Fat Lady not singing right tune for Hong Kong anglers
'IT'S all about luck really. If you don't catch anything at least you've had a good day on a boat,' said James Osborn, summing up the sportfishing experience.
An ebullient angling enthusiast and member of the Mandarin Sportfishing Club in Hong Kong, Osborn was speaking on the rocking deck of a boat in Thai waters while packing away his 12-inch 'Monster' lure - a plastic and steel decoy designed to trick fish into biting the hook beneath.
Competition was winding down on the third and final day of the Holiday Inn Phuket Sportfishing Classic in southern Thailand.
'You can run all your different lures, changing them throughout the day and get nothing. Or you could stick a cigarette packet on a hook and bingo!' he continued.
His all-Hong Kong four-man team, the Bobbing Johnnies, were way off the pace in terms of competition points but the conviviality level was still high aboard their chartered 60-footer the Andaman Angler.
And even as the clock ticked down towards the 5 pm 'lines in' deadline Osborn, whose infectious enthusiasm kept everyone buoyant, was still optimistic.
'It's not over until the fat lady sings and I can hear her clearing her throat,' he said.
Shortly afterwards his faith was repaid as the lull of the early evening was broken by the whirring sound of a spooling reel. Up leapt team member James O'Hegarty.
To much encouragement from teammates Osborn, Stefan Stosik and Andre Lajeunesse, O'Hegarty rocked back and forth, cranking away until he teased in a medium-sized dorado. Stosik pulled it on deck, Osborn applied the coup de grace and Lajeunesse swabbed down the bloody matter as the fish was dumped in in the icebox. Teamwork in action.
The time was 4.45 pm. It was the last fish caught in the three-day competition.
This year the Holiday Inn Phuket Sportfishing Classic, the blue chip event of southeast Asian sportfishing, attracted 20 teams to contest its third edition. Teams travelled from a wide range of countries - US, UK, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Brunei, Australia as well as Thai entrants.
Three of the 20 teams included Hong Kong members and it was on each of their boats that I followed the progress through the eyes of a novice.
Over the course of the competition I learned how to hold down a fried breakfast while on rough seas (after a miserable failed attempt on day one) and extended my vocabulary to include fishermen's definitions of 'lure', 'strike', 'rip' and 'drop-off'. What I failed to master was how to walk on the deck of a motorised boat without tumbling like the crew on the Starship Enterprise during a Klingon assault.
On the first morning most boats headed some 10 miles from shore in the hope of snagging a big one. In the Andaman Sea the prized catches are marlin or sailfish, collectively known as billfish.
The scoring system was massively weighted towards billfish with 1,000 points for a marlin and 500 for sailfish.
Their weight was immaterial because this was a 'Billfish Release' tournament meaning the captured fish had to be returned to the sea as soon as photographic evidence of the catch was secured.
Nine other species were not so lucky, however, being eligible catches to be brought ashore and weighed.
The floodlit weigh-in area was like a carnival each night with throngs of villagers eagerly eyeing the days' hauls with more than just a sporting interest.
A dozen billfish would be caught over the three days - four marlin and eight sailfish. But none were caught by Hong Kong teams.
Of the 32 trophies up for grabs, Hong Kong-ers would snag just two. And they went to husband and wife team Don and Wendy Stevens who chartered Prapis III and were joined by English couple Arthur and Jan Vines to form the Beginners' Luck team. I accompanied them on day one, when it was windy and the seas choppy.
Don, a superintendent with the Royal Hong Kong Police, once caught a 400lb marlin in Hawaii. He had no such luck this time but he did win best of species for his 3.5 kg queenfish, caught in choppy waters on the first day.
Organisers said it was the first time in three years of competition that a regulation weight queenfish had been caught.
Wendy won her plaque as runner-up in the individual lady angler category.
Hong Kong-based securities broker James Slade was one of the four-man Rutting Pigs team aboard the Andaman Hooker which I joined on Day Two.
After a slow first day in terms of catches, Slade found his spirits picking up on as he racked up a respectable tally of tuna and dorado.
'At least this is proper fishing today,' he said. 'Not the piddly little skipjack tuna we had yesterday.' Andaman Hooker's owner and captain John Pearce, four years a Phuket resident, took the low billfish count in his stride.
'The fact is this became a billfish tournament after the first day when a couple of teams built big scores. But you can do everything right and still not catch one.
'Well, you pick the best boat, the best place to fish, the best time to fish. You take into account the cycles of the moon and look out for telltale signs like birds and baitfish. Then you hope for the best. The more skilful you are the more lucky you will be. In the end as long as everyone enjoys themselves that's all that matters.' And enjoyment certainly was the name of the game on his boat as the flow of food and drink, all served up by an industrious deckhand, made it seem like a floating restaurant at times.
For the record the event was dominated by a team from Singapore called Genesis who took a singularly professional approach, bringing their own boat all the way from Raffles Marina.
They won seven of the 32 trophies presented at the gala dinner which closed the competition, including the best team and best individual angler.
But the final word went to James O'Hegarty of the Bobbing Johnnies who caught that late, late dorado on the final day.
'It's my first experience of sportfishing and I'll definitely be back next year,' he pledged.
And by the way, a rip is when two ocean currents converge stirring up the nutrients in the sea, restarting the food chain.