Dateline: February 2, 2013 – Macau Special Administrative Region, China
It was bitterly cold in Beijing, and I had forgotten my hat. There I was, trying to do a walking tour of Tiananmen Square with a co-worker named Tony, and my ears were about to freeze and fall off. I wondered the same thing anyone would – “How did I end up here, and should I steal Tony’s pants to use as a scarf?” My mind wandered to warmer places – only 36 hours before, I had been basking in 85 degrees and sunshine in Macau, just a few hours flight south.
Being photographed with an American is apparently still a big deal. That, or they mistook me for Brad Pitt. Upon reading that, Marta rolled her eyes and said “They don’t look blind.”
Macau, you ask? (Go ahead, play along.) It’s a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) of China, a former Portuguese colony about 30 miles west of Kowloon by ferry. Whereas Hong Kong has always been a business center, Macau is much more of an entertainment destination, and in this part of the world, that means casinos. It’s like Las Vegas without all the yelling and naked guys. For purposes of this blog, unfortunately, what happened in Macau will not stay in Macau.
Like many of these trips, it started with business travel, this time to Hong Kong. While I have caught fish in HK, and while I had actually visited Macau, I had never gotten a fish in Macau. Like most of Guido’s casual outfits, this was a terrible wrong that needed to be righted.
I began hunting for Macau fishing contacts online, but everything I found was in Chinese. (I don’t read a word of Chinese, and this made things go horribly wrong in a restaurant once.) I tried my standard backup plan – a hotel concierge. The guy at the Macau Hyatt was great. He quickly let me know that there were no charter boats, but there were several places where shore fishing was possible. He even sent me maps and pictures.
There was one small problem. Buried in his email was a troublesome line – “Please note that all fishing activity in Macau is illegal.” Hoping this was a translation issue, I tried to clarify several times – unsuccessfully. Why would they give me fishing information if it was illegal to fish in the country? I had been to Macau before, and I can assure you almost nothing else is illegal. There had to be someplace I could hide and scratch out a quick goby – there just had to be.
Sign in Macau. Apparently, smoking was legal in no smoking areas until January 13.
But just to make sure, I decided I had best go in stealth mode. I needed to find a place where I had a shot at a fish, but was reasonably secluded. This would help me avoid a dank cell with some sinister police sergeant screaming at me in Chinese while the State Department called Marta, who would say “Steve who?”
Despite the legality warning, the concierge gave me two fishing spots in Macau. One was a small village well out of the central area, attractive because of its relative isolation, and the other was the shoreline at the Wynn hotel, attractive because there are good restaurants nearby.
My Wynn hotel reconnaissance map, courtesy of the Hyatt concierge. I certainly was prepared, but of course, I ate all of the evidence.
The big morning came, and I headed out of my hotel with a backpack full of fishing gear and a $3 seafood assortment from a local shop to use as bait. Logistics went very well. I caught an early ferry, and the hour-long ride was smooth. (My first trip to Macau featured a nasty storm and a high percentage of rail bunnies. A kid next to me barfed in his mom’s purse – major style points.)
I spent the ride studying my options, and even as we docked, I still wasn’t sure which area I would try. Strolling into the Macau terminal, I immediately saw a booth for the Wynn, and I discovered that they had a free shuttle leaving every 10 minutes. So that settled that.
The view from the front of the Wynn – the famous old Hotel Lisboa, where many visitors have discovered that expensive casinos are not built by paying money to gamblers.
I walked past the Wynn and the well-dressed guests who were wandering in and out of the casino even at eight in the morning. It’s a huge building, and I admired the Macau casino skyline as I walked around to the water. As shown in my recon materials, there was a row of tall bushes between the walkway and the water right by the corner of the building. This was about as good as I was going to do.
Some church. This was about as close as I got to something cultural.
I slipped through the shrubbery, sat on a low retaining wall, and began setting up a rod. Examining the water, I could see dimples and small boils. There were fish here. I started throwing bits of bread and pieces from the $3 seafood assortment, and soon there was a regular little feeding frenzy. I got my Blackberry ready to take and send a photo of any fish I got, so that if I was captured, the free world would still have my pictures.
I cast from my hidden position and waited for a bite. The minutes dragged by, and no Macau creatures pestered my clam, or whatever that orange thing was from the seafood assortment. Keeping an eye out for officials, I changed baits to a different color piece of animal matter. Still nothing. Throwing caution to the wind, I walked right down to the edge, took off the float, and began fishing right on the bottom.
A moment later, I got a bite, lifted up, and landed a rather surprised tilapia. I had added my 75th country, albeit with a fish that is almost impossible to identify down to a specific species. While I was photographing this beast, a few locals saw me and wandered down. I prepared to flee, but they were just curious onlookers. The uniformed thugs were nowhere to be seen.
The tilapia that put Macau on the scoreboard.
I slowly stopped worrying about being spotted, and worked my way toward a concrete pier right out in the open. Moments later, a man in a uniform somehow managed to materialize right next to me. “This is it.” I thought, and I wondered how far I would get if I just ran. He looked at me, quite seriously, and said “Catching anything?” I heaved a sigh of relief, and we discussed fishing for quite a while as I landed other small, interesting bottom creatures – a ponyfish, more tilapia, and what I thought was a new goby.
The goldstriped ponyfish. These creatures are notorious bait stealers, but this one didn’t count on me using #18 hooks. So there.
The goby. Months later, through the determined efforts of Dr. Jeff Johnson, it was discovered that I had already caught this species. Drat. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/piscatorial-potluck/)
After the guard left, I boldly walked right out on to the concrete ramp and began fishing the edges. I caught more tilapia and ponyfish, then a trumpeter – a nice-looking little fish that actually has vicious spines. Larger specimens of this species can easily cause stitches.
The trumpeter. Note the cheek spines. I think Jaime Hamamoto has cheek spines.
I worked a small bait along the edge of the ramp, and just as the clam/squid/whatever drifted out of sight, there was a big boil of water and my light line snapped. Hmmmm. This was interesting. I re-rigged with a manlier hook and a heavier leader and went back to the same spot. Moments later, I had another big strike, and I hooked something that actually pulled hard. I wrestled it away from the concrete structure but it stayed deep, and after about 20 seconds I saw, to my great surprise, that I had a Northern snakehead. I gently landed it, and this comparatively large creature drew quite a crowd – what an unexpected thrill to get a new snakehead in such an odd location.
The northern snakehead and two well-dressed bystanders. I think my sister and I had similar matching sweaters when we were kids. I burned mine.
I fished for about an hour after that, enjoying the hot weather and catching a few more ponyfish. I packed up, and wandered into the Wynn to clean up and get an overpriced but very nice meal. I then gambled away exactly one dollar in the slots and headed home. Even considering the $30 Caesar salad, these were still three of the least-expensive species I had ever caught, and I celebrated that night with a steak in Hong Kong.
The hills of China north of Hong Kong, viewed on my triumphant return ride.
The next day, I had a few hours to kill before I boarded a flight to chilly Beijing, so I did what any species-obsessed fisherman would have done – bought a bag of bread, another $3 seafood assortment, and headed to the closest harbor. Walking along the Hong Kong waterfront in the Causeway Bay area, I found a spot where I could cast to some pilings.
Causeway Bay. Moments after I took this photo, clouds moved in.
I started throwing bread into the water, and predictably, mullet showed up. Mullet hate me. I have spent hours and hours trying to catch them at the Arostegui home, and they just laugh at me. (The mullet, not the Arosteguis. Well, OK, the Arosteguis too.)
I kept throwing bread in the water and soon, a regular swarm of mullet were cruising around laughing at me. So I went back to a float. Predictably, they laughed some more. In desperation, and despite the fact it was windy, I took the float and the weight off and tried a very small hook and a two pound leader. It got blown out of the water up onto the sidewalk, where there were no fish.
During a lull in the wind, I got the bread bit into the mullet swarm, and waited there for failure. Stunningly, three of them went after it, and I missed them all. I rebaited, waited for another break in the wind, and flipped the bread back out. Quick strike, quick set, and I had a fish on. They are surprisingly strong for their size, and I held my breath as I brought it to the top and swung it up over the rail. I had caught a mullet, and not just any mullet, but good old Mugil cephalus, the same one that occupies the canal behind the Arosteguis. Now I’ll have more time to play with the cat, or, God forbid, actually be sociable. I took photos of the mullet, all the time saying clever things like “What’s so funny now, you algae-eating smartass!”
I had now caught new species in both of China’s SARs – Special Administrative Regions – in less than 24 hours.
As I was having this clever conversation, a gentleman walked up, clearly interested in the fish. He asked what I had caught, and then asked if he could photograph it. His name was Simon, and he pulled out one of the most impressive digital cameras I have ever seen and snapped away. We chatted for quite some time as I switched over to a bottom rig and began catching more ponyfish and trumpeters – the same species as Macau, but good fun.
Still life with Steve and Ponyfish.
Simon snapped a bunch of photos, some of which you see here – you can tell because they are the good ones.
Simon’s photo of what passes for Steve having a pensive moment.
Simon is a technology executive and has a growing family. In his spare time, his hobby is photographing daily life in Hong Kong, and he had never seen someone fishing in this location before. We talked about the fishing here and in Macau, and he looked at all my photos. To find anyone interested in this stuff is a rare treat for me, as even Marta will feign food poisoning when it comes to fish photos. We traded emails, and I promised to send him this post when it was finished. After a couple of hours, I packed up my equipment and headed back to my hotel and the airport for more business in Beijing, which is where this whole blog started.
Simon and Steve on the streets of Hong Kong. You will note that I am continuing to fish.
And so, as the bitter cold gnawed at my pancreas and reminded me that my heavy jacket wasn’t so heavy, I at least took comfort that in the last few days I had added four species, a new country, and a new friend. Tony and I were searching for a rare cab to take us back to warmth when I noticed the frozen moat around the Forbidden City. I wondered aloud “Who would notice if I tried to ice fish here?” Tony looked at me incredulously, but he knows me well enough to believe I may have been serious. Luckily, a cab came by at that very moment and ended the discussion, and no, I didn’t take his pants.