Posted by: 1000fish | April 16, 2018

Mimi, Ajak, and Fred

Dateline: October 1, 2017 – Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei

I’m running out of countries to fish in Asia, but I have no idea how I missed this one for so long. Brunei is a small nation on the island of Borneo, which is otherwise shared by Malaysia and Indonesia. An oil-producing nation with a rich and varied history, Brunei is now an autonomous Sultanate, but only gained full independence from Britain in 1984, the same year I gained full independence from my parents. It is located on the South China Sea about a thousand miles east of Singapore, which is where I already was, on a business trip. The blessing of being sent to all these cool places is evened out by the curse that I am generally not on my own schedule. I can do side adventures to some really great places, but I usually have to work with a weekend or similarly short window. This means that I have to gamble on everything going right with weather and logistics, and this doesn’t always happen.

Brunei has great fishing and an IGFA Captain, Alfred Yong. (He goes by Captain Fred, and can be reached on www.captfredshop.com.) But the end of September is in their windy season, and Captain Fred warned me that the good areas are 80 miles out to open sea in an area called the Brunei Dropoff. We discussed, and he agreed to take me if the weather stayed civilized. With my schedule, we would squeeze it in to one 36 hour mad dash – get on the boat early one morning, run to the dropoff, fish overnight, then come home the next evening so I could get a flight back to Singapore and some more meetings. He thought it would be about 50/50, which is enough of a shot for me to give it a try. I figured I could always find some shore-based fishing if the weather was really bad, just to add the country. Either way, I hoped to fish the shore the afternoon I arrived – what else could I possibly find to do in an exotic tropical country? (This is a trick question. Brunei has lots of really cool stuff for normal people to do, but this is me we’re talking about.)

Booking a flight was a challenge, because I inadvertently kept pricing itineraries to Bahrain or Bhutan, which I am sure are both very nice places but are not a short flight from Singapore, and do not have IGFA skippers.

I figured the shore fishing idea had to be easier than Macau. (As you recall from “The S.A.R. Fishing Fishing Tour,” In that case, I was told, by a well-meaning but poorly-informed concierge, that all fishing in Macau was illegal. That put quite a cramp in things.)

In booking my hotel for Brunei, I used my normal criteria – the nicest-looking place I could find on the water. The Empire Resort looked beautiful, and it had a couple of miles of gorgeous, private shoreline.

The Empire Resort, Brunei.

The view from my room.

I figured I may as well ask the concierge about fishing, and perhaps any guides who could help me with the shore-based stuff. This is when they dropped the bomb – no fishing at the resort. Are you kidding me? Why else would someone even go to such a beautiful place, unless it was for fishing? (There are actually lots of other reasons to go to Brunei. For example, they have proboscis monkeys.) But what kind of sick pervert bans fishing?

This is where another concierge came into the picture. A day after this whole unfortunate exchange, I got a random email from “Mimi.” Mimi explained that she works for the hotel and had heard of my shore-fishing plight, and that her husband, Ajak, was a rather keen angler. She told me they would be glad to take me out the day I arrived, and on the other days if the boat didn’t work out. Not as a paid guide – just as a favor to another fisherman. This is from someone I had never met in my life. What wonderful people.

The flight went seamlessly – Singapore Air doesn’t mess up very often. United should send people to fly on Singapore just to see what it’s like when a plane shows up on time. The car to the hotel was waiting for me, and about 20 minutes, two Red Bulls, and a can of Pringles later, I was downstairs waiting for Ajak and Mimi to pick me up.

Mimi showed up in a car with her son and her sister. She explained that Ajak had been called in to his work on the offshore oil rigs, but that she would still take me to some of his favorite spots.

But Ajak makes the blog anyway! Here he is with a beautiful queenfish caught off one of the oil rigs.

She had brought a cooler full of shrimp, squid, and Pepsi, and I should point out they were all in separate compartments. This person had never met me before in my life, and she was about to take an afternoon of her life to help me catch a fish. As pessimistic as Marta can remind me that I am, it’s moments like this that remind me that humans are pretty good to each other. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have caught nearly so many fish. Marta’s take on this: “Women rock, especially Mimi.” Marta then proceeded to mention that men could not have possibly done something that took this much organizing.

We fished two spots that afternoon. The first one was a rocky estuary shoreline. It didn’t take long to get a bite, and perhaps the Fish Gods sent me a slight message by giving me one of the species most difficult to tell apart from any of its close relatives – a marine catfish. But a fish is a fish, and I had added country number 90. I smiled and briefly thought back – I had only added number 50 (Switzerland, with the fabled Jens Koller) in April of 2008, nine and a half years ago. I grinned at how much fishing had happened in the interim, but then I remembered how many airline miles it had all taken.

Country number 90, with Mimi in the background.

I later discovered Mimi’s son in full photobomb mode.

I kept fishing, and got an equally unidentifiable species, the ponyfish.

I hate these things. They’re almost impossible to tell apart.

Somewhere in there, I asked Mimi why her sister had come along. Patiently, she explained that as Brunei is a Muslim country, that a woman being seen in public alone with a man who is not her husband could raise some eyebrows. Having a larger group removes the eyebrow factor. Of course, this now meant that I had taken up the afternoon of two more people. There is no way to ever repay kindness like this – all you can do it pass it to someone else. Martini, for example, wants to pass on all his kindness to Kate Upton. Whatever happens, Marta reminded me again that Mimi is a superstar and I could never have done this on my own.

Steve, Mimi, and a micro-snapper.

We finished our day at a pier along the same estuary.

The pier. There was no way I was passing this up, even after I saw a crocodile in the water by the right tower.

It was there I checked off two species – some sort of anchovy and a lovely violet demoiselle. This was a fantastic start, and I had my fingers crossed that the weather would stay nice for the boat trip.

The genus is Stolephorus. The species may never be known, but as I have caught nothing in Stolephorus, that’s a new one.

The demoiselle. I am always grateful when damselfish are not plain brown.

A beautiful sunset on the estuary.

Toward sundown, they dropped me off back at the Empire, and I headed for dinner. The Italian food at the hotel was outstanding. Fred called that evening and confirmed that the weather looked great. We were going, and I was thrilled. I managed to get a few hours of sleep before a very early wakeup call.

Fred picked me up before dawn, and we drove to a port in the very northeast of Brunei – about 25 minutes.

The Apollo is not the fastest boat in the world, but it was darn comfortable, and the crew was great. I could spread my gear out wherever I wanted to, and there were cold beverages at hand. I spent the first hour or so setting up my gear – putting rods together, tying and retying leaders, and assembling terminal rigs.

Captain Fred on the left. The guy is awesome.

On our way out, I asked to make a quick stop on some shallow reefs, and Captain Fred found a couple of nice spots. I dropped some medium and small hook rigs, and while everything got attacked immediately, it was clear, as Fred had warned me, that these were generally small fish. I started bringing up an assortment of reef critters, and while I caught at least 50 fish, nothing was new. So I settled in for about eight hours of cruising to the dropoff. This gave me plenty of time to eat lunch, take a solid nap, set up my heavy gear, eat dinner, drink lots of Pepsi, and otherwise become heavily caffeinated before the main event.

We passed occasional oil rigs on the way out.

Fred and I got to talk a lot of fishing. We would be heading to the Brunei Dropoff, about 80 miles out. The Spratly Islands, full of dogtooth tuna and Chinese Navy, were another 200 miles out. I need to get there sooner or later. It was just after dark when we pulled up to the first spot, where we would anchor over a patch of rough bottom in about 450 feet of water. After waiting 8 hours, I was beside myself to get going, and the anchoring process seemed to take forever. I first dropped a jig, because I was determined to test out my new Stella 20000 and Galahad jigging rod. This had been what I was dreaming of for the entire trip – some kind of huge predator, hopefully a dogtooth tuna, crushing a high-speed jig and ripping line off of a wrenched-down Stella drag.

I gave it a game try, for at least eight minutes, but the big predators did not seem to be active, and I have the patience of an impatient seven year-old. Emotionally, I needed to get some bait on the bottom. The rigs hadn’t been down five seconds when the bites started. The first fish I brought up was a yellowfin seabream – related to the Australian pink snapper.

An exotic sea bream – the first newbie of the boat trip.

On the very next drop, I pulled up a pair of bight alfonsino, part of a deepwater family that I always love to catch. We hadn’t been at it ten minutes and I had added two species.

Some fish come from a rough neighborhood. These come from a roughy neighborhood.

I then got into a school of lavender snapper – a strangely ubiquitous creature that I have caught anywhere from Hawaii to the Indian Ocean.

These things live EVERYWHERE.

Once the snapper had calmed down, I got a deepwater soldierfish, which turned out to be a Japanese Soldierfish. Then came a Rosy Dwarf Monocle bream, and it was a pound, so I had no problem turning it in for a record, even if it did have “dwarf” in the name. I added another soldierfish, and this one was big enough for a record, so that was two for the IGFA, and I am certain Marta texted me to not even think about another trophy this year. (It happened anyway.)

The rosy dwarf monocle bream. It weighed a pound, so there. Jamie hasn’t caught one.

Now THAT’S a soldierfish. A Japanese soldierfish, to be exact.

Somewhere in there, before the lavebder snappers found me again, I got some sort of odd shark, which turned out to be yet another addition to my Squalus collection – the western longnose spurdog.

Many thanks to Clinton Duffy, a New Zealand-based shark expert, for identifying this one.

Captain Fred was fishing on the other side of the boat, and the dude is a machine. He was pounding the bottom fish, and was getting consistently better specimens than I was without doing anything visibly different. He got a couple of groupers I had never seen in my life – one with thin lines along the flank, the other with a beautiful oblique pattern. I stayed patient, and about half an hour later, I got one of the lined groupers.

This put me up to six species for the deepwater part of the trip, eight overall.

Then the lavender snappers took over again.

It got very late, and I knew I wanted to get a bit of sleep before giving it a try in the dawn hours. Just before then, things got weird. I kept trying to jig intermittently, because I had my new Stella 20000 and Galahad jigging rod, but it just wasn’t happening. I finally did something that Dave at Lure Haven is going to be very upset about. I used the jigging rod as a bait stick and dropped a big slab of mackerel to the bottom. I’m sorry, Davy. And you just know what happened. I got a pounding bite. Reeling up and setting the hook, I got stuck in the rocks, but I could tell there was something on the hook. This is a strong rod and 65# braid – I took my chances and just wrenched on it, and moments later, the fish pulled free. I was guessing eel the whole way up, and sure enough, it was a good-sized conger. It turned out be a Philippine conger – a new species and my third record of the session.

There is a special place in hell for people who use specialized jigging setups to bait fish for eels. I have previous infractions along these lines.

After that, I caught no more than two hours of sleep, then got back up at dawn to jig some more.

Sunrise on the Brunei Dropoff.

With only 36 hours available, and a lot of that spent in transit, I had to take advantage of every moment. Nothing hit on the jigs, so I went back to bait. My first fish of the morning was a ruby snapper – I had gotten small ones in Hawaii before, but at least it was a break from the lavebder pests.

This is my largest ruby ever. Four months later, I would get a much bigger one, but that is a tale for another blog.

Moments later, I got a strong bite and reeled in an excellent surprise – an oblique-banded grouper.

This would be my 10th Brunei species and fourth record, which made it an excellent morning.

We fished until about noon, and while the action was constant, there were no other new creatures to report. The crew started pulling the anchor, and I settled into my routine of cleaning and packing gear.

Just as we started under way, a pair of egrets glided into view and made a clumsy landings on the back of the boat.
The egrets. Still, I have no egrets about this trip.
It didn’t strike me as strange for a moment, but then it occurred to me that this is a land bird and was very, very lost. Fred explained that they occasionally get swept out to sea by the wind, where they usually die a miserable death unless they can hitch a ride on a shore-bound vessel. This was life and death for these little feathered souls, and they were not budging. We left them some bait to eat and went about our business. They were terrified by us, but I think they were more terrified by the open water. We soon made peace with each other, and after a while, they moved up to the side rail.
Their position for most of the trip. They seemed to understand we weren’t going to hurt them.
They would let us walk by them without flying off, and this uneasy peace lasted eight hours until we reached land. When they flew away, it felt wonderful. Don’t ask me to describe this and do it justice. I am a fisherman, not a poet, but it felt like the universe had done the right thing.
I thought a lot about those birds, fortunate passengers on a journey every bit as unlikely and every bit as random as mine. Fred, Mimi, and Ajak had all done a wonderful part in helping me along – I had reached 1750 species, and I still had a couple of days in Thailand coming up. Hopefully, I would keep landing on vessels with the right people headed the right way.
Steve
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Responses

  1. Hi there.. Glad you’re having a good time here…lol..

    Thank you and looking forward for your future visit with Marta :):):)

    • Great to hear from you. Thanks again for a a great visit to Brunei.

      Cheers,

      Steve


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