Anglers hooked on the reel thing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 1999, 12:00am

PERCHED upon thin wooden planks at a floating fish farm behind Tung Lung Island, near Sai Kung, journalist Tony Flores and his friends are holding 36-kilogram hand-lines with palm-sized live prawns dangling at the end, patiently waiting for the first strike.

Braving the intense heat of a Sunday afternoon, they are anticipating some big catches: only a few days back, the fish farm owner hooked a 15-kg garoupa worth up to $3,000 in the surrounding waters, while an even bigger one escaped after a fierce battle.

'Last time we came, all our 14-kg lines snapped and a few of us had our hands cut,' Mr Flores says. His exuberance is characteristic of the avid angler ready to regale anyone within earshot about 'the one that got away'.

As he speaks, he threads 'Spitz' - a prawn he has named after the champion swimmer - on to his hook. Then the wait, hour upon hour. Half a day slowly slips by, with not a single bite to reward his patience.

The attractions of recreational fishing are beyond many people's comprehension. To those who have never tried it, it may seem boring, pointless, absurd and all too often a case of much ado about nothing. Indeed, it is approaching midnight before the gang is willing to leave the farm with their only, far from impressive catch of the day: a 600-gram grunt.

Yet to the converts, fishing is a consuming passion. The thrill of anticipation, the adrenalin surge of the strike, the banshee scream of the reel, and the ferocious fight ensure adherents stay, well, hooked. And although the flagging economy may have reduced spending on entertainment, a growing number of people from different walks of life have turned to recreational fishing.

Indeed, after the mainland's Agriculture Ministry banned trawler fishing in the South China Sea for the last two months to build up stocks, some recreational anglers have claimed bumper harvests around Hong Kong's piers and islands.

According to an unofficial estimate, there are about 20,000 amateur anglers and more than 100 tackle shops in Hong Kong.

'People are less busy at work and have more time to fish now. I see more people fishing at the piers. And it has been easier for me to find companions to team up with for boat trips,' says Mr Flores, who followed his uncle out on fishing trips as a boy. He still remembers his first sweet taste of success: a two-kg leather jacket caught at Tap Mun.

'I don't find it boring at all even though often we barely catch anything. The process in itself is enjoyable. People often say: 'You can buy lots of fish with the amount of money you spend on fishing', but the sense of fun is incomparable.' As he spends all his days off fishing, tackle shops are his second home where fervent anglers animatedly exchange tips and their fishing experiences. A standard trip to islands such as Po Toi, Waglan or the Ninepins costs about $300 to cover the boat fee, bait, food and drinks, if the boat is shared between several anglers.

Lee Leung Chi-ying, owner of a tackle shop in Shau Kei Wan, says: 'The amount of people who spend up to $50 buying bait and hand-fishing around piers during evenings has surged by 50 per cent compared to last year. But the number of boat-renters who go fishing in waters around nearby islands has been halved.' Shopkeeper Choy Ka-cheong, who runs a tackle shop in Wan Chai, has observed a similar trend: 'Customers with cash to splash on upmarket gear, like those who used to spend $3,000 on a reel, have all of a sudden disappeared. Many who come to shop go out for pier-fishing as an after-dinner activity.' In the evenings, dozens of anglers gather along the promenade outside the Convention Centre in Wan Chai. Some simply dangle a line through the concrete while others cast, but their faces show the same absorbed and contemplative look.

Form Seven student Yanny Lai Ming-yan is one of them. 'I like fishing in the evenings since it is cooler. Fishing allows me to think,' the 20-year-old says. Although she is no die-hard fishing fan, she has been spending more time fishing after her A-level exams. 'I mostly catch rabbit fish but would just release them. I wouldn't eat fish out of this water.' Retired salesman and long-time fishing addict Raymond Chan begs to differ. The sewage-like water taints neither his enthusiasm nor his appetite in any way.

Filling his day with a minimum of eight hours fishing around Victoria Harbour, not even Typhoon Maggie deterred him from his routine. Oblivious to the stormy weather, he fished for 11 hours and says he had a bumper catch.

TODAY, Mr Chan's catch has just been bought by an elderly passerby for $100. 'I have hooked up grunt and Russell's snapper out of the harbour. The fish you catch yourself is the most delicious. You can't eat it anywhere else, not even in seafood restaurants,' he says.

Many fanatics, however, deeply frustrated by returning from fishing trips empty-handed, have been lured to leave Hong Kong waters to explore remote areas off Dangan Island and the South China Sea oil rigs.

The former trip takes two days and costs $600 per person while the latter needs an extra day and is around twice the price.

Fish such as brown-spotted garoupa, tuna and purple amberjack can be caught around the oil rigs, while off Dangan Island, similar but smaller catches are guaranteed.

Anglers say the catch is similar to what you would have caught in Hong Kong 20 years ago.

While the depletion of fish and sea-sickness have lessened people's interest in traditional boat fishing, the excitement and greater rewards offered by a newer method, iso-fishing, have drawn thousands of anglers in the past year.

Originating in Japan, it is a form of rock-fishing. The angler uses a float and an extremely long, springy rod, to avoid the frustration of losing tackle to the rocky bottom. Spring-bottomed boots and lifejackets are worn to make their perilous perch on the rocks safer.

Berley - a potent powder to attract fish - is then used to enhance the chance of a catch.

Sam Lo, who owned a shop in North Point, switched from selling traditional fishing gear to that used for iso-fishing and found sales soared by 50 per cent.

His customers range from students, mechanics and market stall owners to doctors, lawyers and brokers.

Especially well-suited for waters from a depth of one to 10 metres, iso-fishing can snare garoupa, bream, rabbit fish, sea bass, tuna, mangrove jack, snapper and many other rare species unavailable on the market, Mr Lo says. 'On average, I catch 70 to 80 fish on a trip.' Iso-fishing buff Kevin Wong says the sport is a gruelling physical test.

A day-long fishing trip begins at 4am and lasts until the evening. Mr Wong packs his gear the night before, then stays up with his friends, waiting excitedly to board the boat.

Rough seas, lack of sleep and the risk of being caught by Marine Police do nothing to dent his zeal.

'The wind and waves can be very strong. Sometimes it's impossible to moor the boat near the reefs and the boatman has to throw a rope to you and pull you out into the middle of the sea before it is safe enough to board,' he says.

Mr Wong spends more than $2,000 a month on fishing trips, each costing around $800. 'It is pretty tiring, but once you think of the possibility of catching more and bigger fish than last time, it's worth it. The rod for iso-fishing is much more resilient and makes for more exciting and memorable fish fights.' Commercial over-fishing is the bane of the recreational angler. Trawlers have decimated Hong Kong's fish stocks and greatly reduced stocks throughout the South China Sea.

Excessive reclamation and dredging by the Government in the past have also depleted stocks, says legislator Wong Yung-kan, representative of the agricultural and fisheries functional constituency.

A solution, he says, is the construction of a marine park where recreational anglers are permitted to fish.

At present, there are three conservation-oriented marine parks in Hong Kong at Hoi Ha Wan, Yan Chau Tong and Lung Kwu Chau; however, fishing is banned in the parks, except for indigenous residents of the area and bona fide local fishermen who have obtained government licences.

'The Government can either convert certain parts of the coastal line into recreational fishing areas or develop artificial reefs near the shore by sinking old fishing boats,' Mr Wong says.

'It would provide a place for anglers to fish.

'The Government can restrict the number and sizes of fishes caught and issue licences to local fishermen, allowing them to carry passengers to such spots.'