LIKE so many misadventures of mine, my first fishing expedition began with a colossal failure. About eight years ago, I followed my ex-boss on a fishing excursion to one of those pay-per-entry man-made fishing ponds that usually guarantees you a catch.
As we carried rods, buckets and other fishing thingamajigs past the entrance, he assured me that the chances of reeling in fish are significantly higher as the pond is usually well-stocked with fishes.
“A good start for a beginner like you,” he said, swinging his rod over his shoulders while narrowly missing my head.
I learnt how to hook a worm onto the line (without much shuddering or squealing) and fling my line into the pond. But I had no technique, a borrowed rod and ultimately, no catch.
“Next time,” he promised me, “You’ll catch something.”
Next time? Forget it. Time seemed better spent watching the refrigerator defrost.
Fast forward eight years. Older and wiser, I find myself on a road trip to Kuala Rompin with him. For another fishing trip.
“Am I going to be sea-sick?” I ask nervously. “Nooooo! Of COURSE not!” is his blithe answer. I know better now than to believe him and I’m already beginning to regret this little excursion. As I’m beginning to suspect, I’m none the wiser. Just a lot older.
I think back on our conversation two weeks ago and wish I could kick myself for being too gullible.
“Want to go fishing?”
“It’s a beautiful boat.”
“It’s sailfish season...”
“It will be exciting!”
“There’s going to be a seafood buffet on board.”
I’m predictable that way. Like wildlife, lure me with food, and I’ll happily amble into a trap. There’s no escaping now and I can’t jump out of a speeding car.
However, a mental picture of the wide expanse of ocean beckoning cheers me up. We’re well on our way to board the Sea Urchin, a luxurious fishing boat to get the ultimate sport fishing experience — chasing after the elusive sailfish, the fastest fish in the ocean.
A TROPHY FISH
Any fisherman can tell you that landing a sailfish is an unforgettable experience. These big fish are not only intimidating to look at but are notoriously exciting fighters. With recorded swimming speeds of up to 110km per hour, the sailfish can keep pace with the fastest animal on land, the cheetah.
It’s an intimidating-looking fish. A member of the billfish family, the sailfish has an upper jaw that juts well beyond its lower jaw, forming a distinctive spear. But that’s not the only part that make up its intimidating features.
For one, this powerful, streamlined beast can grow to more than three metres and weigh up to 100kg. Second, the fish gets its name from its spectacular oversized dorsal fin that stretches nearly the length of its body.
This prized sport fish forces anglers to be on their toes — too many sailfish tales abound, filled with chaos, tackle snafus, damaged egos and missed opportunities. Its dazzling leaps and high-speed runs provide anglers with a spectacular sight and formidable fight.
The sun is out and the weather’s clear when we arrive at the Kuala Rompin jetty, our gateway to sailfish haven.
The waters of Kuala Rompin is often called “the sailfish capital of Asia”. They’re home to one of the largest populations of sailfish in the world, drawn to the warm waters of the South China Sea, the local reefs and abundance of bait fish.
As I stand on the wooden jetty facing the mouth of Rompin river, I can’t help but imagine that somewhere out there in the open seas ahead, a school of sailfish awaits our approach, and even if I’d manage to snag myself one, I’m inclined to believe that the ferocious fish would in no time pull me into the vast ocean and stab me with its bill!
“Where’s my seafood buffet?” I whisper furiously after clambering aboard the 22-metre boat straight from a feeder boat that brings us from the jetty to deeper waters where the former is anchored. There’s none in sight but the sight of the spacious, shiny white deck glinting in the sun mollifies me a little. It’s a whopper of a boat and the ultimate luxury fishing vehicle, complete with two spacious decks and a pilothouse on top.
The Sea Urchin’s affable owner Ernest Ong wastes no time with the preliminary introductions. After a brief tour around the boat and introductions to the crew and guides on board, he warns us to watch our step and mind that we don’t step on hooks or trip over rods. “We’re going to go jig for baits!” he informs us with a grin.
Huh? “Fishing for bait lah!” explains ex-boss with a laugh. So no, we’re not doing a little superstitious dance before fishing. Apparently, our ultimate target, the Indo-Pacific sailfish prefer ikan kembong (mackerel) as bait. The seasoned guides on board know of a popular spot near an artificial reef or tukun to catch these fishes.
Using an Apollo rig — basically a long line weighted at the end with little hooks spaced at equal intervals along it — we jig it up and down to imitate the movement of zooplankton that the mackerel prey on.
We catch plenty of bait, including cencaru (jacket fish), selar kuning (yellow trevally), tamban (sardine) and of course, the ubiquitous mackerel.
“They make great live bait for the sailfish,” explains Ong as he deftly unhooks the wriggling fishes caught on his line. Channelling my inner-fisherman, I manage to catch a few myself. If only fishing was as easy as this on any other day.
THE BATTLE COMMENCES
We get plenty of live bait and pretty soon we’re headed towards a popular sailfish spot. The captain from the pilothouse keeps a lookout for birds exhibiting specific behaviour. The oceanic waterbirds sometimes would reveal pelagic fish below. He looks to see if the birds are cruising or actually diving and working the water.
When he spots diving birds, he knows they’re likely above fish. And where there’s plenty of fish surfacing off the ocean, there’s bound to be schools of sailfish lurking underneath, herding the smaller fishes much in the same way that dolphins and whales use air bubbles to herd their food source.
One such spot is located half hour later within eyesight of Tioman Island. Soon, our rods baited with live fishes are cast into the swirling waters. Then we wait, converse and some fresh seafood is served (finally!).
The boat rocks gently and the sea breeze almost lulls me to sleep. Almost. Because suddenly someone yells out and points towards the distance. Running to the side of the boat, almost tripping over the humongous rods lined against the side of the deck, I spot black sails popping out of the water!
“Sailfish!” I yell. Almost at the same time, one of the rods within spitting distance bends, the line is tugged and the reel starts to scream in protest. We’ve got a live one! One of the fishing guides, Chin Juan Wei, leaps into action and calls my name while beckoning frantically to me. “Over here! You got this!” He deftly straps on my fishing gimbal belt (a belt to slot your rod into for some extra leverage).
Ever tried reeling a sailfish in? My puny arms ache as the fish leaps about in the water trying to dislodge the hook from its mouth. “I can’t do this!” I gasp. “Yes you can!” assures Chin. The trick, he tells me, is to pull and release the line in tandem with the sailfish’s movements.
Reel it! Release! Pull it! There are shouts all around trying to tell me what to do. The fish leaps about spectacularly several times. I almost go in with the fish. It’s like being in a labour room after hours of contraction. There’s pandemonium. I’m tired. And this baby simply won’t give in — and come out. Half an hour later, my arms are screaming blue murder, my back’s killing me and I’m just about to yell at someone to take over when the line goes slack. The sailfish concedes defeat. “You got him. Reel him home!” says ex-boss with a grin.
And I do, with the help of Ong who appears next to me, grinning like a benevolent sea-god. Reeling it next to the boat, Chin reaches out to grab the snagged fish by its bill and helps lift it slightly above water. Forget the usual haul-it-on board-and-say-cheese photos, I’m having none of that. Passing the rod over to Ong, I squat down and reach over to touch the spectacular looking fish. The dorsal fin is leathery to touch, and the fish looks even more magnificent up close. “Thank you.” I murmur to it, amidst the excited voices around me.
In less than a minute, my prized catch is gently lowered back into ocean after the hook is dislodged. I’m especially glad that the Sea Urchin practises a strict catch-and-release policy when it comes to this billfish so it can live to battle it out for yet another day.
“I always tell my customers,” says Ong, “During sailfish season, it’s not that difficult to catch a fish. After all, we’re here to help!” He emphasises the word “catch” — no promises about keeping.
I’ve discovered something else too. When you fish, the world both expands and narrows. You’re surrounded by vast nature and what exists beyond the water no longer matters: deadlines, overdrafts, relationships, even annoying ex-bosses ... It’s like being a child again. You can revel in and concentrate on just one thing and forget everything else.
I leave happy that day, feeling vaguely instilled with a kind of wisdom: What is it they say about teaching a man (or a woman) to fish?