Dateline: May 8, 2016 – Ponggol, Singapore
Was Dave’s heng up to the challenge? Could Jimmy pull it off for a third time in less than a year? No one will know until the end of this post, of course except for me and Dave and Jimmy and some assorted friends I’ve already told. Oh, and the biologist who finally figured out exactly which stingray I caught, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. (And as you recall, heng is a Singaporean term for “luck.”)
I had been out twice with Dave and Jimmy, and apart from the fact that they bicker like an old married couple, the fishing had been great. Click HERE and HERE for the sordid details.) In an effort to catch a longtail stingray – one of the last identifiable creatures in Singaporean waters I had not caught – we had stumbled into six new species. (And quite a few nice fish – astonishing considering that I spend so much time targeting micros.) Since I have fished Singapore frequently over the past 20 years, finding anything new is a major triumph – but if anyone can do it, these two can.
It started, as it always does, with a business trip. I needed to be in Singapore for a week, which is not a bad thing. This city-state at the end of the Malaysian peninsula is smaller than San Diego, but it is a crossroads of commerce in Asia, and it thankfully lacks much of the “adventure” that marks trips elsewhere in the region. The streets are safe, the nightlife is vibrant, and it is full of restaurants I know and trust, like Black Angus, Pizza Hut, and Burger King. I’ve often heard Singapore called “Asia for Beginners,” and I believe this is a good thing.
Singapore at night. Photo taken about two hours before we got on the water. I blame the vibrant nightlife and my vibrant co-workers.
A full slate of meetings inconveniently took up the week, but the weekend was mine. Saturday arrived, and I taxied to Ponggol Marina bright and early, having barely had time to stop at the Hyatt and get my gear. (See “vibrant nightlife” as mentioned above.) Dave and Jimmy were ready, and I dare say they both smelled better than I did.
Jimmy, Steve, and Dave. It was a rough morning. If you’re in Singapore and want to get on the water, contact Jimmy at https://www.facebook.com/ItsGrRReat
Dave brought along another friend, Sean, who was certainly nicer and more awake than any of us. (Although roughly five months later, he did something horrible to me.)
Sean displays the painfully good attitude that comes from being young and getting a full night of sleep. He may look nice, but wait until you read what he did in October of 2016.
The fishing started out slowly. It was a bit cool by Singapore standards, maybe 82 degrees, and my small rigs seemed to get nothing but tripodfish.
These bottom-dwelling oddities are as sharp as they look. There are several species in the area, but I’ve gotten them all.
Dave, as usual, refused to debase himself with bait fishing, and he cast high-speed jigs relentlessly. I sort of have to respect this blind devotion, just as Dave will grudgingly admit that my persistence on the bait rigs is bewildering and yet strange to him. Late in the morning, he got the first decent hookup, a solid Indo-Pacific ladyfish, which was a tremendous battle on his inadvisably light tackle. (The local anglers seem to stick with rods more suited to planter trout than tropical gamefish, yet they seem to land most of what they hook.)
Dave battles a tenpounder as a 747 makes a landing approach into Changi. The roar of the jets didn’t help my headache.
Dave’s first catch of the day. These things pull hard.
Moments later, I had a hard strike, and something heavy took my shrimp and headed for Malaysia. As I was using more suitable gear, my fight was substantially shorter, although Dave mentioned that his fish was bigger than mine.
Another Indo-Pacific ladyfish.
In terms of species, nothing much else cooperated throughout the afternoon, and I stayed awake with a steady diet of Red Bull and Advil. We got a few more ladyfish, a variety of snappers, groupers, and sweetlips, as well as several dozen more tripodfish, but the rays would not cooperate. This was especially frustrating because I knew they were there – we had seen some commercial fishermen pulling in their nets that morning and they were positively loaded with small rays. As we got late in the day, Jimmy quietly stuck it out in that same area, and he mentioned that I should use a whole, live prawn. I had switched to smaller chunks, as the rays I had seen looked to be fairly modest in size. Moments later, and well past when Jimmy would have usually left, I had a very light strike – so light that I thought it might have been the bait moving. Then it went again. Breathlessly, I reeled tight on my line and started lifting up. The small circle hook latched on to something, and thus began a fight that was equal parts short, one-sided, and listless. As my weight surfaced, Jimmy swept in behind me with the net and scooped up the small stingray I had been trying to catch for years. We had done it. Jimmy and Dave’s heng had proven itself yet again.
Steve, Sean, and Dave celebrate the latest species. Interestingly, or not, the fish turned out to be a dwarf whipray, not the longtail ray I thought it would be, so there is still at least one more species out there for me in Singapore. How the heck did Jimmy know something this small could inhale a whole prawn?
Handle with care, and never, ever, put this in your pants.
I dare say my Saturday night was a touch less vibrant than my Friday. From what I remember, I went face down in a room-service Caesar salad at around 9 and that was it for my evening.
Dave had a interesting plan for us on Sunday. The destination was Palau Ubin, a small island on the north end of Singapore. Dave has a connection there who owns a disused shrimp farm, and these ponds, which flood and ebb with the tide, have attracted quite a variety of species, most of which Dave doesn’t care about, because they are small and do not attack expensive lures. This was the first place I ever fished with Dave, and while I had pulled two species out of the place, we also knew there were swamp eels – these would be the target for the day.
In order to catch the eels, I set up a couple of bottom baits and waited. I immediately had a false alarm – a small barramundi took off with the bait. As amped-up as I was, even I knew something that fast couldn’t be an eel, so I had fun fighting it and then set up the eel rods again.
A barramundi. A 2005 line class record on this species was my first world record ever.
May 25, 2005 – Thailand. My first world record. To be clear, this is not a big barramundi. They had just opened up 80# line class on the species, and Jean-Francois Helias rarely misses an opportunity like that.
While I was still waiting for the eels, I noticed some mudskippers along the shore. Mudskippers, a fascinating creature that can breathe in air as well as water, frequent muddy shorelines in the region and are maddeningly difficult to catch. They will chase baits for some distance, running on their modified pectoral fins, but getting them to bite is another problem. (And when they do bite, they often fall off the hook while you are swinging them up on the shore.) But I had plenty of time, and I worked at it for more than an hour, losing two that were inches from my hand. But finally, I launched one over my shoulder, chased it down, and took pictures. It turned out to be a yellowspotted mudskipper, and this was a new species. The day was a triumph.
This made my day a triumph. And some people say I have low standards, at least until they meet Marta. Then they question her standards.
I went back to the eels for a couple of hours, but they would not cooperate. I recognized that this would be more of a nighttime thing, and I can’t necessarily say I was looking forward to braving the mosquitoes just to catch a swamp eel. As we were getting ready to head home, I broke out a sabiki rig and fished the shoreline for a few minutes. Along with the regular ponyfish and puffers, I got one very surprising fish – a duckbill sleeper. That was two for the day, three for the weekend, and life was good. My lifetime total had crept up to around 1518.
The duckbill sleeper. I’ve caught members of this family as far afield as Thailand and Belize. The head is on the right. Look carefully.
And so we packed it in, grabbed some cold sodas for the road, and caught the 10 minute ferry back to the mainland.
The guys waiting at the ferry dock.
Singapore had produced three more new – if unexpected – species for me, all through the kindness and tireless efforts of Jimmy, Dave, and their friends. I couldn’t wait to return and chase the longtail ray, and I even knew when I would be back – October. But before I could worry about that, I had other challenges to face. The next morning, I was heading out for five days in a desolate strip of jungle in western Thailand, where, I dare say, conditions would be a bit more difficult.