Dateline: April 8, 2012 – Koh Kut, Thailand
I have never trusted mayonnaise. When I was about 8, my mother overestimated the amount of time a batch of egg salad could go without refrigeration, and I got to experience my first case of major-league, put-a-seat-belt-on-the-commode food poisoning.
It’s rare that a condiment ruins a fishing trip all by itself, but not only did mayonnaise trash a weekend in Singapore, it also contributed to an extraordinarily awkward moment on a boat a thousand miles away.
In this present-day case, the Hellman’s victim was Jarvis Wee Lee, master of the Singapore fishing scene (see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/angry-white-man/). Jarvis is the man who has set up so many amazing trips for me in Singapore and Malaysia, but he finally didn’t come through. And what was his selfish reason? Something as minor as Salmonella? I was hoping to fish on the weekend, and Jarvis DARED to get hospitalized with a world-record case of food poisoning. How could he?
Jarvis, in happier times. He has made a full recovery, and I wouldn’t dare publish any unflattering photos of him – I once had SOFP (Sudden Onset Food Poisoning) on his boat well out to sea, and who knows what photos they took while I hung over the side. They were kind to me, handing me bottles of water every so often and helping me burn my pants when we returned.
He let me know his unfortunate condition on a Tuesday, and I realized that pickings in Singapore would be pretty limited without him – most of the boats are booked months in advance. So I thought. And I thought.
Perhaps I would skip fishing and see the tourist stuff in Singapore I had never seen? Perish the thought. If you think this was even a possibility, you must be a new reader. Welcome!
My old friend Jean-Francois Helias in Thailand has worldwide fishing connections, so I usually check with him when I have a problem like this. Late on Tuesday, I called him. After we got through the social pleasantries ( “My man, do you know it’s 3:30am?”) he promised to get back to me with some ideas.
He had a proposal to me early the next morning. The idea – Kut Island, in the Gulf of Siam. Don’t worry – I had never heard of it either, until Jean-Francois brought me there 6 years ago. An isolated spot on the border with Cambodia, it is a lush and beautiful tropical hidewaway that travel agents call “pristine.” (Meaning – no western-style bathrooms.) In January of 2006, in 4 days of relentless fishing there with the unlikely-named Captain Chuck, I got 40 new species and 3 world records, including one of the coolest creatures I have ever caught – the Tiera Batfish.
The world record Tiera Batfish – Kut Island, Thailand, 1/17/06.
I had not planned to fly back to Thailand, but this seemed like the best idea. Although there would be a very high ratio of travel time to fishing time, this area still had tremendous opportunities for species and world records.
Friday came quickly. The flight is relatively short – about 2 hours. Then luggage must be reclaimed, which actually went well and did not involve any begging. Jean-Francois and crew were waiting for me by the exit, and we piled into a big pickup and started the 5 hour drive to Trat. Jean-Francois can sleep anywhere.
They’re so cute when they’re sleeping.
It’s not that many miles to Trat, but it’s a lot of kilometers. And any trip is going to take a while, because traffic is usually abysmal.
Once we got to Trat, we met up with Captain Chuck and crew and boarded the Xi Khi Kong. There were 9 of us on the relatively small craft. There is no shower. Bathing is accomplished via barrels of fresh water, soap, and gymnastics.
The Xi Khi Kong, my home for the next 36 hours. On the 2006 trip, I slept in an island hotel rather than the boat, and my lack of understanding on the bunk arrangements was to have serious consequences.
Every inch of the boat was instantly familiar, and as we set out for Koh Kut, the familiar rumble of the pre-war diesel settled into a steady chug that, with a tail wind, pushed us along at speeds up to 7 miles an hour. We were passed by rowboats, some kids out for a swim, and a handicapped seagull.
We head toward the islands. I had the urge to stand on the anchor and yell “I’m the king of the world,” but I didn’t want to frighten the crew. I have a history of frightening boat crews. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/the-countdown-to-1000-the-naked-truth-of-day-three/.)
Still, it was beautiful scenery – south seas tropical islands, lush vegetation, and clear lagoons. Needless to say, that got old quickly. About 4 hours later, as the sun began to set, we arrived at the fishing grounds. Being that all my rods had been rigged up for 3 hours and 45 minutes, I was ready. The action was quick and solid – big Trumpeters, a big Javelin Grunter, and a nice Cobia.
Cobia are a truly worldwide critter – I’ve caught them in places as far apart as Thailand and Honduras.
These were all species I have gotten before, but it was great fun. But before I could start playing around with my species-producing Sabiki setups, the temperature dropped (from 90 to about 82, but the crew brought out hoodies,) the wind came up, and it started to rain. Biblically. We were done for the night. I said bad words and retreated to the wheelhouse.
That’s when the full horror of the sleeping arrangements dawned on me. Because this was intended to be an all-night marathon sort of thing, I had planned to stay up and catch catnaps on the deck as needed. But with the rain, I was herded off into an improvised bunkhouse above the galley, along with 4 deckhands. They snore. I imagine I did too, but only in self-defense. While I did not learn their names, one of them shall be forever known as “The Accidental Cuddler.” His hairy arm flopped over on me 4 or 5 times in the middle of the night, and while whoever owned this arm was probably dead asleep and meant nothing by it, I still tossed it back and yelled clever things like “I’m DATING someone!”
The scene of the crime – there were 5 adult men packed in here. I was wedged against the wall to the right.
The next morning broke clear and sunny, so we started fishing early. I exchanged suspicious glances with the crew, wondering which one of them was the culprit.
Suspicious glances are exchanged. I swear I heard the guy on the right humming the theme from “The Love Boat.”
But soon, more important things took center stage. Right after my second Red Bull, I began an extraordinary streak where almost everything I caught was a world record. It started with the obscure but delicious Brownbanded Red Snapper.
The Snapper. I have probably caught 300 of these that weighed less than 4 ounces, so imagine my surprise when I hauled up this beast.
Then came a moment of personal redemption. One of my records in 2006 – The Brownbanded Bamboo Catshark (generally acknowledged as the most glamorous of the Bamboo Catsharks) was broken in 2007 by one Bruno Binet, also fishing with Jean-Francois. This was the first time any of my all-tackle records had been broken by anyone, and I did not take it well. I also assume Bruno is French, which just made things worse. Well, it was payback time, as I landed a fish that was a solid pound heavier than Binet’s. “Touche, Binet!” I shouted to no one in particular.
Jean-Francois can add a touch of sexiness to even the most mundane fish photo.
Before I could even finish gloating at someone I have never met and who is probably quite a nice guy, I hooked up a positively beastly Streaked Rabbitfish. (Also known as a Spinefoot, these tropical creatures are noted for having nasty venomous spines. On the 2006 trip, one of the deckhands kicked one and was down for 2 days.)
Best not to touch this one unless you absolutely have to. Which is exactly what Cousin Chuck’s wife says about him.
A 15+ ounce Bluespotted Hind, barely missing a world record. This disappointed me.
As I grabbed a quick lunch that consisted of a Red Bull and … another Red Bull, it occurred to me that I had not hit any new species. The boat crew was certainly doing their part – they were as good as any deckhands I have ever worked with. They were busy unhooking fish, tying rigs, baiting hooks, and making sure all I had to do was fight fish. I never figured out which one had the dance moves up in the bunkhouse, which was probably for the best.
Captain Chuck. Not sure what was happening here.
Chuck the skipper was doing all he could. (And no, no one can explain how he got the name, but he is no relation to Cousin Chuck.) We continually moved spots, even though pulling the anchor was a back-breaking 4 man job. We headed inshore to get official weights for our records on dry land, and as we pulled up in a turquoise-blue bay, I started casting some small baits. Bingo. None of the critters were magazine cover material, but within an hour, I had 4 new species, which would be the total for the trip. That’s about 10% of what I got here 6 years ago, but that also shows you just how thoroughly we fished it back then. And yes, this means I can fly 7000 miles in a lot of directions and not have much new to catch. Antarctica, here I come!
A Reticulated Dascyllus, a close relative of the Threespotted Dascyllus, which has two spots.
Laugh all you want. Have YOU ever caught one, Jaime?
The Blotched Tripodfish. I have a gift for catching species in this oddball family – this is my third. Collect them all!
The Blacktip Fusilier. There are dozens of Fusilier species, and until this moment, I had only ever caught one of them, which was not this one. So I was pleased.
The rest of the afternoon was a pleasant mix of Snappers, Monocle Breams, and Spinefoots. (Or is it Spinefeet? This stuff keeps me awake at night, although not as awake as my fear of the hairy deckhand.) Evening set in. I got a few good bites and landed a nice Yellowlip Emperor.
A nice Yellowlip Emperor. The first time I caught this species was on the Great Barrier Reef in 2005, in water so rough that the deckhand went rail bunny.
I was really just getting my groove going for the nighttime fishing marathon, during which I intended to fish until sunup and nap on the way back to port, making up for last night’s misfortunes. But the Fish Gods enjoy watching male insecurities. Dark clouds appeared out of nowhere, the wind whipped up into chilly gusts, and the rain came down. We raced inside, battened the hatches against the downpour, and I reluctantly made my way into that zoo of a bunkhouse. The freeze-dried food I brought never seems to digest as cooperatively as I would like, but this at least meant that there would be consequences for anyone who approached me from behind. As I hopscotched my way past the sleeping forms to my assigned corner, a sort of particularly risky form of “Twister,”one guy was half awake. I said “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
Oh, how I loved this movie.
Morning broke sunny again, but we needed to be on our way. My flight was at 3pm, and if we left our anchorage at 6am, we would just make it – 3 hours to Trat, 5 hours to Bangkok, an hour to get on the plane and eat Unsupervised Man Food at the requisite Bangkok Airport Burger King. (The Grand Hyatt Erawan Seafood Buffet was out of the question, to my sadness.)
The group as we disembarked in Trat. My shorts might be as cool as Jean-Francois’, but I can’t keep up with those shirts. Where does he find them? And yes, that’s an epic sunburn on my legs.
Sure, it was an ugly travel-to-fishing ratio, but I had overcome an evil condiment and added species and records when I had thought the weekend might be lost. As my jet rose above the green, flat Bangkok landscape, I looked south and wondered if the deckhand had started therapy.