For many years now, stories have been emanating from various parts of South East Asia concerning incredible billfish fisheries. Not big fish, not blue or black marlin, but rather sailfish, and in very large numbers. And, intriguingly, these sailfish were said to be particularly difficult to hook, which would be of interest to anyone with sailfish landing experience, as they are not normally that hard to catch – once you’ve captured their interest, you’ve generally captured them, too.
Well I could hardly pass up the challenge, so with passport in hand and an itinerary from Ocean Blue Fishing Adventures in my pocket, I joined a group of keen anglers as we headed off to Singapore for a day and night stopover before loading up an eight-seater van and driving north to the Malaysian border.
Singapore seemingly has not felt the tightening of economic times. Its skyline is bristling with cranes working on new high-rise projects, while at ground level the reclamation of the sea continues unabated. To date, 25 per cent of Singapore is built on land reclaimed from the sea. The hustle and bustle in shopping centres the size of small towns was also indicative of a retail sector that is still in a healthy condition, seemingly oblivious to the economic woes offshore. Visiting it was certainly an interesting aside from our main objective.
Kuala Rompin is part of the geographical state of Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia. Located on the east coast of the peninsula, Pahang is famous for its spectacular beaches that border the South China Sea. Long considered one of sportsfishing’s best-kept secrets, this part of the South China Sea draws vast schools of sailfish as the warm currents offer them ideal feeding grounds for the masses of anchovies and other baitfish that congregate every season.
Our digs for the week was the Serai Di Lanjut resort, located next to the Golden Beach Golf Club, both of which abut an expansive, quiet beach overlooking the flat waters of the sea. I say ‘quiet’ as the beaches are almost deserted and the millpond sea can barely raise a ripple, let alone any surf. I’m sure there must be seasons where all that changes, but for this trip it was glassed out.
The resort, while not five star, has all a sportsfisher might need: comfortable rooms, a large swimming pool that is quite warm due to the area’s close proximity to the equator, and a bar with plenty of cold local beer (not a bad drop, I might add). Wine drinkers note: you’ll have to bring your own from Singapore. Malaysia is predominantly a Muslim country, and Malaysians aren’t big drinkers of many of the social beverages we enjoy.
While the golf course is well-groomed, the jungle directly next to it is a mass of wild vines and dense foliage, which is home to monkeys that can be seen meandering along the sides of roads while travelling throughout Malaysia. In fact, I spotted a family of 20 or so monkeys crossing the road near the resort, many rolling coconuts they’d relieved from palm trees on the golf course. The way they were acting, I wasn’t sure if the coconuts were for food or play.
Charter boats are boarded on the banks of the Rompin River, a short drive from the resort. Typically, the boats are locally-manufactured fibreglass vessels, with large hardtops for shade. Outboard driven, they are very seaworthy and quick to get to the grounds. Gentleman’s hours rule at Rompin, and an 8:30am departure time is the norm. With the grounds just an hour offshore, there is plenty of fishing time each day; the pin is pulled around 4:00pm, when we headed for the pool.
It was interesting to observe the skippers and how they look for the schools of sailfish. As most of us do, they look initially for birds, which are similar to our terns, but it was the way the birds flew and hovered that determined whether we pulled up for a fish or moved on to greener pastures.
Sam, our skipper, was on the money every time and, approaching a flock of feeding terns, the dorsal fins of the sailfish could be seen slicing through the slick surface. And not just one sail, either. These fish hunted in packs of up to half a dozen and sometimes more, criss-crossing each other while rounding up anchovies and other morsels. By the time we were on the way home after the first day, I was amazed by the sheer number of fish we had seen – at least 300 surface-swimming fish (we managed to land only two of them).
As it turned out, the rumours were indeed true – these Kuala Rompin sailfish are finicky adversaries. Having chased this species of billfish since the early ’90s, I had on a arsenal of gear for catching them. Lures of every colour, teasers of all styles; you name it and I had it. But as I found out, I might as well have left it all at home.
We generated a slight amount of interest with dead skipping baits, but that was about it. And there weren’t any strikes, just a passing interest as the baits were trolled by. Strings of soft plastic Moldcraft teasers generated zero response, so the lures were quickly put away and replaced with bait jigs. But it wasn’t just any bait. Leatherskins of around 15cm in length and similar to queenfish, which would have hit the live-bait tank pronto back home in billfish country, were flicked back over the side here. And other strange livies came to the surface, too, with a silver species similar to our yakkas getting the nod from the skipper. But the prized livebaits were slimey mackerel.
The baits were slow-trolled around the schools, and when that didn’t produce the goods, they were floated under balloons. Using 60lb leader and 5/0 circle hooks, the baits were attached by putting the hook through the soft flesh in front of the eye, rather than through the eye socket, as we do back in Australia.
If the sailfish felt any resistance, the bait was dropped before the circle hook could do its stuff. Any resistance generated from the feeding line to the target also resulted in dropped baits. We gave up on overhead reels because of this and baitrunner-style reels didn’t cut it either.
In the end, we discovered that the line had to be held manually, with the spinning reel bail arm open. Then, the line had to be dumped as soon as slight tension was felt after the bait had done a nervous shudder out the back. With hook attachment so flimsy, once the bait was swallowed it quickly came off the hook, leaving the circle to do its work in the corner of the mouth.
Our crew managed 29 sailfish for four days fishing, which is good in anyone’s books – save our skippers’ books, that is. According to them, they have racked up 38 on their best single day to date. And I’m happy to report that they all returned to the water to fight another day. Apparently the coarse flesh of the sailfish is not appreciated by the locals and in Malaysia only goes for around 10 cents per kilo.
If you like what you’ve read and seen so far, you might want to give Sydney-based Ocean Blue Fishing Adventures a call on (02) 9280 1405, or goto:www.oceanbluefishing.com.vu; email:firstname.lastname@example.org.