Catching Sailfish in Rompin Malaysia

Most overseas fishing trips are – quite unsurprisingly – all about the fish. Catching sailfish was certainly the only thing on sub-editor Ethan Neville’s mind when he boarded a plane to Malaysia, ready to compete in the Pahang International Billfish Challenge 2019…

The week and a half I spent in Malaysia taught me some valuable lessons about appreciating the whole experience. The fishing itself was thoroughly enjoyable but represented only one aspect of the trip that I absolutely loved.

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Now I know what you’re thinking: “he mustn’t have caught any fish.”

First, that’s only partially true; second, let me tell you the full story before you dismiss this as a simple travel piece.

The plane touched down in Malaysia on a Wednesday morning. I found our jubilant guide from Tourism Malaysia, Azhar, waiting just beyond customs and was soon joined by Scott and Pete, two other NZ fishing media. “Team Kiwi”, as we were soon to be known, was unofficially formed.

The hospitality from Tourism Malaysia was excellent, far exceeding my typical backpacker approach to travel. We checked into what was – at least by my standards – a luxurious hotel, were guided around the bustling Kuala Lumpur by Azhar, found our way to the famous Kepong Tackle Shop and were finally driven the five-hour journey to Rompin, the world-renowned sailfish destination and base for the tournament.

It quickly became clear that this was no small event. Van after van arrived at Lanjut Beach & Golf Resort, filled with anglers from Australia, Thailand, India, Japan and, of course, Singapore and Malaysia. The registration process was quick – our unofficial title of “Team Kiwi” became official. The rules were laid down that night after dinner. Six hundred points for a sailfish and 1000 points for a marlin. Each boat was assigned its own marshal and standard IGFA rules applied.

The introduction of a tagging system to this year’s tournament is certainly worth mentioning. Patrick Erler, a long-time resident of Malaysia and charter operator, developed Malaysia’s first tagging system over the last couple of years. With the theme of the tournament being conservation, it was fitting that this was the first time it would be used competitively. Linked to an app, an added bonus of this system was that it would track how many fish each boat landed. After chatting to Patrick and seeing his passion for the local fishery, it became clear that this tagging system is going to be hugely beneficial to the conservation efforts in Malaysia. After Patrick demonstrated how to insert the tags on a cardboard cut-out of a sailfish, we were in bed early, sure we would need all the rest we could get to prepare for a day of wrestling sailfish.

We arrived at the jetty still buzzing – the atmosphere was electric, with everyone equally excited and chatty. The overall friendliness of the locals, fellow anglers and my Kiwi teammates was definitely a highlight. When we finally made it the end of the jetty and located our boat, it was immediately obvious we didn’t have the pick of the crop. With 42 teams registered for the competition, it is understandable that not all the boats were expressly fitted for catching sailfish. Still, we Kiwis weren’t complaining. We boarded our boat – accomplished by hopping from vessel to vessel – and, along with the other 126 anglers, waited for the hooter to sound.

The two wharfs from which the forty odd boats collected their passengers.

The two wharfs from which the forty odd boats collected their passengers.

It did, and we were off. What our captain may or may not have lacked in technical knowledge of sport fishing, he certainly made up for with tenacity. We smashed and weaved – mostly smashed – through the wake of our competitors’ boats and were out of the river and into the South China Sea in no time at all. The reasonably high winds – I’d estimate 15+ knots – didn’t slow the captain down either, the boat handling the chop surprisingly well.

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The method for targeting sailfish is similar to how we go about catching kingfish in New Zealand. Livebaiting is the primary approach, and, when the fish are feeding particularly hard, a cheeky stickbait or popper cast into a school can often entice a bite. Unlike kingfish, however, sailfish are notoriously soft biters, and we were told to let the fish run for between 10-30 seconds before closing the bail arm.

After an unsuccessful bait- catching session at a FAD (Fish Aggregating Device), we made our way to a small island off the coast which would be the place where most of the boats spent their time targeting sailfish. Livebaits came easy near the island, and we loaded up on small silvery mackerel and another red fish I later learned was a type of bream (redspine threadfin). After twenty or so minutes, the captain turned to us and said “okay” which, as Azhar quickly informed us, was his way of saying we should drop one of our baitfish back in the water. My livebait was put on a 4/0 circle hook, which was attached to 60lb fluorocarbon leader and, in turn, 50lb braid. My Penn Slammer III provided a comfortable home for the line and paired nicely with the Catch 5pc 8’ Travel Rod. We dropped our livies in the water, and the wait began.

Two hours later and we were still waiting. With no sign of sailfish and our baits swimming blissfully free from danger, we finally moved to where we saw some birds working. By now I was getting quietly frustrated. I arrived with my head full of stories of ten sailfish a day and the last two hours had firmly grounded me back in reality. After arriving at the birds, Scott decided to chuck a stickbait round to mix things up. It turned out to be the best call of the day. After only a few casts, his screams of “Fish! Fish!” from the front of the boat woke Pete and I from our apathy. Jumping to our feet, we looked to where Scott was casting. Sure enough, a sail was protruding from the water and underneath a dark shadow lazily pursued the stickbait right to the boat. It didn’t take the lure, but now my eyes were firmly fixed on my spool, waiting for the line to start peeling out.

It didn’t. And neither did Scott’s stickbait get any more followers.

After another hour or so of waiting without action, we decided it was time to have lunch. This, as every angler knows, means one thing: a guaranteed bite. This time, however, it wasn’t us whose reels started screaming, but Azhar’s, our affable guide who had quietly managed to slip a livebait of his own into the water. We all sprung to our feet and rushed into action as Azhar tightened his drag and started the fight. The fish peeled line effortlessly and Azhar pumped and panted as he tried to make some progress. After ten minutes of fighting, the fish dashed under the boat, leaving Azhar and his short rod powerless. The inevitable soon happened, the line touching the bottom of the boat and breaking. As I gave my condolences to Azhar, I was also rigging up my livebait, hopeful that the action had brought a few more sails to the surface. Unfortunately, despite seeing five or more sails in our area over the next few hours, there would be no more bites on day one. We went back to the ramp fishless, but not yet defeated.

Team Kiwi got together over a beer that evening in Pete’s room – as it’s a Muslim area, no alcohol was served in the resort (just a heads up so you can buy a stash before leaving KL!) – and discussed our plan for the next day. We had noticed the very obvious trend that nearly every time we saw birds, we also caught at least a brief glimpse of a sailfish surfacing. We decided that getting a fish on the board was more important than winning the competition (an obvious choice considering another boat had caught seven sails on day one), and so would do whatever we could to get one on the board, even if it meant staying late or offering the captain compensation for using more fuel.

As soon as we left the river mouth the next morning, however, our hopes took a massive blow. The fifteen knot winds from the day before were now blowing at around 25 knots, and the one metre swells now looked more like 1.5-2m. One huge positive for day two, however, was that we were assigned a new marshal who was a top bloke and an experienced sailfisher. The reason for the slow tournament so far, he informed us, was largely due to the weather. When it’s sunny and flat, which is typical in September (we were very unlucky), both the sailfish and birds can more easily identify the baits, and so finding where the fish are schooling becomes less of a problem.

After an hour and a half battling the seas, and a brief intermission to catch livies, we arrived at the small island again and quickly got our baits in the water. The day started the same as the previous one: two hours of no bites. We were seeing more dark sails breaching the surface, however, so our now very shaky optimism still somewhat remained.

We had started discussing lunch plans again, half dozing, watching our reels, when Scott broke the silence: “My lines going out! I think I’m on!” We all involuntarily jumped to our feet and watched as line poured off his reel. He somehow had the nerve to wait the recommended 10 or so seconds before flicking over the bail arm. His rod bent and the reel immediately started screaming. Pete and I started bringing in our lines as fast as we could, but after a couple of winds I faced some resistance. My rod joined Scott’s in bending over and I could only watch as my line started going out in the opposite direction. A third line I didn’t notice at the time also went taut behind our heads – Azhar had snuck his livebait back into the water again and was hooked up as well. From one and a half days of little action to a triple hook up – the fishing gods, as all fishermen know, have a sense of humour.

My fight didn’t last long. After one short run near the surface, the fish thrust itself out of the water and shook its head rapidly. I watched, almost in slow motion, as my livebait flew out of its mouth and both predator and bait – beautifully, but separately – crashed back into the water. My frustration was short lived – there was plenty of distraction with two other sailfish still hooked. Azhar’s was the next to go. His line was cut clean just above the leader, something none of us had an explanation for (the line had probably worn through during his fight with the sail on day one). Scott, however, was still ripping into his fish. It jumped and danced and made a number of lightning runs before he managed to get some line back. His drag was set relatively loose and the fight hit the ten-minute mark with the fish still frolicking some distance from the boat. At this point the captain – through Azhar – told Scott to tighten the drag. The sailfish fishery in Malaysia is catch and release only, and if the fight continued for much longer, we apparently would not be able to take a photo with the fish as it would be too weak to survive being taken out of the water. Scott obliged and within three or so minutes had the fish boatside. With Pete on the leader, me on the camera, and our marshal on the tag, we had the fish in the boat, tagged, photographed and released in only a couple of minutes. We – Team Kiwi – were understandably buzzing to have made a plan, worked together and achieved our goal!

Scott's fish performed all of the acrobatics sailfish are famous for.

Scott's fish performed all of the acrobatics sailfish are famous for.

The next two hours were slow and the decision was made by the captain to go right in close to the island and catch some more baits. Scott took this opportunity to cast a stickbait for a bit of fun, and it was immediately smashed by a solid queenfish. During his fight – which ended five minutes later with him landing the fish – I had one hand on my camera, and the other on my own popper, not wanting to miss out on catching a new species. As soon as we had a few photos of Scott’s fish, I replaced him at the bow and launched my lure towards the island. The murky water erupted into white splashes. One of the hits stuck on the second cast and after a few passionate runs, I managed to work it to the side of the boat where the deckie introduced it to the gaff. I was pumped. Not only had I got to put my new gear to the test – which handled the fish excellently – I’d also landed my first fish in the South China Sea.

Scott with a nice queenfish caught on a stickbait.

Scott with a nice queenfish caught on a stickbait.

With a few more photos taken, our last hour was spent hunting sailfish again, but this time to no avail. It didn’t matter. Team Kiwi arrived back at the jetty still pumped on having achieved our plan.

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Prizegiving followed that night – another fantastic spectacle filled with dignitaries, media and performances from local dancers and musicians. With one sailfish landed, we were unsurprisingly not invited on stage. The winning crew, a team of Scots living in KL, landed twelve, which for them was apparently an extremely slow weekend! They walked away with a decent cheque and a fair amount of free gear.

The Aussie boat, thankfully, came last.

The trip was amazing start to finish and the tournament itself was professional and energetic. Our hosts – Azhar and his colleagues from Tourism Malaysia, as well as every other local we met along the way – were invariably welcoming. This is one fishing destination I have been passionately recommending to everyone who will listen and certainly a place I will be returning to!

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

November 2019 - Ethan Neville
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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