Dateline: June 5, 2011 – Southern Islands, Singapore
Sometimes the seemingly worst disasters have a silver lining. Mostly, they don’t, but sometimes they do. And whereas rain is usually a bane to fishermen, in this case, it actually ended up being a soggy blessing.
Early June found me off to Asia, looking forward to another chapter in my Singaporean adventures with Jarvis Wee Lee and Alex Ong Eng Kiat. These two and their unique comedy stylings were mentioned in the very early chapters of this blog – as a matter of fact, in the 2nd and 3rd episodes ever …
I have published 53 episodes I since then – a progression of ever-more complex stories about ever smaller fish, which should have the logical conclusion of me someday writing a novel about catching nothing. Looking back, I noticed that I had done no justice to the personalities, vicious and juvenile though they might be, of these two lifetime friends.
I met Jarvis about 10 years ago, and he has been a huge if bewildered contributor to my quest for 1000 species. He still can not understand why I am interested in catching anything small, and he gets positively miffed when I break out the sabikis. “Throw a jig, dude. Throw a popper. Be a man.” Jarvis is a very, very serious fisherman, but he is still constantly laughing, albeit usually at something bad happening to me. Jarvis has hunted trophy fish throughout the world, and is also in one of the “in guys” in the Asia tackle business. (Needless to say, his sales soar every time I visit.)
Jarvis Wee Lee – Singapore, February 2002
Alex is more the Costello of the team. Boisterous and good-natured, with a quick and maniacal laugh, he loves to be on the water, and has somewhat of an understanding of my obsession. It was Alex who arranged for me to add Indonesia to my country list back in November of 2008, a bumpy but fun weekend that saw me catch more big marine catfish than I ever care to again. Like Jarvis, though, he still gets edgy when I break out the sabikis. “Throw a Yo-Zuri, man. You’re catching panty fish.” Oh, I forgot to mention something – with these guys, anything … ANYTHING … can be made funnier with the addition of the word “panty.” (e.g. “That’s a panty reel – buy a better one – hahahahahaha!”)
Alex Ong Eng Kiat – Indonesia, November 2008. For a sample of Alex’s maniacal laugh and his awful taste in music, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axBuha0lhJs&feature=related
Jarvis and Alex are incredibly passionate fishermen, especially when it comes to lures. Whereas I will lose my patience on a jig after a while and switch over to bait or other proven species-catching techniques, they will both stick to a lure all day, even if it means catching only one fish. Of course, the one fish is usually a very good one. This is much easier said than done in Singapore – there is intense fishing pressure all around the island, but the two often make the run up to Malaysia (5 hour drive, 2 if Jarvis is behind the wheel) for a more pristine location.
And speaking of precipitation … when it rains someplace, it does so regardless of whether I flew 9000 miles to go fishing there. So it comes as no surprise that June 5 broke dark and ominous as Alex picked me up at the Singapore Hilton and we headed off to a UMF breakfast and a day on the water.
Jarvis was out doing something sinister and could not join us that day, but Alex’s friend Ben joined us and was kind enough to drive. Oddly, it seems that Alex never drives us, even though the Singaporean army trusts him to drive a tank. We headed to Sentosa Island, where we met the boat and trusted guide Henry Chan.
It was good to see Henry again. A man of very few words, he is welcome relief to the constant high-energy abuse from Jarvis and company.
We had a nice time for about an hour casting jigs and poppers to Queenfish in the outer harbor. These are tropical fish, aggressive and fast, and the action was steady enough that I did not notice the ominous clouds building above us. Lightning flashed to the north, and it turned that sort of twilightish dim that an educated person would call crepuscular, but I just call “twilightish dim.” Henry looked up, and with a startling grasp of the obvious, opined “Oh, man. It’s gonna rain like hell.”
No sooner had he spoken these fateful words, the sky opened up like a warm shower with no flow restrictor. (Curse the liberals for those things.) There was no defined space between drops, it just came down in sheets, amplified by Henry running the boat at high speed to try to get to shelter. We pulled up at a small island and dashed on to a covered pier, soaked down to our underpants, presuming that everyone was wearing same.
Alex is the only entrant in the 1st Annual Sentosa Wet T-Shirt Contest. He lost.
It rained like this for hours.
I stared balefully out into the worsening torrent, irritated that the Fish Gods had, as it were, rained on my parade. It didn’t look like it was going to let up anytime soon, and here I was stuck on this pier. I had fished here before, and it seemed to host only endless Indo-Pacific Sergeants, a creature so widespread I have captured it in 5 countries. But after having dripped dry for a little while and eaten a bag or two of Doritos, I figured I might as well set up a rod.
The first catch, unsurprisingly, was yet another Indo-Pacific Sergeant. I sighed, but I cast again, because the Fish Gods reward persistence. My next two fish were the treasured “what the hell is that” kind, and I suddenly forgot about the rain. What rain? What soaking wet underpants? What panties?
These were not beastly creatures, but they were coming up fairly regularly, and a rotten day of weather slowly turned into a solid day of new species. I would like to give a special thanks to the Fish Gods for apparently hearing my plea about plain brown Damselfish back in Brazil, (see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/a-ray-of-hope/) because a couple of these new Damsels were not only beautiful, but they were actually able to be identified without a DNA analysis and 5 bickering scientists. In 4 or so hours at the pier, I managed to rack up 5, count ’em, 5 new species. Banded Damselfish, Pastel Wrasse, Brownstriped Wrasse, Honeyhead Damsel, and Whitespot Damsel.
A Banded Damsel.
Ben and Steve celebrate the new species. At the time, I would have been ecstatic with one newbie.
The Pastel Wrasse
The male Pastel Wrasse. Note that it is gaudier than the female and tends to sit on the couch all day watching sports.
The Brownstripe Wrasse. OK, not exactly a work of art, but a species is a species.
The Honeyhead Damsel. Note the beautiful blue markings on the head.
The Whitespot Damsel. Cousin Chuck, can you help us figure out why it is called that? Anybody?
I even dared to make one trip out into the rain, as Jarvis told me there were gobies of some sort on the far side of the island. So I got re-soaked, but I did manage to add the spectacular Sand Goby to my species list.
The savage and reclusive Sand Goby. Well, more reclusive than savage, really.
This is cheating. The species is a Silty Wrasse, and I have caught them before, but they are so beautiful that I thought I’d throw one in.
The weather finally broke around 3. We were still only semi-dry, and it was so humid that my glasses were steaming up like there was a Penelope Cruz movie on pay-per-view. But it was strangely calm and cool by Singapore standards. We glided out into the islands and started throwing jigs and live shrimp, and all kinds of stuff starting hitting. Ben and Alex were catching good-sized trevally, but the highlight of my afternoon was a Goatfish – while relatively small, it was yet another new species. We also caught Indian Threadfin and other assorted gamefish.
The Freckled Goatfish.
This is why they are called Goatfish.
Me and Ben with an Indian Threadfin. This is a juvenile – they get much bigger. The fish I mean – Ben is taller than I am.
Alex, Henry, and the highly-prized Golden Trevally.
As we were getting ready to pack up, I had put down a “home run” bait – a very large slab of fish, hoping for a Grouper or Shark. I kept thinking I saw the rod tip twitch, but then it would stop. I finally picked up the rod, and there was a definite THUMP THUMP THUMP down there. I set the hook – hard. Nothing moved. I had apparently snagged the bottom, but the thumping bewildered me. I sat there for a moment, bewildered. Then my line started pulling out, slowly but powerfully. “What the heck?*” I observed. I leaned back on the rod but drag just kept going out. Henry raised an eyebrow. “What you got there?” These were the first four words he had spoken since the pier.
It wasn’t slowing down much at this stage.
“No idea.” I responded, just as the fish shifted gears and really took off – my drag started peeling at high speed, and water sprayed off the spool. Henry didn’t mess around, pulling the anchor immediately in case we had to chase the beast. It wasn’t tuna-fast, but it was heavy and it had an odd swimming motion to the fight, so my bet was a big stingray. We idled after the creature, and every time I lifted it toward the surface, it would make another powerful run to the bottom. This went on for more than an hour. I began taking guesses at to which species of ray it was. My arms began getting sore, and I was having awful flashbacks to Indonesia in 2008, when I fought a big ray for three hours only to have my line break.
This is what happens when I leave my camera unguarded. Of course, my Aunt Diane left her camera unguarded one fateful Thanksgiving, and we left a lot worse than this on it. Let’s just say the whole family saw that Cousin Chuck is amazingly flexible, especially when he isn’t wearing pants.
About 30 minutes later, my opponent surfaced, and to my surprise and Alex’s great delight, it was … a turtle. A great big, surprisingly agile turtle. My feelings went from fish-fighting adrenaline to full-on guilt. Alex couldn’t stop laughing. “It’s a turtle, man! You thought it was a ray? Turtles have flippers! Hahahahahahaha!”
My opponent swims away.
I felt bad, because I certainly didn’t want to leave any hardware in the fellow, as turtles are cute – just check any Disney movie. So I stayed with it, hoping to get close enough to plier the hook out. This got old quickly, and finally, about half an hour later, the line popped. I felt awful until I reeled in and saw that the hook had bent and slipped out, so there was no souvenir in the turtle. He swam away after giving me the briefest of dirty looks.
*Only I didn’t say “heck.”