Dateline: April 1, 2012 – Ratchaburi, Thailand
Oh, if only every day on the water was like this, I would sleep much better and my therapist would have to put her own kids through college.
It started with a short-notice business trip to Asia, and I was left with a free weekend in Thailand. Oh, what to do? Well, out of all the activities available in Bangkok, heading off for two days of fishing would get me in the least trouble. With Marta in the picture, this is an important consideration.
Of course, a trip to Thailand means fishing with Jean-Francois Helias, the King of the local fishing scene and a great friend – even though, and I have trouble even saying this … he is French. (You may remember him from https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/the-carp-and-i/) As with any guide who I fish with more than once, there is the challenge of finding new species, and as Jean-Francois and I have fished together for something like 10 years, we have whittled the opportunities down to some very specific and often esoteric creatures.
Steve and Jean-Francois, Bung Sam Lan, Thailand, February 2002. It’s a Giant Mekong Catfish, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. If you are in Thailand, you have to fish with Jean-Francois – firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.anglingthailand.com/
In this case, we would go looking for a very lost Arapaima. I say very lost because this fish is native to South America, but has been successfully stocked elsewhere in the world, especially in Ratchaburi, Thailand. And what is an Arapaima, I hear you ask? Well, it’s a very big freshwater fish. If we listen to “River Monsters,” Arapaimas are capable of launching themselves hundreds of yards out of water to steal sheep and virgins, but in reality, it’s 50 yards tops.
I had been to this lake several times in the past, and while I had witnessed some Arapaima catches, I had never gotten one myself. So we decided we would go put in our time and see if the Fish Gods would smile upon me.
By way of disclaimer, this is a stocked lake. They put fish in here – all kinds of interesting fish – for us to catch. Purists may sniff at this, but I would actually think I frightened off most purists halfway into my first post. Besides, the fish have still gotten wise to the many anglers who visit there, and it can be rather difficult to catch the right critter, especially when you’re only there for a few hours.
It’s a fairly short drive from Bangkok to Ratchaburi, and in the early morning on a weekend, we didn’t have to deal with any of the famous Bangkok gridlock. Satiated on Red Bull and Hostess Donettes, I was set up and fishing by 9am. It was great to see Jean-Francois again, and he immediately set to trying to get me my Arapaima – managing every detail from the spot to the bait to the rig to the distance I cast.
Of course, Jean-Francois can not ordain which fish bites first. This lake is chock full of Amazonian Red Tail Catfish, what the Brazilians would call a Pirarara or what we would call a darn big catfish. It’s always a good thing to catch a big fish, but I got 4 in a row, and that became a bit of a workout.
The first one was a lot of fun on the light gear. The next 3, not so much.
But the lake always has some surprises, and I got one of these as soon as the last Redtail was released. Ironically, when I get a bite at this place, I am always hoping it something relatively small, because the large runs are almost always Red Tails. So the drag started screaming out on my reel, and when I set the hook – yes! – it’s only a couple of pounds! A brief fight later, I had landed one of the proportionally-interesting cyprinids that are found in these waters – the Soldier River Barb.
The Soldier River Barb – species #1126.
I also set to playing around in the shallows with some very small rigs, and managed to catch an oddity that Jean-Francois was not even aware lived in the lake – the Siamese Glassfish. It’s amazing what you can catch with really, really small hooks.
Unlike American government, these things are almost completely transparent.
Shortly thereafter, the big fish came back out to play. While I have caught some of these species previously, I will shamelessly show photos of big catches, because I am constantly taking crap from readers about posting teeny stuff. So let’s hear it from you now, Jaime and Scott.
Steve, Jean-Francois, and a healthy Barramundi. In May of 2005, a Barramundi was my first world record (an 80# line class record that lasted about 3 days, but hey.)
A rarity in the pond – a species native to Thailand. The Thai name translates to “Red Tail Catfish,” for reasons that will be obvious to everyone except Cousin Chuck.
But still, as the afternoon wore on, no Arapaima. Jean-Francois kept us on the move, changing baits and rigs throughout the day – he was tireless in his efforts and remained doggedly positive. Later in the afternoon, we set up in a corner of the lake where a big Arapaima kept surfacing and splashing around after bait, and I was hoping it was just a matter of patience. Over the next few hours, I had several heart-stopping bites that turned out to be Redtail Catfish, and while I never would complain about catching a big fish, I was getting a bit discouraged. I kept seeing the darn thing out there, no more than 60 feet away, rolling and slurping up Tilapia at will. Around 6pm, another fish started creeping away with my bait. I set the hook hard, and the fish took off on a blazing run out to the center of the lake, about a hundred yards away. As I waited for it to slow down, the same old Arapaima rolled about 30 feet in front of me. Damn. Whatever I had hooked wasn’t that Arapaima. So I buttoned down my drag and pulled hard, and after about 10 minutes, I had whatever it was into the shallows and throwing up great boils of mud. I didn’t think much of it, as I thought it was another Redtail, but then I noticed the guide getting the net and wading out into the water – which they don’t do for the catfish. I turned around and Jean-Francois and the lake owner were standing behind me, smiling.
The guide got out in front of the boils and shoved the net down, and about 4 feet behind it, a golden, ribbony tail with magenta highlights splashed out of the water. At the moment, I thought it was the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, because it was, in fact, an Arapaima, and they had known it all along.
This is a small Arapaima. I would not have gotten into the water with a large one.
My goodness. I had caught an Arapaima. Jean-Francois was the next one in the water to hug me a congratulations, and I reveled in a moment with a truly spectacular fish. True, I had not done the purist thing and gone into the jungles of Suriname, but I had put in about ten days chasing the thing over the years and hooked and landed it fair and square. And, to be honest, I lack the fishing dignity gene and I would have been equally happy handlining an Arapaima out of a public aquarium, so you’ve got me there.
Interestingly, my complete lack of shame and willingness to use a handline would create an awkward situation in less than 24 hours.
PR note – a friend of Jean-Francois, Italian Outdoor writer Roberto Ferrario, included this trip in a lovely article he wrote. It all looks so much more sophisticated in Italian …