Dateline: October 25, 2013 – Vang Vieng, Laos
I had gone to sleep expecting a perfect tomorrow. I had an excellent dream, where I caught dozens of new species, Kate Upton handed me bait and cold drinks, I found a Morton’s Steakhouse right in the middle of Laos, and the Tigers won the World Series in three games over the Giants. That’s right, three games, because in my dream they beat them so badly that the Giants refused to come out for the fourth game.
The Fish Gods weren’t going to let it be that easy. At about 2am, a gigantic thunderstorm moved in and flooded the place. I awoke expecting to see a beautiful stream and was greeted with an angry torrent of mud. I was not pleased.
I must confess my behavior was not the best. I had come all this way only to end up with an unfishable river, and I had something of a snit. OK, more like a temper tantrum. Francois was wonderfully positive and told me we needed to make the best of the situation, but I would not tolerate this. I became completely, unswervingly morose, like Eeyore, but bigger and meaner.
I couldn’t find a picture of him flipping the bird. That would have been perfect.
I might have pouted in the car all day, but Francois gently talked me into walking down under the bridge. The water was blown out – “too thick to drink, to thin to plow,” as they say on the steelhead rivers. It was running up several feet, and the racing current left very few breaks where a fish might hide. Eeyore loudly announced that there was no point in fishing.
At Francois’ urging, I reluctantly set up a rod and tried the lee behind one of the bridge pilings. (Which was normally on dry land.) And I did catch a mystus. Fine, I thought. One lousy little catfish. Everything else had obviously been washed downstream to the gulf of Siam. I continued as depressed as Charlie Sheen trapped at a prayer meeting. The turning point came half an hour later. My little float rig slipped under the water, and I lifted up a marvelous surprise – a bumblebee catfish. I had only seen these beautiful little fish in books, and now I was holding one. Grudgingly, I smiled. Francois took this opportunity to correct my snotty behavior – the “French Correction,” if you will. He didn’t say a word, but he did give me “The French Eyebrow.” I hate The French Eyebrow. This is when the French silently lift one expressive eyebrow and make you feel like an idiot, and Francois does this better than anyone I have ever met.
The bumblebee catfish, first new species of the day. There would be more.
Moments later, I got a Lao barb, another new species. Rather than face The French Eyebrow again, I decided to have a General Patton-like talk with myself and improve my piss-poor attitude. A Red Bull and an awkward self-slap later, I was determined to make the best of a bad deck of cards. That’s what good fishermen are supposed to do.
The Lao Barb. That’s number two on the day if you’re keeping score at home.
I then pulled up a blackmargin barb. Three species before noon. Rain? What rain?
The steady showers had eased into a sprinkle. The clouds started to lift, and the hills came into view. I moved down the river a couple of hundred feet and fished more into the main current. Francois cast a spoon and caught a nice mahseer, and moments later, I caught my own.
A beautiful Strachey’s mahseer. On a spoon. In that water. This guy is good.
My mahseer, not as large as Francois’, but stay tuned. Species number four.
In the late morning, a wonderful act of charity from Jean-Francois had unintended consequences. A few years back, with his own money and donations he solicited from his circle of angling friends, Jean-Francois helped build a school for the local kids. The school was just a few blocks away from my spot below the bridge, and when class let out for lunch, I suddenly became the biggest show in town.
The kids watch me from the bridge. They don’t see many Americans.
The kids begin migrating to the riverbank. Note the pilings from the previous bridge – which was destroyed by American bombers in the Vietnam War. While we weren’t officially conducting operations in Laos.
Soon, a few of them were willing to pose for fish photos.
To be clear, they were good kids. They were having fun and wanted to see what I was doing down there. Soon there were dozens of them.
“On the count of three, everyone show us your armpits!!”
By late morning, the rain had stopped, the water was dropping, and the fish were biting. Francois was quite gentlemanly about not rubbing this in my face, but The Eyebrow was there, patiently waiting in case I made any stupid remarks.
We took a break for lunch, which in my case was freeze-dried beef stroganoff and a Red Bull. We walked to the other side of the river, just above the bridge – and the higher ground gave us an otherwordly view of mountains and clouds. I set up on the other riverbank, steep but with access to deeper water. Somewhere in the afternoon, it passed the point from a great fishing trip to a ridiculously good one. It had just started sprinkling again, but I didn’t care.
Looking down from the high ground onto the bridge.
Species five – a longnose barb. It looks a lot like the European nase, but is completely unrelated. I know this was the first thing you were going to ask.
The rain picked up a bit, but I could not have cared less by this stage. The fishing was excellent and exotic. I had set up two rods, one in my hand and one propped up on a stick. The small fish usually announced their presence with light taps, so imagine my surprise when the rod slammed down and headed toward the water. I dove and caught the handle just as it was going under water, so by the time I set the hook, I was losing line rapidly. I only had about 10 yards of bank to walk down, and with a relatively small reel, I thought I was going to get spooled. I remembered the words of fishing buddy Mike Rapoport – “It’s amazing how much drag you’ll use when you can see the knot on the spool.” I pretty much palmed it down. The light braid pulled taught, and I waited for the snap, but it never came. The fish had come to an eddy and stayed there. I had perhaps four feet of line on my reel.
This standoff continued for five minutes, which is a long time for this sort of thing. Slowly, I gained line back – the fish swam upstream on the opposite bank, where the current eddied upward. As he headed into the middle, he ran back down with the current, but came out sooner and sooner, so that after about six cycles of this, I had him at the bank. Boonmee had come down the hill to assist, and with his help, we netted a positively huge Strachey’s mahseer – over six pounds.
It’s always nice to have at least one dignified-size fish in the mix.
It didn’t seem like things could get any better, but the species kept coming.
Orangespotted freshwater puffer.
The Kayeng Mystus, a type of small catfish. (As opposed to Kayeng Mistus, which is a typo of small catfish.)
On the ride back to Vang Vieng, I ranted and raved about what a wonderful day it had been – seven species in all – and Francois remained wonderfully, graciously, non-judgementally silent, albeit with a slight grin on his face. The Eyebrow stayed in its holster. We celebrated that night with a wonderful dinner and a few Beerlaos.
We made a return trip to the small village the next day – there were a few species Jean-Francois thought we had left behind. Our first stop was a small culvert above a cow pasture, which produced a lovely raspbora.
The cows were confused by me, but they didn’t mind the smell.
We then pulled up at a small guesthouse where Francois knew the owner. We fished off a rather rickety deck, and I pulled up a redtail loach. This was only my second loach of any type – the other was in Wales with Roger Barnes. (Click here if you’re really bored.)
The redtail loach and the French guide.
The local people were tremendously helpful – opening up their homes, pointing out where they had seen fish, offering drinks. This area is largely Hmong, a group who supported the US during the war – and suffered terribly for it.
The local chief of police. A good friend of Francois, he made sure were treated well wherever we went in his region.
A local woman does laundry just downstream from where I caught my loach.
The river returned to normal level and clarity within 24 hours. Go figure.
The Fish Gods saved the weirdest surprise for last. I hooked a small fish off the bottom, and it shot vertically up out of the water, just like a needlefish. I landed it, and it looked just like a needlefish. But my brain did not register this, because needlefish live in saltwater and this was not saltwater. But a look in the book confirmed the improbable – this was a lone species of freshwater needlefish. If this obsession of mine has a point, it is that the wonder of fishing comes from exploring the incredible, improbable diversity of species on our planet, and there is no better example to me than this fish.
This is why I do this. This makes suffering through tropical butt itch and the hours on United Airlines all worth it.
The sun came out to stay as we headed off for home.
As I got on the plane for the long flight to San Francisco, I looked back with a smile at what had been one of the most prolific species trips I have ever had – 18 new additions. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jean-Francois and his Laotian friends, not just for scouting out and sharing all these amazing locations, but also for keeping me on track on a difficult day. So I dedicate this post first to the people of Laos, but even more importantly, to Francois and his fearsome eyebrows.