Dateline: May 23, 2015 – Northern Singapore
Dave has massive heng. You’ll know exactly how massive in about 2000 words, but trust me, it’s massive. I wasn’t even sure if heng is a noun or an adjective, but whether he has heng or is heng, it’s darn big.
And how did I find myself in Singapore, holding a rare fish next to Dave and his positively ginourmous heng? It started with an audit. Somewhere back in the 1990s, the company I worked for enjoyed making me argue with the auditors. One of these auditors, Chad, did a bit of fishing. He introduced me to one Chris Armstrong, who does a lot more fishing. Chris then introduced me to two of my most important fishing connections – Ed Trujillo and Jarvis Wee Lee. Ed introduced me to steelhead fishing and guided me on some of the most magical days I ever spent on a river. (Background HERE.)
Jarvis opened the door for me to fish southeast Asia. Apart from picking through dozens of species in Singapore for me – 54 and counting – he also helped me add Malaysia and Indonesia to my country list. Because he secretly controls the world fishing tackle trade, Jarvis is a busy man, but he shared his connections with me, introducing me to friends such as crazy Alex (unfortunate details HERE,) and to Dave, the guy who is or has the great big heng.
Dave took me out fishing in October of 2014, betting that his secret barramundi spot could produce a few unexpected creatures. We visited Palau Ubin, an island off northern Singapore, and I am sworn to secrecy from there, but his spot was absolutely jammed with barramundi.
There were also some surprises. Before we even got to the lake, I nearly lost a pair of underpants, as I spotted what I thought was a tiger about to kill and eat me. When Dave finished laughing and got me off the roof, he explained it was an old ceramic decoration.
Tell me you wouldn’t have wet yourself.
Dave happily tossed lures and caught some solid barras; I brought out the #16 hooks and started tossing baits around the bank. Moments later, I got a sullen tug and listless fight, and pulled up a small puffer – the green spotted puffer – which was indeed a new species.
Dave and Steve celebrate the greenspotted puffer.
I then just had to cast a bit for barramundi. I landed a couple of these light-tackle powerhouses – great fun on a trout rod. Barramundi will always have a fond place in my heart. Not only were these the first species I caught in Singapore, making it my fourth fishing country back in 1999, but a barra on 16# line was also my first IGFA world record, in 2005 with Jean-Francois Helias.
A Singapore barramundi, courtesy of Dave.
The photo above is the one that started all the “heng” talk. I showed it to a co-worker, and she said “Oh, you are very heng.” I told her that my friend Dave had actually done all the hard work, and she said “Then Dave is very heng.” I asked her what that meant. She explained it was a “Singlish” word and told me to look it up. And just as when my Mother told me to look something up, I didn’t do it. This is why I still don’t know what “tact” means.
After a few nice barramundi, I noticed that the pond was full of mullet. I get frustrated with mullet, as they rarely bite and can be hard to identify, but I had brought a loaf of bread just in case. The process is maddening. If you throw a slice of bread in the water, the fish will devour it like a pack of hungry piranhas, but anything on a hook gets little more than a sideways glance. I am either very optimistic or a slow learner – the two are often indistinguishable – and I stick at these things far longer than normal people. After an hour or so, I finally got one to bite – and then the fun started, because I needed to go through a number of scientists before someone gave me the word that I had caught a greenback mullet – a new species and two for the day.
A greenback mullet. The back wasn’t green. Go figure.
Just as we were leaving, I saw several tarpon-like jumps in the middle of the pond. Dave informed me that they were ladyfish. There are several ladyfish species, and I hadn’t caught the one that lives in this region. This would have to wait until next time, which of course meant that I lost sleep. I lose sleep over every species that gets away, which means I don’t sleep much.
Four months later, I was called to Singapore again.
Singapore at night, from some sort of a really tall building.
At this stage, I still didn’t know what “heng” meant, but I knew that Dave had it and therefore I needed to fish with him again. I asked him to set something up for ladyfish, and I also asked him what “heng” was. He started laughing and told me to look it up. So I finally did:
heng /heng, hɛŋ/ a. n. & int. [Hk. 幸 hēng to hope, to expect; gracious, favourable, fortunate, happy (Medhurst); Mand. xìng good fortune; rejoice; fortunately, luckily (Chi.–Eng. Dict.)] A a.Fortunate, lucky. N a. Luck, good fortune
Well I’ll be darned. Dave definitely is heng and has heng and it’s quite a bit of heng at that.
In order to pursue the ladyfish, Dave brought in some skilled help – local guide Jimmy Lim. I had heard about Jimmy for years – he is supposed to be THE expert on fishing the northern estuaries, especially for you lure-tossing types. Jimmy also has heng. The place was just full of heng, and I hoped some would rub off on me, as long as heng didn’t turn out to have some sort of gross double meaning, as things often did with Alex. (I have an ugly history with misunderstanding foreign words.)
It was me, Dave, Jimmy, and a couple of their friends. I was expecting another “peanut gallery” a la Alex, but these were nice enough guys and excellent fishermen, and were certainly more polite than Alex. They didn’t call even one of my catches “panty fish.”
We started early and went right after the ladyfish. I would have said “bright and early,” but it wasn’t bright, nor would it be all day. It was chilly for Singapore, which means it was still hot for Michigan, and we had occasional rain. I was wearing my lucky red Hi’s Tackle hat – the only red Hi’s hat Alex hadn’t swiped. (Red is considered a lucky color here.)
We started drifting some live shrimp over a deep channel. I missed a hit on the first pass, and on the second, I hooked up. The fish came flying out of the water like a miniature tarpon, so I knew I had the right one. Ladyfish are acrobatic fighters, and I played it softly for about five minutes until Jimmy slipped the net under it. We had our species.
Steve, Jimmy, and the ladyfish.
Jimmy is awesome – contact him if you’re in the area: Jimmy Lim https://www.facebook.com/ItsGrRReat
One of the guys had a look and said, “Dude! You got one! You are so heng.” Then they admitted they don’t catch them very often, and indeed, we didn’t see one the rest of the day. But it was already a good day, pretty much no matter what happened from then, as long as Cousin Chuck didn’t show up naked.
I faintly believed that this was the last new species I would ever get in Singapore. Still, I had most of a day ahead of me on a boat full of local experts, so I was looking forward to a great time catching whatever happened to swim by. Jimmy, quiet and serious, was racking his brain for species ideas, and kept moving spots because he remembered catching something exotic there.
In the next few hours, I got loads of small snappers, bream, and trevally. As we moved onto some mud flats, we started getting catfish. These were greeted with groans and mumbling, especially by me – they are difficult to unhook and hard to ID. About five whiskered pests later, I got a huge bite and something ran off for Malaysia. I barely turned it on my relatively small Stella 3000 reel, and after a stubborn battle, Jimmy netted … a catfish, albeit a big one. Saltwater catfish are hard to identify, but this one was clearly different – it had stripes, and a vomerine tooth pattern I didn’t recognize. (I can’t believe I know what “vomerine” means, but I still haven’t looked up “tact.”)
It turned out to be a Sagor catfish, which not only was a new species, but also a world record. This was getting positively epic, and the day wasn’t over yet.
I also got a gray eel catfish – one of the least attractive of a rather homely family. I had caught these previously – in Thailand – but they are worth a photo or two.
These are also quite venomous, so don’t put one in your pants.
A face only a mother could love.
Late in what I could only call a great day, there were two more surprises. The first, a spotted scat, was not a new species, but is such a cool fish I felt the need to post a picture of it.
These are also venomous. In general, if something has sharp spines, don’t thrust your hand on them.
The second surprise – my last fish of the day – came as I cast a sabiki just as we were packing up. The lovely creature below is a lagoon shrimpgoby, and this was indeed a new one.
The lagoon shrimpgoby, which spends life shacked up with a shrimp. I think they leave the burrow to spawn with their own kind, but if you ask me, the whole thing is scientifically and morally confusing. I can’t imagine how the IRS would handle it.
That was three new species for the day, including the first and the last fish caught, in a location where I thought I had gotten pretty much everything. Throw in a world record, a day on the water with some good guys, and the fact Alex wasn’t there, and you can’t get any more heng than that.
“Hey Steve and Dave, who’s the ugly one?”