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March 06, 2009

Sea of Sailfish

Visit exotic Malaysia for world-class billfish action at bargain-basement prices

Jensen hooked us up with an operation based in Singapore, Fishzone Charters Sportfishing, which specializes strictly in fishing off Rompin, a quiet coastal community on the South China Sea. The two gents who run that op, Dominic Pereira and Ian Pinto, proved to be ideal guides, outfitters and hosts, with their act clearly together.

After breakfast at a small eatery with amazing Asian omelets and teh tarik, a Malaysian staple of sweet, strong tea with milk, we all carried gear to the boat at the jeti (many Malay words are adopted from English, as with "jetty"), a colorful, ramshackle and laid-back launch site.

Shortly after, the 35-foot, locally built, beamy fiberglass boat with a generous hardtop (great for relief from a hot sun but precluding easy walk-around access), pulled away. We cruised out the river mouth into a one-foot chop. Typically, during the prime sailfish season - the latter half of July into early November - even that small chop almost inevitably fades as the morning wears on to conditions you'd find on most farm ponds.

A 20-minute run put us on a bait stop - a FAD (fish-attracting device) of tires sunk by commercial fishermen and marked with a small buoy in about 30 feet of water. Out went sabiki rigs and, fairly quickly, in came a  variety of small fish - lots of various trevallies and scads, red-hued "sea bream" and small colorful species of snappers. I thought we might keep them all for sailfish bait, but Pereira proved pretty picky. We really wanted scads (small members of the trevally/jack family, much like goggle-eyes, for instance) and just two types of scads, at that - what he called Indian mackerel and yellowtail scads - if we could get enough of them. Some days that's quick and easy; other days, well ... those red sea bream start looking really good!

Alive with Sails
About a half-hour later, Pereira announced that we had put enough scads in the livewell, and we throttled up the twin 115 hp Suzukis. We pushed on for another half-hour or so until we slowed at the sailfish grounds, about 25 miles off Rompin. What exactly defines this area as a hot spot, I never completely grasped. There seems to be absolutely no structure or bottom relief of any kind for miles; in that respect, it's much like the Gulf of Mexico - a very shallow, sandy bottom with little slope - though lacking the Gulf's limestone shelves and oil rigs.

So why all the sails? Presumably, bait keeps them here. That said, I saw scant evidence of surface-rippling or showering acres of baitfish (though on some days, we did spot several      ramshackle anchovy net boats apparently doing a bang-up business on small 'chovies). For the most part, at first glance, we appeared to be  stopping on a calm, lifeless desert.