How to Catch Ulua from Shore

Hawaiian surf anglers go toe-to-toe with the toughest fish in the sea.

Author: Ric Burnley

Angler casting off cliff in dusk

Widely considered the toughest fighting fish in the sea, giant trevally are built for speed and power. As if designed for battle, the big silver fish uses its broad body to put on the pressure and then kicks its sickle tail to pour on the speed. Found in tropical waters around the world, giant trevally are commonly known as GTs. On the Hawaiian Islands, the biggest giant trevally are called ulua.

Meet the Ulua

Group of people posing with Ulua fish

“Smaller trevally are called papio,” explains Jon Jon Tabon, a PENN Fleet Captain from Maui. He says only fish over 10 pounds are called ulua and a trophy can exceed 100 pounds. For Tabon and other local anglers, the ultimate challenge is catching the toughest fish in the sea from shore.

The lure of tackling this challenge draws anglers to the beaches and rocky cliffs of the Hawaiian coast. Ulua occur on all the Hawaiian islands, making shore fishing a subculture of the angling community. “The fish are a big draw,” Tabon says, “But a lot of the appeal is the scene.”

Tabon describes anglers joining their families and friends, camping in ulua hotspots, and fishing all night long. “Warm campfires, tents, island music, and the sound of wind and crashing waves fills the air,” Tabon says. For many families, shore fishing is a way to pass down skills and traditions.

For more adventurous anglers, the rocky cliffs are too dangerous to bring the family. Tabon says, “Sheer cliffs and sharp lava rocks are not inviting.” The steep terrain brings ulua close to shore and attracts hardcore anglers to hang on.

The Ins-and-Outs of Ulua Fishing

Penn Senator reels

The community has promoted a series of shore-fishing tournaments and long-casting competitions. Tabon says local tackle shops and shore-fishing clubs are a good place to start learning about ulua fishing. Joining other anglers in the surf is a great way to learn about fishing, especially when the target is a trophy ulua.

One of the most successful tournament and casting competition anglers is PENN Fleet Team Angler Kurtis Chong Kee of Maui. “I’m a third-generation ulua angler,” Kee explains, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. “My uncle took me under his wing and took my game to the peak,” Kee says.

Since then, Kee has scored multiple tournament wins and reeled in many fish over 100 pounds. He even holds the Hawaiian record. “I eat, sleep, and sh*t ulua fishing!” he exclaims.

The Gear You Need to Catch an Ulua

Bins of fishing supplies

Kee says shore anglers target ulua in two places: sandy beaches and rocky cliffs. “In sandy areas, people cast or paddle out baits with a kayak,” Kee says. Recently, anglers have been using drones to drop baits far off the beach. The bait is fished from a large float to keep it suspended off the bottom.

In rocky areas Kee uses a slider rig. First, he casts out a 12-ounce sinker that catches in the rocks. Then, he slides a lead line with the hook and bait down the mainline. When a big trevally strikes, the sinker breaks free and Kee fights the fish to shore.

To beat one of the toughest sportfish, PENN developed the Battalion™ II Surf ulua rod launching Fall 2020. The rod features tough but sensitive Graphite Composite Blanks and Caxin Indestructible Guides that can withstand relentless battle. A metal butt allows anglers to jam the rod into rocks without damage. “I’ve never broken one of the blanks,” Kee says. The champion can cast a 12-ounce sinker 180 yards.

Kee matches the ulua rod with a PENN reel. On the beach he uses a PENN Squall® Lever Drag 2 Speed in a size 50 for maximum line capacity and cranking power. When he’s fishing from the rocks he goes with a US Senator® model 113W, a classic 4/0 size, souped up for long casts and burly fights. Kee spools the reels with 60-pound Berkley Big Game line.

Pro-Tips for Catching Ulua

Man showing child how to tie line

Ulua anglers put as much effort into catching bait as catching giant trevally. Kee says live fish or cut bait will attract GTs but the best bait is a fresh octopus. Before he goes ulua fishing, Kee first dives for octopus, called tako in Hawaiian. Using a Hawaiian sling and free diving gear, he hunts the shallows for octopus hiding in nooks and crannies in the reef. “I tickle them with my spear and pull them out,” he says. Once he has a cooler full of bait, Kee is ready to target ulua.

Kee says the best action is at night as the GTs swim shallow while hunting for food. “When the moon rises we put out our rigs,” he says. Sharpies will fish multiple rods and popular spots are often crowded with lines. Battling an ulua through a maze of lines and rocky obstacle course is part of the challenge.

In sandy areas Kee says the tactic is to let the fish run and wear itself out, then work it to the beach. Rocky spots present an almost impossible challenge. Kee says ulua live in caves, their first refuge when hooked. “I clamp down and don’t give it an inch,” he says. Then Kee laughs, “If the fish runs into another person’s line, it’s total chaos.”

The chaos of fighting ulua from shore attracts new anglers to big-game fishing and keeps experienced anglers hooked for life. Today Jon Jon Tabon is a full-time kayak fishing guide and Kurtis Chong Kee is a top bluewater angler and jet ski driver for professional tow-in surfers. But the community of shore anglers and the challenge of beating one of the toughest fish from land brings them back to the beach. “I spent many years fishing for ulua from the shore,” Tabon says. Shore fishing is a great way to include the whole family and hang out with like-minded friends. From catching bait to camping on the beach to battling the toughest fish in the sea, ulua put trophy fish within reach of any angler. Kee has never lost the flame, “I’ve been falling in love with ulua fishing since I could hold a fishing pole.”

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