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March 06, 2009

Sea of Sailfish

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

I was determined to hook a sail on one of the Berkley Powerbait Power Mullet soft-plastic minnows I'd brought and had the chance several times on different days. But none stayed attached to the bitter end, so I never did get to release a sail on a plastic bait. Still, it was a real kick to have them racing in to grab the lure.

Though we weren't fly-rodding, teasing techniques here have begun to pay dividends. Pereira says Fishzone crews got that dialed in last year for the few fly-rodders they had out. "We've got the teasing mostly sorted out, now," he says. They managed to help one Hong Kong angler who had never caught a sailfish release five on fly his first day out.

Mixed Bag in Spring; All Sails in Fall
The almost complete lack of other predators competing with sailfish off Rompin is another amazing aspect of this fishery. In fact, we caught only sails over several days, despite soaking many small, juicy live baits. We had one or two mackerel bite-offs in all that time. I caught a small cobia and a small narrowbarred mackerel on a little Crippled Herring jig.

We did see many schools of very small, fast-moving tunas, perhaps skipjacks, apparently feeding on the small baitfish (under birds) that we couldn't spot, but even at that, no predators chased the skippies. Another surprise: We also spotted no cetaceans during our days offshore - not a single porpoise.

You're almost certain to spot sea snakes, though - large, handsome fellows to remind you what a long way you are from Kansas or any place else around the United States.

Not only do these waters lack structure to attract a variety of species, the depth varies little. Despite running 25 miles out, we never exceeded 90 feet of water.

Still, it's generally possible to sabiki up a few live baits almost anywhere as the boat drifts with a sailfish line   or two out the stern. Granted, over some stretches, we couldn't buy a bait - naturally during a red-hot bite as an initially meager livewell population dwindled quickly. Fortunately, Jensen and Sherman started finding a few of the red sea bream; those may not be the absolute bait of choice, but for this full-tilt sail bite, they worked just fine.

Pereira says the game-fish-variety quotient goes way up in the spring. The fishing season off Rompin runs from about mid-March into mid-November when the monsoon season's rain and wind become an incessant fact of life. While you can expect to hook sails in spring and into summer, numbers won't rival the late-summer/fall season. However, anglers take good mixed-bag catches, including small mahi, cobia, Spanish narrowbarred mackerel and trevallies. Pereira says a bit of chop is more common early in the season, but still seldom more than a foot or two.

We appreciated Fishzone's strong conservation attitude, with a strict  policy of carefully releasing all sails. Also, local preferences for seafood don't extend to sailfish, so as far as I could tell, there's not much commercial gear targeting sails - which is good for  the sensational recreational fishery. However, Chris Tan, a Malaysian writer and angling enthusiast, cites ostensibly significant sailfish bycatch mortality in ikan bilis (anchovy) nets - a situation he hopes the Malaysian Fisheries Department will control.

Johnny Jensen, who first recommended fishing Rompin, flew in from Denmark to fish with us. When we hooked up almost immediately on the first morning, he told me, "This is my third trip to fish here. And this is three for three, the boat hooking a sailfish within the first five minutes on the first morning, every trip!"

Even though we fished late in the season, Pereira posted 14- and 18-sail days just after we returned to the United States.

If an angler wants big sailfish, Rompin's not the world's best destination. While not tiny, these sails seemed to run mostly in the 50- to 100-pound range. But for sheer numbers and action, in an exotic, safe location both literally and figuratively far removed from the rest of the world's esteemed sailfish destinations, and one still unspoiled and largely unknown, you'd be hard-pressed to find any surpassing Malaysia's east coast.