Multifaceted Asia Part I: Taiwan, What Lies Beneath

The roar of jet engine woke me up from my uncomfortably positioned slumber on a Boeing 777. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I looked out the plastic windows to behold the tropical island of Taiwan. Located just north of the Philippines, it still experiences winter-time cold, but the temperatures were easily comfortable for a California native. While having traveled to Taiwan multiple times throughout my youth, my fishing experiences were always limited by my inability to communicate fluently in Chinese. Although wintertime fishing is always a risky proposition worldwide, this would be my last chance to experience fishing on this island for quite some time due to upcoming obligations of residency application and interviews.

Luckily, in the last few years of pursing species hunting to a greater degree, I had managed to connect with various anglers across the world, including a few ex-pats residing in Taiwan. Regularly exchanging information and reports with them, I found them exploring various fisheries in Taiwan and finding rather amazing results. Although the fishing was by no means easy or wide open due to intense pressure from local catch and kill anglers, they had managed to find various venues to pursue some unique (and also some rather familiar) species of fish.

After arriving and exchanging pleasantries in the northern city of Taipei, I settled in and got ready to explore the first fishing venue that I had been introduced to. Although I would not be able to meet with one of my first angling contacts in Taiwan, due to him being out of town, I had also met a young ex-pat from New Zealand who was eager to share his fishing knowledge with me. Located in the midwest city of Hsinchu, he had racked up an impressive number of trophy catches around the area, some of the most common being a species that the average American angler is quite familiar with!

The reason for this familiarity is no coincidence. Taiwan is a small island that heavily relies on oceanic sources of livestock for income as well as for consumption. In order to sustain the large population living in a small area, Taiwan has pioneered many aquaculturing operations, including those of large fish favored by restaurants. Some of these species include cobia, grouper, seabass, and even amberjack. Fortunately for the sport anglers in the area, captive fish often escape and form wild populations, not unlike the established exotic cichlid species forming colonies in South Florida. Although the ecological implications of these invasive species remain to be seen, the self sustaining populations are becoming an enjoyable target for the hordes of sport anglers in Taiwan.

While Taiwan is a tropical island, it is just as susceptible to winter storms as any location. Although the weather was comfortable and warm for the first day when I arrived, temperatures plummeted almost overnight by 8 degrees C and rainstorms began to push their way over the island! A little apprehensive at what effect the weather might have on the fishing, I was still hopeful that a dropping barometric pressure might turn on a bite.

1. Invasives Rule

At daybreak the next day, I was able to hitch a ride from Taipei to the seaside town of Hsinchu and after a short drive through some early morning traffic, I arrived to the location described to me by my friend. Rather unimpressive at first sight, the concrete margins of the waterway were overrun with tired looking shrubbery, and olive colored water reflected the gray morning skies. A rickety wooden planked dock extended a short distance into the water, covered with netting. Although this place would win no beauty contest, the small structure that extended into the water would be key to the fishing I would soon experience. This was a fish aquaculture pen, similar to the white sea bass pens and bait barges in Southern California. Also similar to the way bait barges attract predatory sea life looking to score morsels drifting out of the nets, these aquaculture pens would often provide structure for an extraordinary amount of fish.

Scouting the edges of the waterway, I looked for signs of life. However, nothing was visible as I walked along the broken pavement… until I reached the edge of the aquaculture pen. Just past the pen, I saw the surface of the water ripple slightly, and then a fin or two gently wave out of the water. Due to reflection on the water, I couldn’t make out what the fish was, or how large they were, but I could tell there was a sizeable group of them. With shaking hands, I quickly pieced together my tackle and chose to slip on what has become one of my universal go-to reaction lure: my lucky craft.

A quick cast past the group of finning fish, and then I worked the lure back with a series of solid jerks. As my lure neared the fish, the surface began to boil as I watched fish start to chase my lure. Multiple dark shapes slashed through the water as they rushed the lure, but I failed to get an actual hit. In their rush, I could see their flanks, and these were no small fish… they certainly did not get to their size by being easily fooled by artificial lures!

I cast out again past them, and again they give chase but nothing actually hits. I begin to think they need more inspiration to actually hit the lure, so I change techniques slightly. I send my lure out parallel to the shoreline, so that it runs shallow and quickly, forcing the fish to shoot the shallow water to hit the lure. My change in technique works, and on my second cast, something hits the lure hard. My rod shakes vigorously as something quickly dashes through the water, trying to rid itself of my hook. After a brief spirited fight, I net a beautiful bronze backed fish; a delicate looking immature Amberjack. My first new species in Taiwan!

After a quick photo, it is released. My lure goes back out, and again there are a few shadowy followers, but it is immediately apparent to me that the fish in the area are spooked and not interested in artificials anymore. Luckily, while I had been fishing, my father had run to the nearby tackle stores to pick up a bag of live shrimp, and a tray of frozen squid.

Switching out my outfit to freeline some bait, I sent out the rig towards the pen and set down the rod to wait for a bite… and didn’t have to wait long! Within 15 minutes, I saw the line begin twitch, and I quickly picked up my rod, closed the bail, and set the hook. Something small took off with a frenzied struggle, but I was able to bring it to shore without too much trouble, and saw a small gorgeously marked Terapon Jarbua.

Sending some bait back out saw another small fish hooked within a few minutes but this time a more prolonged struggle resulted. Upon landing the fish, I was excited to see a unique species; the Chicken Grunt. An asian species of grunt that was normally found in deep waters offshore, it was amazing to see one landed in an estuary situation!

In search of something a little larger, I placed a slightly larger chunk of bait on my hook, and sent it back out into these fertile waters. This time a slightly longer wait goes by but before long, line begins to shoot off my open bail. Grabbing my outfit and closing the bail, I give a hard hookset. My rod immediately doubled over as I hooked into a tank of a fish! It took off steaming directly away from me with no hesitation. Even with my 30 lb braid, and 10 lb drag setting, this fish simply continued swimming leisurely away from me. Minutes ticked by as it continued to stubbornly resist my attempts to bring it in. This was definitely not a small fish! Nearly 15 minutes later, the greenish water parted to reveal the orangish sheen of an elongated hunchbacked fish. Tired from the fight, it flipped on it’s side to reveal rows of quarter sized beautifully iridescent scales and a uniquely jet black oval near it’s caudal peduncle. This familiar looking fish was in fact an oversized Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), a fish that is by no means native to Taiwan, but can now be found scattered throughout the coastline.

After admiring the beast of a drum, I quickly removed the hook and slipped it back into the water. The fish quickly disappeared back into the dark water. Baiting back up, I quickly sent out my rig back to where I had the hit. This time, I waited for just a tad longer before my line began to straighten out again. After closing the bail, I struck and once again hit into something absolutely solid. 15 minutes later, another huge Red Drum was floundering in the shoreline in front of me. In fact, this pattern continued through the rest of the day, with complete monsters of Red Drum smashing into my baits constantly.

Although I was having an absolute blast fighting these tanks, I eventually got spoilt to the point that I was hoping for a new species just to break the monotony! After all, my source had specifically noted that dozens of species of fish had been caught or spotted in this location.

As the skies started to darken with the setting sun, I had just finished releasing my 8th red drum when I decided to try sending out my bait to a slightly different part of the waterline, where it appeared there were submerged pipes providing some sort of structure. Setting out some squid, I watched my line lay limply on the surface of the water, when it suddenly gives a twitch, then a series of slow pulls. This was definitely different from the bites that I was getting with the drum, which just sucked up my bait on the run.

Picking up my rod, I felt the gentle set of pulls on my line, and I quickly set the hook. I felt something solidly respond, and a short series of quick runs followed. Compared to the extended fight of the red drums, this fish came up to the surface rather readily, and that’s when I saw the beautiful sight of my chief target species in Taiwan: the Chinese Spotted Seabass (Lateolabrax maculates). Extremely similar to the Japanese Seabass (Lateolabrax japonicus), this species differs by retaining it’s beautiful black speckling into adulthood.

Although it lacked the stubborn long runs of the drum, it was no slouch as a fighter, and instead took to the air in a series of frenzied jumps and forceful headshakes. Thankfully, my hookset held, and soon I was admiring the steely gray form of my first Chinese Spotted Seabass. A nocturnal hunter with huge eyes, these fish were so beautiful and unique.

After releasing the fish I send out my last bait before heading home, and what do you know? Another gorgeous Chinese Spotted Seabass! However, this one was much heavier built than the first one, and it bulldogs around for a while longer before finally succumbing to my pressure. With a set of heavy shoulders and strongly underslung jaws, it gives off a mean bulldog appearance, and measures out to a respectable 31 inches. After quickly releasing it, the sun has begun to slip down over the distance while the rain and wind has been steadily picking up. Time to head home… but I was already planning my return the next day!

2. Beefing Up the Variety

Leaving Taipei on the first subway train in the morning, I switched two lines before catching the HSR or Taiwan High Speed Rail at the Taipei Main Station. This incredible method of transportation was opened only within the last 6 years, and is capable of tranversing the entire length of the island in less than 2 hours due to the nearly 300 km/h cruising speed! Although I have sat on the HSR multiple times previously, I never tire of the deceptively smooth acceleration as the train pushes across the changing landscape.

Arriving in Hsinchu a mere 30 minutes after departing from the Main Station, the grey foreboding skies of the previous day had given away to warm blue skies. Today, I was intent on trying to get past the hordes of monster redfish in an attempt to chase some new species of fish. Instead of focusing around the aquaculture pens, I planned to find other structure to place my bait near and see what would result.

However, as I had pretty much anticipated, the first fish of the day turned out to be a lovely violet and golden Red Drum.

As I was releasing it, I noticed a gentle ripple forming around some submerged structure. I quickly put out another bait in the area, and seconds after letting it sink out of sight, my line twitched as something inhaled the bait. Setting the hook, I found a hard fighting snapper species on the line. This Star Snapper had a pretty awesome name, and was unique to Taiwan.

Taking this cue as the best way to pursue other interesting species, I kept walking until I found another piece of structure. Casting out, I had settled down for a wait when the line started twitching again and I set the hook into a beautiful One Spot Snapper. Although these snappers were only a few pounds in weight, they definitely put up an amazing struggle and put a hefty bend in my rod!

With the strange sudden warm weather however, I believe the bite was turned off and I had a hard time finding another willing fish. I spent the rest of the afternoon looking for other spots to fish, and soaking baits for nothing. Returning back to the aquaculture pen, I met my friend who had introduced me to this location on his lunch break. Being very familiar with the owners of the pens, he told me if I wanted to, I could “help” transport some fish by fishing in the pen and moving the captured fish to a holding pool. Although this was cheating by all definitions of fishing, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see what fish resided in the pens. Carefully making my way out to the end of the pen on rickety wooden planks, I peered into the deep nets and dark waters only to see no movement or life.

I dropped another freelined piece of squid down into the water and watched it slowly sink out of sight, again with no signs of life. However, as it laid near the bottom of the net, my line slowly began to tighten. Balancing myself on the wooden planks around the net, I carefully set the hook while trying not to fall into the water. The response was somewhat anticlimactic as something immensely heavy fought to pull away from my hook, but really had no where to run in the netted enclosure. For several minutes, it swam in circles and refused to come up towards the surface, similar to the bulldogging fight the bull reds had put up. However, it eventually tired of swimming in circles, and the murky waters slowly parted to reveal a huge and gorgeously black and white marked Cobia! This was easily a 15 pound fish, and I struggled to balance and pull it out of the water for a picture. Having never handled or seen a Cobia, I never realized they possess a set of stubby, thick and extremely sharp dorsal spines that were very capable of creating a nasty set of cuts. But now I do.

Quickly taking a picture, I dropped the Cobia into the holding pool directly adjacent to the fish pen. Although they are a beautiful fish probably capable of producing a great fight in an open space, it was just a little too sadistic for me to continue hooking and fighting them in the small pen so their transportation services would be provided by the guys with nets.

Returning to fish alongside the pens with my friend, he told me that in the right seasons, there were some enormous groupers that would sit beneath the pens and just inhale smaller fish. He had once pinned a 2 pound porgy on a hook using his butterfly jigging outfit with 100 lb powerpro, freelined the bait under the pen and within seconds hooked up to an absolute monster of a grouper. However, even with his oversized setup, it only took the grouper a minute to wrap him around the many obstructions under the pen, and snap the line.

Although I wasn’t interested in playing tug a war against a man sized grouper, I was very excited at the idea of catching a new grouper species, so I followed his lead and cast a small baitfish out towards the pens. About half an hour later, something was tapping at my bait, so I picked up and set the hook. The response was immediate and something just absolutely burned the line off my reel as it headed towards the safety of the pens. Within seconds I had been cut off. My friend shook his head, “Yup, grouper.”

A little while later, just as my friend was leaving to return to work, he was able to hook up with something right in front of our feet, at a little rockpile he had found while fishing there. I watched jealously as he pulled up a small but gorgeously marked grouper possessing a set of fantastically scary looking teeth.

After he left, I continued to fish hard, but could not locate any more fish. Just as the sun started to disappear in the horizon however, I gave my good old one last cast and freelined my last shrimp out under the pen. Within seconds, I felt a gently knock on my line and then a slow tightening. As I set the hook, something blasted my drag again, taking off directly under the pens. Praying that my line wouldn’t hang on an obstruction, I palmed my spool and applied maximum side strain to get the fish out. Miraculously, I was able to muscle the fish out from under the pen, but the fight was far from over. I was absolutely amazed with the speed, strength, and stamina of this fish and I wasn’t even able to get the fish near shore until the sun had long set and we were fighting in pitch darkness. Even when I had the fish directly at my feet, I could not tell what it was, and continued to bulldog directly downwards. Finally after a long fight and a sore stomach from my rod butt, I saw something deep red flash to color. No way, all that for another bull red? But there was something different, the red was much deeper, the glinting eye much larger and more sinister, and the body deeper with more muscular shoulders. Onto the bank, I slid an enormous nearly 30 inch Mangrove Red Snapper (Lutjanus argentimaculatus). Not to be confused with the Gray Snapper (Lutjanus griseus) commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico and sometimes called Mangrove Snapper, the Mangrove Red Snapper is often called the Mangrove Jack in Australia and is world renowned in it’s fighting capacity.

Unfortunately, it was very difficult to get a good picture in the pitch darkness, and the fish was quite exhausted from the extended fight, so I quickly slipped it back into the water. Within just a few days of fishing, I had accumulated a handful of new species and landed some hefty opponents while fishing the brackish tidal regions of Central Western Taiwan. Although I had only landed a fraction of fish species that my friend had documented in the area, I couldn’t afford any more time at this location. Perhaps next time I was back I would be able to target the other snapper, grouper, porgy, tarpon, pompano, and jack species that he noted were around. Next up, I was curious what fish species some other environments in Taiwan might hold…

[i]To be continued…[/i]

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