge of honour for several days afterward.) The Junior section was won by George Poysky Jr IV with an 18.9kg yellowfin.
I had one more day on the water, and while we knew there was plenty of action on the offshore banks, we decided to try some other alternatives.
Bonavista II left harbour with Andy Wearing skippering, Sam Fuamatu, co-owner Peter Crispin, local hotelier Tom Drabble (who owns the Sadie’s by the Sea and Sadie Thompson Inn establishments) and me aboard. We threw a few poppers around Aunu’u Island for no result (although there are giant trevally present in American Samoa), then ran some trolling lures over the shelf edge at the east end of Tutuila. A dogtooth tuna was followed by a triple of yellowfin, then a wahoo. Travelling over more structure on the remote north side of the island, I dropped a Halco Lazer Pro minnow out into the set of skirts. It ran very well at speed and the dogtooth just loved it,with three more hitting the deck in short order. When you are getting dogtooth on surface-trolled lures in the middle of the day, you know that a fishery has not had much pressure. Dropping jigs on some of those north coast pins would produce some pretty exciting fishing, I’ll bet.
We had time for one more experiment, so elected to drop some cut baits to the bottom in 400m on the western end of the island, hapuku style. I love trying this sort of fishing in tropical waters, as it can turn up all sorts of interesting (and tasty) fish. Nailing a mackerel tuna for bait from a passing school with a pink Waxwing lure, we dropped some braid rigs down. It didn’t take long before we started catching fish, and they were worth the long crank up: longtailed flame snapper and ruby snapper (or palu-loa and palu-malau as the locals call them). These are gorgeous look- ing scarlet-and-silver fish, and possi- bly the all-time best eating fish in the ocean. I had caught a few before in Niue and Vanuatu, and they all acted the same – a big hit then a slack line as they race upwards for 20m or so. You need to crank fast to catch up, but the circle hooks mostly hold on. With four of each species on ice, it was a fine end to the day.
The fishing in American Samoa was great, and while I had a taste, there are many angling avenues to explore. A good reason to do this (if you need something to hang your hat on) is the 13th Steinlager I’a Lapo’a (Big Fish) International Game Fishing Tournament, to be held from 7-12 of May, 2012. This is timed to follow hot on the heels of the International Tournament in nearby Samoa. This last comp is well attended by Kiwi anglers, who freight their trailer boats up from New Zealand to take part (a special deal is organised with Pacific Forum Shipping Lines); a number of them have taken the opportunity to run their boats across to American Samoa to take part in the Steinlager I’a Lapo’a over the last few years, along with boats from Samoa.
This tournament is in its thirteenth year now. In 2010, 22 boats registered with over 100 contestants – more than 60 were visitors from New Zealand, Australia and Samoa. They do not want for fish, either. The 2011 tournament catch report lists 25 tagged marlin and one weighed at 117kg, three sailfish tagged, 33 yellowfin to 69kg, 43 wahoo to 19kg, six masimasi (mahimahi) to 16kg, four dogtooth, and a bunch of lesser fish, totalling 125 captures. You can’t complain about that amongst 12 boats and 55 anglers. Four boats were White Pointers shipped up from New Zealand to fish in both tournaments.
The Steinlager I’a Lapo’a Tournament has solid sponsorship: Steinlager (through their local agents Sunshine Inc); the American Samoa Visitors Bureau; Sadie’s by the Sea and the Sadie Thompson Inn; the Turtle and Shark Lodge; Pago Pago Marine Charters; Industrial Gases (boat services and Evinrude); and Tool Shop and Building Supplies (Evinrude Sales, marine supplies). The 13th tournament is a ‘qualifier’ for the IGFA Offshore World Championship and will have cash prizes in the realm of US$20,000, along with a daily jackpot of around US$12,000).
Kiwi anglers interested in fishing the Steinlager I’a Lapo’a Tournament have several options to explore. • There is the possibility of shipping your own boat up to Samoa to fish the SIGFA tournament, and continuing across the 40nm channel to fish the tournament in American Samoa (a great adventure).
• Book a boat with Pago Pago Marine Charters – they have three: one full charter boat and two bare-boat charters (a local skipper can be arranged), but you would need to be quick. See
http://www.pagopagomarinecharters.com/ or their advertisement hereabouts for contact details.
• A further alternative is that guest anglers can be ‘billeted’ with local boats. This can be organized through the Pago Pago Game Fishing Association, as can tournament entry. See their website www.ppgfa.com for contact details and more information. The tournament director is Peter Crispin.
Thanks to David Vaeafe and the American Samoa Visitors Bureau; Inter Island Airways; Tom Drabble of Sadie’s Hotels; Peter Crispin and Andy Wearing of Pago Pago Charters; Lisa and Sosene Asifoa of Alofa’s Tours; Rory West of North Shore Tours; Tisa and CandyMan at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar and the Pago Pago Game Fishing Club for making this feature possible.