Dateline: June 11, 2011 – Central Thailand
Fishing and humility go hand-in-hand far more often than I would prefer. In the 1000 Fish blog, I have certainly had some favorite targets for my trademark cheap shots and lowbrow humor. Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, and Cousin Chuck all come to mind, but one of my favorite targets has always been … the French. Not even any particular French person, just the entire white-flag waving lot of them. So it is with particular humility that I acknowledge that this installment of the 1000fish blog, and the amazing species it will report, are completely due to the incredible efforts and tireless friendship of, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, a French guy.
OK, I’ve said it. I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on the French, at least not until I’ve retreated a mile in their shoes.
His name is Jean-Francois Helias. Ah, Jean-Francois. This irascible, Bangkok-based French expat has become the giant of the Thailand fishing scene (http://www.anglingthailand.com/) and there is almost no body of water there he hasn’t guided. If you’re in Bangkok, you have to find a way to spend a day on the water with him, whether it is a local trip for giant Catfish or one of his signature upcountry Snakehead adventures. This guy doesn’t just know how to catch fish – he knows how to teach people to catch fish.
Jean-Francois and a close friend.
He has become a very close friend of mine over the years while he has steadily increased my species totals – Jean-Francois has gotten me 76 of my species. (2nd most of any guide worldwide.) He is also the guy who got me started on my world record quest, having guided me to 5 of my records, none more important than the May 2005 Barramundi that got me on the IGFA scoreboard. There are quite a few fishing stories that involve me and Jean-Francois and very little sleep following a misspent night in Bangkok, but only 3 of these are suitable for family reading. (I do NOT want to be the cause of someone’s kid asking “Daddy, why was that man wearing a dress?”)
Thailand has been a land of wonder and mystery for me ever since my first trip there 15 years ago. The wonder of the misty hills, the ancient culture, the breathtaking temples, and the mystery of how I would ever catch a Siamese Giant Carp, the fabled Pla Caho, a rare and revered creature that can exceed 200 pounds and loves nothing better than to run anglers into structure and break them off.
There have been a few fish which eluded me for years, despite efforts that were extensive and occasionally desperate. The Atlantic Salmon was probably the most notable – and certainly the most expensive – but the Siamese Giant Carp is one fish I would have considered mythical, except that I had seen them in person when more fortunate anglers caught them right next to me. I have tried to get one on almost every one of my trips to Thailand, and that’s a lot of trips.
But this was definitely going to be “the trip.” Jean-Francois told me he had found a “slam dunk” – a sure thing on Siamese Carp, and he does not make these claims lightly. I came into Bangkok for a couple of days of business, and then scheduled the weekend for fishing.
Jean-Francois had one of his trusty van drivers pick me up in the pre-dawn hours Saturday. We drove for an undisclosed amount of time in an undisclosed direction to an undisclosed lake, rolling out from the flat green plains around Bangkok and into the low, forested hills found in the mysterious direction which we were heading. Guiding hotspots for the Siamese Carp are closely guarded, and being that Jean-Francois was letting me in on his guaranteed honey-hole, I am sworn to secrecy. It’s not like I could have pronounced it anyway – these people have place names that are longer than Charlie Sheen’s rap sheet. The language is sort of like Norwegian, except there are at least a few basic rules connecting the alphabet and pronunciation, so that Pla Mrygfringamathan comes out pretty much like you just said, but in Norwegian, the word “Vangshylla” is pronounced “Cleveland.” (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/countdown-to-1000-norway-land-of-the-hidden-stairs/)
As I got to the lake, Jean-Francois came out and gave me a big hug. He then introduced me to John and Selena Mitchell. Lovely folks, who were there FLYFISHING for Siamese Carp. Could it actually be that good here that they get them on the fly? I was very psyched up, but Jean-Francois grabbed me and said “First thing, my man – we have a good bite on Golden Tinfoil Barb down in the corner. Let’s go get that one.” I am always up for a new species. We walked about a hundred yards and set up a light float rod with Lam paste. I don’t know what Lam Paste is, and judging from the smell, I don’t ever want to know. I am certain a yak is involved. But whatever it is, it stays on hooks and fish love to eat it. Moments later, the float dipped and I swung up a beautiful little barb – species #1071.
The Golden Tinfoil Barb. A lot of name for something so small.
We then headed back for the main event – the Siamese Carp. I expected to set up shop on the shore and wait many hours for that one perfect bite. I even brought a book. I flipped out a few casts and got the lam paste nibbled off, then had a streaking run off the Shimano Baitrunner 4500 (which Jean-Francois insisted that I use), and when I locked up, the fish just kept going. I was on for about 15 minutes. I kept saying “Catfish,” and Jean-Francois kept saying “No my man – it’s definitely a Carp.” As the fish got close, I could tell it was big because it left some very big boils as it ran away from the shore – but still no hint on species.
One of the lake assistants went down to net the fish, and I kept sneaking looks over his shoulder to see if I could get a peek, but the water is muddy and the fish stayed low. Finally, he swung with the net, and there it was – beautiful gray color, big scales, powerful, heavyset build. I had my Siamese Carp. So what was I going to do for the next 2 and a half days?
I finally get the privelege of getting in the water for the traditional “swimming with the carp” photo. I always fear I am going to end up with Cholera or something worse from going into the muddy, bathwater-warm ponds, but so far so good.
When all the excitement died down, I resumed fishing and landed several more Siamese Carp, with a mix of other interesting species such as Rohu and Mekong Catfish.
These actually get a lot bigger. The fish, you pervert.
Later in the day, Jean-Francois sent me to explore a couple of areas further along the shore, toward the corner where I caught the Barb. (A great guide knows the water not just by structure and location, but also by what fish are likely to be where at a given time of day.) The sun was just starting to set, and I was still awash in giddy joy from the big Carp.
I had caught a couple of decent Mekong Catfish and was barely paying attention when I got a wrist-wrenching strike and a strong run right toward a tangle of trees about 60 yards away. I leaned back hard and finally turned the fish just as the branches above it were shaking. I had to stop him two more times before he finally came out in the open. Jean-Francois trotted over with a net – “I think you have a Jullien’s, my man.” (I have a WHAT?) “A Jullien’s Golden Prize Carp! Probarbus jullieni!” (Jean-Francois is more of a fish geek than I am, and that’s saying something.) He scooped it up in the net, and it was indeed a beautiful fish – a golden sheen with bold black lines running down the side, like a Tigerfish without the inconvenient teeth.
Back into the water for another photo!
What a day. As the sun finally set, Jean-Francois, Selena, John, and I headed into the local town for a lovely Thai dinner and fish stories until the late hours.
At dinner near Lake Mystery. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t get John’s wallet.
Day two at Lake Mystery was another solid day of fishing. The Siamese Carp continued to bite, and John and Selena landed some very nice ones on the fly, including a seriously beastly one by John.
John’s fly-caught Siamese. This is the biggest one I have ever seen in person, and no, I can not explain the look on my face – I am guessing it’s either gas or John is going for my wallet.
The Catla, a close relative of the Siamese Giant Carp. I had caught one previously, but it was practically microscopic, so I am thrilled to get a decent example.
The old guy who owns the lake, Mr. Khwam Luklab, seemed like a nice fellow, despite the fact I don’t speak a word of Thai. He was understandably nervous about making sure we handled the gamefish gently, but when Jean-Francois explained my quest to him, he racked his brain trying to remember every possible critter that lived locally. He actually showed me and let me loose in his private pond, which apparently has Wallago and Snakehead. I was stunned when one of my first few casts got a strike and a nice fish, but when I pulled it out of the water, it turned out to be an overambitious Tilapia. Tilapia do not normally hit lures, but they will make exceptions to irritate me.
The owner of Lake Mystery, Mr. Khwam Luklab – better known by his nickname of “Mr. E”
A few casts later, I got a small but frisky hit and dragged up a Striped Snakehead, a lovely little predator that would take my finger off if I wasn’t paying attention. I also hooked a Wallago, which spit the hook as I was landing it. I try not to look at this like a lost species – I try to look at it like a reason for a return trip.
The mighty Striped Snakehead. Yes, I know the hat is really cool.
On the third and final day at Lake Mystery, I was looking for three specific fish I knew lived there but were on the rare side – the Black Sharkminnow, the Climbing Perch, and the Zigzag Eel.
Looking for the Sharkminnow, we continued to pound the shoreline with lam paste baits. Rohu, Catla, and Siamese Carp continued to bite, and I was hopeful that each bite would be the beautiful dark gray Sharkminnow, but they were not forthcoming. I was just getting ready to take a shot at the Climbing Perch when my float dipped under one more time. “Sharkminnow.” said Jean-Francois, long before we saw the fish. And it was a Sharkminnow. “How the hell do you know these things?” I asked. He winked.
The Black Sharkminnow. There are apparently two species that live in Lake Mystery, but that would be a bit much to ask.
Next up was a shot at the Climbing Perch, so called because it can actually walk on its spiky-bottomed gill plates and move from pond to pond. Mr. E took me on a long walk to the very back of the lake, then down an embankment to a small, muddy ditch. The place smelled like a sewer because, well, it was a sewer.
I have gone to some awful places to catch a new species, and this would “rank” in the bottom 5. Probably #2, so to speak.
The old guy opened up a plastic bag, handed me a small chunk of honeycomb, and motioned for me to use it as bait. I held my nose and cast the small float rig. Horrible things drifted by, and the minutes dragged on without a nibble. Reluctantly, I retrieved the rig and changed the float depth, cursing myself for not carrying hand sanitizer. Moments later, the float dipped and I swung a wriggling perch to shore, and, true to form, it tried to walk away.
The Climbing Perch. Holding it under my nose was a big mistake.
The Climbing Perch in climbing mode. Note the spikes on the bottom of the gill plates – they flare these out as shown and walk along on them.
We were 2 for 2. I couldn’t believe it. Now all I had to do was get a Zigzag Eel – easier said than done, especially as it was getting late in the day and we needed to get back to Bangkok.
We took an aroma-improving walk to the main lake, stopping at the wooden steps used to take fish photos. I set up a small float with worm and drifted it under the structure. After a dozen false alarms from small tilapia, the float eased under the water completely and disappeared from view. I leaned up on the rod, and pulled a small, wriggling eel from the water. This was the Zigzag Eel – a beautiful, small oddity that occupies nooks and crannies throughout Southeast Asia.
The Zigzag Eel – also known as a Spiny Eel. See below.
I found these the hard way.
My species count for the trip – 7 – was complete. In one day, I had gotten three of the more unusual creatures to be found in the area, and I was pleased. But then I remembered that someday, I would have to write an article about this, and that I would have to write nice things about a French person. And while this couldn’t completely put a damper on the day, it still troubled me. But only a little.
Where does a French guy in Thailand get a Wisconsin Muskie t-shirt?
Jean-Francois and I cleaned up gear for the haul back to Bangkok, took some photos, and thanked the staff.
Some of the staff at Lake Mystery.
So am I totally thrilled with the trip? Yes Siam. I trust Yul forgive me for the pun.
A 1000fish Public Service Announdement – Thailand is experiencing unprecedented flooding – heavy rains and high tides are devastating areas around Bangkok, and the main city is under serious threat. Almost 400 people have died so far, and thousands are homeless. To donate to the Thai Red Cross relief efforts, see the link below.