It looked set to be a beautiful day for fishing when we met at the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club (RSYC): the sun was out, there wasn’t a storm cloud in sight, and the seas looked clear and calm. True, it was only 7:30am, and the weather in the morning was not necessarily an indication of the rest of the day’s weather, but nonetheless we were optimistic.
After unloading the tackle from our respective cars, we headed straight for the pier where we were met by Ah Heng. A weathered boatman, Ah Heng has been sailing local waters for the past decade and knows most of the best fishing spots around these waters. His boat was large enough for all six of us to fit inside comfortably, and could reasonably sit up to ten if we didn’t mind a tighter fit.
Before we set off, Ah Heng points out the location of the life vests on-board the boat. While we were all seasoned anglers – and thus paid less attention than we should – we still appreciated the thought. After all, in the unlikely event that the boat should sink for any reason, we would be grateful to not only know where the PFDs are but also the quickest way we can get to them.
By 8am, we had cast off and were making our way to the Southern Islands. There is really nothing quite like the feel of the wind in your hair as a boat cuts across the open sea: the sea breeze is both invigorating and relaxing at the same time. A few of us took this opportunity to catch up on some sleep while others made some last-minute adjustments to their tackle, testing knots and fastening lures. I spent the time checking my rod – a Yamaga Galahad PE2 5’9” with a Daiwa Certate Custom R2500 reel – and fastened an ima gun jig to the end.
The ima gun is a tried-and-true jig for local waters and has never yet let me down. Built to resemble a baitfish, its life-like darting action is extremely attractive to pelagic fishes and works well around both Singapore and Malaysia.
The boat stopped after about fifteen minutes, and Ah Heng told us that we could now try our hand at light jigging as the current was starting to pick up. Within moments, rods were all down in the water, and we started fast jigging to try and target the pelagic fishes who feed primarily during the change of currents. As the water wasn’t too deep, we cast the jigs out and let them sink to the bottom before jigging it back up, to better canvas the area where these fishes may be swimming.
It was light and reasonably entertaining work, but nobody had any takes on their lures. Just as we were about to give up, Ah Heng spotted something on the echo sounder: a large school of fish had just approached and was constantly circling the region near the sea bed. We immediately began focusing our efforts to the area directly beneath the boat, dropping our jigs straight down.
Within minutes, Jamie and SH both felt a bite at the same time. They tried to set the hook but the fish was too spooky: they fled immediately after tasting steel, and all Jamie and SH got for their trouble was a bit of fish slime on their ima gun.
After about fifteen minutes of fruitless work, we had enough. The fishes are there, Ah Heng says, pointing to the echo sounder, but for some reason they’re not biting. Maybe it’s the water temperature, someone speculates; but, not being fishes ourselves, we will never know.
Ah Heng brought us to the second fishing spot for the day, a V-shaped reef near Pulau Semaku, Singapore’s first and only offshore landfill. Soon after Jamie dropped his line into the water, however, he had a bite: and this time, the fish did not spook. Jamie set his hook, the fish took off and the chase was on!
It turned out to be only a 600g queenfish, but on his 2-6lb Evergreen Temujin Spider, Jamie had to fight it for nearly two minutes before he managed to bring it close enough to the boat to land it. We took great care in landing the queenfish as they have a ridge of venomous spines on their backs, right in front of the dorsal fin. These spines protrude sideways and, if they manage to break your skin, can cause excruciating pain for hours, ruining the rest of your fishing trip.
Alan was the next person to make a catch at the same spot: this time a fairly impressive spotted trevally weighing in at about 700g with a Helco Rooster 80mm 16g popper. The spotted trevally put up quite a fight, but Alan’s skill at handling his 3-7lb Majorcraft Go-Emotion (with Caldia Kix 1500 reel with a PE 0.8 line and 12lb fluorocarbon leader) allowed him to land the fish swiftly and precisely.
I however had no such luck. I had felt a couple of bites in almost every spot we stopped at, but none of them actually fully took the lure. Disappointed, I changed to my Go-Emotion tackle setup and slipped the micro-jig into the water… and almost instantly got a hit! The fish was a fairly strong one, most likely a sagai (bumpnose trevally). I could feel it fighting me every step of the way, and as I brought it closer to the surface I could feel it strain against the rod as it made a final, desperate attempt to escape. With some difficulty but great pride I managed to land my first fish for the day.
Meanwhile, Jarrett, Alan, Mondo and Ah Heng had enormous success with their own casts, each of them landing a sagai. While they were not exceptionally large specimens, each maybe only about 400g to 600g, the fact that they were pulling in something while I still only had an empty bucket to show for my efforts galled me.
But it was past noon, and it seemed that nobody would be getting anything for a while. Ah Heng told us that, in his experience, bite rates tend to drop off past 12pm and only resume at around 3pm. Nobody really knows why, but for this reason, most fishing boats tend to have their lunch break at this time.
We were not one to break with tradition. As such, we broke out the packed lunches that we had brought along with us – seven sets of nasi lemak, one for each of us and another for the boatman – and enjoyed a leisurely lunch adrift at sea. Some of us also took the opportunity to, once again, catch up on our sleep, while others chatted to while away the time. I took up the former: there is something exceptionally comforting about falling asleep at sea, almost as if one was cradled and gently rocked to sleep by the waves.
We moved off to a spot between St. John’s Island and Pulau Subar Laut – otherwise known as Big Sister Island, in contrast to Pulau Subar Darat, Little Sister Island – at around 3pm and, there, resumed fast jigging with the change of tide. We could feel the current start to pick up, and soon enough we were soon all getting bites!
The fishes were coming in fast and furious. Alan hit a queenfish at this spot with a madai jig, followed shortly afterwards by Jarrett and SH simultaneously with their light jigs. I had multiple hits from the school of sagai on my own jig, but after a brief struggle with each of them I only managed to land a grand total of two fishes, both of them sagai under 400g.
By this time, everyone’s lines were in the water almost all the time. Combined with the fact that the wind was also coming in stronger, it was perhaps inevitable that on one of my frequent casts my line would eventually get caught in an unholy mess with Alan’s, Jamie’s and Jarrett’s lines: the notorious “bee hoon” syndrome, taking us nearly five whole minutes to untangle.
By the time the bee hoon was untangled, I was particularly dejected. The bite rates were slowing down, and it seemed that the sagai had either left the region or were no longer biting. I threw my line back into the water without much hope of catching anything; but even as I jigged the lure back to the surface, I felt what seemed like a tentative but curiously strong bite on my jig. Puzzled and cautiously optimistic, I dropped the jig back into the water where I felt the take, and almost instantly I felt another bite, this time stronger and more aggressive.
I set the hook at once, and the fish – sensing that it was hooked – immediately took off. Not this time, I told myself, and struggled to control the rod as it dove beneath the boat.
I could almost see its silhouette now as I brought it closer to the boat, two dark shapes darting in the water as it fought against the rod… wait, two? Yes, there was another queenfish following in the wake of the one that was hooked, mimicking its every every motion even as I fought to bring it to the surface. Perhaps it was a mate? It was about the same size as the one I had caught, but sleeker. I did not pay it too much mind: I could not. The fish on my line was still furiously fighting me, but slowly, I managed to bring it closer and closer to the surface.
With a sudden burst of speed, the queenfish broke the surface of the water explosively as it leapt out of the sea, tossing its head in the process to throw the hook. I felt the rod buck – once, twice – and time itself seemed to slow as the hook and jig dislodged themselves and fell back into the water with a disappointing “plonk”.
Damn! Reeling the jig back up, I found that the hook – an old one, a little corroded from previous expeditions – had opened enough to let the fish slip out and off the line. With the barb blunted and the hook weakened, the force of the fish leaping out of the water had forced it open enough to let the fish loose.
Undaunted, I kept the jig, changed to a new hook and dropped the lure back into the water. The fact that I had such a strong take meant that the fishes in this region were hungry for micro-jigs, and I believed that I would have the same success with the same lure and jigging pattern. In the water, though, the two queenfishes – the one I had hooked and its ever-faithful mate – slowly disappeared out of sight as they swam back into the cool depths of the water.
By about 5:20pm, Alan and Jarrett were getting somewhat bored and restless. After the sagai feeding frenzy, the fishes were no longer biting at all, and they decided to entertain themselves by casting poppers off the back of a boat.
Of course, as these things tend to turn out, both of them quickly lost their jigs to a school of aggressive todak (hound needlefish) swimming near the drop-off. Todak have excellent eyesight and are prone to attacking anything – leader lines included – that falls into their territorial waters: as such, it is common for unwary anglers to unwittingly lose their jigs and lures to them. If you did want to target todak, make sure to use a thicker leader to prevent them from so easily breaking the line.
SH, who had seen what was going on, had decided that he wanted to join in the “fun”. After all, when one is floating in what Google Maps describes as “Somewhere in D Middle of the Sea between Batam N S’pore” and the fish aren’t biting, there really isn’t much else you can do for entertainment. And so SH cast his popper out and, sure enough, within three casts it was taken by a todak and lost to the seas.
Alan was just as keen on “sacrificing” his Storm 80mm 10-1/2g Rattlin’ Chug Bug, a popper he was no longer using. However, by the time Alan managed to retie his popper to replace the jig that he had lost, the todak were no longer there: what took his popper instead was a massive queenfish.
The line peeled off Alan’s reel with an audible hiss as the drag fought against the fish’s forward movement. It was a tough fight, one marked by the occasional expletive from Alan and shouts of encouragement from the rest of the boat. It probably took no more than five minutes in total, but it certainly felt longer as Alan strove to reel the fish in on his light tackle.
When we could finally see the fish in the water, it was huge: about a quarter the length of Ah Heng’s boat, and it was not a small boat. Jarrett tried to lift it out of the water, but the fish kicked and he wisely backed off, wary of the spines that were already showing. Alan yelled that he could feel the hook coming loose, but even as we moved to try and help with the Boga Grip the queenfish kicked again, this time violently against the boat, and tore itself free of the hook.
Everyone cursed and laughed and made bets about how big the fish was. By our best estimates, it must have been anything from 5kg to 6kg, but without landing it nobody could be sure.
By this time, it was almost 6pm, and we all had enough of fishing for the day. Ah Heng brought us back to the shore and, there, we tallied our catch for the day: eight sagai, five queenfishes (which we had all released back into the sea) and one spotted trevally. All in all, while it was not necessarily as impressive as some other expeditions, we all had fun: and at the end of the day, that’s what sport fishing really is all about.