Living on an island in the middle of the Irish Sea is where I grew up. Inundated by Viking mythology the Isle of Man was a place mainly for farming and stories about sea gods that surrounded the tiny rock in shrouds of mist to protect itself from visiting enemies. I started my fishing at the young age of 6 when all I had was a rod as thick as a straw and some split shots with sand worm for bait. Fishing off rugged shore lines with endless beaches and piers I was always trying to catch one of the monsters that you’d heard the stories of when you were a child. At the tender age of 13 my biggest fish stood me proud at a massive 3lb 10oz Coalfish and from that moment on I knew all I wanted was to bank something over that magic mark but little did I know it would take me 20 long years of trying to make this come true.
I picked up the fly rod and I began at 17 to learn how to cast after watching various TV programmes and ordering books from the UK to show me how it was done. Eventually after mastering the “roll cast” and hooking myself umpteen times in the head and legs I realised that fly fishing had my heart more than the sea. It took me a few years of mistakes, swearing and patience to learn how to fly fish to a standard I was proud of. I will never forget the days of starting out with a gold head buzzer with some mad knot I’d created and trying to work out how you actually fitted the braided loop but all this taught me was that there was so much to learn and I was eager to beat that record using my fly rod.
I’d caught lots of trout over the years ranging in various weights (and losing some monsters) but still that 3lb 10oz was eluding me and it was killing me inside knowing that there was so many monsters out in the world but none of them were accessible to me. I went on a holiday to Thailand a few years later and begged my other half to have my traditional “one day fishing”. I arrived at the fishery and within minutes I was staring at a guy standing in the water with a Siamese Carp that looked like a baby whale! Touching the scales at just over the 100lb mark I was astonished that things like this could come from a lake in the middle of tropical surroundings, only 25 minutes from a beach where I’d ridden an elephant and played with a baby tiger. I beat my record that day with Siamese carp up to 60lbs and several other species over the 30lb mark and to me this was the start of a new love……Thailand!
After becoming obsessed with “River Monsters” and watching Jeremy Wade catch things with teeth bigger than Jaws, it was decided and I went back to Thailand to try catch one species in particular, the Arapaima. Two further visits to Thailand and this fish had evaded me like the 3lb 10oz Coalfish had over the last few years. I began to think to myself what do I need to do to catch this fish and after a conversation with my avid fly fishing friend Darren Hunt, we both come to the idea that the fish must see bait and pellets in front of their noses daily, the only way to catch these leviathans was on a fly. The idea sunk in and then the planning started; for the reel and rod that would take something up to 400lb of sheer muscle with a head like a brick; and to top it off……bullet proof scales. I went for a 12 weight Fox travel rod and a Orvis V Hydros reel with a very accessible adjustable drag for the obvious reasons of liking my fingers to stay attached to my hand.
After several attempts to tie my own flies I decided that the way they were flowing in the water I couldn’t replicate what I had seen on the rivers of the Amazon so I researched some people in the Pike fly fishing world and discovered an absolute gem in a chap called Magnus Nygren, he tied me replica Java Barb and Roach type patterns which are native to the Thai river systems, and also since it was Snake Head breeding season I thought I should get some fry patterns made up too. We ended up having to go with salt water Giant Trevally hooks simply because of the amount of material on the fly; with a potential weight of 400lb I didn’t want to chance losing anything over a bent hook.
So I arrive at Exotic Fishing Thailand in Phang Nga which is run by Mike Bailey, a Canadian man who came fishing in Thailand and decided to never leave. The place looks stunning with shades of green foliage you didn’t think were possible. An eagle slowly circles around the never ending mountains and the sounds of distant monkeys calling to one another. You have to take a step back and think to yourself are you really only 45 minutes from Phuket airport or in a land forgotten by time away from the human touch. I loaded my Orvis up with Rio GT 50lb saltwater floating line with weighted taper and a good 300 yards of backing just in case I got something that decided water skiing maybe my next sport. I watched the sun rise over the mountains and saw a disturbance over by the floating hyacinth. A mouth gulping air for a split second not enough to be noticed but enough to make my heart go into panic mode. I knew from that point that the Ari were still cruising the shallows looking for the individual fish that stray from the shoal and make it its first meal of the day. Twenty Nine years of my fishing experience began to flash in front of my eyes, all that learning, all those hook-ups, lost fish and countless YouTube videos all come back to haunt you when you know what is in front of you could be that one fish that you’ve flown 34944 miles over 3 years for is potentially 30 feet to your right looking for something resembling the fly you have on your line……no worries right?
I had practiced with my line and rod before I went so I knew the capabilities this travel rod had and the ease with which could get the line out but one thing I wasn’t 100% sure on was how the reel would perform; after all unless I’m going to get a 200lb man to start running away from me with a fly attached to him there was only one way to find out! I spent several hours stalking the fish and trying to even get a sniff of attention and in 32 degrees this wasn’t the easiest of fishing sessions I’ve done. But like a wise man said to me once, if it was easy everyone would do it. I’d seen a fair few Arapaima that day surfacing for air and I cast every direction possible to try and lure them but I began to feel that it was never going to happen. Mike the owner said to try by the floating hyacinth at dusk and slowly strip the line maybe 3 foot from the edge of the bank. My first thoughts were how can a fish that’s potentially 6ft plus, and that weight, be in so close; but after being told that they love the shallows I was all over it.
Another hour went by and ‘bang’ my line flew of and by the speed that the reel was going at I knew that something was on the end that literally was going to be the bane of my life for at least the next hour. As the fish approached the edge and a very tired arm I produced an absolute stunner of a Wallagu Attu whose picture now proudly sits on my wall and with a weight over the current IGFA, of a touch under 43lb. I sat there thinking to myself if this is what this can do….what seriously is going to happen when it’s 8 times the weight.
I got up the next morning to what I can only describe as paradise and quietly began to stalk the margins looking for clouds of disturbed mud in the water, or ripples, but literally nothing was stirring. I decided to listen to Mike and again fish the margin. I cast several times into the same spot and decided to let the fly sink a bit. I went all out for a long cast hearing the sounds of the fibres whooshing through the air as it passed me and with a delicate landing it sat proud like a beaming purple and black ray of sunshine gently sinking into the ever darkening depths. I let the fly sit for a few minutes until I knew it would be as deep as it could get and I began to strip the line with a slow figure of eight, I even tried few twitches. When I look back at what happened next my mind still can’t really compute as I can only describe it as a force like a huge vacuum, an easy 10ft of line flew straight out of my hand. I lifted the rod, rather than strike, and the rest was a mixture of luck, panic and maybe a touch of all those 29 years of fishing coming into play. The line had disappeared before I had a chance to grab it and I was into the backing praying to whatever Viking god I could think of that this knot was the best knot that man had ever seen.
The fish stayed down deep for a good 15 minutes before I finally got a glimpse, when it came up for air. All I saw was a plethora of colour; greens, pinks, silvers and reds and for a split second…I could swear my heart stopped…finally I had an Arapaima! The fight went on for over an hour with the fish jumping out of the water like a Tarpon and had me constantly bowing, hoping she stayed on. I knew with using barbless hooks I had to keep that tension otherwise all would be at a loss. Finally I began to be able to tighten the drag slightly and wind some of the maybe 100ft of line back in and then it all went wrong. The fish decided to dart under the floating hyacinth. The exact place I’d caught this monster from was going to be the place that now became the obstacle that could potentially cost me my PB fish of a lifetime.
There was only one thing for it, I got in the water and followed the fish down the bank and spooked it out of the greenery and I was back in the winning seat. I climbed back out onto the bank and finally this old girl had had enough as this 34 year old man and she began to come in cursing like a prehistoric dinosaur. I could see its mouth with my fly just in the side and the silver and pink flash shredded to pieces. I’d done it. I had finally after all these trips, planes and taxis; I had finally done it! The guides had one thing left to do which was guide her into the net and a few minutes later she was in. I sat down, dropped my rod to my knees and took a second to reflect on over 90 minutes of almost 7ft, 330lb, and a girth that I couldn’t fit my arms around if I wanted. I looked at the fish glistening with its rainbow colours fading into dark black and red and realised that a tiny rod that fitted in my case and a reel no bigger than a saucer had done its job and I’d landed a fish of many people’s dreams and a moment I can take to the grave knowing that all that pain and worry finally paid off.
By the end of the trip I had several Arapaima, Red Tail Catfish, Asian Catfish, Pacu and Snake Head all in the net. What I would say is the red letter holiday of a lifetime and all that was down to Mike Bailey at Exotic Fishing Thailand for creating a place where people can catch dreams and the myth of a 14,000 year old prehistoric monster fish becomes a reality.
Many thanks to the owner Mike Bailey at exotic fishing Thailand (bookings available on facebook or http://www.exoticfishingthailand.com), Magnus Nygren for tying stunning reliable flies available via facebook and Thai Airways for a safe and comfortable journey.
Lee McSween – https://www.facebook.com/lee.mcsween
Mike Bailey – https://www.facebook.com/Mike.bailey.EFT
Exotic Fishing Thailand – https://www.facebook.com/Exotic-Fishing-Thailand-427820143951674