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Recalling the strangest fish I’ve ever seen

By Staff | Nov 7, 2019

LAHAINA – The strangest fish I have ever seen in my 35 years of fishing photojournalism was the 575-pound sunfish that was brought to the harbor loading dock scale by the Desperado back in 1995.

Capt. Dan Schaffer and Co-capt. Jeff Illingworth were about a mile-and-a-half southwest of the Palaoa Point Lighthouse, Lanai, when they spotted something unusual. From where they stood high in the tower, it looked like the dorsal fin of a swordfish or shark as it moved through the water. As they got closer, they noticed three sunfish slowly cruising along.

Dan made a couple of passes close by to check them out. The biggest sunfish turned and swam right through the side of the lure pattern. As the short rigger lure passed by, it snagged the sunfish in the backside of its high dorsal fin.

The 80-pound test line started ripping off the Penn 80ST two-speed reel. Within seconds, the spool was already 100 yards into the Dacron backing.

Angler Lorne Stills had already caught a 115-pound blue marlin earlier in the day, and he wasn’t sure what type of a fight he was in for.

The sunfish kept going straight down another 400 yards. Dan tried to back on the sunfish to regain some line but had a bad angle on it. The sunfish never made any type of run. It wasn’t a strong fight like a marlin or ahi makes, but more like pulling up a load of bricks. With 30 pounds of drag on the reel, Lorne kept cranking it slowly upward inch-by-inch.

After an hour-and-40-minute workout, the sunfish finally surfaced. Jeff grabbed the leader and brought it to the side of the boat. It was a strange sight as it sat in the water. They didn’t even know which end was the front. It looked like a giant head with a high dorsal fin sticking out of the water, minus the rest of the body. Jeff and Dan wondered where to gaff it.

When Dan tried to stick a fly-gaff into its side, the gaff just bounced off like the skin of a rhino. Dan tried several more times, but the gaff wouldn’t even penetrate the body. Jeff held the sunfish next to the boat as Dan stuck the gaff in its small mouth.

The hardest part of the fight was trying to get the huge fish into the boat. Everyone tried to pull it over the side, but it was just too heavy to lift. They rearranged the sunfish and brought it to the stern, where they slid its flat body at an angle over the swimstep and gunnel onto the deck.

The ocean sunfish is a member of the Molidae family and a rare sight in Hawaiian waters. This particular species is called mola mola and derives its name from the Latin word for “millstone,” in reference to these fishes’ roundish shape. They are the largest bony fish species. They are relatives of the puffer and triggerfish.

They are found in all temperate and tropical seas. Since they are seen swimming slowly on top of the water, it is assumed the fish basks in the sun on its side – hence the name “sunfish.”

They range from the surface to 200 fathoms deep and feed primarily on jellyfish as well as crustaceans and young fish. They have small circular mouths about the size of a man’s fist. Their teeth are fused into a single unit above and below, making a strong, sharp beak.

The skin is thick and tough, gritty like sandpaper, with the flesh soft, flavorless, and said to be poisonous and usually infested with parasites. The flesh of the ocean sunfish is considered a delicacy in some regions, the largest markets being Taiwan and Japan. They have an unpleasant odor and give off a clear slimy gel like the “Alien” in the movies.

The average size of a sunfish is three feet with a weight of 100 pounds. They can attain lengths up to 13 feet with a weight of three tons.

This particular sunfish was 71.5 inches long from the tip of mouth to the end of its round tail. The half-body girth was 46-inches from the top of its back to the belly. The dorsal and anal fins were 31-inches long, with a 104-inch total length from the tip of the dorsal fin to the tip of the anal fin. The head was 13.5 inches wide.

This sunfish (mola mola) is still the Hawaii state record 24 years later.