Ao Nang Family-friendly Fishing
Adrenaline magazine - June 2008
Simon Ramsden, Thailand
The twin teens sink into what looks like a shared coma. Intermittently, the deckhand prods one or the other awake and points him towards a line that has caught something – the something being, fairly often, a fish.
The twins’ father, art director Jules Caldow, 43, chats and drinks Singha beers with me while his interior-designer wife Sylvia gazes at the horizon. Welcome to family-friendly fishing, Andaman-style.
Earlier in the 7am stillness on Ao Nang beach, less tired than I might have been thanks to my jetlag-skewed inner clock, I had sat in a hammock and eagerly awaited the buzz of a ride on a traditional timber longtail boat. After puttering up, it took me to the sky-blue fibreglass launch where we then relaxed and drank a rousing cup of English Breakfast tea as a greenish-grey dawn rose over the karst cathedrals of the jaw-droppingly beautiful Railay peninsula. “Mmmm, lovely” says Sylvia as she sips her tea, referring, I think, to her tea (why is it that just about the only positive adjective the English ever use to describe tea is “lovely”?) “My kind of fishing,” Jules says. “The deck-hands do all the legwork, we sit and watch.”
That means no shopping for reels and bait. No catering to bother about and, to be honest, not all that much hands-on fishing either.
Like a conjuror, the deckhand produces an array of luminous lures, one green with black stripes, one with a yellow tummy and a third looking bizarrely like a plump white crucifix. With luck, in the eyes of the average fish, both kinds will look as hot as Shakira in lycra.
Lets hope so. Soon we are trolling, our floats kicking up manic, miniature fountains.
Before you could say “Blue Marlin“ we have a bite. Well, not really a bite, as the wadge of polythene on the end of the line is, as is customary for wadges of polythene, toothless. Such catches are par for the course, according to Jules. The last time he fished the Andaman, his first catch was a (lamentably empty) bottle of SangSerm rum.
How long it takes plastic bottles to decompose nobody yet knows. Even orange peel and banana skins can take up to two years. Tin cans can take 80 to 100 years, whilst common-as-plankton plastic bags hang around soiling the planet for between 20 and 1,000 years.
That’s a sobering thought as we plough on under a hazy sky pierced by karsts (limestone crags) that jut from the ocean with primordial power and poise. A buzzard loops lazily around one.
Otherwise, aside from the occasional frigate bird, the skies are as quiet as the seas until, after an hour, the reel makes a fizzing sound that cuts through our chatter. A rod bends over double.
Inspired, Jules duly begins hauling in the first fish. “Look my first bit of booty” he exclaims. But, unfortunately and embarrassingly for him, he’d spoken too soon. “Hmmm darling, it doesn’t look much like booty to me, one letter too many there, I think it’s a boot, a Wellington boot” Sylvia laughs, the twins sniggering in the background.
Soon after, though, Jules gets his first fish. It is a king mackerel - a slender, streamlined fish with a tapered head. Well, a tapered head with a lance through it now, courtesy of the deckhand.
This mackerel dies almost instantly, a bit of a quitter, unlike the carbon-copy successor that strikes the port-side rod long after we have settled down again. King Mackerel II puts up a bigger struggle than Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart. This obliges the novice deckhand to crouch down and get heavy, doing all sorts of things to put the fish into its next life - trying a bit of bashing but being defeated by the slippery scales, experimenting with suffocation and finding that gills make this impossible, before finally triumphing with a boat-hook.
After this clash, we are in the mood. The fish, however, have other ideas. Or do they?
Startled by sudden yells, we rise to our feet and then sink back aain as the deckhand glumly retrieves three ghostly hunks of plastic. Bit by bit, we seem to be dredging the Andaman.
Soon, we are no longer even doing that. A drowsy spell follows, broken only by the advent of a yellow pleasure cruiser inching across our bows as gulls carve squiggles in the haze. We wait.
“Has our luck deserted us? Has word got around on the fish grapevine that we are around?” I idly wonder, reaching for a cold caffeine tonic.
Still nothing happens. The light brightens. The sugar eats into my tooth enamel.
The next time that a line whirrs, we have all grown so jaded and cynical that nobody reacts. We assume that our catch is yet another decoy.
We are right. What a drag. But at least nobody, except for the 18-year-olds, who were out last night, feels sick. (I speak as someone who once had to take a lie-down in the hold of a boat after 10 minutes on moderately choppy English water.)
Another plus is the sensation of safety. Nobody loses a thumb to a tuna although, gut-wrenchingly, the captain steps on a hook, which he then nonchalantly removes the way you or I might unfasten a button.
Guiding the boat over the edge of a shelf, the captain now turns off the engine. “Bottom,” the deckhand says and hooks up some prawns aimed at the delightfully-named bottom-feeders.
The lines take an eternity to unravel as we discuss how, back in the old days, it must have felt to be becalmed without the chance to regain momentum by turning a key. “Cabin fever,” Jules says. Sylvia talks about how becalmed seafarers ran out of water and were forced to first eat the maggots that riddled their bread, then occasionally each other.
Squelching suspicions that the bottom-feeding foray has failed, Sylvia suddenly exclaims: “Ooh, ooh, ooh! Got one.” And it’s a beauty - a goldfish-shaped red snapper with plush, plumped-up lips. To me, this eye-candy starlet looks too beautiful to kill.
The deckhand thinks otherwise. “Barbecue,” he says and tosses the body into a red box with the others.
In the end, together with the Thai chicken curry that the deckhand had brought on board earlier, we just eat the mackerel, which Jules judges the best fish he has had in his life. God knows what one of those spotty oddities, a whale-shark, would taste like - a bit rank, I suspect, gawping at the specimen that swims past accompanied by a skinny sucker fish which, Jules says, has a head like a Nike sneaker sole.
The weird whale-shark and its equally peculiar parasite prompt more excitement than any other creature we see all day. As the afternoon wears on and patches of blue sky appear, the deckhand announces that Indonesia lies just across the horizon. We muse over the possibility that next time we should fish all the way to Indonesia, all of us secretly knowing that, although we’ve all got along famously, it’s unlikely our paths will ever cross again – but for good manners’ sake we all pretend that the email addresses we swap will be used within a matter of minutes of stepping ashore.
A threat that plays on my mind is that of pirates. I read somewhere that, when they board your boat, pirates machine-gun all the men and rape all the women. Or was it the other way round?
We weave around a necklace of islands in the Phi Phi area, catching zilch except a crab that goes into its iron-man crustacean, claw-waving routine. Gingerly Jules picks it up, inspects its chalky belly and then hands it to the captain, who tosses it back into the sea.
Everyone collapses again, only to be roused by yet another anticlimax. This time we have snagged another line trailed by a couple of sea gipsies.
In the wake of this non-event, normal nondescript service is resumed. “That's fishing,” Sylvia says.
Jules reckons that, in the calm, our boat’s signature vibration is too obvious. The whale shark’s trail of foam in our wake may not help either.
“Ring the dinner gong,” Sylvia suggests.
“Anyone got any dynamite?” I quip, but everybody on board glares at me, almost as if I had suggested using one of the boys as bait.
When everyone seems to have given up hope of extracting another morsel before our journey’s 6.30pm end, it happens. A line starts to whirr.
Right on cue, rising from his semi-persistent vegetative state, a twin puts on one of those odd fish belts with a rod socket and attaches himself to the relevant rod. Heave.
This one looks big, really big. Oh dear, a log.
Foiled again, we watch explosions of small fry wondering what, if anything, we are doing wrong. But we end on a high note when, quashing suspicions of yet another false alarm, one twin brings in a mysterious, medium-sized silver fish.
How convenient. I wonder whether the deckhand had secretly stashed it in the cabin earlier, then stuck a hook in its mouth and stealthily thrown it overboard for the twin to retrieve.
Whatever the truth, we have all had a big laugh, a close-up tour of the stunning scenery and a most recuperative rest. Thanks to the intermittent reward dimension, this fishing lark is compelling – addictive even. Just remember not to go out on the town the night before.
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