The quote “happiness only real when shared” was made famous when the fatal exploits of Christopher McCandless were made into the film Into the Wild. While I’m not exactly convinced on the “real” part I am sure that happiness can have the power to grow exponentially when shared with friends and family. This example of happiness sharing can best be explained by my most recent fishing trip to Bungsamran…
Sunday morning 6am, I’m and awake an entire hour before the alarm clock. The ambient hum of the air-conditioner continued to play its lullaby. Hungover from a birthday party at Hyde & Seek, my throbbing headache forced me out of bed to go fetch some food, fluids and painkillers. After a bowl of wheat-bix, four cups of water and two pops of paracetamol I was back at roughly 60 percent. Though there was an urge to climb back into bed, the excitement of a fun-filled day of fishing with family and friends kept me going. I suddenly recalled the Thai woman from the night before vomiting a waterfall of fluids onto the ground while in the arms of her boyfriend. The look of his embarrassed face was priceless. Funny.
At 8am my ride arrived. Driving the van was cousin Tim. In the back seat was his younger brother, cousin Piu, looking extremely sleepy, Tim’s friend Herb (yes that’s his name) and finally cousin Wise (yes that’s his name too). Wise’s grandfather, my grand-uncle, was responsible for my first ever fishing trip back when I was about three-years-old. After picking up my friend Richard, we made our way towards Bungsamran armed with my two strongest fishing rods to come face-to-face with the powerful behemoths of Thailand’s most famous fishing pond.
As we approached the toll way booth Tim drove the car into the automatic lane. As we got closer he placed the electronic pass on the window of the car. In my morning hangover excitement I said, “Wow! You have got one of those devices? That’s so cool, so that means that you wouldn’t have to wait in line like everyone else!” As soon as I said that the automatic toll booth’s lights went on. The words, “CARD NOT FOUND,” flared up on the booth’s display board. We all laughed as Tim backed the car 20 metres to get into the “regular” lane.
Soon after, we arrived to our destination, a large fishing pond armed with everything from a Thai massage parlour to an internet cafe. With rustic wooden floor tiles in almost every area, the pond vaguely resembles a gigantic pier. The cool crisp January air left us all shivering, a bodily function quite rare in Bangkok. We signed in with the receptionist, a sleepy lady in a comfy looking wind-breaker, before making our way to the Featherback Bungalow AKA bungalow 15. At Bungsamran anglers can have the option to either fish from the central pier, which cuts right through the 20-acre pond, or from one of 29 rentable bungalows each named after a Thai fish.
At Casa de Featherback we were blessed with an all-day shade from the January sun because we were situated on the south-side of the pond. We unpacked and settled down into our two-story fishing house. While the majority of the boys set off to have breakfast outside the fishing pond it was Wise and I who stayed behind to start fishing.
In a big black plastic industrial size washing tray I mixed the bait. Combining a simple mix of grounded rice husk with pond water I made the first batch of the day’s bait. It looked like a large quantity of wet sand sitting in the black plastic tray. A passerby could easily have mistaken this for something else. Many people like to think that a complex mixture of ingredients work best for attracting the attention of the Mekong giant catfish. This school of thought would add all sorts of additives such as coconut milk, synthetic flavouring, syrups and just about any household confectionery they could get their hands on including cake, donuts etc. Personally, I find that the philosophy of “simple is best and less is more” has worked wonders for me.
By tying a rubber band onto the 50lb fishing line, we set the depth of the bait at 1.7metres before packing the soft bait into balls, roughly the size of an apple, onto the coil feeder.
The idea of the coil feeder bait balls may be very alien to most non-anglers as the stereotypical idea of bait-fishing usually entails someone sitting on a riverbank with a bamboo fishing pole and an earthworm for bait. These rice bran bait balls however are actually not on the hook. The hook itself is completely naked and suspended several centimetres below the bait ball. The Mekong giant is a fish that a really big mouth and it sucks in food like a vacuum cleaner. In the water the bait balls create a cloud of food that surrounds the hook. As the fish sucks in the cloud it sucks in the hook. I still remember how much faith I had to muster up the first time I tried using this method.
After making the bait balls, with some care and precision, we cast out our lines as far as we could without breaking the balls in the swing. From afar we see our bait balls splash and disappear into the murky depths. All that is left on the water’s surface were the top orange half of the foam floats.
The float serves two purposes. Firstly it is there to indicate to the angler where the bait is and more importantly it keeps the bait suspended at a specific depth, where the fishes lurk. The first indication of a fish taking the bait is the disappearance of the float. Once a fish takes off with the hook, the float follows and then the line. When fishing casually, anglers can just relax and wait for the second indication as the reel can be set to make a sound as the line pulls out. However, there is a strange and an exciting high of anticipation when one waits and stares at a single orange dot on the surface of the water to disappear.
With our bait balls in the water, Wise and I sat down and watched our little orange dots. After a few minutes, nothing. We reeled back our gear, repacked our bait balls and accurately sent them back to where the original ones were. Then, all the sudden, the first float disappeared and fight number one was on. When the first half-hour was over we had landed three Mekong giants, one of them, landed by Wise, was fat 30kg specimen.
Soon after fish number three the rest of the boys had returned from breakfast. Cousin Piu, having barely slept the night before went straight to the queen-size bed on the Bungalow’s second floor air-conditioned bedroom. He was not to be seen until later that afternoon.
For the rest of the day the boys each had several fights of their own. There to make the bait balls and cast them out were myself and cousin Wise as it was difficult for the others to make a ball that wouldn’t break during the casting. One problem with making bait balls is the blistering that slowly builds up on the hands. Making bait balls for a large group of friends can be taxing on the fingers and by the end of a long fishing session it is quite normal to have very dry hands and on some occasions the skin would break open. Though they were mostly sloppy at the beginning, each and every new angler that day dramatically improved his technique by the end of the day. Just watching this improvement was worth all the damage my hands had to go through.
At noon, uncle Pun, Tim and Piu’s dad, arrived. Earlier in the week I had invited him to this fishing trip. On the phone, he insisted that we hire a guide to secretly bait the area prior to our arrival in order to increase our chances. This, he said, was how he and his friends had a great success on his last trip. When asked about how many Mekong giant catfishes he and his friends had landed thanks to this miracle guide he proudly exclaimed, “five!” He sounded very happy. By the time uncle Pun had arrived to meet at the fishing pond, we had already landed 12 Mekong giant catfishes, it was only noon and we had only been fishing for two and a half hours with nothing but a simple mix of rice bran and pond water. Uncle Pun then called up his friend and angrily yelled into the phone, “we got scammed!”
On the wall of the wooden bungalow was a framed photograph of a very large Mekong giant in the arms of three happy anglers. One of them was the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) record holder Jean Francios Helias. Looking at the photo my uncle asked me about how to catch such a large fish in Bungsamran. In Thailand, the colloquial term for a Mekong giant catfish that is 40kg or more is called a “Willy” a reference to the titular killer whale from the film Free Willy. I told him that it was more a matter of getting one to bite before the smaller ones do and it all basically boils down to probability. When asked about the frequency of a Willy taking the bait I replied, “about one in every 30 bites”. “Okay! Then we will have to catch 30!” he said jokingly with a laugh.
Though it started off as a joke we somehow decided that we would keep fishing until we reached 30 catches. For every four to five catches uncle Pun would call up that very same friend who hired a guide and update him on the numbers. It was hilarious a combination of delight and bitterness as my uncle continued to rub it in to his friend over the phone. It definitely added a colourful twist to the day.
When bait fishing in Thailand there is a term that we look forward to using, it’s called, “kaa meurr” (คามือ), which literally means “in your hands”. It is when the bait is taken while the rod is still in the hands of the angler. Scoring a kaa meurr is sort of like sinking a hole-in-one: instant gratification.
Towards the end of the day Wise and I were casting and waiting only for the kaa meurr effect. With only six fishes short of 30 and only half an hour to go before sunset, it was the only way we could get to our desired number. This works because we’d continually be casting in more and more fresh bait balls into the same area luring in every hungry fish in the area. With only 15 minutes remaining we had reached 27 catches. Only three to go. Wise launched his bait ball into the air. Mine followed shortly after. Within seconds Wise’s float submerges and he scores a kaa meurr. By now everyone was either standing up or sitting on the edge of their seats counting down the last catches of the day. While all the attention is diverted to Wise my float submerged.
Here comes. Take a breath. Get ready to tighten the line and prepare for a fight.
I too had scored a kaa meurr. I reeled in to tighten the line. With a solid jerk I set the hook and the fight was on. With both rods engaged what ensued was a dangerous game of fishing acrobatics. A line entanglement could lead to both of us losing both fish number 28 and 29 and in order to avoid that happening we had to walk up and down the pier ducking under each other’s line.
Minutes later Wise landed his fish but my fight went on. His fight was over but my fish felt like it still have more than half of its fight left. I had begun to suspect that Mekong giant number 29 was no ordinary fish. The fight went on dragging the line in every direction. The thick kevlar fishing rod was bent into an arch. At times it looked like it was just a few degrees away from snapping into hundreds of shards in my face but it held on. As the fish got closer it darted its way towards the docks. It was trying to cut my line.
Oh no you won’t.
Without any hesitation I squatted down, spread my grip on the rod and with the power of my legs I forced the stubborn fish out of the danger zone. Now we were sure of it. Hooked on the end of my fishing line was something big and spectacular. With Wise’s fishing line out of the way, the fight was made easier but with the fish so close to the docks things were still dangerous.
I heaved and pulled. Switching rod hands occasionally to relieve the muscular burn. Hot acid ran across my back, my legs, my feet, my arms and my grip as I allowed my body and the rod to bare the might of the fish. The sun could no longer be seen. The sky had become a blend of purple and dark blue, this fish was the last fish.
Surrender and give in!
Finally after 20 minutes of fighting the fish gave up. It took three of us to lift it out of the water. We cheered loudly at the sight of the big fish turning the heads of our bungalow neighbours to our direction. Tired from the fight the glistening behemoth fish lay still moving just its mouth. Not wanting to keep this magnificent creature out of the water for too long I hurried up with the last few processes. I removed the barbless hook from its bony toothless mouth.”Bring me the weight scale!” I yelled. With all the adrenaline running through my veins I couldn’t remember who it was that brought me the scale. My mouth felt as dry as a chalkboard from the exercise. We hooked the scale onto the landing net and with the help of two other people we lifted up the scale to see just how heavy the fish was. The 50kg scale maxed-out. The fish was in excess of the maximum weight that the scale could handle. It was confirmed: I had caught the Willy that we had been waiting for.
After a quick photo session we freed our Will and packed up. Uncle Pun laughed and said to me, “looks like you beat your old odds! Now it’s one Willy in every 29 catches!” I laughed and smiled as I packed up my gear. The day was over. With 29 catches, all Mekong giant catfishes and one Willy, this is a very hard day to top off however, what made it more amazing was the fact that I had the chance to share such an amazing experience with my family and friends.