Dateline: April 15, 2014: – Srinakarin, Thailand
The noise shocked me out of a sound sleep. I bolted upright, and I could only think one thing – “It’s me or the water buffalo.” I pulled out my Swiss Army knife and prepared to use it. The corkscrew is often handy in such situations.
Panting in the darkness, I wondered how I came to be sleeping in a place where this kind of problem could happen. And even once I figured out it wasn’t actually a water buffalo, I had to ponder the truly important question – what was a karaoke machine doing on a floating hut in the middle of rural Thailand?
Jean-Francois Helias, master of the Thai fishing scene who has found me more than 100 species over the past decade, had wanted me to go to Srinakarin for years, and we had finally worked it out. (For more on Francois, read HERE) Srinakarin is not an easy place to reach, but it is a pilgrimage required for devoted snakehead anglers anywhere. Many of Jean-Francois’ monster snakehead are from this enormous, island-dotted reservoir on the Burmese border, about 150 miles northwest of Bangkok. The clincher for me was that the lake had jungle perch. I have always wanted to catch a jungle perch.
Jean-Francois recommended that we stay for a week, but with a hectic schedule, I could only manage three and a half days – 86 hours. It would be a very high ratio of travel to fishing, but that’s nothing new for me.
The trip began at the always-painful hour of 4am. We drove three hours to Kanchanaburi, then bought supplies for three days. (Bottled water, Red Bull, Pringles, and Red Bull. I generally bring camping food and hope we can find boiled water.) I am not an adventurous eater, to say the least, so when I did eat something that wasn’t from REI, it was fried rice with chicken, topped off with a Cipro just in case.
Kanchanburi is the site of the infamous “Bridge on the River Kwai,” where thousands of British POWs – and tens of thousands of Thai forced laborers – died while building the Burma railway link for the Japanese in World War II. We took the time to visit the site, still a sad place full of so many ghosts, and I could not help but think of Sir Alec Guinness.
You are all lucky I am not a fly fisherman, or this post would have been called “Midge on the River Kwai.”
Although the road surface is new, the pilings here are from the original WWII bridge.
There were four of us on the trip – Francois, his lovely wife Lek, myself, and an unflappable British fly angler named Richard.
The group, minus Lek, who took the photo.
After Kanchanaburi, we drove another few hours to a village on the south end of the reservoir, then boarded a boat that was somewhat more rickety-looking that I would have hoped for.
This carried six people (including boatmen) and all of our gear and supplies.
We roared off on to the lake. It was huge – arms opened into coves, and coves opened into expansive bays.
Srinakarin. Note all the sunken timber, which was positively loaded with fish.
Two hours later, we pulled up at the floating village that was to be our home for the next few days. Francois had warned me that the accommodations were a touch rustic, so I didn’t start crying, but I’m not much of a camper and wasn’t relishing the evenings in the wild. It was somewhat of a comfort that the houses were floating off the shore a bit, so tigers would have a harder time getting to me.
My home for three days. We slept on mats on raised platforms, and while there were mosquito nets, these would not stop cobras.
The villagers were very friendly and helpful. The kids showed me where all the fish lived under the platforms, and I caught plenty of barbs, although regretfully nothing new. Francois and I went casting for a couple of hours without result, but he was confident that the morning would be much better. Although it was stiflingly hot, the scenery was lovely, and there was wildlife everywhere, including water buffalo.
Small herds wandered the shoreline. The males would snort and charge if the boat got too close.
That night, just as I was considering trying to go to sleep, I heard music. Loud music. Loud, awful music. The locals somehow had gotten a karaoke machine, and they had revved it up and were singing at the top of their enthusiastic little lungs.
Sure, it surprised me to find a karaoke machine on a floating hut in the middle of rural Thailand. But what really surprised me was that no one there, not one man, woman, or child, could carry a tune. Still, they sang better than I could, and more importantly, they had fun. But this precluded sleep.
Then it got worse.
Around midnight, the floor show tapered off and I decided to turn in on my mat. It was not disastrously uncomfortable, and a Benadryl later, I drifted off to sleep. Forty minutes later, I was snapped awake by a terrible noise.
It was a noise unlike any I had ever heard, a cross between a failing sump pump and a water buffalo giving birth – for distance. I flailed around for my flashlight, well aware that my mosquito net would not stop a water buffalo calf. I looked around, peering into the darkness. Was the house sinking? Was a pig ejecting its spleen?
After a tense moment, I figured it out. Richard and Francois were having a snoring contest. We’ll call it a draw, but as I lay awake wondering if it would ever stop without violence, I came to appreciate the different styles that each of these artists brought to the field.
Richard was the consistent one, producing a deep rumbling, not unlike a mechanically unsound locomotive.
Francois was the artist – “La Cirque du Adenoids.” He did not snore steadily, but every 30-50 seconds, he emitted a phenomenal range of bleats and yips. One moment, a kitten with peas up its nose, then next, satan passing a gallstone. I dozed and mused in equal measure, and figured at least the noise would keep away the tigers and water buffalo.
Morning came slowly, but I had brought plenty of Red Bull and was ready to go. Jungle perch and snakehead awaited.
Early morning on the lake. I don’t remember taking this picture.
One of the local guides took me out just past dawn. It had cooled off to a bearable temperature, and the air was fresh and still. Unlike the previous afternoon, fish were jumping everywhere. We drove about a mile from the huts and started paddling the shoreline. Within five minutes, we saw some some fish slashing bait on the surface and raced over to them. The guide said “Jungle perch!” I cast a white X-Rap within two feet of shore, and at least four fish blew up on it, knocking it onto the beach. One of the perch flung itself on the sand and thrashed at the lure, and I hooked up the instant the plug re-entered the lake. It was a strong fight, but there was no timber nearby and I landed the fish in a few minutes. I had enough adrenaline going to keep me awake until lunch.
My first jungle perch. There would be more shortly.
We got several more fish, including one that hit three different times. This species is nothing if not enthusiastic. As we worked into a cove, the guide suddenly started waving excitedly and pointing at the water – “Snakehead! Snakehead!” I looked around and spotted a bubbling patch of water about 40 feet away. This was one of the famous balls of juvenile snakehead, almost always accompanied by two angry parents. I had heard about this for years, and now I was living it.
The fry ball.
I made a cast. Once I had retrieved the plug past the ball, I cranked it in as fast as I could to make another cast. It was at this moment I get THE strike – the single most violent strike I have ever gotten from a freshwater fish.
Some fish strike with vigor, others with anger, hunger, or desperation. The snakehead struck with pure hate. She came in so fast toward me that my line went slack. I stood there like an idiot for a split-second, and then she turned and snapped the line tight. She took off for the trees, scorching a tight drag like it was freespool, and my graphite rod made those pre-breaking noises they often do right before they break. All I could do was hold on. Somehow, the rod stayed in one piece and my knots held, and the fish scraped along a line of sunken trees. I expected the sickening feeling of a breakoff at any moment, but after what seemed like an eternity, she came out into open water and we eventually landed her. At over 14 pounds, it was the biggest snakehead I ever expect to see.
I was ecstatic. What snoring? What water buffaloes?
Do not put this in your pants.
My hands hadn’t even stopped shaking when I got another one. This was likely the father – I made sure that both parents were released near the fry ball, and as the sun continued to heat things up, the activity dropped off. But that few hours in the morning had made the entire trip worth it.
The second fish. My second-largest snakehead ever.
Richard checked in with us as we headed back to the village. The fly-fishing was not outstanding, and he had not gotten a strike. With classic British stoicism, he never uttered a word of complaint. As was observed in Monty Python, this guy could get a foot bitten off and just say “Oh dear. One sock too many.”
As we paddled the boat around one of the coves, I heard a splashing and snuffling in the water. Looking around in alarm, I spotted something that you just don’t see every day – a water buffalo out for a swim.
They are surprisingly good swimmers.
We returned to the hut for lunch, and an eight year-old came out of nowhere and tried to get me with a squirt gun.
This was Songkran, the Thai New Year. Whereas on the western New Year, we spend one night trying to throw up on each other, in Thailand, they spend three days trying to throw water on each other. Think of it as the world’s largest outdoor squirtgun fight. There is no way to go in public without getting soaked.
We were in the jungle for most of the festival, so this was my only experience with the holiday. Luckily, we brought an enormous, battery-operated super soaker of the type used for putting out medium-sized fires and drenching surprised eight year-olds. Oh yes I did.
A couple of the local kids. The one on the right pulled the squirt gun on me. He’ll never do that again.
The afternoons were brutally hot. I spent my time making short trips to shaded areas, looking for new species, and I managed to pick up two interesting ones.
The lined barb. These are apparently very good bait for featherback.
A hemibagrid catfish. Although not as large as some related species, their spines are remarkably poisonous.
I got back to the dock for dinner – REI freeze-dried beef stew, which, although stupefyingly bland, has never given me the curse. A light breeze picked up, and the stifling heat slowly gave way to a pleasant evening. Francois and Lek got massages from a local practitioner.
This looked more like medieval torture than a massage, but I’ll take their word for it.
The sun went down, and the karaoke machine came out. I smiled along as the villagers struggled through dozens of tunes, each one still better than Jessica Simpson. This tapered off around midnight, and shortly afterward, the snorefest resumed. I tried earplugs. I tried benadryl and scotch. I tried benadryl, scotch, and earplugs, and believe me, it takes a lot of scotch to swallow earplugs. Nothing worked. I got a few snatches of sleep, but at least I knew that the cobras wouldn’t go near us.
Another sunrise, before the mist burned off the lake.
The morning started well, with two more jungle perch. At Jean-Francois’ urging, I had changed the hooks on my lures to sturdier models. The one unmodified lure I tossed has both trebles bent straight in a single strike.
Imagine a European chub on steroids.
We also cast at two more fry balls for snakehead, but only the juveniles would strike.
Even the young snakehead were vicious, attacking lures larger than themselves and getting hooked two and three at a time.
I spent the afternoon hours fishing for smaller creatures, and I was rewarded with three additional species.
The lined tailspot barb.
The silver tailspot barb. I only caught one of these.
And the sixth and final species of the trip – the blackfin barb. Note that these are my names – most of these have no English common names, and the local Thai names take years of study to pronounce correctly, almost as bad as Norwegian. (Details HERE.)
The evening’s karaoke festivities cut off a bit early, but this meant that the snoring got going around 11. It was my last night at the lake, so I embraced it, and dreamed troubled dreams involving water buffalo and Cousin Chuck.
The next morning, we fished a couple of hours and departed for Bangkok – two hours by boat and six by car. We looked at scenery, dozed here and there, and discussed the trip. Somewhere in there, when Francois mentioned how well he sleeps on the water, I had to make a crack about the snoring. Francois looked at me with complete astonishment. “Oh my man, you snore like a water buffalo.” I texted this to Marta, expecting some support, but she made a similar observation. Preposterous.