Posted by: 1000fish | January 24, 2015

Karaoke Night at Srinakarin

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.

Karaoke Bridge Sign

You are all lucky I am not a fly fisherman, or this post would have been called “Midge on the River Kwai.”

Karaoke Bridge 2

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.

Karaoke Group

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.

Karaoke Boat

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.

Karaoke Scenery 4

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.

Karaoke Hut

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.

Karaoke Buffalo 2

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.

Karaoke Scenery 3

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.

Karaoke Jungle

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.

Karaoke Fry

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.

Karaoke Snakehead

I was ecstatic. What snoring? What water buffaloes?

Karaoke Face

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.

Karaoke Snakehead 2

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.

Karaoke Buffalo

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.

Karaoke Kids

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.

Karaoke Lined

The lined barb. These are apparently very good bait for featherback.

Karaoke Catfish

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.

Karaoke Massage

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.

Karaoke Scenery 1

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.

Karaoke Jungle 2

Imagine a European chub on steroids.

We also cast at two more fry balls for snakehead, but only the juveniles would strike.

Karaoke Juveniles

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.

Karaoke Armatus Barb

The lined tailspot barb.

Karaoke repasson barb

The silver tailspot barb. I only caught one of these.

Karaoke atridorsalis barb

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.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | December 8, 2014

A Gift of Yellow Fluid

Dateline: April 11, 2014 – Prachuap Kiri Khan, Thailand

Sometimes, small gifts are the most heartfelt. Other times, they are the most awkward.

Like many awkward moments in my life, this story takes place in Thailand. I was on a business trip to Asia, and decided to take a few days with old friend Jean-Francois Helias. Francois is a miracle worker – he keeps finding new species for me to catch in Thailand, even after I have been there dozens of times. (An example HERE) This time, I decided to make time for the biggie, the pilgrimage to Srinakarin reservoir to chase monster snakehead. We had a few days to kill before that, so we did a hodgepodge of spots that Francois had always wanted me to visit. Thailand is a big place, and there are an endless variety of new opportunities for the intrepid angler, or, in my case, an angler with an intrepid guide.

Carp Steve JF

Jean-Francois Helias – master of the Thai fishing scene. (fishasia@ksc.th.com)

We started with the requisite trip to Ratchaburi. Sure, it’s a stocked pond. I didn’t claim I had any dignity around this – I’m the guy who has fished in hotel fountains. But the point remains that Ratchaburi has all kinds of stuff I have never caught, and the Thai mahseer is one of these.

Fluid Mahseer

The Thai mahseer. Hard fighters, even in hotel fountains.

The next day, we piled into a minivan and headed south. Francois will generally have a very specific place in mind, but in this case, we were exploring, looking for a small river that bordered an elephant preserve on the border with Burma. We drove for some hours through small towns and increasingly wild and hilly terrain, and finally came to the elephant preserve at Pa La U.

Fluid River

If this was video, you could hear elephants snorting in the distance. But it isn’t, so you can make the experience more authentic by making snorting noises while you read the next few paragraphs.

Elephants scare me. I never particularly felt this way until a trip to Africa in 2006 when one managed to sneak up on me on an open beach. Although he allowed me to live, my underpants could not be saved. So I was on guard all afternoon, my underpants doubly so.

We fished a few creeks outside the preserve, but the elephants can’t read the boundary markers and were crashing about in the forest all day. I caught a few glimpses of them in the jungle, which kept me distracted, but I did manage to land two new species – a blue danio and a tail-spot raspbora.

Fluid Danio 1

The blue danio, which I am sure was the original title of the Bobby Vinton song.

Fluid Rasbora

A species is a species, and this was something rare and wonderful, if not especially large. There’s a cousin Chuck joke in there someplace.

You can stop snorting now.

Once the jungle adventure was over, we saddled up in the van and turned south to Prachuap Kiri Khan, a port on the Gulf of Siam. Francois described it as a species haven – I had my doubts, as I have fished the area a lot, but I’ve learned not to bet against the Frenchman. (background HERE)

We got into Prachuap in the late afternoon. It’s a relatively quiet town – none of the beachfront party craziness you might find in Koh Samui. This suits me fine, as I don’t like to be disturbed by screaming barhoppers when I am fishing at 3am. I was in a low-key mood, so it took me a full 12 minutes to put gear together, find bait at a local market, and head out to the pier.

On the way over to the docks, the driver kept pointing at a religious-looking building on top of a hill and saying “monkey.” Kindly, I corrected him and told him “The word is Monk.” As we approached the base of the hill, I began looking for the familiar orange robes, and was surprised instead to see … monkeys. Everywhere. “Monkeys” said the driver again, and I felt like an idiot.

Fluid Monkeys

If they had only been wearing orange robes, I wouldn’t have felt so stupid.

It was very breezy, so I could only set up on the sheltered side of the pier. The scenery was spectacular – scattered islands down the coast as far as I could see.

Fluid Prach 1

Setting up on the pier. The wind was howling.

There were a few other fishermen, so I set up a respectful distance from them and started tossing Sabikis. I was immediately rewarded with a variety of small fish, one of which turned out to be new species.

Fluid Scad

The razorbelly scad. They were everywhere. 

The teenagers next to me looked astonished that I was catching fish – they apparently hadn’t gotten anything all day. Checking their equipment, the problem was evident – they were using 1/0 hooks, and the fish here, even the ambitious ones, had no chance of being caught on these. I pulled out a package of something more suitable, like a #14, and retied their rigs.

Fluid kid

One of my fishing buddies on the pier.

They immediately started getting fish, which all went into a bucket – this was dinner for their family. I gave them the hooks – I have plenty. They thanked me profusely, but their innocent good intentions led to an awkward moment.

Moments later, a little old lady came by with a cart, selling some sort of beverage. Before I could stop them, the kids pooled their coins together and bought two cups of some sort of yellow fluid over ice – one for me and one for them to share. With great formality, they presented it to me.

Fluid fluid

The yellow fluid. It was not exactly tasty, but it certainly was eponymous. 

Now this was difficult. One of my three inviolable travel rules is “no street vendor food.” (The other two are “no fishing during an armed insurrection” and “no one that tall is really a girl.’) Visions of food poisoning danced through my head, and I wondered if the Cipro in my toiletries could overwhelm whatever ill-willed microbes were doing the backstroke in my beverage.

The drink was the color and consistency of a urine sample, and the taste was less dissimilar than I had hoped. Still, I took what looked like a big swig and managed to give what I hope appeared to be a smile of approval while I tried not to cough it up through my nose. Satisfied, they went back to fishing, so I could pour the rest of the drink quietly into the harbor, where it likely killed some fish. They were good guys and meant well, and I hope they enjoy the hooks for a long time.

In the morning, Francois had arranged a charter with a local commercial fisherman and one of his Thai guides. The boatman used to taking out large groups, so he was surprised to see just one large American as his full load. The scenery was exquisite – exotic islands poking out of a powder-blue sea, and yesterday’s wind had been replaced with dead calm.

Fluid Islands

The islands in the morning calm.

Fluid boat

Our trusty craft. 

We had loads of squid, so I took some whole ones and rigged them up as bait. The guide – Kik –  was surprised by this, as most fishing here was done with small bits of bait on a #8 hook.

Fluid Kik

Kik – one of Jean-Francois’ most experienced guides. A fishing superstar.

The first few whole squid I put down came back ripped up by small fish, but about an hour later, that changed. As I reeled up the bigger rod, I was surprised to find that the line had moved quite some distance from where I had cast. Carefully, I reeled the slack out, and it became clear something was swimming with the bait. I let it pull tight and set the hook hard.

Whatever was on the other end was not pleased with this development, and it took off at great speed, right under the boat. I raced up to the bow and passed the rod under and over rigging and the anchor rope, and held on for dear life while the fish headed for the rocks. I figured it had to be a stingray. The fight went on for about 15 minutes, and as I gradually got the upper hand, I was even more sure it was a ray, which is why I was astonished when Kik netted the biggest painted sweetlip I have ever seen in my life.

Fluid Sweetlip 1

The beastly painted sweetlip. This is not the first time I was disappointed something wasn’t a ray. (Details HERE)

I have caught these all over the South Pacific, but never quite big enough for a world record. Yet here, in a place where sustenance fishing reduced the odds of a larger catch to almost zero, I had gotten one comfortably big enough to be my 97th world record. Three to go. This could happen.

We spent the rest of the day moving between shallow reefs, and one by one, I added a series of species to the list. I had fished extensively just a few hundred miles to the north and south of this spot, so I didn’t expect much, but by the time the day was over, I had tacked on five more new species.

Fluid whiting

Oriental whiting.

Fluid Weakfish

The Tigertooth Croaker. Now that’s a cool fish name. 

Fluid Pony

The splendid ponyfish. And this is a big one.

Fluid shrimp scad

A shrimp scad.

Fluid Grunter

The mighty saddle grunter. 

Fluid Sweetlip

Yes, this is the same sweetlip. I just wanted to put the picture in twice.

Nine species in three days, and the best part of the trip hadn’t even started. I was ecstatic.

The wind had picked quite a bit by 2:00, so we made our way in, weighed and documented the record fish, and packed up for Bangkok. Francois and I spent the entire ride talking about Srinakarin, the legendary reservoir in western Thailand that has produced some of the biggest snakehead ever wrestled into a boat. We had been talking about this spot since I met Jean-Francois, more than 10 years ago, and I had been quietly accumulating snakehead lures ever since. In just 36 hours, I would finally be putting them to use.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 25, 2014

Power Fishing

Dateline: April 6, 2014 – Endau Rompin, Malaysia

The fact that a weekend with Jarvis and Alex means endless sophomoric humor and juvenile pranks doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that they are so much better at it than I am.

You may remember these two knuckleheads from previous blogs – see “Angry White Man.”  Despite their vile horseplay, these guys are great friends of mine and two of the most dedicated fishermen I have ever met. For their part, they still can’t understand why I am throwing sabikis at “panty fish,” when they will cast a freestyle jig for 12 hours waiting for one big bite.

The destination this time around was a familiar one – Endau Rompin, on the east coast of Malaysia. A quick drive from Singapore, especially if Jarvis has the wheel, this is an outstanding spot that features great variety and a bunch of name-brand gamefish like GT, barred mackerel, and sailfish. I’ve gotten 18 new species in Endau over the years, and I highly recommend visiting if you get a chance.

Power docks

Endau Rompin at sunrise.

We set out very early on a Saturday morning, or more like very late on a Friday night, at some indecent hour when only the Australians are still wandering the streets of Singapore, not that they’ll remember it. We made quick work of a 150 mile drive – it was like Guido was driving except there we didn’t get arrested. (For driving lessons from Guido, click HERE) We hit Endau just at dawn, loaded up on two days of 7-11 food, and hit the water.

I had fished here several times before, so I accepted that I would have diminishing returns – but new species or not, the action here can be spectacular. Of course, there were a couple of difficulties apart from Alex’s inconsistent personal hygiene. For starters, I was still nursing a broken collarbone, and the sea was a bit choppy – a bad combination. Normally, water conditions short of hurricane don’t bother me, but with a bit of a sore shoulder, each bump was a new experience in ouch. Needless to say, this greatly amused Alex and Jarvis.

And then there was the unfortunately-named deckhand.

Power power

Pa Wer the deckhand.

The deckhand’s name was Pa Wer. Pronounced in English, this sounded a lot like “Power,” and while I don’t know why this was funny, every time someone mentioned the deckhand, the whole group would yell “POWER!!” And every time someone used the word “power,” the whole group would yell “POWER!!” For two fulls days, this never got old.

After a lumpy, wince-filled two hour run, we pulled up at some offshore islands. These are beautiful places, loaded with a variety of fish – it’s just unfortunate I have caught most of them. It was still great to be out on the water, doubly so once the boat stopped, and we got to work.

Power Islands

The Gnoidea Vattheycalled islands off Endau Rompin.

I got loads of bottom fish, including one of my favorite species of all time – the floral wrasse. I pulled it on deck, and said, “Pa Wer, the pliers please!” The group responded in chorus “Powerrrrrrr!”

Power Wrasse

The floral wrasse.

We moved out to some slightly deeper reefs, and the first fish I got made the trip worthwhile. Though small, it was indeed a new species.

Power Mack

The striped mackerel – a new species. What rough water?

That night, before dinner, the guys asked to use my bathroom, so we could be ready to eat faster. They said they only needed my room to shave. Like an idiot, I TRUSTED THEM. When I returned, I discovered that they must have shaved their heads, their backs, and a small dog, and left the aftermath for me to enjoy.

Power sink

Idiots. I ask them what the hell they thought they were doing, and the responded “Power shaving. Powerrrrrrr!”

The next day was more of the same fishing. The guys cast and cast and cast lures, and while things weren’t wide open, they did manage to get a few nice coral trout and narrow-barred Spanish mackerel. For my part, I was busy whimpering about the bumpy ride, but I did manage to jig up one small flounder that was new on the species list.

Power flounder

Who says I don’t have sole? Alex said this was a power fish, and they all yelled “Powerrrrrrr!” You can’t imagine how funny they though this was.

Power Eeeew

I try to take some advil and get a nap, and I end up with a bunch of photos like this.

We made an earlier day out of it, as we had to get back to Singapore, but it was a solid day of fishing and I was glad to add two species for the weekend, even though the image of that sink will haunt me until the day I die.

Power group

The triumphant group as we landed on day two.

All that remained was to shower, eat at KFC, and make the terrifying ride home with Jarvis Andretti at the wheel. As they dropped me back off at the Hilton in Singapore, Jarvis and Alex did something pointlessly cruel. They let it slip that they “may” have hidden a crab in my equipment, just as idiot Alex had done to me last year. (Right HERE) I was forced to unpack and go through everything, and there was no crab, but I still wasted two hours. This is terrorism.

Power room

I tear my equipment apart looking for the crab that was never there.

I will get them for this. And I wish I’d thought of it first.

Powerrrrrrr!

Steve

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 20, 2014

The One-Armed Bandit

Dateline: March 22, 2014 – Long Beach, CA

My collarbone snapped loudly when I hit the ice. The ligaments in my shoulder tore at the same time, which sounded like reluctant wet velcro.

In the post from my 50th birthday, I mused about how long I would be playing hockey with a bunch of kids who are more athletic and substantially younger than I am. (Details HERE) The answer arrived just after 10pm on March 13. It wasn’t a particularly clean play – the guy took my legs out from behind, but these things happen. 99 times out of a hundred, I would have jumped up, retaliated, and probably gotten a penalty. But whether it was age or bad luck, this fall went differently, and all 220 pounds of me landed on my left shoulder. I could hear my collarbone break, and as we got my gear off before going to the hospital, it was also clear that the shoulder was badly dislocated.

Bandit Hospital

Right before they hit me with the morphine. I apparently said some strange things later. When the registrar asked for my religion, I am told that I responded “Pagan.”

In terms of pain, I had thought ribs were the gold standard, but the collarbone is worse. You might use your ribs every time you breathe, but the collarbone is apparently involved in blinking. The next few weeks involved a lot of painkillers.

Of course, I couldn’t let this interfere with fishing.

I had a trip to Los Angeles scheduled with Martini eight days after this event. We had talked for four years about getting him out with Ben Florentino and catching the Southern California usual suspects, and I was not going to let a minor thing like a gruesomely dislocated shoulder spoil the fun. Three days after the injury, I walking gingerly down to my garage and picked up the casting rod I would likely use on a trip with Ben. The act of lifting it with my left hand made me almost black out with pain. This was not good. As a last resort, I know I could just go and NOT FISH, but with four more days to work on options, I was not ready to accept this.

The next day, I returned to the garage and tried a spinning rod. I found that I could cast it one-handed, close the bail with my teeth, then reel it by rotating my good arm around the handle, which I jammed into the space between my hip and my left hand. I practiced this in the driveway in my pajamas. My confidence grew. (Note from Marta – you can’t imagine the calls I got from the neighbors.)

Martini, as ever acting the part of the older brother, made the ridiculous suggestion of just cancelling the trip. In between vicodin tablets, I questioned his judgement and dedication to fishing. He smiled maturely and didn’t engage, and when the weekend came and I refused to cancel, he insisted on doing all the driving. It was a good road trip, and we mercifully dodged the legendary LA traffic. My shoulder was pretty darn sore, but I thought things were fine – but I apparently took one too many pain pills. Later in the evening, for reasons I can not explain, I apparently unraveled three full rolls of toilet paper and left it in a big pile on the bathroom floor.

We met Ben at the dock early in the morning. Martini generously carried most of the stuff down to the boat, thank goodness – although I did carry my own Red Bull and Vicodin. It was great to see Ben, and yes, he too questioned the wisdom of my going out on the water. Where, I ask, is the dedication? (Where, Marta asks, is the common sense?)

Among the many things I forgotten to consider was the bumpy boat ride out to the kelp beds. Ben ran the boat as gently as he could, but every bump was lip-bitingly painful. I said nothing, but my involuntary squeaks gave me away. We finally arrived at some likely-looking kelp beds and set to fishing. I had practiced my one-armed casting ritual and was comfortable with it, despite incredulous glances from Ben and Martini. I became rather smug about it – What broken bones? What torn ligaments? Those are for sissies. It was at that precise moment that the Fish Gods hit me with the one thing I had forgotten about – a fish. A solid kelp bass smashed my lure, and pulled back hard to my left. I tried to speak and stifle a distinctly unmanly scream at the same time, which came out something like “Motherfgarblewhimper!!” Martini, who normally never misses a chance to give me a hard time, felt so bad he didn’t say a thing. My arm hung limply in the sling as I held the surging fish with my right, and then awkwardly placed the reel handle against my hip and brought the fish in. Despite having a bit of a sore shoulder, I had landed a fish. I’m not sure what I was trying to prove to who, but I had proven it.

Bandit Calico

The kelp bass in question. Ben is still shaken up from my screaming. 

I sat down with a Red Bull and some Vicodin and let the able-bodied fish the rest of the morning. It was not a wide-open day like I had experienced in June of last year (Click HERE) but there were definitely some fish there, and that’s when a good guide really helps – the tougher days. Martini got a few nice calico bass on lures, and some other assorted kelp denizens. He has made so many amazing trips happen for me, so I was pleased that he was getting a shot at this fishery before he graduated.

Bandit Martini

Martini’s first calico. He used two hands – almost cheating.

Martini also did something gross. After catching a nice Pacific mackerel – his first – he just had to chop it up and eat it.

Bandit Mackerel

Yes, I eat sushi, but this is different. And gross. 

Bandit Group

If you’re planning to be in the LA area, look Ben up at 310 779-0397 or rek1ess@hotmail.com

After a few hours, we moved back into the bay and put some baits down. Martini promptly got a hit and a screaming run – unquestionably the “mud marlin” – a California bat ray. I was not quick to get my rod out of the water, so we couldn’t chase it, and consequently, the fish is still going – Martini was spooled in less than a minute.

Bandit Spooled

Martini poses heroically as he gets spooled.

We picked up a few assorted perch and sand bass inside Long Beach harbor. It was pleasant enough, but as it got later in the day, we hadn’t gotten anything truly noteworthy. That all changed in five minutes. Martini went first. Casting a small bait on a light rig to the rocks, he got a big hit and a wild fight. As he brought the fish toward the boat, I thought it had to be a decent perch, but when Ben netted it, I was stunned. It was a rock wrasse. A huge rock wrasse. Not only was this a new species for Martini, it was also an open world record. This might not seem like that big of a deal for someone with 170+ records like Martini, but for the past several years, Martini, third in the record standings overall, was on a focused quest to claim second – to be one and two with his father. So if there was going to be one record for the day, I was glad it was his.

Bandit Rock

The behemoth rock wrasse. Rock wrassezilla. 

But there was to be another world record that afternoon. I was sort of halfway fishing, with a squid/jig combo under the boat in about 10 feet of water, so if I hooked something I wouldn’t have to reel all that much. I got a strange bite, slow and cautious, and after a few minutes, I finally set the hook. I was rewarded with a fight that had all the energy of a sedated boot, and as I raised it one-handed to the surface, I saw I had gotten a California skate – big enough to break my own record. This would be my 96th. I was getting awfully close.

Bandit Skate

I should have left the sling on for the photos. How do I make that face?

So just like that, a decent day on the water had turned epic. There were whoops, man-hugs, and high-fives (all right-handed.) We had both gotten records, and just as I was the first person to set an IGFA record while naked (18+ click HERE,) I likely became the first person to set one in a sling. It was great to see Ben, great to have Martini catch a few of the Southern California kelp creatures, and best of all to just survive the whole thing.

I was curiously proud of myself on the ride home. “Well,” I said. “I toughed it out.” Martini sighed with equal parts of patience and bewilderment, reminding me very much of his father. “Steve, there’s a fine line between tough and stupid, and you’re playing hopscotch with it.”

Steve

 

Bandit Moon

And just as we pulled out to drive home, a full moon came out.

Posted by: 1000fish | November 10, 2014

Return to Salt River

Dateline: March 10, 2014 – Salt River, Arizona

Martini warned me not to look. But I looked.

But wait, I hear you say. There was never a Salt River blog in the first place, so how can we be returning there? This is what I like to call “editorial magic.” This is when I botch something really badly and don’t report it to you until I have gotten it right. It’s not an ego thing – I’m just trying to respect your time. Or it’s an ego thing. I forget which.

The destination this time was the Salt River in Arizona, where, in mid-2013, the Arostegui clan had caught two species of suckers – and of course, set records on both of them. In November of 2013, Martini and I paid a visit to the same spots, hunting for the same fish, but the results were unfortunately not as successful.

This is exasperating fishing. Exasperating. On the drive from the airport, Martini tried to warn me it was going to be exasperating, but I paid no heed. He especially warned me not to look at the water as we walked up to our spot.

Of course, I looked anyway. “Holy $#@%” I said out loud. Martini said “You looked. You shouldn’t have looked. ” But I had. There were fish everywhere. In groups on the rocks. Cruising the surface and the midwater. Everywhere. Right out loud, I said something very stupid and downright offensive to the Fish Gods. “This should be easy.” Martini winced – he had been here before and knew how hard it was going to be. Just because they were there didn’t mean they were going to bite, but I hadn’t put this together yet.

Hours later, as it got dark, I shook my head and looked back on a day of utter failure – a truly ugly fall off the cliff of hubris. I had seen hundreds and hundreds of suckers. I had eased bait within millimeters of their little snouts, and I had been ignored like I was trying to give Miley Cyrus good advice.

Martini caught a couple of suckers, because he is a good angler and because he did not upset the Fish Gods.

Salt Duo

One of Martini’s fish. I was smiling because I at least got to touch a fish.

As the sun set, wild horses came down to the water to drink.

Salt Horses

But they couldn’t drag me away.

I was completely aghast as we plodded through the twilight to the car. “What the $%#&?” I asked. Martini responded “I warned you.” I countered “But there were hundreds of fish.”

Salt Sunset

The Arizona sun sets on my dignity.

“I warned you. I WARNED YOU!” he continued into a Scottish accent like Tim the Enchanter from Holy Grail berating the knights who survived the rabbit attack. “But oooooh no, you wouldn’t listen to me …”

Salt Tim

John Cleese as Tim the Enchanter. This is culturally important.

“What the %#^.” I mumbled, to no one in particular. The conversation went on like this for most of the evening, including our dinner at a spectacularly misplaced Falafel house in the middle of the Arizona desert.

We also had a spectacularly awkward moment at our hotel. We were staying at some sort of ranch, where city folks go and somehow get a kick out of doing chores and wearing chaps, and one of their greatest selling points was apparently their regionally famous “hearty cowboy breakfast.” When Martini and I were arranging our 5 am checkout so we could get fishing early, the ranch hand didn’t get it at first. He politely told us, in just the slightest cowboy twang, “But breakfast starts at seven.” Then he added “It’s a hearty cowboy breakfast.”

We politely explained that we really needed to leave at five. His face fell and kept falling. It was then we realized that we had hurt this man down the very core of his being. “You’re … (long moments of processing time) not going to make it to breakfast?” The only other person on earth who has ever been this disappointed would be Cousin Chuck’s wife, 90 seconds into their honeymoon. “But … but …” he stammered. “It’s a hearty cowboy breakfast. You work it off during the day!” He was proud of this breakfast, and he sounded almost, but not quite, ready to cry. Martini and I felt like bad people.

We excused ourselves as quickly as we could and left him in the lobby, still mumbling about “a hearty cowboy breakfast.”

The morning represented a fresh challenge. Our target would be the roundtail chub, an extraordinarily rare species that lives in a few isolated creeks in Northern Arizona. The main issue was whether we would able to reach the creek without a halftrack. The creek, you see, was at the end of some 15 miles – that’s 25 kilometers at today’s exchange rate – of “road” that hadn’t been maintained since Nixon was trusted. It appeared to be designed without motor vehicles in mind, and we had left our donkey at the hotel. (Long story.)

Salt Sign

How about “never maintained – EVER?” 

The only advantage of getting someplace that difficult to reach is of course that it was completely unspoiled beauty. We had reached a perfect, aqua blue creek in the far reaches of the high desert. There are very few places like left anywhere, and we took in the scenery for a moment and made sure not to dump any toxic waste. (Despite breakfast at Denny’s.)

Salt Fossil

The nameless mountain creek, northern Arizona. It was almost worth the drive. 

Salt Creek 2

They do this without chlorine.

At first, no fish were in evidence. After about 30 minutes of fruitless angling, I began to get that horrible feeling I get when I have just driven 15 miles on an alleged road and there are no fish. But we kept at it, and finally, a small, silvery shape shot out from under the bank and grabbed my tiny jig. I flipped it up on the bank and took a quick photo – I had just added one of the rarer species I would ever catch.

Salt Headwater

The roundtail chub. 

Just as I released mine, Martini hooked up. Suddenly, the chubs were everywhere. They had apparently stayed in tight cover until the water temperature got to their liking, then they came out all at once. I cast again and got one, resulting in the photo below, which, to species hunters, is extraordinary. To everyone else, it’s two unattractive men holding small fish.

Salt Double

This may be the only picture in existence of two anglers with roundtail chubs.

Salt Scenery

We got to enjoy this scenery at very low speeds.

We called the day a success after another hour or so, and began the long ride back to Phoenix and the flight home. I was pleased to get the chub, but still aghast about the suckers. Martini texted me as his flight took off – “I warned you.”

Fast forward four months and about ten inches of water level in the Salt River. I had a business trip to Phoenix in March, and I was determined to make good on the sucker species. I flew in to Arizona in the morning, got a car, and was out at the scene of my humiliation well before lunch.

Peering down from the bluffs, it was clear there was more water in the river than there had been in November. There was nice flow at the head of the pool, which hadn’t been the case before, and local rumor has it that the fish bite better when the water is moving. The fish were still everywhere, although I made a point of not looking at them as I walked along the bank to my first spot.

Salt Pool

I closed my eyes while I took this photo. If you look closely, all of the dark shapes in the middle of the river are suckers. And they were a lot denser further down the pool.

With what passes for great stealth on my part, I crept up to the bank, keeping as low a profile as I could, and cast into the mass of fish. Breathlessly, I watched the worm slowly drift through the groups, and sadly, I watched the fish ease away as the offering came near them. Would it be an ugly repeat of November? Just then, a Sonora sucker swam across the riffle with great purpose and slammed the bait. I was so surprised I was very late on the hookset, but the Fish Gods were merciful and I had a fight on my hands. A few moments later, I netted a beautiful Sonora, a new species, and, at three and a quarter pounds, a new world record – #94.

Salt Sonoroa

Now that’s a way to start the trip.

It was a very different experience than last November. The Sonoras bit quite reliably, and I got several more as the afternoon went on.

Salt Big Sonora

All the rest of them seemed to be exactly 3.24 pounds.

Salt Sonora Mouth

But aren’t they adorable?

So the Sonoras were cooperative, but as the afternoon progressed, it occurred to me that the desert suckers had remained elusive. I sight cast, and sight cast, and sight cast, moving baits right on to their noses, but they wandered off with stunning indifference. I have only seen that level of indifference from one other animal – Rossi, the Arostegui’s cat, when I try to pet him.

I moved all along the bank, and there was no shortage of targets, but they all ignored me. I had gotten quite cynical about the whole thing, but stubbornly continued dropping baits in front of their upturned little noses. Around four, I was lowering a piece of worm on to the snout of a fish just a yard or two off the bank, when it suddenly decided it was hungry and pounced on the bait. I almost fell over in surprise, which was sufficient to set the hook, and I had a delicate fight on my hands as I had left the net upstream. I finally landed it in a shallow pool, and then had a moment of drama as I got out my Boga grip and weighed the fish.

It was exactly one and three-quarter pounds. The world record was exactly one and three-quarter pounds. I had tied it, which counted as record #95, and I would be sharing this record with none other that Dr. Marty Arostegui.

Salt Desert

The lone desert sucker. I was ecstatic.

I fished until late in the day, satisfied and in a bit of disbelief.

Salt Clouds

The sun goes down over the desert. And this time, there was no one yelling “I warned you!”

I had checked off two more species on my lift list. More importantly, I had added two world records – numbers 94 and 95. Now it was seeming possible. I needed to get five more before August 15 to get the Lifetime Achievement this year, and I had a big trip to Asia coming up in April. It had taken two forays out to the Arizona desert, but I had transcended my own hubris and caught the suckers.

And the next time Martini tells me not to look, I won’t look.

Steve

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | November 1, 2014

The Worst Valentine Ever

Dateline: February 28, 2014 – Bujama Mala, Peru

I’ve had some questionable Valentine’s dates over the years, but none more so than in Beijing on February 14, 2005. Nic was not only surly and unattractive, he even stuck me with the check. It took him nine long years to redeem himself, but half a world away, in February of 2014, Nic, although not much of a fisherman, managed to organize an unexpected gem of a fishing weekend.

Peru Beijing

Steve and Nic outside the Forbidden City, February 14, 2005. 

Nic has been a friend of mine for a long time – we have worked together for something like 15 years. A former US Marine and current IP lawyer, Nic speaks something like nine languages (four of them English) and has been to more countries than I have. He’s the closest thing I know to an international man of mystery, even if he’s more suited to International House of Pancakes.

Our adventures, most of which cannot be repeated here for reasons relating to good taste, are the stuff of sad legend, and in one unfortunate incident, we were mistaken as a Valentine’s day couple in Beijing. Before you start rewriting Brokeback Mountain, here is what happened: We had been sent to Beijing for business on very short notice. Bleary-eyed and crazed with hunger, we went into the first American-looking restaurant we saw, which happened to be an Outback Steakhouse. In our jet-lagged stupor, we had forgotten it was Valentine’s day, and when we requested a table, the staff couldn’t stop giggling at the two six-foot unshaven Americans. We made them take down all the flowers and balloons.

Peru Ick

Nic and Steve, Buenos Aires, 2014. I grant you we would not have beautiful children.

Nic was the son of a diplomat, and spent much of his teen years in Lima. Thus, when my South America business trip continued to Peru, he was a great source of local knowledge. One of Nic’s Peru-based employees, Jose Larranaga, is quite a keen fisherman, and it was Jose’s connections – Hector and Chris –  that made most of this trip happen. We’ll get to meet them about 500 words from now. So thank you Nic, but you can stop sending me cards every February 14.

Peru JAL

Jose Antonio and a couple of fine corvinas. 

The debacle in Brazil had put a damper on my enthusiasm. There is something about looking up at 20 feet of water that can discourage even the heartiest of breakfasts, but still, I was in Peru and I was going to make the most of it. If I could manage to catch a fish, I would reach the 80 country milestone – a level not reached by any smart person.

The serious fishing was planned for the weekend, but our first day in the office turned out to have the afternoon open.  What else was I supposed to do? Nic and I went to a restaurant right on the beach, had a beautiful ceviche lunch, then put Nic’s fluent Spanish to work with the busboy. He wrangled five fresh prawns, more than enough bait to explore the area for a few hours.

It was a pleasant afternoon, warm but not oppressive, a bit of breeze, and a calm sea. We lounged on the seawall, enjoyed the view of Lima, and I began casting. It was a bonus session – I hoped to catch something small and interesting, and put Peru on “the list.”

The fish came quickly, and while their size was yawn-provoking, the variety was not. I managed to scratch off four new species in just a few hours, which already made the trip more than worth it. I had added my 80th country; a journey that had taken me through 79 other countries and then this one. Nic and I enjoyed the afternoon, and revisited a number of stories, especially an unfortunate evening in Saigon, that are best left untold in case my nephew is reading this.

Peru Chalapo

Species #1 – the Chalapo clinid. These critters are called klipfish in South Africa and Kelpfish in the US. 

Peru Smooth

Species #2 – the smooth stardrum. Nic may be smiling now, but he was not so amused when he found his rear end had fallen asleep and he couldn’t get up.

Peru Minor

The minor stardrum. They are called this because they do not live to 18.

Peru Shortnose

The shortnose stardrum. I had never caught a stardrum species before, but now, I had three. Collect them all!

As the day went on, Nic made a beverage run back to the restaurant. I asked him to bring me a Red Bull. Nic has a strange sense of humor – hence the Valentine’s cards – and he couldn’t help himself here. As he walked back to our spot with a bag full of Red Bull and beer, he yelled, in perfect Spanish “¡Senor Wozniak, Yo he obtenido tus laxantes!.” Everyone stared at me. Nic smiled, and after about 15 minutes, he admitted that this meant “Mr. Wozniak, I have obtained your laxatives.” And he stuck me with the check at Outback. Why do I hire these people?

Peru Pier

Nic returns from the beverage run. Idiot.

Mercifully, we will not hear about Nic again until the last paragraph. That evening, Jose visited me along with Hector, and I got the pleasure of talking fishing with two professionals. Jose was heading for a family holiday, or he would have joined us, but Hector, who is both a tackle dealer and a guide, was a fantastic contact. Over some pisco sours, we talked shop well into the evening. It took some time to convince Hector that I would rather have two new species than one big corvina, but he seemed enthusiastic to help with my quest.

Peru Corvina

Hector (on the right) with a corvina. Hector has perhaps the coolest name of any guide ever – Hector Garcia de los Heros. If you’re planning to be in Lima, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with him. 

After work the next day, Hector picked me up at the Westin and drove us to Pucusana, a port town about an hour south of Lima. It was an after work thing, so we only had a couple of hours to fish, but this was new territory and anything could happen.

Peru Beach

The local beach – quite the hotspot. 

Pucusana is a small, colorful place, a working harbor on the edge of the desert. This is not a country big on planning. We simply showed up at the docks and found a local boatman who was willing to head out until sunset. The water was a touch sloppy, but after the perfect storm in Brazil, it felt like a bathtub. We slowly motored out to some rocky headlands, and started casting plugs and spoons after corvina. Corvina are the big game fish here, and this was the critter I hoped to catch the most.

Despite our efforts, no corvina were found, but I did spend about an hour dropping baits over some rocky dropoffs. I was rewarded with two more new species – the Cabinza grunt and the Valparaiso chromis – as well as the bewildered stares of the boatman. I don’t think Hector fully got it either, but he was thrilled that I was thrilled.

Peru Cabinza

The cabinza grunt. Yes, I was ecstatic.

Peru Chromis

The Valparaiso chromis. Another plain brown damselfish, but luckily, the only one in the area. 

Peru Sunset

Sunset at Pucusana.

We talked fishing the entire drive back to Lima – this guy really lives and breathes fishing 24 hours a day. Apparently, the very best fishing in Peru is off the beach for corvina and big flounder about 300 miles south of Lima – not a possibility for this trip but definitely a reason for a return visit.

The really big day of fishing came on the last day of the trip – an adventure south to Bujama Mala to meet Hector’s friend Chris, who has a boat and a lot of experience in that region. It would be a brutally full day, with a 4am wakeup call, a two hour drive, a full day of fishing, another two hour drive, and then an 11pm flight back to San Francisco.

Hector got me bright and early, and he may have been more excited to head down to Bujama Mala than I was. He positively loves to cast lures, and this is apparently a top spot. We filled up on gas station empanadas – the local version of UMF – and got to our destination just as it was becoming best not to be locked in a small car with each other.

Peru Hector Steve

Hector and I celebrate fresh air. 

Peru Beach 2

The Bujama Mala beach at dawn. A fantastic day awaited us. 

Chris was just as pleasant and enthusiastic as Hector, and we talked over the species he thought would be available and set up a basic game plan.

Peru Chris Hector

Chris and Hector as we head out to the islands. 

We worked our way over to some rocky cliffs, where the surge washed over a steep, boulder-strewn shoreline, and began tossing soft plastics into the white water. It reminded me very much of fishing Catalina Island for kelp bass, (details here) and little did I know that we were actually hunting for a close relative – the Peruvian rock bass. They were out in force. I got a bite on my first cast, then hooked up on my second. The fish ran hard back to the rocks, and for a moment, I regretted going with my lightest spinning rod. But the Fish Gods smiled on me, and I landed not only a new species, but also a world record. My 92nd world record, on a fish I hadn’t even known existed until I caught it. Eight to go.

Peru Bass

The Peruvian rock bass. At three pounds, this one was big enough to enter in the IGFA books. 

That would have been enough for the day, but we had many hours to go, and the fishing stayed solid all day. I checked off three additonal species – four for the day, which is pretty much epic for me. Action was steady and great fun, and there was the occasional big surprise thrown in, like a triggerfish on a #3 sabiki. Each new species was greeted with cheers and high-fives.

Peru Clinid 2

Peruvian clinid – second species of the day. 

Peru Pucusana

Oh yeah – it was also scenic. I keep forgetting that because I rarely look up from the water.

Peru trigger

This was quite a surprise on three pound leader. 

Peru Blenny

The giant blenny. This is the beast of the blenny world. 

The final species was another surprise. Both Chris and Hector had caught Peruvian morwongs – a colorful inshore fish reminiscent of California’s surfperch. I had just about given up on this one – there will always be at least one you don’t get – when I got a small one on a sabiki.

Peru Morwong 2

The Peruvian morwong. My Mother’s favorite color was orange, so she would have liked this picture, or at least the part with the fish.

Thrilled at the species, I kept fishing the area with a larger bait, and about half an hour later, got a bigger one, north of a pound. Several weeks later, after quite a bit of research, the fish turned out to be a world record. Number 93. Thank you Dr. Carvalho!

Peru Morwong 3

The bigger morwong. A lucky catch, even if it left me wondering where I was going to find seven more records. 

We fished until late in the afternoon. It was a calm and pleasant day, and the scenery, where desert meets ocean, was stark but beautiful. I knew I would be back. I had gathered up five records on the South America trip, as well as 15 new species. There were dozens more waiting for me, and Hector and Chris had been incredibly welcoming and generous. (And both now have credit as guides on two IGFA world records.)

Peru Chris Steve

Chris and I in front of his vacation house in Bujama Mala. 

Hector got me back to the Westin on time – what a fantastic day of fishing. I raced to shower and pack, and then, as I went through the lobby, there was an ugly surprise. Nic was there.

We had a quick drink before I headed to the airport. He’s not much of a fisherman, but he politely inquired as to my results and even more politely looked at the pictures. Jokingly, I told him “You’re forgiven for that Valentine’s Day in China.”

He looked me right in the eye and said “We’ll always have Beijing.”

“Shut up.” I replied.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE LLAMA SWEATER

Peru Sweater

My new favorite sweater. It has llamas on it. 

 

 

 

Posted by: 1000fish | October 24, 2014

The Brazilian Turtle Paradox

Dateline: February 24, 2014 – Praia do Forte, Brazil

I can’t say the turtles saved this trip, but at least they made me feel better.

My relationship with sea turtles is complicated. I will stop almost anything I am doing to watch one of these beautiful creatures swim by, but from time to time, we are also competitors, hunting the same waters. They are also outrageously cute, far more so than sea lions, so the risk of hooking one accidentally is something I take quite seriously, and when they show up on a reef, I usually will leave and let them frolic.

Salv Green

Your basic sea turtle. I did not take this picture. You can tell because there is not a fish in it. 

Salv Baby 2

Gratuitous cute baby turtle photo.

This makes what I am about to tell you all the more shocking. Of course, you all know that Jaime Hamamoto is a bad person who will stop at nothing in her vicious, competitive quest to catch more fish than me. But even I was shocked to discover, through apparently reliable if inexpensive sources, that Jaime not only fails to share my compassion for these wondrous creatures, but that she actually considers them a food item. That’s right – JAIME HAMAMOTO EATS SEA TURTLES.

Salv Jaime (1)

This fact is less verified than it is relevant, but I still think it is important for you all to know.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog. You will all of course recall my last fishing trip to Brazil – an unmitigated disaster in 2012. I didn’t end up naked, which is a plus (don’t click HERE) but that was just about the only upside.

After that debacle, the first person to console me was Dr. Alfredo Carvalho. Dr. Carvalho, who insists that I call him Alfie, is a world-class ichthyologist who has identified dozens of nearly impossible species for me. He takes it as a personal challenge to track down anything I send him, whether it’s from his back yard in Brazil or halfway across the world. It was Alfie who suggested that I try fishing in Salvador, where deep water is close to shore and there are a lot of species I have only seen in books, mostly the ones written by Alfie.

Salv Book

One of my favorite books ever, and it’s in Portuguese. 

Rio Carvalho

Dr. Alfredo Carvalho – the good-looking one on the right.

Two years later, in February of 2014, that I had another business trip to Brazil. I called Alfie and let him know I was coming, and he organized everything from there. We would go to Salvador, at Praia do Forte, and fish on a research vessel that chases deep water-species. The boat was owned by Projeto Tamar, a non-profit group established in 1980 which is dedicated to preserving sea turtles in Brazil. (www.tamar.org.br/)

It looked so good on paper. It would be a chance to re-establish some good feelings in my bumpy relationship with Brazil (Details here,) catch up with some old friends, and make some new ones. And there appeared to be a huge batch of species and world record opportunities. What could go wrong?

Of course, every time I ask that question, something goes terribly wrong.

We showed up at Praia do Forte on a Saturday morning. It was a a beautiful, palm-studded piece of tropical paradise, with the Projeto Tamar facility right on the water. The station itself is quite a tourist attraction, with beautiful displays of sea life and conservation programs. Alfie made me promise not to fish in the aquariums.

Salv Beach

This picture is deceptive – this is the only calm corner of a small harbor. 

Salv Hotel

The view from my room.

At the station, Alfie introduced me to his good friend, Guy Marcovaldi. Guy is the Director of Projeto Tamar, and he is about the best friend a Brazilian sea turtle could have.

Salv Tamar

Guy Marcovaldi with one of his fans.

Salv Group

Guy at the office. 

He and his wife have spent much of their lives heading conservation efforts for these gentle creatures, and in the last two decades, the group has released over eight million hatchlings into the wild.

Salv Babies

Hatchlings head for the sea. There is nothing cuter than a baby turtle.

Salv Gisele

Well, maybe one thing. Yes, that’s Gisele Bundchen, well-known offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.

How could Jaime eat these gentle creatures?

As I had flown in the night before for some business meetings, things had looked great, but I wasn’t staying right on the coast, so I didn’t notice that it was really, really windy. I was also unaware that it had been really, really windy for the better part of a week, and the seas were pushed up to a positively gigantic state. Oops.

This was guaranteed seasick weather – big waves, some up to 20 feet – plus solid wind to push the boat in all sorts of nauseating directions. The heavy current would also be almost impossible to fish in anything but very shallow water – the drift would be fast enough to troll for wahoo, and I’ve already caught those.

Salv Waves

Yes, we went out in this crap. Did you expect anything else?

But I was here, and Guy and the crew were game to go. The Projeto Tamar interns take turns working on the boat – they were a great bunch of college kids, mostly Brazilian with one American thrown in. We loaded on the Teahupoo, which is Portuguese for “barf until you touch land,” and headed off into certain frustration.

Salv Teahupoo

The Teahupoo. We were on the boat for five hours, although most lunches stayed onboard for less than two.

About a mile out, we bucked our first 15-footer. Then it got worse. One by one, the crew went rail bunny. I began getting major-league nauseated – the kind of feeling you get when the Tigers turn over a one-run lead to their bullpen. About five miles out, which took the better part of an hour, we were over some modest 300-foot reefs and set up to try our luck.

Guy never stopped smiling and he tried his level best to get me some fish. He tried to time the swells and power the boat to match the drift, but it was a confused sea and even with two pounds of weight on my line, I barely hit the bottom and was scoping out line to a difficult angle. We were bouncing 10-15 feet with every wave, and just hanging on was work.

I caught one fish – a wenchman snapper – which I had unfortunately caught previously. I knew there were deeper reefs positively loaded with new species, but there would be no way to reach these until the conditions improved. I was anguished – another feeling I get when the Tigers turn over a one-run lead to their bullpen.

Salv Snapper

The fish of the day. I thought this photo was horizontal when I took it. 

We got back in the late afternoon, shaken but thrilled to be in one piece. Sure, I was disappointed that the fishing wasn’t any better, but this was up to no one but the Fish Gods, who hate me. Evening featured a pleasant dinner back at the hotel – me, Alfie, and the owner, a Swiss national who had moved to Brazil many years before. A caipirinha or two improved my attitude, but I also knew the seas weren’t going to be appreciably better in the morning. We spoke well into the evening, and Alfie assured me that even if it wasn’t on this trip, Brazil held a lot of species for me in the future. His knowledge was positively amazing – I had gone from wanting to never visit Brazil again to realizing I could fish a lifetime here and still not get all the good spots.

Salv Carv

Well into a beautiful tropical evening. And yes, I went and fished the harbor until the middle of the night.

In the morning, Alfie and I wandered over to the lagoon in town. I had no idea what could live in there, but I love coming in to a new place and seeing what I can figure out. I had my two “go to” baits with me – shrimp and white bread. It was a lovely morning, and it was a relief to be on solid ground.

Salv Lagoon

Praia do Forte lagoon. It’s calm.

I suspected that I would catch tilapia, which have apparently been placed in every body of water worldwide through some dark conspiracy, likely involving Jaime. (Who eats sea turtles.) Tilapia irritate me because they are nearly impossible to tell apart, and just as I was working myself up into an anti-tilapia frenzy, I caught something that astonished me. I got a pacu, and a new one at that.

Salv Pacu

A type of pacu, and a new species. Suddenly, my attitude improved.

We fished a while longer, enjoying the scenery and chatting about other Brazil locations. When then had lunch and, with stubborn resignation, headed to the Teahupoo. The rest of the afternoon almost, ALMOST made me forget the sea conditions.

We motored out again, with a group of doomed-looking interns, and while the waves had gotten more predictable, we were still looking at ten-foot seas. I caught two fish, and one of them made the trip worthwhile – although I didn’t know this for sure until two months later. The first fish, pulled up out of 400 feet after a stiff fight, was a beautiful queen snapper.

Salv Queen

I had caught them before, but it was nice to have something dignified for a photo.

Then I got something weird. It would have been great to describe a dramatic fight here, but the plain truth is that I didn’t even feel the bite. We were pitching up and down so hard I was more concerned with hanging on, and it was only in the last 50 feet of reeling that I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was something small and undramatic in the line, perhaps a fish, perhaps a plastic bag. I flipped it up onto the deck – it was some kind of dogfish. I couldn’t examine it too closely, because if I looked down for very long, I was going to get sick.

Salv Cuban

The nondescript dogfish. Note the excitement from the deckhand in the background.

In the next two months, we struggled with an identification, but finally, after Herculean efforts from Dr. Carvalho and Martini Arostegui, the creature was pinned down as a Cuban dogfish. It was not only a new species, but it also solved a four year-old mystery on another ID, so it really counted for two. Best of all, it was a world record, because everyone else who had ever caught one had more shame than I did. I had stumbled in to world record # 91. Nine to go.

We spent the evening having a lovely queen snapper dinner, and I said goodbye to Alfie, who headed back to Sao Paulo.

The next day, I of course got up early and fished the harbor reef for a few hours, just to see if I could scrape up one more species. I worked my way through dozens of plain brown damselfish, and as I reached the end of the reef and was about to go in for lunch and my flight back to Sao Paulo, something cool happened.

There, right in front of me, was a sea turtle, just resting in the sun.

I spent about 10 minutes just looking at her, thinking about the improbability of her survival to get to this spot, and thinking about how amazing it was that all of the people at Projeto Tamar had come together to help these animals. (Even though lots of other people had done irresponsible things that had made this all necessary in the first place.) And the whole idea left me with some hope for humanity, except for Jaime, which made me feel better.

Steve

Salv J 2

No sea turtles were actually harmed in the making of this blog.

Posted by: 1000fish | October 1, 2014

Wicked Grandmothers of the Recoleta

Dateline: February 17, 2014 – Carmelo, Uruguay

I owe this trip – and the two species and two world records it produced – to a pigeon. And not just any pigeon, but a French pigeon. You have no idea how much it pains me to give the French credit for anything, but a fact is a fact, and to make it worse, the thing crapped on me.

I take you to Paris about five years ago. Marta and I were taking a stroll through Les Jardins du Surrendre, just as so many foreign armies have over the years. And just like France in 1940, I got a nasty surprise from the air. A pigeon crapped on my head. (For the record, Marta was less than mature about this and giggled incessantly.)  I relate this now because it will be important for you to know that I became aware of EXACTLY what it felt like to have a bird poop on me.

Salsa Poop

He even got my backpack.

Fast forward to Buenos Aires in 2014. I was wandering a tourist area and group of middle-aged women tried to rob me – by flinging salsa at my legs. I was walking down a side street in a tourist area, and a flock of dodgy-looking grannies moved in behind me. I thought something was odd, and then, something splattered onto the back of my pants, from a distinctly upward angle. The thieving bitties swarmed in with feigned concern, pointing upward and saying something about a bird. But because of the French pigeon experience, I knew immediately it wasn’t a bird, and that something was amiss.

Whipping out a bunch of napkins that they conveniently had for just such an occasion, they started patting me down. They were not a physically imposing group, so I just put my hand over my wallet and let them wipe the substance – which looked to be some type of salsa – off the back of my legs. They kept trying to move my hand off my wallet, and I kept not letting them move it. They exchanged glances and started to leave, but I kept pointing out spots they had missed. This went on for about 10 additional minutes, and by the time I let them finish, my pants were cleaner than when I had started. I even had them do my shoes.

Salsa Casa

The Casa Rosada, where the president/dictator/ranking colonel lives. Eva Peron – who traveled more after she died than while she was alive – gave speeches from the balcony. 

Salsa Eva

Evita is still revered here, even if they still haven’t found all of her Swiss bank accounts.

I breathed a sigh of relief back at the Hilton, as if the old bags had somehow gotten my wallet, it is unlikely I would have sorted things out in time to go fishing the next day, which would have been a disaster.

About the fishing … as you are all of course aware, I visited Argentina last year and came up with several great new species and several very bad Evita puns. (See HERE for details.) Argentina fishing holds a special place in my heart – it was here, in 1999, that I did some of my first true species hunting on a wild weekend that featured a 28-hour fishing session and a nine hour drive to get me back to the office on a Monday morning. I caught seven new species … taking my total at the time up to 85. (!) Argentina was my fifth country fished.

Salsa Vierrena

Steve in 1999, weighing in at a waif-like 202 pounds. We still haven’t identified the darn catfish I am holding. 

My guide last year was Oscar Ferreira, a fantastic fisherman who can find clients excellent action close to Buenos Aires. When I called him for a mid-February trip, he explained that his boat was being overhauled, but that we could go with Elias, a good friend of his. Oscar picked me up at the Hilton early in the morning, and as we drove out to El Tigre, I told him the story of the failed robbery. “They usually throw green salsa.” he explained – this was a well-known local scam. I was thankful again I hadn’t lost my wallet.

We arrived at the harbor just as the sun rose. Oscar introduced me to Elias – wild-haired and friendly, clearly a dedicated fisherman – and we headed out into the Parana delta.

Salsa Guys

Oscar and Elias – two top-notch local guides. You can reach Oscar at ichi_iana_pesca@hotmail.com if you are planning a trip to the area.

It was a breezy morning, and we took a long ride through the choppy main river to reach the Uruguayan side near, a small town named Carmelo. The area features a lot of open water and marshy islands – it looks a lot like our local Sacramento river delta, but of course instead of striped bass and sturgeon, it is loaded with exotic creatures like golden dorado and the ever-challenging Unidentifiable Catfish.

Salsa UnID

This is The Unidentifiable Catfish. I catch them every time I go to Argentina, and reputable scientists can never agree on what the heck it is. 

Salsa Delta

Parana River delta scenery. It’s like our delta, except there aren’t drunk teenagers on jet skis.

We set up on some deeper channels, and I immediately got a bunch of The Unidentifiable Catfish. After about half an hour, some solid fish started showing up. The first really good one was a big armored catfish, about six pounds. I thought for sure I had a world record – who else would travel all this way and fish for anything except dorado and surubi?

Salsa Armado

This was a big armored catfish. Who else could have caught a bigger one?

Salv Gran 2

Martini Arostegui, that’s who. His fish was more than twice the size of mine. Drat. I’m sure Jaime will catch one even bigger.

We kept at it, and after a few more big armored cats, I got a brilliant yellow Moncholo catfish – and this one had somehow evaded the Arosteguis. I had what would turn out to be my 89th world record. These were getting very hard to come by, and I still had 11 to go if I wanted an IGFA lifetime achievement award.

Salsa Yellow

The “Moncholo Amarillo” – Spanish for “Jaime hasn’t caught one.”

We moved spots a few times, looking for a freshwater stingray – a species I have coveted for years. We didn’t get one, but I did catch the lovely dorado below. They were jumping in the boat. Literally.

Salsa Dorado 2

I’m not kidding. This one jumped right into the boat. I wouldn’t have counted that as a legitimate catch, but luckily, I’ve gotten the species before. These things jump so often and so high that they can be dangerous to boaters.

As it got later in the day, we began to catch some small Pati catfish. In 2000, I stayed up an entire, mosquito-filled night to catch my first one.

Salsa 2002

Yes, my goatee used to be that color. I tell people it’s blond today, but we all know the truth.

I caught a few nice ones – two and three pounders. For some reason, I had always thought there was an existing world record on these, but during a break in the action, I had a look at the IGFA record book I carry with me for just such an occasion. To my surprise, the record was open, and the next one I got was more than big enough for world record #90. I had ten to go, but this seemed like more of a mountain than the first 90. Where would they come from?

Salsa Pati

The record pati. Marta is not usually big on fish photos, but this one seemed to be a favorite. She even asked me for a copy. Weeks later, I discovered the awful truth … when one of her friends asked about “the hot Argentinean fishing guide.” For the record, men are not just sex objects – we have thoughts and feelings and want to be appreciated for who we are inside our souls.*

As it got late in the day, we moved to a quiet back channel and took one more shot at the stingrays.

Salsa Delta 2

Our last spot of the day.

There were none to be found, but happily, my obsessive-compulsive sabiki-throwing habits paid big dividends. On a single cast, I reeled in two new species – two different types of (get this) astyanax. Is that a cool name or what?

Salsa Asty 1

Pellegrini’s astyanax. I could say that all day long. Astyanax. Astyanax. Astyanax. You get the point.

Salsa Asty 2

The two-spot astytanax.
I had a business dinner scheduled in Buenos Aires, so we headed back to port in the late afternoon and wrapped things up. It had been an unexpectedly great day – two species, and even more importantly, two world records. Around the time I had hit 950 species, I remember feeling like it was going to be impossible to get to 1000, and I was experiencing much the same emotion on the records. But I also knew if I kept fishing hard, the Fish Gods might give me a break now and then. In a week, I would be heading to Brazil, and although my last trip there had somehow offended the Fish Gods, I was hopeful they might not know I was coming.
But they did. They always do.
Steve

* Baloney we do.

 

Posted by: 1000fish | September 28, 2014

The French Correction

Dateline: October 25, 2013 – Vang Vieng, Laos

I had gone to sleep expecting a perfect tomorrow. I had an excellent dream, where I caught dozens of new species, Kate Upton handed me bait and cold drinks, I found a Morton’s Steakhouse right in the middle of Laos, and the Tigers won the World Series in three games over the Giants. That’s right, three games, because in my dream they beat them so badly that the Giants refused to come out for the fourth game.

The Fish Gods weren’t going to let it be that easy. At about 2am, a gigantic thunderstorm moved in and flooded the place. I awoke expecting to see a beautiful stream and was greeted with an angry torrent of mud. I was not pleased.

I must confess my behavior was not the best. I had come all this way only to end up with an unfishable river, and I had something of a snit. OK, more like a temper tantrum. Francois was wonderfully positive and told me we needed to make the best of the situation, but I would not tolerate this. I became completely, unswervingly morose, like Eeyore, but bigger and meaner.

eeyore-1

I couldn’t find a picture of him flipping the bird. That would have been perfect.

I might have pouted in the car all day, but Francois gently talked me into walking down under the bridge. The water was blown out – “too thick to drink, to thin to plow,” as they say on the steelhead rivers. It was running up several feet, and the racing current left very few breaks where a fish might hide. Eeyore loudly announced that there was no point in fishing.

At Francois’ urging, I reluctantly set up a rod and tried the lee behind one of the bridge pilings. (Which was normally on dry land.) And I did catch a mystus. Fine, I thought. One lousy little catfish. Everything else had obviously been washed downstream to the gulf of Siam. I continued as depressed as Charlie Sheen trapped at a prayer meeting. The turning point came half an hour later. My little float rig slipped under the water, and I lifted up a marvelous surprise – a bumblebee catfish. I had only seen these beautiful little fish in books, and now I was holding one. Grudgingly, I smiled. Francois took this opportunity to correct my snotty behavior – the “French Correction,” if you will. He didn’t say a word, but he did give me “The French Eyebrow.” I hate The French Eyebrow. This is when the French silently lift one expressive eyebrow and make you feel like an idiot, and Francois does this better than anyone I have ever met.

Vang Bumblebee

The bumblebee catfish, first new species of the day. There would be more.

Moments later, I got a Lao barb, another new species. Rather than face The French Eyebrow again, I decided to have a General Patton-like talk with myself and improve my piss-poor attitude. A Red Bull and an awkward self-slap later, I was determined to make the best of a bad deck of cards. That’s what good fishermen are supposed to do.

Vang Laotian Barb

The Lao Barb. That’s number two on the day if you’re keeping score at home. 

I then pulled up a blackmargin barb. Three species before noon. Rain? What rain?

Vang Blackmargin

The steady showers had eased into a sprinkle. The clouds started to lift, and the hills came into view. I moved down the river a couple of hundred feet and fished more into the main current. Francois cast a spoon and caught a nice mahseer, and moments later, I caught my own.

Vang F Big M

A beautiful Strachey’s mahseer. On a spoon. In that water. This guy is good.

Vang Mahseer

My mahseer, not as large as Francois’, but stay tuned. Species number four.

In the late morning, a wonderful act of charity from Jean-Francois had unintended consequences. A few years back, with his own money and donations he solicited from his circle of angling friends, Jean-Francois helped build a school for the local kids. The school was just a few blocks away from my spot below the bridge, and when class let out for lunch, I suddenly became the biggest show in town.

Vang Kids Bridge

The kids watch me from the bridge. They don’t see many Americans.

Vang Kids b

The kids begin migrating to the riverbank. Note the pilings from the previous bridge – which was destroyed by American bombers in the Vietnam War. While we weren’t officially conducting operations in Laos.

Vang Kids c

Soon, a few of them were willing to pose for fish photos. 

To be clear, they were good kids. They were having fun and wanted to see what I was doing down there. Soon there were dozens of them.

Vang Kids

“On the count of three, everyone show us your armpits!!”

By late morning, the rain had stopped, the water was dropping, and the fish were biting. Francois was quite gentlemanly about not rubbing this in my face, but The Eyebrow was there, patiently waiting in case I made any stupid remarks.

We took a break for lunch, which in my case was freeze-dried beef stroganoff and a Red Bull. We walked to the other side of the river, just above the bridge – and the higher ground gave us an otherwordly view of mountains and clouds. I set up on the other riverbank, steep but with access to deeper water. Somewhere in the afternoon, it passed the point from a great fishing trip to a ridiculously good one. It had just started sprinkling again, but I didn’t care.

Vang Panorama

Looking down from the high ground onto the bridge.

Vang Nase

Species five – a longnose barb. It looks a lot like the European nase, but is completely unrelated. I know this was the first thing you were going to ask.

The rain picked up a bit, but I could not have cared less by this stage. The fishing was excellent and exotic. I had set up two rods, one in my hand and one propped up on a stick. The small fish usually announced their presence with light taps, so imagine my surprise when the rod slammed down and headed toward the water. I dove and caught the handle just as it was going under water, so by the time I set the hook, I was losing line rapidly. I only had about 10 yards of bank to walk down, and with a relatively small reel, I thought I was going to get spooled. I remembered the words of fishing buddy Mike Rapoport – “It’s amazing how much drag you’ll use when you can see the knot on the spool.” I pretty much palmed it down. The light braid pulled taught, and I waited for the snap, but it never came. The fish had come to an eddy and stayed there. I had perhaps four feet of line on my reel.

This standoff continued for five minutes, which is a long time for this sort of thing. Slowly, I gained line back – the fish swam upstream on the opposite bank, where the current eddied upward. As he headed into the middle, he ran back down with the current, but came out sooner and sooner, so that after about six cycles of this, I had him at the bank. Boonmee had come down the hill to assist, and with his help, we netted a positively huge Strachey’s mahseer – over six pounds.

Vang Big Mahseer

It’s always nice to have at least one dignified-size fish in the mix.

It didn’t seem like things could get any better, but the species kept coming.

Vang Orangespotted

Orangespotted freshwater puffer.

Vang Mystus

The Kayeng Mystus, a type of small catfish. (As opposed to Kayeng Mistus, which is a typo of small catfish.)

On the ride back to Vang Vieng, I ranted and raved about what a wonderful day it had been – seven species in all – and Francois remained wonderfully, graciously, non-judgementally silent, albeit with a slight grin on his face. The Eyebrow stayed in its holster. We celebrated that night with a wonderful dinner and a few Beerlaos.

We made a return trip to the small village the next day – there were a few species Jean-Francois thought we had left behind. Our first stop was a small culvert above a cow pasture, which produced a lovely raspbora.

Vang Rasbora

The cows were confused by me, but they didn’t mind the smell.

Vang Cows

We then pulled up at a small guesthouse where Francois knew the owner. We fished off a rather rickety deck, and I pulled up a redtail loach. This was only my second loach of any type – the other was in Wales with Roger Barnes. (Click here if you’re really bored.)

Vang Loach

The redtail loach and the French guide.

The local people were tremendously helpful – opening up their homes, pointing out where they had seen fish, offering drinks. This area is largely Hmong, a group who supported the US during the war – and suffered terribly for it.

Vang Chief

The local chief of police. A good friend of Francois, he made sure were treated well wherever we went in his region. 

Vang Country

A local woman does laundry just downstream from where I caught my loach.

Vang Hills Sun

The river returned to normal level and clarity within 24 hours. Go figure. 

The Fish Gods saved the weirdest surprise for last. I hooked a small fish off the bottom, and it shot vertically up out of the water, just like a needlefish. I landed it, and it looked just like a needlefish. But my brain did not register this, because needlefish live in saltwater and this was not saltwater. But a look in the book confirmed the improbable – this was a lone species of freshwater needlefish. If this obsession of mine has a point, it is that the wonder of fishing comes from exploring the incredible, improbable diversity of species on our planet, and there is no better example to me than this fish.

Vang Needle

This is why I do this. This makes suffering through tropical butt itch and the hours on United Airlines all worth it.

Vang Sunshine

The sun came out to stay as we headed off for home.

As I got on the plane for the long flight to San Francisco, I looked back with a smile at what had been one of the most prolific species trips I have ever had – 18 new additions. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jean-Francois and his Laotian friends, not just for scouting out and sharing all these amazing locations, but also for keeping me on track on a difficult day. So I dedicate this post first to the people of Laos, but even more importantly, to Francois and his fearsome eyebrows.

Steve

 

Posted by: 1000fish | September 21, 2014

Shangri Laos

Dateline: October 23, 2013 – Nam Ngum, Laos

My first fishing trip to Laos did not leave me with the expectation that there would be a second fishing trip to Laos, or even the expectation that I would be allowed to re-enter the country. That fateful excursion in February of 2006 was poorly planned and badly executed, and while I did end up adding Laos as a country, I did so in a fashion that was, to put it lightly, tasteless. (And may mean that I will burn in hell.) I not only fished in a sacred pond, I also ruined my tour guide’s suit.

When I found out I would be in Thailand for business in October, I of course called my old friend Jean-Francois Helias, the French but otherwise wonderful Thailand-based guide who has found me so many exotic species. (Click here for examples.) When he suggested Laos and extolled its virtues as a species haven, I explained that I would rather put out my eyes with a fork.

Vang Francois Red

Where does he find those outfits?

But Francois pursued the idea with a passion. In the past few years, he explained, he had spent weeks in Laos, scoping out the top spots and finding species that I have only seen in sweaty late-night dreams. I was finally convinced, and I could only hope I didn’t run into any of the many people I offended in 2006.

The logistics are not simple. We flew from Bangkok to Udon Thani, then drove from there to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. No matter how many times I asked “Are we there yet?” we didn’t get there any faster.

Vang Sign

We had a spacious van and a Laotian driver – Boonmee – who was knowledgeable, polite, and safety-oriented. (All at the same time!) Once I had exchanged a couple of hundred US dollars for something like 1.5 million in local currency, we were off to Nam Ngum reservoir.

Vang Flag

Transiting in Laos is not easy. The main roads are paved enough but narrow, and as we got further from Vientiane, conditions worsened until we reached the national rural standard of packed dirt with potholes that could hide a water buffalo and often did. Boonmee was a skillful driver, but 20 miles an hour was about tops, and there was no possibility of sleeping due to potholes, water buffaloes, and late-breaking detours through yards and sidewalks. As we got out in to the country, the scenery started getting beautiful – I guess I hadn’t noticed this in 2006, because I was too busy trying to figure out how to buy my tour guide a new suit. With an eye toward the statute of limitations, I am not going to publicly explain what happened, but feel free to contact me privately. I had no idea he was going to take a shortcut through a rice paddy.

Vang Dam

Nam Ngum dam. Built by the French.

I approached the reservoir with great trepidation, as this was the exact place I had started in 2006, and I had not seen a single fish there.

Vang Monks

A group of monks by the riverside. It may have been their pond where I caught my fish in 2006. I should still feel bad about this. 

Vang Resort

The lake. Our lodge was quite a bit more modern than these dwellings. 

I wandered down to the dock and looked around skeptically, but then – two or three types of small fish appeared. Good enough for me, and out came the #24 hooks and bread. Moments later, I had my first Laotian species – the redtail barb.

Vang Redtail1

It’s always nice to catch something with defining features. 

Vang Lake House

A local fisherman returns from a day on the water. The hut on the left had a sign on it – “Vacation Rental.”

Other fish followed – catfish, barbs, and featherbacks. The guys from the lodge took great care of me – making sure I had bait, cold Coca-Colas, and even dinner down on the dock. Every time I caught something good, Francois would yell down “Well done, my man!” It was a pleasant evening until about nine, when it rained torrentially and I retreated to my bungalow.

Vang Hemibagrus

The filamented catfish – my second species of the day.

The owner of the lakeside lodge spoke perfect French. He was born in Laos but lived and worked in southern France for 17 years before retiring and coming back to his homeland. Francois was pleased to be with someone who could speak his native tongue. They spoke well into the evening, and after a few Beerlaos, Francois began to sing. These were old French songs, from deep in his heart, songs of love and war, which always end in heartbreak, surrender, and collaboration. Something brought a tear to my eye, whether it was the raw emotion of the moment or how far Francois had wandered off key.

Vang Nam Guide

My boat driver, who looks scary but was a nice guy. That’s the lodge in the background – very nice accommodations and they had plenty of hot water for my freeze-dried camping food. Some of you may think experiencing local cuisine is part of visiting a country, but I am willing to sacrifice this to avoid local microbes. 

The next day we fished the reservoir and some local ponds and streams. The lake, a disaster eight years ago, produced a variety of interesting creatures, none as fascinating as the freshwater puffers. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, and I never would have found out if it weren’t for the ridiculously tiny hooks I brought.

Vang Puffer 1

The spotted freshwater puffer. This was unexpected.

Vang Lineside

The lineside barb. I only saw one of these in all my hours on the lake, but I caught it.

Vang Puffer 2

The longnose freshwater puffer. Now this is just cool.

We then headed off to explore some local ponds and rivers. We wandered around country roads in a 4×4, and one by one, knocked off a few more species.

Vang Barb Rhomboid

Rhomboid barb. One particular pond was jammed with these. 

Vang Glassfish

Siamese glassfish. Oddly, I didn’t catch this in Thailand. 

Vang River

Looking up the river toward the dam. The floating huts on the right were loaded with fish.

Vang Bonylip

My final species of the day – a bonylip barb.

As I sat down to a dinner of freeze-dried “chicken surprise” (the surprise comes in the morning,) it hit me that I had gotten six new species in one day, and we hadn’t even hit the best spot yet. I was beginning to like Laos.

Vang Nam Group

The group from the Nam Ngum lodge. Great place – contact Jean-Francois if you want to arrange a trip -fishasia@ksc.th.com

The next couple of days were scheduled for Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a two and a half hour drive from Nam Ngum, but this only covers perhaps 50 road miles. Francois was very excited about this location – a nature preserve that only allowed catch and release fishing. Laos is a poor country, and most public fishing is picked over very thoroughly for food. In 2006, I saw people using dynamite to catch dinner in a local river.

On the long drive, I learned another evil effect of the humid climate – “trench tush.” Also known as “tropical butt itch,” this is when the hot and sticky conditions create an unfavorable underwear climate and you can figure out the rest. This is when you pitch the Preparation H and grab the oven cleaner.

I’m guessing that the first feedback on this post will be someone saying “TMI, Steve.”

The drive went through some amazing hills and jungles, but the town of Vang Vieng was sublime. This is true upcountry Laos – mountains shooting up out of the jungle, white water rivers, kind people. Vang Vieng is a base for a lot of trekking, so the hotels and restaurants were quite nice, even if they were crowded with annoyingly fit European 20-somethings. I was so confident in the accommodations that I even took a break from my freeze-dried camping food and risked some fried rice with chicken. This is my idea of being adventurous with food.

Vang Mountain

Looking out my hotel balcony in Vang Vieng. There were no fish in this part of the river. Believe me, I tried.

As soon as we arrived, we headed to the market to get bait. We found earthworms and two sizes of grub, all apparently intended for human consumption – the grub vendor even tried to give me recipes. Francois and Boonmee then headed up to scout the preserve and check in with their local contacts. Things looked perfect. The weather was perfect, the water level was perfect, and we were heading to a spot crowded with exotic species.

What could go wrong?

Steve

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