Day 15: Dice hook carpe dieum
These were beautiful fish, but not the highlight of the day. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I SNAP out of bed at about 7am, ready to haul in some monster carps and catfish at the Cha-am Fishing Park and Resort.
Last night, I arrived just before dark, booked a room with a carport for 450 baht, had a quick wank and passed directly out on the room's stone hard mattress. The Cha-Am Fishing Resort has nothing to boast about when it comes to it's accommodations, the rooms were probably originally furnished in in 1982; the rough towels left on the bed in a plastic bag were probably bought in the 80s as well. But I'm not here for the room, I'm here for the fish.
Despite the resort having an English website and English promotional material, not a single member of staff can really speak English. The man at the bait shop, however, is able to communicate that the pond doesn't open until 8am. I wonder back to my room to get a little work done.
By 9am, I'm back at the bait shop and ready to start catching monsters. I select one of the six heavily used fishing rods from the rack of rentals and let the man load up my basket with a half loaf of cheap white bread and two bags of bread-bait crumbles for bait balls.
“Where do I fish?” I ask. He gestures toward the the 60 meter by 60 meter lake. There are about seven swims – fishing stations – on this side of the lake. I select one and try to get settled in.
I don't want a guide, but was hoping someone would at least show me what to do when I catch a fish, maybe give me a couple pointers. Things to ensure that I have the best experience. However, the staff doesn't seem the least bit concerned about what sort of experience I have.
A man, with long, wild hair, does come over and show me the trick to baiting the hook with the bread. The key is to rip off a quarter of it and flatten it before putting it on the hook and tucking it into the massive bait-ball.
I cast. There is a huge splash as the bait-ball rips from my line and chums another area. I reel in the line and try again; and then again; and then again. I not so good at this.
There isn't another person on the water and no staff in sight.
It's lonely standing on the cement sidewalk of the rundown shelter at the poorly landscaped lake. On the far side, there are a few low coconut trees; a few birds pass overhead. All-in-all, the place looks tired.
Zzzzzzing, my reel fires off.
A fish runs with the bait as I scramble to set the hook. Half fighting the fish, half looking around for an employee to help me net it, I don't enjoy a minute of the fight.
I call out in Thai for help.
A couple employees on the gravel road that leads to the rooms stare at me. Eventually, someone comes and nets the 5kg Mekong Catfish. He drags it up onto the grass, pulls the hook out and chucks it back into the water.
I try to ask if I'm supposed to call them when I hook a fish.
No, definitely not.
I say nothing as a glumly bring in another 5kg Mekong a few minutes later. Awkwardly, I wield a heavy net and the pole, eventually bringing the fish on land.
The hook's set deep, I can't get it out.
My jaw sets as I see the fish starting to suffer.
This is not fun.
I run to the bait shop to ask for a pair of pointy nose pliers to get the hook out, miming what I need.
The girl shakes her head. They don't have any.
How a fishing park doesn't have a pair of pliers handy is beyond me. I quickly walk my bike, dig through the pannier and pull a pair from my tool kit.
Back to the fish, I quickly remove the barbed hook and take the the Mekong back to the water. It's skin is sticky and dry, but he's still breathing. Gently I move him back and forth through the water, pumping oxygen through his lungs until he's strong enough to swim away.
This is miserable.
The only game fishing lakes I've been at prior to Cha-Am were Exotic Fishing Thailand and Gillham's Fishing Resort – foreign run businesses that do everything in their power to ensure minimal stress on the fish, outside of not catching them at all.
Both are these tiny English lakes set in well manicured gardens surrounded by steep limestone cliffs jutting up through the jungle, towering above you. They are majestic and filled with several world record fish, as well as strange fish from all over the globe: African Walking Catfish, Amazon Redtail Catfish, Siamese Carp, Goonch Catfish from India and Arapaima.
With staff walking out to take your order and bring you food, all you have to do is keep an eye on the tip of your rod. As soon as the hook is set, you start blowing a whistle, and an employee comes running over to net the fish.
The fish itself stays in the water, as they pull the hook, spray its mouth with antibacterial fluid and then, if it's worth it, allow you to climb into the lake for a trophy photo before gently releasing it. It's so smooth, so caring, so easy.
That's what I'm use to. If I wasn't alone mabye Cha-Am wouldn't be so bad, but right now, it's miserable.
I did attempted to get my friend Cian throw a die and give a one in six chance of joining me at the fish park. It would mean he would have to play hooky from work and make a long drive up from Phuket, but it would also possibly the last chance we could hangout before I'm out of reach.
“See you 16.5 per cent on Monday,” I wrote. “Or 33 percent. When you role [sic] the die to come fishing ;)”
He didn't roll.
Real world responsibilities seem to hamper Diceperson's lifestyle.
So, I'm alone. Eventually, a couple Thai fishermen show up and set up their rods.
With the pliers I press down the barb. If we were taking the fish home to eat and couldn't risk losing them once they were hooked a barb would be fine. But here, in a catch and release pond, what's the point?
My line starts spinning off the reel again. I snap it up and set the hook. This fish plays differently, cutting through the water and moving in a way the Mekong didn't.
After several minutes of playing the fish, working it down, I bring a beautiful Siamese Carp to shore. I wave a young Thai guy over to take a picture of me with the beautiful fish. She's a big bellied girl with her scales tinted black toward the top, classic Siamese Carp.
I've never caught a carp before. We have them in Indiana, but they are extraordinarily skittish and smart creatures. As a teenager, I spent hours throwing my line out to where I could see carp just below the surface of Lake Monroe, but they simply ignored the bait.
I gently release my first carp back into the lake.
This isn't so bad.
With the barb pressed down and someone to take a picture, I'm starting to adjust my expectations.
An old man, Peter as it would turn out, starts violently cursing in the next swim. He's here with a younger Thai woman, her mother and a 10-year-old Thai boy. The abuses rain down on the Thai fishing guide, who doesn't seem to understand a word of what Peter's saying. It sounds like he wants some weights for the rig.
Peter simmers down, only to lose his temper minutes later. The boy, doesn't seem remotely interested in the fishing, but just strolls down to look at the other fishermen. The women with Peter, talks to him in calm broken English.
I go back to work in the shade of the cement slab swim, which comes equipped with power sockets. Occasionally, I jump out of my chair after I realize my float has disappeared or has been pulled halfway across the like.
With a fish on the line, I wave the kid who is here with Peter over and force the road on him. Standing next to him, I keep my hands on the rode and show him how to dip the tip, reeling in line, then slowly pull back against the fish, dragging it in.
Later, the Thai fishing guide walks up to me. “Have serv?” He asks.
He repeats, what I presume is supposed to be an English word. He gestures for me to follow him to Peter.
“Swivel for Christ's sake, swivel,” Peter seems to be yelling at no one in particular.
“Ah, I've got it,” I say, calming the wrinkly, red-faced man down. I show the guide a picture of a swivel on my phone and we walk over to the bait shop.
When I return, Peter attempts to launch into a dialogue about how stupid Thai people are.
“I've been here too long,” he says. I can't agree more. He's been here 16 years and still is unable to communicate. I'm not saying speak Thai, I mean communicate, in a civilized manner.
“Pull up a chair son,” he says.
I decline, pointing out that I have work to do, as well as my own rod to keep an eye on.
He makes another attempt, but I do my best to brush it off with grace and to my swim.
I'm sure Peter is full of stories, fantastic stories. But I'm not about to wade through that much negativity to get to them, especially given that I'm already in a bit of a mood myself.
However, Peter's foulness and the adjustments I made when I realized I wasn't going to be waited on hand and foot, puts me in a much better mood. His digression into people not speaking a word of English, something I too was finding a bit frustrating, was so over the top that I found myself silently taking the defensive.
Now that I've switched sides, I'm feeling much better about the whole place.
On the way back for to the bait shop for more bread crumps, I pass a heavy set man with glasses who's sweating over a plate of cashew nuts and chicken.
He catches my attention and we stumble into a conversation.
“Just scouting the place out today,” says Greg, who I keep calling Peter in my head. “Saw them catching enormous Siamese carp and Mekong Catfish here on a television program back in the UK.”
He's a nice enough man, interesting, engaged and has a fisherman's soul swimming in his heart. He also took note of Peter, developing a similar impression.
“Hey, when you're done here, why don't you come down to the swim,” I say, fishing for some good company.
Five years ago, Greg weighed 10 stone and was fit as an ox, working farm land in the north with his Issan wife. Now, the skin around his left ankle is taught like the skin on an apple and carries around the weight of a man who has spent years under the surgeon's knife, never fully recovering.
“I told my wife. 'You're young – she's 36 – you can't let me burden your life'. I tell her she has to move on. We both love each other, but it's what's best for her,” Greg says with the kind of strength one can only have when backed by a deeply rooted love.
Several years ago, Greg developed a bacterial infection in his right hip. It got into his bone marrow and spread. During rehab in the UK, he was told he could walk, despite not being able to feel his leg.
He crashed and burned hard on the bathroom floor of his hospital room. His ankle was severely broken in two places. He didn't feel a thing when the doctor snapped it back into place.
He was told to walk on it, but he's diabetic and the bone never healed.
The bacteria also spread to his lower back. He's still waiting for the for the MRI results on the four vertebra in his lower back.
Using two forearm crutches, Greg shows up at the swim and settles onto a cement bench. Despite everything, he's optimistic about life. Just watching the big fish roll in the lake brings a childish glow to his face.
“I've fished my whole life,” he confesses. As a boy he and his father would go to the Severn River and fish for eels, pulling them from the water by the dozen. Now the eels are nearly extinct due to a invasive parasite that lives in their float bladders, sending them sinking to their deaths as they attempt migrate across the ocean.
“When I was in school, I would wake up early and fish for salmon. Go to school take my exams, then go back out to fish for salmon,” he says. “I got an A+ in fishing, but a D in school.”
The entire time Greg keeps talking about landing a Siamese Carp. That's his goal. He's never caught one before.
“Oh, just to cast a line out would be amazing,” he says.
I suggest he just grab a rod and join me, but he points out that it's already getting pretty late in the day. We chat a bit more.
I throw a die. It's odd. I cast.
“Evens, you catch the next fish; odds, I do,” I say super quickly before drop the die. It's a four.
“Next fish is yours.”
He tries to slip away from the situation, but I insist.
“The only rule of Dice Travels is that I have to follow through. This one is yours,” I say. I bait the hook and set the bait ball for him.
Laboriously, he gets to his feet and hobbles down to the bank to cast.
There are a couple nibbles, but nothing takes it.
“I think it's gone,” he reels it in. Some of the bait is still there. “Thanks for that,” he says.
“No, no, no, it's still your fish,” I insist. “It wasn't for the cast, it was for the next fish.”
I bait the hook and heaves it out there. It splashes down.
Standing their with the pole in his hand, he's completely absorbed. Nothing exists outside of him and the vibrations speaking to him through the taught line of the fishing pole.
He snaps the rod up and sets the hook. The line zips out for a moment, then the fish turns.
Gently he plays the animal.
“Playing this one for the crowds,” he admits.
Several minutes later, his fish comes to the surface along the bank. I have a net ready to go.
“Oh my Lord,” he says with the hushed whisper of someone who has just witnessed a miracle. I feel like I've just joined a deep believer in the house of God. “Oh, my lord.”
I net the beautiful Siamese Carp and bring it onto the grass.
Catching this Siamese Carp ticked a box on Greg's bucket list. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“It's beautiful,” we both say.
He hobbles off to grab his camera; I get my phone out.
With the hook already pulled, he kneels down for a photo.
He rocks back and forth, wobbling, sweat appearing on his brow as he struggles to get to his knees. His breathing becomes heavy. Finally, he has the beautiful fish in his hands and he raises it up for a couple photos.
Even now, Greg's in total disbelief.
We release the stunning fish back into the lake, and resume our positions in the shade.
“I have to be honest, that was on my bucket list,” Greg says. “Thank you so much.”
“I only gave you a 50 per cent chance of trying to catch that fish.”
It's magic, pure magic.
Greg sits and chats for another hour or so with me, while I'm busy not catching any fish.
He predicts I'll catch four more before the end of the day.
Almost immediately after leaves, I start hooking fish again. In no time at all, I haul in two small Mekong.
The line starts spinning of my reel at a frightening pace as the fish pulls against the drag and heads for the far side of the lake. It's pulling and pulling. The line come flying off, I start worrying that it will take me down to a naked reel.
Eventually, the fish turns and starts coming back, then runs again. About ten minutes into the battle, I check my watch 4:16.
The fight continues, with the fish walking me down the bank until I'm standing at the furthest away swim. It threatens to walk me back, through the lines of the other fishermen, but it decides against it.
An ache sets in on my right bicep. I switch hands. Nobody is really paying attention to me, I wish Greg was still here.
The fish continues to pull and pull, fighting me for every revolution of the real, every inch of the monofilament. The willful beasts seems untiring in what is becoming an endurance war.
Will this fish actually wear me out first, I wonder.
My lower back starts to ache as I keep the rod bent nearly in half, pulling hard against the fish, and adjusting the drag to ensure the line doesn't snap.
I tighten the drag and start reeling in, then he turns and sprints back out, taking meter after meter of hard won line back into the lake. Somewhere in the middle, he surfaces.
Frightened bait fish jump has he runs through them. He approaches the shore. The power of his tail sweeps water from the bottom to the top, rolling the water's surface, with him hidden deep below.
He runs again, and again. I check my watch, it's been thirty minutes.
The longer the fight goes the more time I have to worry about the line snapping. His tail strikes the line, it feels like the hook is slipping.
The fight continues.
I check my watch. It's been 45 minutes. A Thai kid down comes down to help me net him.
The fish is close to shore, but still so strong, unwilling to raise his head to the surface. He comes close and then runs again. Guiltily, I watch the Thai guy wait for me to drag the fish in. I've committed so much time to it already, I'm not about to rush the ending and snap the line.
Finally, the giant comes to the surface. The Thai guy and I heave the fish onto the grass.
It's a hefty Mekong, it's skin a stunning iridescent lavender at the top fading into white toward it's bulging belly. I kneel down and do my best to raise the fish up, holding it away from my body for the best possible photo.
We put him back in the water gently, and away he goes.
I'm exhausted. I don't want to catch another fish like him. I don't have what it takes. Anything that size would win if we faced off again today. But the addictive quality of fishing forces my hands back into the bag of bread. I bait up and toss the hook out.
The line goes taut.
“Jesus,” I say, fearful that it's another big one. Thankfully, it's not. In less than ten minutes, I bring the 30 pound fish to land.
The sky darkens and the florescent lights of the swim come on. I could fish for several more hours, but I don't have it in me.
Two fish later, I'm ready to pack it in, but I can't. I roll the die, and the die does it for me. Time to go get food, somewhere outside of the resort area.
Originally, I planned on just one day of fishing. With the stunning success of the day, there isn't much more to accomplish, but the chance to sharing a day of fishing with Greg, just a couple boys kicking back with rods in our hands, is too good to pass up.
Before he left, I told him I'd stick around another day and see what we could haul in.
It's a plan. I'll stick to it.