The Ladies of Langkawi

Kelvin Ng tackles surface feeding ladyfish (aka giant herring) in Malaysia

Imagine sight casting to metre long fish built like torpedoes. A fish that crushes topwater flies, makes spectacular jumps, takes you deep into the backing and leaves you shaking at the knees. Meet the ladies of Langkawi. Ladyfish, or giant herring as they are better known in Australia, are often overlooked for their more glamorous tarpon and bonefish cousins (all part of the Elopiformes family) but it’s a fish that every saltwater fly fisher should have on their bucket list. Ladyfish are commonly found in tropical inshore waters around the world. In Australia, they are found anywhere from Wilsons Promontory in Victoria to Spencer Gulf in South Australia (Dr Ben Diggles, November 2015). Exmouth in Western Australia has been known to produce some giant ladyfish over the years. But there are few places in the world where you can find them in the same numbers and size feeding on the surface as you do in Langkawi. Langkawi This cluster of islands jutting out of the Andaman Sea was once a British colony and a haven for pirates plying their trade in the Straits of Malacca. After the British left Malaysia, the islands remained a backwater until the mid-1980s when tourism took off. Kampongs (traditional villages), rice paddies and bullock carts were transformed into hotels, restaurants and cars overnight. Thankfully much of the development is confined to four main islands while the rest of the islands (95 to be precise) remain untouched. Designated a global geopark by UNESCO in 2007, it’s a stunning part of the world and as close to paradise as you can imagine with lush rainforests, dramatic rocky outcrops and emerald green water. The fishery Ladyfish have been migrating through the waters of Langkawi for as long as the locals can remember. No one knows precisely where the fish are migrating from or to, but each spring ladyfish appear in the thousands to feed on schools of juvenile rabbitfish on the surface. The fish are all adults ranging from 70 centimetres to trophies of well over a metre, and they seem to congregate in the same areas year after year. As the season is short (typically lasting a couple of months), and very few of us fish this ‘run’, we are only starting to piece the puzzle together. Over the years, we’ve noticed the fish are active on calm sunny blue-sky days, but slow on overcast days with wind and squally thunderstorms (common during the monsoon season from March to November). Again, no one knows for sure but we think it has something to do with the ladyfish’s ability (or inability) to locate the juvenile rabbitfish. The action seems to be highly tide dependent as well with not a fish in sight one minute and multiple schools feeding on the surface the next. A good friend of mine who pioneered this fishery noticed this season that the fish seem to be especially active around the first part of the outgoing tide near the full or new moon (which coincides with spring tides). If proven true, this will be a revelation as the fishery is notoriously unreliable and it’s not uncommon to blank one day and hit the motherlode the next. Chasing ladies A friend and guide, Jeff Forsee, joined me on my most recent trip to Langkawi. I met Jeff a few years ago while fishing the Onon River in Mongolia (Jeff is a full-time guide based in Wanaka but guides in Mongolia during the off-season). We’ve kept in touch since. As luck would have it, he was travelling through Singapore on his way home when I heard about a ladyfish run in Langkawi. I messaged to ask him to join me. I’m not sure he knew what he was signing up for but I’m glad he did! Several days later, Jeff and I set off on an overcast afternoon from a dock situated on the southwestern tip of the main island of Langkawi with our local boatman and guide Beq (aka Beq Langkawi) in his 21-foot shallow bottom fibreglass boat. Beq knows the waters around Langkawi better than anyone, and with the incredible fishery on his doorstep, has probably landed more trophy ladyfish on fly than anyone on the planet. We quickly rigged up as we motored towards the southern islands — 8- and 9-weight rods, floating lines, and reels with plenty of 50 lb gelspun backing were our outfits du jour. For leaders, we fished 10 kg tapered leaders with 30 lb shock tippet (essential as ladyfish have bony mouths with sandpaper-like teeth). Ladyfish can be incredibly fussy when they are fixated on juvenile rabbitfish so fly selection is important. Small unweighted baitfish patterns with minimal flash seem to work best. I tied on a size 2 chartreuse and tan Gurgler while Jeff opted for a similarly sized olive and tan Polar Fibre Minnow. Armed and ready, Beq slowly motored to an area where he had seen ladyfish the day before. Once in position, he cut the outboard and the wait began. We each scanned the horizon but it was Beq who spotted the first school of feeding fish. He immediately started the outboard and motored full speed to the melee. As we approached, the feeding frenzy slowed and the fish disappeared into the water column. This is common when fishing for ladyfish, as they are highly sensitive to boat traffic and engine noise. Wanting to see how the fly looked in the water, I laid out a cast to where the fish had been feeding moments before. Great, the fly looks perfect, I thought. As I turned away to look for the next school of feeding ladyfish, I heard a loud splash coming from the direction of where the fly had been. Before I could react, a massive ladyfish launched itself clear out of the water. Chaos ensued. Fly line shot through my fingers in a tangled mess. One jump. Two jumps. Three jumps. I watched helplessly as a huge knot in the fly line made its way through the guides taking with it the top section of my rod. Oblivious, the fish sped off tail walking and cartwheeling in its bid for freedom. My reel spun in overdrive as backing poured from the spool. After a blistering run, the fish slowed but continued to swim away with powerful headshakes. I dialed up the drag and slowly worked it back to the boat. As it got nearer, it was clear it would be impossible to wind the knot through the guides. So I placed the rod and reel on the floor of the boat and proceeded to hand line it closer. There were some tense moments as the fish made several final surges but once it was securely in the landing net we celebrated with hoots and high fives all around. A one metre plus ladyfish on a surface fly. A fish of a lifetime. And to make things even better, the tip section of my rod was still miraculous in one piece. The knot had somehow dislodged the tip section when it was going through the guides. Clearly, it was my lucky day. By this time we could see several schools of ladyfish frenzying around the boat in different directions. Jeff stepped up on the bow while I re-rigged. It wasn’t long before he was connected with a solid ladyfish that gave him a run for his money. I couldn’t be happier for him as we celebrated over more hoots and high fives. He had travelled no less than 40 hours from the steppes of Mongolia to Langkawi for this moment. The rest of the afternoon and the following day continued in much the same way with some epic eats, follows, misses, hookups, double hookups, jumps, jump offs, broken tippets, bent rods, line burns and screaming reels. We noticed the fish were most active at the beginning of the run- out tide, smashing flies with reckless abandon. As the tide progressed, the fish broke up into smaller pods, doubles and singles. They also became increasingly selective, often following but not eating the fly. The action can be fast and furious but short, so be prepared and make the most of your opportunities. Catch and release A word of warning. Ladyfish have an unladylike habit of defecating the moment they’re brought onboard. Also, they have slimy soft scales that easily come off when touched so I would suggest you #keepemwet (or in the water) and only bring them onboard for a quick photo when you’re ready. Ladyfish also frequently fight to the point of exhaustion so make sure you spend a few minutes reviving them before release. We don’t know for sure, but we have a suspicion this is a spawning aggregation, so every fish released may lead to thousands more in the future. Other targets Although ladyfish are the main drawcard of this fishery, Langkawi is also home to a number of other saltwater species including giant trevally and queenfish. These are relatively small, averaging 500 grams to 2 kilos, but they are great fun on light tackle, and a good fallback when things are slow on the ladyfish front. Fishing solo one morning, I landed half a dozen GTs to 3 kilos and countless small queenfish on the 8-weight. You could easily drop down to a 6-weight to make things more interesting. Langkawi offers the saltwater fly fisher the opportunity to fish for one of the fastest fish swimming in tropical inshore waters. The weather is warm. The scenery is spectacular. And the ladies are waiting.

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