ANGLING FOR ACTION
Recreational fishing can be a frustratingly fruitless exercise in Hong Kong waters. But each weekend a group of intrepid anglers travels 100km offshore in search of a big catch. Lance Cherry joined the hunt
MY SEVEN-YEAR itch finally found solace down a Wan Chai alley. Just a few lanes back from the neon-drenched strip lies a half-hidden store serving as a gateway to the South China Sea and visceral thrills of a very different nature.
A fisherman's lot in Hong Kong is a sorry one. The mouth of the Pearl River with its clustered islets was once a piscatorial paradise - a tropical breeding ground of the highest order - that has been raped, netted, gutted and polluted into oblivion.
Having fished many of the world's seas and spent countless hours in a vain attempt to place a fresh fillet on my Shek O table, I am perpetually shocked at how ravaged local waters are.
Then I chanced upon a website full of monster pelagics - surface-dwelling ocean fish for the uninitiated - that sent me scuttling down Hennessy Road in search of a crew called Crazy Fishermen, and booked myself on a fishing junk that takes recreational anglers to a chain of oil rigs, 100km southwest of Hong Kong.
At first, red-haired Ship Road shop attendant Kim Fung declared that all expeditions were full. But after some pestering, he acceded to phone the ship's captain, Chiu Ming. After a long conversation, he quietly explained that the group's 'guide' did not speak English, which would make things difficult for me. Smiling, I explained I did not have to speak to anyone, only to watch, then fish.
Fung swung back to the phone and 10 minutes later turned to me again: the cook served only noodles, and did not cater to Western palates. This did not perturb me either, and so their first gweilo customer gently nudged his way past the polite objections to an angling experience that was thoroughly surreal, a word not normally part of the lexicon.
The junk sets sail from Shau Kei Wan fishing harbour around 10pm each Friday, weather permitting, heads towards the rigs through the night and arrives shortly after sunrise. The 14 punters fish until the ship begins its return journey around 6am on Sunday. I awaited the 24-hour marathon angling session with eager, if somewhat naive, anticipation.
Friday night at the dockside found me dramatically overburdened, desperate to avoid the nightmare of being confronted by throngs of fish and not having the appropriate gear to bag them ... especially while others did. I did feel a little like an African explorer of old, laden with rifles, porters and the full set of sherry glasses. Dockside, too, was wealthy North Point entrepreneur and English-fluent fisherman Eric Li.
A sampan ferried us to the fishing boat and I politely stood aside to observe proceedings, a strategic error, as Li and accomplices frantically laid claim to the best seats in the house, the two back corners, which afford a 270-degree arc from which to fish.
But Li soon revealed the first signs of his infinite kindness, which he evinced through the rest of the trip, advising me on the next best place to sit, and that I should select a bunk before the other 10 people boarded in Kwun Tong.
The diesel belched comfortingly and the unpacking ritual began as we steamed out past Shek O, where I grinned at friends on the shore I couldn't see sitting at their favourite watering holes.
People found their nooks, and the different characters began to reveal themselves. Some sat quietly, enjoying the sea air, some hit the bunks, and others displayed the 'peacock syndrome'.
Shallow social theory attempts to marry character to one's apparel. Believers display their gadgets and big-boys' toys to claim a place up the ladder. One knew the quiet man with the beatific smile was going to catch a lot of fish. He had the patience. The busy bee probably would too. And it was no great surprise when the mouth with all the gimmicks and gear, the multi-pocketed vest, the shades, and all the specialist knots, began disgorging his supper over the side.
Group dynamics aside, it was when most of the tackle was laid out for not-so-subtle side-eyed inspection that I did have a dilation reaction. Electric reels were in the majority. Democracy be damned. This was anathema.
And when my 'manual' gear was appraised, a lot of pitiful muttering and doleful smiling took place.
'The water is 100 metres deep, and we use 1.5kg weights to avoid tangling in the current. You will get very tired winding up all the time ... this technique is very popular in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. You simply push the button and up comes the fish.'
The mists cleared. Hong Kong's fanatical predilection for gadgets had jumped ship, had transported itself to my sport, had brought batteries and the whining of winches to where once only the sweetest swish of split bamboo cut the air, and any more than the faintest ripple of line settling on water would warn a fish of impending death.
You see, fishing comes in a variety of guises, from giving the prey as much of a sporting chance as possible, to whacking one on the deck at all costs. I am very much a practitioner of the first kind, and consider if one is not fit enough to handle the prey, then one should not stoop to hi-teching the wee beasties to death.
Of course there is a kind of snob scale in this, as much as the perennial squabble about different vintages of Dom Perignon. But then one must make a stand somewhere in life.
Bunked down tight in the prow, the steady rise and fall of the swell lulls me into the morning after, and dawn is announced by oil rigs pricking the watery horizon.
First up, I banged a surface lure out into a mild gunmetal-grey chop under the first glimmerings of a wispy sun. I did not anticipate immediate satisfaction, a gut feeling which proved spot on, but I'd been waiting too long to not give myself even the slightest shot at chancing upon a free roamer that had slipped past the hundreds of kilometres of nets and long lines that drag Asia's oceans daily.
Only Li shared the sunrise shift with me as the rest of the fishermen slumbered through angling's magic hour, when many fish use the flickering gloom as camouflage for their own predations.
After an hour of dragging plastic, the thrumming of the deck lessened, our destination loomed larger and the skipper throttled back enough for us to drift into casting range. The metallic monstrosity towered over us.
I'd never stood toe to toe with an oil rig before. They're big. Easily big enough for a four-letter adjective. And it destroyed all illusions I'd held of using fishing as an excuse to follow my naturalist instincts, my call of the wild.
Here was this aberration, an intruder into the waking moment, stark, stolid, a sentinel to modern industrialisation. The ocean seethed and gurgled around its obese legs guarding smaller pipes and organs that ran down its midrift, platform through platform, into the water. Little men, high above us, gazed down on the lurkers below.
The stern was suddenly crowded, rods cranking overhead, arched graphite and taught braid. Twenty-centimetre squid were promptly threaded onto hooks, looped into the heaving swells, and inquisitive fish came from under the rig to meet their maker.
Juvenile yellowtail kingfish, rainbow runners and mackerel tuna smashed into the baits, and were hauled, winched and slapped on to the deck. Knives slashed into their arteries to run the flesh dry.
The blood brought forth whoops, hollers and toothy grins. They're always the same, these group killings ('I kill quicker, faster, more cleverly than you' etc). Obscene? Sure. Fishing frenzy? That is part of the lexicon.
Our party knocked off the hungrier of the shoal in an hour or two, noodles were served, and Captain Chiu moved us to the second rig in a chain of three over a 5km stretch. This line of rigs would be our base until morning.
Now the ship was moored to a pylon, downwind, and the anglers set to work again. Only this time the fish were scarcer, the sun was beginning to bite, and enthusiasm waned as the hours passed. Baits were dropped to the bottom, lures sporting an array of treble hooks of varying sizes were flung with seeming abandon in all directions. But very little was coming aboard.
Patience, advised the skipper. The sun baked and the sweat ran. Over the yardarm ran time, and the more delicate of the anglers bowed their heads through the cabin door to seek air-conditioned relief on their bunks. Contrary to earlier warnings, a fine, traditional meal was prepared by the chef in his simple but efficient galley - excellent dai pai dong fare.
Around mid-afternoon grumblings of 'no fish' began and we chugged over to the third rig, our final, surreal, haven.
Through the day I'd kept an eye on the distant edifice, for this one carried a fireball on its head. As we entered the monolith's shadow, a roaring entered the senses, as the gaseous burn-off atop the rig revealed its might, and heat. It was like entering a fire-breathing dragon's lair. A dragon with infinite lungs.
The noise was incessant, and every half hour or so, some automatic button in the beast's belly would relieve the pressure somewhere and belch an extra dollop of gas that would turn the roaring into a wild, searing shriek for about a minute. Way down below, there was no relief from the heat. I thought my eyelids were being scorched.
Once again the lines went over the side. I jagged a 12cm hook through the back of a live bait and dropped it 30 metres over the side. Before long the reel's ratchet alerted the now torpid anglers and I moved into Position A only to discover the barracuda had bitten the bait off the line. Dusk drew different tackle out of my companions' kits: peculiar wire-connected weights, hooks and berley (an appetite teaser) were dropped into the depths in search of the so-called 'chicken fish', a variety of sea bream. Those electric reels soon came into their own, whirring away, bringing the little critters to the surface. Big, fat rods, some big enough to land the largest blue-finned tuna, hoisted the little fish, many smaller than the weights used to sink the bait.
And so it went on into the night: the dragon breathing above, casting its eerie, flickering orange glow on the dappled water, as two neighbouring boats kept us company.
Seeking the behemoths, I launched live baits in a number of directions, and allowed them to spend their final hours at various depths. A quick, cruel tour before their ailing bodies were tossed into the fish box, and a fresh, writhing bait was hooked up.
The night would go on and on, and none of the dream fish would surface. The dragon's breath seemed to send the fishermen, one after the other, into the cool sanctuary of the bunk room. Until, on a rolling deck at 4am, it was just Li and I, with one weary deckhand on standby.
Eventually it was my turn to succumb, my ice box filled with a few little fillets. I knew that before I woke we would have unhitched ourselves and allowed the fire monster to rule the roost again, until we returned to tether ourselves once more and wait humbly to see what fresh gifts the dragon might have to offer.
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