“Ikan bot!” was a phrase oft cried aloud during the Com Fishing Festival. It means ‘big fish’ in Tetum, one of the national languages of the intriguingly diverse island nation of Timor- Leste (East Timor). I’ve attended many fishing events in my time, but this international game fishing competition takes the cake.
Staged from the small coastal village of Com located on the remote eastern tip of Timor-Leste, it has perhaps the most geographically and culturally astounding setting you could conceive of for a fishing competition.
The earth of Timor explodes from cobaltcoloured abyssal depths and soars skyward. Echoes of a bleak past are carried on the wind to swirl amongst cold, craggy peaks and swoosh into sweaty valleys and plains, fanning a complex aggregation of cultures and climates. It’s a fascinating place to visit.
More than just fishing for ikan bot amidst startling tropical scenery, this festival of fishing was an important economic and social exchange for a fledgling nation that is struggling to rise to its full height after repression and sorrow. However, this is no tale of a bleak past; this is a story of hope.
Timor-Leste is on the rise and its people are moulding the future of their country as the world watches on. The people crave peace and economic advancement and in the main, this is just what they have achieved in the last few years. Peace is becoming an entrenched position, not a passing fad.
COM FISHING FESTIVAL
This ground-breaking tournament gathered 70 local Timorese anglers and 40 international anglers from seven countries to fish for four days in the pristine waters of the Nino Konis Santana Marine Park. Anglers were competing for a slice of the US$25,000 prize pool.
The competitors were divided into an international category and a local division. The third category was for biggest fish. Awards were bestowed in these categories at the end of each day’s fishing plus at the conclusion of the event for the overall standings. Anglers were awarded points for each captured fish based on the length of the fish and its species.
Competitors were obviously interested in the prize money on offer, although it was the broader context of the tournament that left an indelible mark on participants. International guests got to fish in a wild tropical marine wilderness and experience an ancient and complex culture. Local anglers got to share ideas with foreign fishermen and potentially win a sum of money that would be more than many of them will have the opportunity to earn in a lifetime.
This was a marine-based tourism event, organised by the Office of the President (who at the time was Dr Jose Ramos-Horta). The idea was to spread the message of peace both within Timor-Leste and to an international audience. The tournament was designed to promote the diverse marine resources of the country and to encourage sustainable tourism in contrast to commercial exploitation of the region’s biomass. Noble aims indeed.
Timor-Leste is a complex country with imposing geography and an often frightening past. However, it is raw and beautiful and full of diverse cultures and typically leaves visitors with a warm glow from the inclusive communal vibe. This nation’s people are emerging from the dark and reaching for the sky in emulation of their country’s towering mountainous spine.
For those unfamiliar with our near neighbour, Timor-Leste is the eastern half of an island located 720km northwest of Darwin. As a new democracy, this country is an infant. It gained independence from the Indonesian occupation only a decade prior to the fishing competition. However, the proud Timorese people have a history reaching back into the mists of creation and you feel this ancient memory all around you. This is a small country with a population of 1.1 million, however it has a large historical footprint that belies such a small chunk of earth.
This is a country at the crossroads of Asia and the Pacific – a place where the Melanesian world collides with people of Austronesian backgrounds to form a tapestry of differing languages, customs and appearances. Even the fauna and flora are diverse. Here, you can see Asiatic animals such as monkeys and deer mixing with possums and other marsupials amidst either tropical palms or huge stands of eucalyptus.
Adding to this cultural diversity is the fact that Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony for 400 years prior to the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Not only can you see ancient Portuguese colonial buildings scattered around the tropical landscape, but Portuguese is one of the two national languages. Portuguese is spoken predominantly by wealthier Timorese, who often still have strong links to family back in Lisbon.
Tetum is the other national language and it is Tetum that the majority of Timorese use to reach across the many linguistic and cultural divides that separate the people. Bahasa Indonesian is also commonly understood as both a legacy of the occupation and the result of the proximity to Timor’s now largely cooperative neighbour, Indonesia.
THE ROAD TO COM
Com is a small village located a heart-pounding six-hour journey by car from the capital, Dili. The scenery en route is nothing short of awe-inspiring. At one point, a narrow patchy road winds high in coastal mountains, with 500m drops off the side of the road to the sparkling coral reefs below.
Once in Com, all competitors were housed in the Com Beach Resort, built by an enterprising ‘early adopter’ obviously forecasting a tourism boom for the sleepy fishing village in the near future.
From the resort bar you could recline and spot sailfish and marlin tail walking along the hardline of the reef. You just had to be careful making your way to the bathroom on an evening high tide – there’s a pesky crocodile that patrols the area looking for an easy meal (seriously!).
This was my second visit to the area and I was eagerly anticipating the fishing that I knew was to follow.
Competitors had access to a wide array of fishing terrain. There are miles of fringing reefs around Com, including some awesome drainage areas that seem to be always full of fusiliers and attendant hungry giant trevally. You could also make your way east towards the untouched far-eastern tip of Timor-Leste – to the Nino Konis Santana Marine Park.
This region boasts incredibly clear, swirling water and teems with bright corals. However, the jewel in its crown is undeniably the uninhabited Jaco Island. Separated from the mainland by a short yet deep channel and ringed by perfect white sand beaches and a profusion of glowing coral, Jaco is the quintessential tropical island paradise.
These waters abound with large marine mammals. A typical day will yield sightings of humpback and pilot whales, spinner dolphins, turtles, manta rays and whale sharks. It is something special.
As you would expect, these waters are full of tropical sportfish. Dogtooth tuna and giant trevally are present in numbers and bulk that will sate the most ardent of popping and jigging enthusiasts. There are also plenty of coronation trout and other tasty reef fish. Those who prefer to troll will encounter mahi mahi, wahoo, Spanish mackerel and barracuda as their main quarry. I’ve also spotted plenty of marlin and sailfish, although these fish have not been targeted in a serious way in these parts.
I had fished this region on a previous long-range boat trip and had memories full of encounters with large dogtooth that snapped at poppers and murdered knife-jigs. There was a particular underwater wall that went from 60m to 80m where I had been spooled on 100lb-plus braid that was repeatedly broken off by large dogtooth … would they still be there and would I be able to extract one this time?
TALES OF BATTLE
I was on hand as a tournament volunteer and advisor and was not competing, although I did get the chance to ‘boat hop’ to ‘advise’ on fishing spots … and boy, did I catch some fish! Aussie fishing identities Steve ‘Starlo’ Starling and wife Jo were competing, as were the guys from Mancing Mania, a famous Indonesian TV fishing program. They all caught some great fish by casting poppers and jigging. Those competitors who preferred to troll got amongst some wahoo, barracuda and giant trevally.
I also got the chance to fish with my good friends and Barra Nationals teammates, Russel ‘Rusty’ Fry and Paul Williams. The esteemed tournament director Sean Ferguson-Borrell and I also managed to relieve some logistical stress via borrowing a few police boats and getting amongst some short yet torrid popping sessions with solid reef fish and GTs often on the chew.
The highlight for me was that dogtooth! I jumped onboard with Starlo and Jo and some friends from Bali and took them to my infamous wall at 60m … wow! We all dropped jigs into the depths as huge boils belched around the boat. As we reached the bottom, nervous glances were exchanged before we commenced our retrieves.
Pump, pump – on! All anglers hooked giant fish, reels were singing all over the boat and groans and moans soon filled the air as each angler’s line was in turn shredded on the wall.
At the end of the first surging run, I only had a few wraps of 100lb braid on my reel, but I was miraculously still connected. After an intense battle, a truly giant dogtooth tuna emerged from the depths. The fish was 70kg plus and I felt that I had ticked a box.
Of more interest was the local side of the competition. The Timorese mostly used traditional wooden-hull fishing boats and employed very basic tackle incorporating homemade hooks and fresh reef fish for bait. They also trolled up a storm by adorning hooks with a variety of chicken feathers and bits of metal and plastic – very effective on wahoo.
Many of these guys fish on a subsistence basis and were doing what they need to do to survive – literally fishing as if their lives depended on it. Many Timorese simply love to fish. I even observed a guy catch a black marlin from an outrigger canoe in front of my house in Dili – it made quite a sight when he tried to stuff it in the back of a taxi to get it home!
Despite a strong showing from Bayu Noer Rachman from team Mancing Mania, and Starlo, who came in second and third respectively, the locals ruled the roost with Joao Jose Fernandez winning the international category.
In the local tournament, it was Mateus Rodriguez who dominated with a massive 4994 points. The angler, who resides in the village of Com, said: “It was a great honour to win.” Mateus struck gold and took home the US$3000 top prize. Sr Deoniza Viegas and Anselmo Fernandez Xavier came second and third with 4615 and 3176 points respectively. These guys clued on to the fact that wahoo were a point bonanza and so adjusted their methods mid-tournament to target these fish. The ploy worked: local angler Vasco Suarez took out the biggest fish category with a 135cm wahoo.
This was a ground-breaking tournament, held in a unique country. I have just returned from living in Timor-Leste for the past year and I have a hunch that we will be hearing more good-news stories from this land of contrasting cultures and environments in the near future – stay tuned!
WANT A PIECE OF THE ACTION?
At the time of writing, it was probable that the Com Fishing Festival will once again be held in 2013. Mooted dates are in March or April.
Stay tuned via the festival’s website: www.comfishingfestival.com.
This is a truly life-shaping experience and you can be involved