© Collin Piprell
Apparently this goes well with lemon and lots of garlic
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.