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It was this big: how sport fishing in Hong Kong keeps on growing

When a member of the city's first sport fishing club caught a 158kg marlin off Sai Kung in 1985, fishermen knew they were onto something big. Since then the pursuit has grown exponentially.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2015, 6:50am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2015, 6:22pm

"Joe, right here on the right. Just go real slow. Put it in neutral and just let it roll in," says Carmine Vastola as he watches a screen showing the seabed conditions and the number of fish around us.

Joe Lee, a marine captain of three decades who retired last year, turns off the Thai Lady's engine. For the past hour since our 32-foot sport fishing boat left the marina at the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club, we've been searching for "structure" adjacent to Basalt Island on the Sai Kung Peninsula.

"The screen shows the depth of the seabed and where the schools of fish may be hiding," Lee explains. "We're trying to find good structure - a good bottom with rocks."

Vastola knows Hong Kong's waters well. The New Jersey native, from a family of avid anglers, has been fishing locally since he moved here in 1993. Frustrated with the lack of suitable boat charter options for deep sea sport fishing, he bought the Thai Lady for US$200,000 in 2006 and began offering commercial sport fishing trips through his company Hong Kong Deep Sea Fishing.

Vastola's business has picked up in recent years along with interest in sport fishing - in particular deep sea fishing - in Hong Kong. These days, he and business partner Charles Dunford arrange eight to 10 fishing trips a month, including inshore bottom fishing (what we were doing) and overnight trips to the oil rigs (that's where the big fish hide), for an average of four anglers each time.

Anticipating the growing interest in sport fishing, they acquired another boat last month. The Fortuna is a US$1 million, 90-foot custom-built vessel that can take up to 30 anglers - five times that of Thai Lady. It will soon be available for charter.

The Fortuna is a welcome addition to Hong Kong. With only a few commercial sport fishing companies in the city, rising demand means getting a spot on a boat can be challenging.

Marco Julio Jorge recently went offshore oil rig fishing over three days and two nights on a classic Chinese-style fishing trawler - a trip he had to book one year in advance. "These deep sea fishing trips are very popular," says Jorge, 27, who paid HK$3,100 to join 14 other anglers on the trip.

Kim Stuart, 60, founder of sport fishing charter company Tailchasers, says fishing enthusiasts in Hong Kong are not only growing in number but also getting more diversified. "We're seeing not just a lot of locals but also a lot of tourists," he says.

It's a very different scene compared to that which greeted South African-born Stuart when he first came to Hong Kong in 1983. Then, he was told there were no fish in local waters.

The following year, the Mandarin Sport Fishing Club was started by a group of expats - mainly Cathay Pacific pilots and Haeco staff - with the main goal of fishing in international tournaments. One day in 1985, while on a junk trip off Sai Kung, one of the Mandarins reeled in a 158.75kg marlin.

"If there's marlin, there has to be a lot of other fish. So people started buying boats," says Stuart, who joined the Mandarins in 1986.

Stuart got his boat about 13 years ago, a 46-foot Bertram sport fisher named Kidusi. It's mainly for trolling, a fishing method where fishing lines are baited and drawn through the water behind a moving boat to catch pelagic fish such as marlin, sailfish and mackerel.

"I used to just take family and friends out, then people heard about it and they'd call me saying they wanted to go too," says Stuart.

Adrian Yahvah was one of them. Brought up by a lake and by keen anglers in the American state of Montana, he searched the internet for sport fishing when he arrived here in 2008 and found Tailchasers.

On a recent trip on Kidusi on the Dragon Boat Festival, Yahvah's biggest catch was a 3.7kg mahi-mahi. Other species that have been caught in Hong Kong waters include grouper, snapper, catfish, tuna, dorado, wahoo, barracuda and - Dunford's biggest catch to date - a 15kg baby black tip reef shark.

The shark was released. So are the marlin and sailfish after they're tagged, Stuart says, so they can be tracked by the International Game Fish Association in Florida. As for the other fish, Stuart says "enough" is kept and any extras are released.

"For example, we went out the other day and caught 60-plus fish in total, mainly mahi-mahi and a couple of tuna. In the end, we came home with only seven or eight fish in the box for dinner," he says.

Kidusi typically departs Aberdeen Boat Club at about 7.30am with up to 10 anglers on board and heads south for an hour or two to find blue water where the big fish swim. This could be anywhere up to 100km offshore, depending on the weather and other conditions. They fish through the day and return to Aberdeen by 5pm.

During the past deep sea fishing season - typically April to October - Yahvah couldn't get on Stuart's boat at all because of how popular sport fishing has become. "Ever since they caught that big marlin a couple of years ago, a lot more people have caught on," says Yahvah, a sports therapist.

That big marlin was a 3.6-metre, 226kg Pacific blue marlin reeled in by six amateur deep sea anglers 105km due south of Aberdeen in July 2013. It took the men more than three hours to reel the fish aboard the boat. The marlin died putting up the fight.

Sport fishing is also picking up because there's more fish to catch. The government's trawling ban, which came into full effect on the last day of 2012, has helped replenish the resident fish population in Hong Kong's waters.

Vastola says there's not only a greater variety of fish, but they are also getting bigger. Following the ban, he switched the focus of the Thai Lady from offshore oil rig trips to inshore trips to places such as Sai Kung, Tsing Yi and Po Toi.

But the main reason sport fishing is gaining popularity, Vastola believes, is because people have more disposable income and leisure time.

Local Chinese, however, aren't really biting just yet. Hong Kong's sport fishing scene was and still is dominated by Westerners and people educated in the West, says Vergil Lau, owner of Po Kee Fishing Tackle shop in Sheung Wan, which his grandmother founded in 1933.

"Chinese people like to play mahjong, the stock market, horse racing - everything that is instant gratification," says Lau, who returned to Hong Kong from Canada 20 years ago. "The problem with fishing is you're sitting around and waiting, but the local psyche is fast, fast, instant, instant."

With the right place, right time, right tackle and right technique - anyone can catch fish
Carmine Vastola, Hong Kong Deep Sea Fishing

And wait we did. Three hours in and all we five anglers on the Thai Lady caught were small 10cm-long rock fish (which Lee says are great for soup), jellyfish, lots of fresh air and a tan.

Feeling slightly sea sick standing at the back of the boat, I moved to the bow. By now I was comfortable with casting a sabiki rig, which Dunford had set up and taught me how to use. The sabiki rig has a sinker at the end of a lead line, which has six additional branching lines each rigged with a hook that held two or three pieces of krill as bait.

I cast the rig in the water and let the line unwind until it got slack - indicating it had reached the bottom - then reeled in the line until there was tension. Then came the hard part: waiting.

Suddenly, I felt a tiny tug on the line. I sprung to my feet and started reeling in as quickly as I could. Each turn took more effort than the last, as my catch struggled to get free. I pushed my feet against the edge of the boat to prevent myself from falling forwards. The rod bent so acutely that I thought it might snap. I was sweating - from both the effort and excitement.

After about a minute of battling, my prize finally emerged: a beautiful snapper, our first big catch of the day.

Beginner's luck? Dunford, a 59-year-old Briton who started fishing at the age of two, didn't think so.

Vastola insists that fishing is "a statistical game".

"The more minutes you fish, the more catch you will have. Still, you need to have knowledge about where to go and which equipment to use," he says. "With the right place, right time, right tackle and right technique - anyone can catch fish."

And that's why finding the right captain who knows the waters well is probably the greatest factor for fishing success, Lau says. Second is patience.

Fortunately, on my virgin fishing experience, I had both. Back home in the evening, the snapper - after a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, sea salt and herbs - went in the oven. An hour later, it was on my plate.

Perhaps it was my hunger after the long day, or maybe because I'd worked so hard for it, or simply because it was so freshly caught - whatever the reason, it was the best fish I'd ever eaten.

Four Hong Kong sport fishing charter boats for hire

Hong Kong Deep Sea Fishing (hkdeepseafishing.com) offers fishing trips on a 32-foot Boston Whaler sport fisher and a new 90-foot custom-built vessel.All equipment and instruction provided. Day trips from HK$1,000 per person. Inquiries: 8192 7092 or carmine@hkdeepseafishing.com.hk

Tailchasers (hongkongfishings.com) organises regular weekend trips - mainly trolling - on board 48-foot Bertram sport fisher. All equipment and instruction provided. Day trips from HK$2,400 per person. Inquiries: 9122 0695 or hongkongfishing@gmail.com

Big Fish Boat (bigfishboat.com) this 86-foot Chinese-style converted fishing trawler offers trips over two nights, or 70 hours (it takes 10 hours to travel to the oil rigs). From HK$2,600 per person. Inquiries: 9132 2198 or bigfishboat2-1@yahoo.com.hk

Cheetah Charters (cheetahtrimaran.com) this 40-foot trimaran takes between nine and 12 people and goes faster than regular sport fishing boats. From HK$8,000 for a two-hour trip. Inquiries: 9231 3524 or info@cheetahtrimaran.com