In a single instant, a pleasure cruise in the Andaman Sea has turned to pure adrenaline rush. The line snaps out of the clip, the long outrigger pole whipping back and forth as the line screams off the reel. A split second later there's another strike, this one on the left flatline rod. And then another on the right outrigger. Now it's pandemonium. The gamefishing operator and two of his crew have each of them grabbed stubby deep-sea rods out of their sockets, and they're letting the sailfish run.
One of the men yells at the boat captain and suddenly heaves back on the rod, setting the hook. Another follows suit at once as the captain momentarily guns the engine, the boat surging ahead to help hook the fish.
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Two or three hundred metres astern, a trio of enormous creatures erupt from the sea like Polaris missiles. One of them throws the hook; but the other two are still with us. This is the moment we've been waiting for. One of the crew hands a rod to the customer in the fighting chair, line still stripping off the reel at a rate of knots.
Big-game fishing is one of those ideal sports, something like cross-country skiing or white-water canoeing. Periods of meditative peace, interludes spiced with a fine anticipation, are punctuated with bursts of action and high excitement. Big-game fishing is also a great excuse to sit on a boat in the sun and drink cold beer.
Fishing is the most popular participant sport in the world. "And," says Phil Watkins, co-owner and operator of the Phuket-based gamefishing boat Wahoo, "the top bracket of sportfishing is blue-water gamefishing."
Gamefish are blue-water species. They like deep, clean water with movement and lots of baitfish. And this is precisely what the Andaman Sea has to offer. Take the Raya Islands (sometimes spelled "Racha"), a popular destination only a couple of hours from Phuket -- between the two of them they have just about every species of gamefish found in the Pacific. Here you can go after such prizes as giant trevally, dolphin fish (dorado), and rainbow runners. Phuket has potential world-record line-class queenfish, as well, with these attractive yellow-gold fish running an average of 20 kilos. Watkins believes record barracuda are also there for the catching, though wahoo are his favourite: "They epitomize the nasty, toothy, aggressive, fast fighting fish; they're spectacular, certainly the most interesting of the non-billfish. Barracuda have the reputation, but compared with wahoo, they're pussycats."
It's the sailfish and marlin, however, which are the most popular catches. Among the most majestic of marine creatures, they'll "tailwalk" right across the stern of the boat as they're been worked in. These are the aristocrats of the deep; and, given their numbers locally, they present reason enough in themselves to come to Phuket for the fishing. "When the sailfish are 'on song'," as Watkins says, "Raya Island can compare favourably with any venue in the world."
Phuket-based gamefishing can keep anybody happy. One boat recently had the European saltwater champion aboard on a cruise to the Similan Islands. The 60-year-old man had two targets: he wanted a black marlin and a big shark. On the first day he landed his marlin, stand-up style, on 50-pound line. The next day he caught the biggest barracuda he'd ever seen, a personal record. The day after that he took a 300-pound shark. The whole experience, he said, added up to the best fishing trip he had ever had. (Watkins has another "best experience" story: he points to a rocky cove on Raya Yai Island where last year an Italian caught a 500-pound tiger shark while night-fishing. "This has been the most exciting night of my life," he told Watkins, beaming with delight. His wife, who was aboard at the time, was not beaming. She probably had fonder memories of their honeymoon than he did, and took considerable umbrage at this testimonial to gamefishing.)
Serious sportfishermen usually have a target fish. They go to a particular place at a specific time of the year to catch a specific kind of fish of a particular size on an appropriate type of tackle. Most customers are not serious fishermen, however. They are either tourists who have always had a yen to try hooking the big ones, or else they are people who have simply decided on pure impulse to try something new and exciting. "And everyone's happy to catch something," says John Pearce of the Reel Hooker. "First, we usually go out somewhere to catch a few bits and pieces -- maybe some tuna, some barracuda -- then we head after the sailfish. Everybody on board gets at least a feel of it."
Japanese visitors, for instance, are often content to catch nothing but tuna. Given the price of that fish in Japan, according to Pearce, they're happy just to sit on the boat and eat fresh sashimi. "We sell a complete experience, at least with your general tourist," says Pearce. "This is not merely a fishing trip." So if sashimi is not your first choice, then the Reel Hooker serves Thai food prepared fresh on the boat.
And if you aren't the Old Man and the Sea reincarnate, if you value other things aside from the biggest marlin in the universe, then you might like to stop for a bit of snorkelling in the crystal waters off Raya Yai Island. Or you might be content simply to take in the wonderful scenery around the islands. Or sleep; or play cards and drink beer. That's part of the beauty of gamefishing. You have a licence to goof off in superb surroundings, always with the knowledge at the back of your mind that, at any instant, a prize specimen could strike.
And fishing in the Andaman Sea is something you can try at any time of the year. In the tourist high season (roughly November till May), consistently fine weather and calm seas combine with good marlin and yellowfin tuna fishing. But the real high season for local gamefishing -- especially for sailfish -- comes during the southwest monsoon, the low season for most seasports.
Dedicated fishermen certainly won't let a little weather stand in their way. "Right now we're not getting fishermen, as such," Pearce suggests. "We're getting mostly tourists. But what we're after are more fishermen." He talks enthusiastically of one day fishing areas way out in the Andaman Sea where the continental shelf drops off to 1000 metres. That day is still some time away, he thinks, but it's in the cards. What's primarily needed are bigger and faster gamefishing boats.
The whole region is to some extent still virgin territory, according to local operators such as Watkins. "People mostly are just pulling plastic out around the islands; they're trolling with lures around islands fairly close to Phuket. If you want to go and fish along the continental drop-off with live bait -- with skipjacks and so on -- you'll catch marlin."
It's mostly black marlin you get around Phuket. John Pearce of the Reel Hooker says that there's one spot between Phuket and the Similan Islands where, while trolling across to the Similans, "about half-way we sometimes pick one up." And Watkins caught his biggest local marlin ever just out of Patong Bay.
"But we have to catch a 1000-pound marlin in these waters. If we don't, we can just put up a big sign saying BOTTOM FISHING ONLY." Khun Siri Chulasewok, owner of the Phuket Fishing Lodge on Chalong Beach, believes that 900-1000-pound marlin are there for the catching around Phuket. Indeed, he claims to have hooked two 1000-pound marlins just off Patong Beach.
Whether or not Phuket ever becomes known as a base for the really big marlins, this area is assured as a prime destination for tourist fishermen and dedicated enthusiasts alike. At certain times of the year, for one thing, the sailfish fishing compares with anywhere in the world; and this is one of the top three queenfish venues. "But when you combine this with other attractions of Phuket," as Watkins and other operators point out, "the area is almost untouchable."
Sure, there may be places where you can catch bigger marlin than you usually get around Phuket. But there are no better places to go fishing. As Watkins says, "In some parts of the world, people go only for the fishing. Around Phuket, on the other hand, there are all the other attractions -- the world-class diving, the sailing, the breathtaking scenery, the Thai genius with seafood, the charming local population, and lots more.
There is no question: gamefishing is going to boom in these waters. Right now there are a dozen good gamefishing charter boats operating out of Phuket. What with plans to develop a marina on Chalong Beach, however, Watkins feels that in the years you'll see a growing number of Hatteras' and Bertrams and other thoroughbred craft lined up all along the beach.
At the same time -- especially if local interests take care to follow sustainable development policies -- by promoting gamefishing everybody wins, the fishing-boat owners and operators, the hoteliers and restaurateurs... Everybody.