Thursday, April 1, 2010

Malaysian Snakehead

Two years ago I made a trip to Thailand to fish for snakehead, the fish that caused panicked news reports in the US over invasion in eastern waters. My three day trip in a Thai reservoir left me with a couple of destroyed rapalas, wounded pride and only one decent fish to my name. This wasn't due to bad fishing, just poor reflexes and bad luck on my part. I lost some big fish on that trip. It became apparent after my first fish that the 8 weight fly rod I brought would be ridiculously inadequate. It didn't stop me from trying and my first nice fish on the fly had me around a snag and off before I could do anything. The one I finally landed was small, about 12 inches, but a start. While my first fly fishing adventure for snakehead wasn't real productive, it did give me a good idea of what to bring next time.

And the next time came this March. When Jean Francois Helias emailed me pictures of his last Malaysian snakehead trip, and intentions to return this March, I couldn't pass it up.

This was my first trip to Malaysia. Unlike some of the other places I've been, Malaysia seemed a lot more like home. Good roads, not much congestion, sane drivers. Most people even seem to speak english well, and they aren't shy about it. It's obvious that a lot of money is poured into the infrastructure from the state run oil company, Petronas. Pictured above are the massive Petronas twin towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur. At the time of completion these were the tallest buildings in the world, still the tallest twin towers. The bridge connecting the towers can be accessed after standing in line early in the morning and then watching an extended advertisement for Petronas oil. The view of the city below:

Back to the fish. There are many species of snakehead spread throughout asia, but the best sportfish among them is the Giant snakehead. These grow the largest, and fight the hardest. Shaped like a fat snake, these fish are appropriately named. There jaws are very strong and lined with sharp teeth. Pike spreaders won't hold their mouth open, and I wouldn't trust one anyway. The fight is short lived, but intense. They know where the structure is and immediately try and wrap you up in it.
They are air breathers. In calm water you can see them coming up to the surface, then diving back down. During the spawn, the parents protect their young. The small fry need to come up for air a lot more than the adults, so this provides an ideal time to hunt down a nice fish. Once found, every sixty seconds a school of fry will appear and any lure cast into the school has a good chance at a protective mother. Like the one below: This fish was caught using a live catfish cast into the middle of a fry ball. This is a favorite method of the guides, and works on both parents and lone fish coming up for air. It was deadly, but a fishing method I didn't find enjoyable for long periods. It's hard to beat the strike of these fish to a rapala or a topwater bait. I spent the first few day fishing this method, but the next day I had a boat to myself and a fly rod ready to flex.
My goal for the trip was to catch a nice fish on the fly, and I came prepared with one of the new bass rods from sage. These rods are short and very stiff for fly rods, but I found them to cast easily all day. Just a few minutes into the second days fishing, my guide spotted a school of fry. I got up on deck and stripped the line off my reel. The lake was full of sunken timber, and these fry were right in the middle of several trees. I could make the cast, but it was better to wait until they moved. A few minutes passed and the fry surfaced right next to the shore in inches of water. This was perfect as they were very vulnerable in shallow water. I made my cast, landing right in the middle of them with a big streamer. They scattered and a few strips later the mother appeared behind my fly and engulfed it. When she turned I drove the hook in and clamped down on the line. I couldn't stop her from taking taking up the coils of line at my feet and she was under a log in seconds, but with a little maneuvering we got the line free, only to have her dive around another tree five feet away. I thought we would lose her at this point but I worked the rod around until the line came free. A few tussles at the boat and we had her in the net. My guide said it was about four kilos, but just about every fish we caught the week was labeled four kilos. These guys obviously didn't sell coke for a living. This was a small four kilos, but a nice snakehead. (The photo has been cropped as I had a three inch tear in the crotch of my pants. Your welcome)
The next several days I fished with Francois, the organizer. While we caught many fish on gear, we weren't so successful casting flys to the fry we found. If the parents have been caught before they are very wary of any lure. I had a great time fishing with Francois. He is an expert on snakehead and I learned a lot about these fish.
Last evening out with Francois we fished a lot of small coves. Francois worked topwater baits and I cast a popper with my fly rod. I managed to catch a very rare snakehead that lives in south thailand, malaysia and indonisia. Called a bunga, these fish are smaller than the giants and not nearly as toothy.

Blue skys, aquamarine water and the oldest jungles in the world. Montior lizard.