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The Conversation

Honolulu fisherman brings his island roots to competitions in the American South

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Matty Wong
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Honolulu native Matty Wong was recently one of several competitors to participate in a prestigious fishing tournament. We have deep sea fishing tournaments in the islands all the time, so if you’re wondering what makes him special, it’s because he wasn't fishing for marlin in Hawaiʻi waters — he was fishing for bass in the American South.

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Matty Wong
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At the beginning of the year, he became the first person from Hawaiʻi to ever compete in the Bassmaster Elite Series, the highest level of professional bass fishing tournaments.

But how did he go from island boy to southern celebrity? The Conversation's Russell Subiono tracked Wong down next to a lake in South Carolina, working on his fishing gear. Wong had just wrapped up competing at Santee Cooper Lakes. He’ll be in Tennessee on April 7 for the next tournament in the series.

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RUSSELL SUBIONO: What's the biggest fish you've ever caught?

MATTY WONG: I think it's a 100-pound Bluefin in California. And then the next would probably be like a 50-pound ulua that I caught in high school.

SUBIONO: Can you talk a little bit more about your connection to fishing? What does it do for you? Is it a source of relaxation? Or is it the way you challenge yourself?

WONG: I think it's a combination of a bunch of things really. For me, I've always been drawn to the water. Growing up on Oʻahu, I've been always just mesmerized by the ocean and by water, whether it was free diving, surfing, and just enjoying it. And I think it's like a form of therapy, almost relaxation. But the challenge too. It's one of those things, and anyone who really knows me knows, like I'm pretty high energy — can be kind of scatterbrain but with fishing, I have this crazy amount of focus. And I feel like I'm definitely challenged by it. And it's a forever-changing puzzle, which makes it super unique and really, really fun for me. I couldn't really say that it's all therapeutic because there's definitely times where I want to throw my head on the wall. But most of the time, it's really relaxing. And the camaraderie that I have with other fellow anglers — those are lifetime friendships.

SUBIONO: Growing up on Oʻahu, you must have honed your skills around the island. Is there any place to catch bass on the island?

WONG: Yeah, so there's Lake Wilson, which is in Wahiawā. That's where I grew up and I spent a lot of time — actually I used to fish for tilapia there when I was a little kid. My dad would take me and we would just go fishing at the ramp before we had a small boat. And that's where I fell in love with just catching tilapia. There's peacock bass, there's largemouth bass. When I got a little bit older, I think I was like 8 or 9 years old, our family would go to Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden in Kāneʻohe and we would go camping. Back then in the man-made reservoir, or I guess it would be the flood spillway overflow reservoir that they have there, there was really really good smallmouth bass. I just kind of stumbled upon it one day on accident. I ended up catching a really good smallmouth bass. And that's when I told my parents, "Can we go back to Hoʻomaluhia? I just want to go camp." All I wanted to do was go fishing. But Lake Wilson is a place that kind of was like my first intro to bass fishing. And then later on in life when I moved out to California, that's when I was able to finally compete in the sport and that's when it really blew up for me.

SUBIONO: Are there a lot of crowds there at the tournaments? Do you get a lot of people on the shores watching?

WONG: In South Carolina for the Classic there were 6,000 people at blast-off, which was really incredible. That's the most people I've ever seen at a fishing tournament. And then you have spectators that follow bass anglers around in their own personal boats and just watch them fish. In the South, bass fishing is huge. And we were really treated like celebrities down here, which is pretty funny. The juxtaposition of growing up in Hawaiʻi, it's like you say, "I'm a professional bass fisherman." They'd be like, "Wait, what?"

Click the listen button to hear more. This interview aired on The Conversation on March 21, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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