Rompin Revisited

Kelvin Ng reports on the Kuala Rompin sailfish fishery, a decade on

It’s been close to 10 years since Sean Morgan first reported on the prolific sailfish fishery off the coast of Kuala Rompin, a small town located approximately 220 kilometres northeast of Singapore in Peninsula Malaysia (FlyLife #52). My first trip to Kuala Rompin followed shortly after that article and coincided with one of the hottest bites of the season that my guide Dominic Pereira had witnessed. Suffice to say, the fishing on that trip was nothing short of spectacular with blue skies, light winds, calm seas and hungry fish. We lost count of the number of fish raised but the final tally for my first ever day of sailfishing was an amazing 5 fish landed from 10 hook-ups (a record for Kuala Rompin at the time). Since then, I’ve been back almost every year, and in some years on multiple occasions, so have witnessed the evolution of the fishery firsthand. The town of Kuala Rompin has grown noticeably and the once modest fleet of 10 locally built 30-foot fibreglass longboats has expanded considerably. On my last trip, I counted close to 40 boats moored at the two rickety wooden jetties on Rompin River including a 72-foot luxury yacht with state of the art liveaboard facilities. Dominic, still the most experienced fly fishing guide in Kuala Rompin, recently established his own outfit, Billseeker, while a number of other operators have started to cater for anglers seeking to tease and hook sailfish on fly. Unsurprisingly, the number of boats on the water has had a detrimental effect on the fishery, especially during the peak months of September to November. The pressure on the fishery has resulted in fewer fish raised to the teaser, fewer shots, and consequently fewer hookups and fish landed. Still, on a good day, with the right conditions, and an experienced crew, the fishery can be outstanding and can produce numbers that rival some of the best sailfish fisheries in the world. Refinement of techniques A decade ago, the ‘conventional’ way of fly fishing for sailfish in Kuala Rompin was to tease the fish to the boat using a hookless popper and switch to a bulky popper fly tied on large single or tandem hooks. Since then, the local techniques for teasing and hooking sailfish have been refined. Travelling international anglers, especially Japanese fly fishing legend Eizo Maruhashi (who cut his teeth sailfishing in Central America and holds the IGFA 8 kg tippet record for Pacific sailfish) contributed to this process. Eizo taught the guides to stitch baits, and to tease and switch using trolled softhead pushers and daisy chains. Another major leap forward was brought about by the use of floating lines and Cam Sigler style popper flies tied on tandem hooks. This setup is, in my opinion, far superior to sinking lines and sinking flies for two reasons. Firstly, the sailfish in Kuala Rompin have a reputation for being less aggressive than in other parts of the world so a fly causing commotion on the surface can trigger an otherwise noncommittal fish to bite. Secondly, a floating fly is much more visible so you can see the fish eat the fly and turn before striking (more on that later). On the terminals front, a major development was the switch from ordinary spin or trolling rods to purpose-built interline teaser rods matched with highly geared spin or trolling reels loaded with braided line. The major benefits are stiffness (which comes in handy when yanking teasers out of mouths), fast retrieve rates, and their lack of guides (which made the teaser outfits coil-proof). teasing & switching Several years ago, some friends and I decided to add another dimension by going unguided and doing our own teasing and switching. This has been a humbling experience as it proved to be much more difficult than any of us had expected. We scoured the literature and the internet for information and happened onto what is probably the seminal work on teasing and hooking sailfish on fly in Trey Combs’ Bluewater Fly Fishing (1995). Although the book is somewhat dated, the techniques are timeless and every bit as effective. FlyLife articles by Australian fly fishing luminaries Kaj Busch, Rick Huckstepp, Peter Morse and Dean Butler (FL#2, #6, #9, #64) complemented Combs’ work and further assisted us in our efforts. One of the upsides to fishing a prolific sailfishery such as Kuala Rompin is the number of fish you raise (and, therefore, the number of mistakes you can make!). Here are some of the lessons we’ve learnt over the years… Although the fishing can vary depending on a range of factors including weather, moon phase, tide, current, bait etc., we’ve noticed the sailfish in Kuala Rompin usually bite best mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Some of the best fishing we’ve encountered has occurred during small windows lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to one or two hours when the ocean seemingly comes alive and every sailfish is after our teasers and flies. It’s important to capitalise on these opportunities by being prepared… Teamwork The skipper, crew and angler all need to be aligned and in sync. Do several trial runs to ensure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities so there are no surprises when a pack of angry sailfish is in the spread. Teamwork is critical and communication is key, so speak to one another regularly and be specific. Leaders and flies Pre-rig your leaders and flies and keep them in a separate fly/leader wallet. This will minimise down time on the water when the fishing is hot and the sailfish are making short work of your leaders and flies. We’ve fished IGFA leaders in the past but these days we keep it simple by using a straight 80-lb monofilament leader looped to the end of the fly line (via a braided loop or a loop nail-knotted to the end of the fly line). My monofilament of choice is Varivas shock leader; it’s relatively abrasion resistant but sufficiently supple for snell knotting. For hooks, we usually use tandem 6/0 or 5/0 Owner SSWs (an octopus style hook) tied at a 90° offset and matched to the size of the fly, usually a six to eight inch Cam Sigler style popper, in either pink and white, green and white, or green and orange. Line management Sailfish are one of the fastest fish in the ocean and have reportedly been clocked swimming at speeds of up to 110 km/h, so it’s important to have good line management. There are several stripping baskets on the market these days but we generally use a homemade variety: essentially a broad rimmed, shallow rubber basket with holes drilled in the bottom and cable ties affixed through the holes. Whatever you use, make sure you don’t strip more line than you need (more on this later) and the line is carefully laid at the bottom of the stripping basket to avoid coils and tangles. backhand castING We usually run teasers on two flatlines on either side of the transom. If a fish appears on the left teaser facing the transom, a right-handed angler can simply execute a forward cast past the prop wash directly at the fish. However, if the fish appears on the right teaser, a right-hander has two options. The person teasing can either attempt to cross the fish on the right teaser to the left hand side of the boat and face the prospect of the fish simply losing interest or losing sight of the teaser through the commotion of the prop wash, or the right-handed angler can move to the left hand side of the transom and execute a backhand cast towards the fish. Having lost countless fish through the prop wash over the years, we generally favour the latter but this requires the angler to execute a perfect backhand cast. Not an easy feat if you’re not accustomed to casting bulky flies on a 12 or 13 weight, so it pays to practice. Think outside the box During this past season, a friend and I were raising a number of sailfish to the teaser but we were having a lot of trouble switching and hooking them on our usual ‘go-to’ flies. Looking at the number of boats around us, we figured the fish were being wary due to the amount of boat traffic and fishing pressure so we decided to take a leaf out of the tarpon book and dropped the size of the flies and hooks we were using to a slim Flashy Profile popper fly on tandem 5/0 Owner SSWs. Incredibly, the drop in size made all the difference and we started connecting to these fickle sailfish. And to prove this wasn’t a fluke, we went on to hook 11 fish the following day landing 9 of them all on that rig! To strike or not to strike This is an area of ongoing debate. While some fly fishers advocate for one or two firm strips to set the hook on a sailfish, others favour the ‘do nothing’ approach and simply wait for the line to go tight so the fish hooks itself under its own weight going away from the boat. While both approaches have no doubt hooked their fair share of fish over time, the jury is still very much out on this one. These days, we usually do something in between, depending on the fish. While you may not need to strip strike a hot fish that instantly obliterates a fly the second it lands on the water, the less aggressive fish may require a little more coercion and finesse. For these fish, we like to pop the fly once to get the fish’s attention, leave it stationary (sailfish like to use their bill to kill a fly while it’s still moving), let the fish eat the fly, turn, and take some line (usually no more than two to three metres) going away from the boat before we strip strike with the rod tip pointed at the fish. It’s critical the fish does not feel any pressure when swimming away with the fly in its mouth so we usually pre-strip an additional two or three metres of fly line and leave it in the stripping basket so it can be lightly ‘fed’ to the fish through our fingers. The idea is similar to the ‘freespool’ method Peter Morse described in his article in FL#9. HoldING the teaser rod Depending on the level and direction of the sun, the water can be extremely glary early morning and late afternoon making spotting fish on the teaser all that more difficult. Swell can further complicate matters as the teasers tend to bury themselves in the wakes. During these times, it pays to take the teaser rods out of the gunwale and to tease by feel rather than by sight. Over the years, this has resulted in many raises that would otherwise have gone undetected and resulted in missed shots. Conservation To their credit, the fishing community in Kuala Rompin understand the unique nature and value of the fishery, and have committed to a strict catch and release policy for all billfish. Their foresight and commitment to conservation should be commended as similar fisheries in Asia, like Phuket, have all but vanished due to mismanagement and greed. Having said that, billfish are not protected in Malaysia and I am hopeful that, in time, the government will recognise the value of this phenomenal fishery and the benefits it brings to the local community, and put in place the necessary laws and regulations to protect and safeguard this iconic gamefish species. Sadly, we still frequently see dead sailfish floating in Kuala Rompin. This is no doubt, at least in part, due to improper handling. This ranges from long exposure out of the water, rough handling, and fish being held vertically by the bill to fish being placed in whole or in part on the blazing floors of fibreglass boats. Clearly, handling techniques could be improved to minimise stress on the fish and thereby significantly reduce mortality rates. The Billfish Foundation (www.billfish.org) and the IGFA (www.igfa.org) have both issued best practice guidelines for handling billfish. A couple of simple rules to keep in mind are to keep billfish in the water and to revive before release. These are big fish and taking them out of the water places additional stress on them, and contact removes slime that protects them from parasites and infections. The best way to revive them is to hold the fish by the base of the bill (especially important with smaller fish that have soft bills) boatside while keeping the boat in gear and the fish’s mouth immersed in water so oxygen can pass over their gills. Once billfish start regaining strength, they will start to bite down on your hand to signal they’re ready to go. The latest research on billfish mortality rates following catch and release is unequivocal: mortality rates are significantly higher when fish are taken out of the water. So before you bring a billfish aboard on your next trip, consider taking the photo boatside; after all, it makes for a much better photo when they are in their natural environment. You’ll also feel much better in the knowledge that you have done what you can to maximise the fish’s chance of recovery following release.

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