Dateline: April 11, 2014 – Prachuap Kiri Khan, Thailand
Sometimes, small gifts are the most heartfelt. Other times, they are the most awkward.
Like many awkward moments in my life, this story takes place in Thailand. I was on a business trip to Asia, and decided to take a few days with old friend Jean-Francois Helias. Francois is a miracle worker – he keeps finding new species for me to catch in Thailand, even after I have been there dozens of times. (An example HERE) This time, I decided to make time for the biggie, the pilgrimage to Srinakarin reservoir to chase monster snakehead. We had a few days to kill before that, so we did a hodgepodge of spots that Francois had always wanted me to visit. Thailand is a big place, and there are an endless variety of new opportunities for the intrepid angler, or, in my case, an angler with an intrepid guide.
Jean-Francois Helias – master of the Thai fishing scene. (email@example.com)
We started with the requisite trip to Ratchaburi. Sure, it’s a stocked pond. I didn’t claim I had any dignity around this – I’m the guy who has fished in hotel fountains. But the point remains that Ratchaburi has all kinds of stuff I have never caught, and the Thai mahseer is one of these.
The Thai mahseer. Hard fighters, even in hotel fountains.
The next day, we piled into a minivan and headed south. Francois will generally have a very specific place in mind, but in this case, we were exploring, looking for a small river that bordered an elephant preserve on the border with Burma. We drove for some hours through small towns and increasingly wild and hilly terrain, and finally came to the elephant preserve at Pa La U.
If this was video, you could hear elephants snorting in the distance. But it isn’t, so you can make the experience more authentic by making snorting noises while you read the next few paragraphs.
Elephants scare me. I never particularly felt this way until a trip to Africa in 2006 when one managed to sneak up on me on an open beach. Although he allowed me to live, my underpants could not be saved. So I was on guard all afternoon, my underpants doubly so.
We fished a few creeks outside the preserve, but the elephants can’t read the boundary markers and were crashing about in the forest all day. I caught a few glimpses of them in the jungle, which kept me distracted, but I did manage to land two new species – a blue danio and a tail-spot raspbora.
The blue danio, which I am sure was the original title of the Bobby Vinton song.
A species is a species, and this was something rare and wonderful, if not especially large. There’s a cousin Chuck joke in there someplace.
You can stop snorting now.
Once the jungle adventure was over, we saddled up in the van and turned south to Prachuap Kiri Khan, a port on the Gulf of Siam. Francois described it as a species haven – I had my doubts, as I have fished the area a lot, but I’ve learned not to bet against the Frenchman. (background HERE)
We got into Prachuap in the late afternoon. It’s a relatively quiet town – none of the beachfront party craziness you might find in Koh Samui. This suits me fine, as I don’t like to be disturbed by screaming barhoppers when I am fishing at 3am. I was in a low-key mood, so it took me a full 12 minutes to put gear together, find bait at a local market, and head out to the pier.
On the way over to the docks, the driver kept pointing at a religious-looking building on top of a hill and saying “monkey.” Kindly, I corrected him and told him “The word is Monk.” As we approached the base of the hill, I began looking for the familiar orange robes, and was surprised instead to see … monkeys. Everywhere. “Monkeys” said the driver again, and I felt like an idiot.
If they had only been wearing orange robes, I wouldn’t have felt so stupid.
It was very breezy, so I could only set up on the sheltered side of the pier. The scenery was spectacular – scattered islands down the coast as far as I could see.
Setting up on the pier. The wind was howling.
There were a few other fishermen, so I set up a respectful distance from them and started tossing Sabikis. I was immediately rewarded with a variety of small fish, one of which turned out to be new species.
The razorbelly scad. They were everywhere.
The teenagers next to me looked astonished that I was catching fish – they apparently hadn’t gotten anything all day. Checking their equipment, the problem was evident – they were using 1/0 hooks, and the fish here, even the ambitious ones, had no chance of being caught on these. I pulled out a package of something more suitable, like a #14, and retied their rigs.
One of my fishing buddies on the pier.
They immediately started getting fish, which all went into a bucket – this was dinner for their family. I gave them the hooks – I have plenty. They thanked me profusely, but their innocent good intentions led to an awkward moment.
Moments later, a little old lady came by with a cart, selling some sort of beverage. Before I could stop them, the kids pooled their coins together and bought two cups of some sort of yellow fluid over ice – one for me and one for them to share. With great formality, they presented it to me.
The yellow fluid. It was not exactly tasty, but it certainly was eponymous.
Now this was difficult. One of my three inviolable travel rules is “no street vendor food.” (The other two are “no fishing during an armed insurrection” and “no one that tall is really a girl.’) Visions of food poisoning danced through my head, and I wondered if the Cipro in my toiletries could overwhelm whatever ill-willed microbes were doing the backstroke in my beverage.
The drink was the color and consistency of a urine sample, and the taste was less dissimilar than I had hoped. Still, I took what looked like a big swig and managed to give what I hope appeared to be a smile of approval while I tried not to cough it up through my nose. Satisfied, they went back to fishing, so I could pour the rest of the drink quietly into the harbor, where it likely killed some fish. They were good guys and meant well, and I hope they enjoy the hooks for a long time.
In the morning, Francois had arranged a charter with a local commercial fisherman and one of his Thai guides. The boatman used to taking out large groups, so he was surprised to see just one large American as his full load. The scenery was exquisite – exotic islands poking out of a powder-blue sea, and yesterday’s wind had been replaced with dead calm.
The islands in the morning calm.
Our trusty craft.
We had loads of squid, so I took some whole ones and rigged them up as bait. The guide – Kik – was surprised by this, as most fishing here was done with small bits of bait on a #8 hook.
Kik – one of Jean-Francois’ most experienced guides. A fishing superstar.
The first few whole squid I put down came back ripped up by small fish, but about an hour later, that changed. As I reeled up the bigger rod, I was surprised to find that the line had moved quite some distance from where I had cast. Carefully, I reeled the slack out, and it became clear something was swimming with the bait. I let it pull tight and set the hook hard.
Whatever was on the other end was not pleased with this development, and it took off at great speed, right under the boat. I raced up to the bow and passed the rod under and over rigging and the anchor rope, and held on for dear life while the fish headed for the rocks. I figured it had to be a stingray. The fight went on for about 15 minutes, and as I gradually got the upper hand, I was even more sure it was a ray, which is why I was astonished when Kik netted the biggest painted sweetlip I have ever seen in my life.
The beastly painted sweetlip. This is not the first time I was disappointed something wasn’t a ray. (Details HERE)
I have caught these all over the South Pacific, but never quite big enough for a world record. Yet here, in a place where sustenance fishing reduced the odds of a larger catch to almost zero, I had gotten one comfortably big enough to be my 97th world record. Three to go. This could happen.
We spent the rest of the day moving between shallow reefs, and one by one, I added a series of species to the list. I had fished extensively just a few hundred miles to the north and south of this spot, so I didn’t expect much, but by the time the day was over, I had tacked on five more new species.
The Tigertooth Croaker. Now that’s a cool fish name.
The splendid ponyfish. And this is a big one.
A shrimp scad.
The mighty saddle grunter.
Yes, this is the same sweetlip. I just wanted to put the picture in twice.
Nine species in three days, and the best part of the trip hadn’t even started. I was ecstatic.
The wind had picked quite a bit by 2:00, so we made our way in, weighed and documented the record fish, and packed up for Bangkok. Francois and I spent the entire ride talking about Srinakarin, the legendary reservoir in western Thailand that has produced some of the biggest snakehead ever wrestled into a boat. We had been talking about this spot since I met Jean-Francois, more than 10 years ago, and I had been quietly accumulating snakehead lures ever since. In just 36 hours, I would finally be putting them to use.