Multifaceted Asia Part III: Taiwan, River gems

With my final few days in Taiwan ticking away, the weather had finally begun to cooperate. The winds had died down to a reasonable amount, and the waters were beginning to clear. Unfortunately, with the small amount of time left I would be unable to pursue any of the more exciting pelagic or marine targets that I had wanted to catch. Nonetheless, it would give me some time to explore the freshwater gems that are scattered throughout Taiwan’s freshwater waterways.

There are over 150 species of freshwater fish inhabiting Taiwan, with more than 30 endemic species that can be found nowhere else in the world. Although the law prohibits fishing in many freshwater waterways and bodies of water in Taiwan in order to reduce angling pressures on these valuable rare species, there are still special provisions and locations allowing angling. Due to the high levels of angling pressures in these remaining locations, as well as the crystal clear waters that are often found, fish are often exceptionally wary and difficult to hook.

My first freshwater angling experiences in Taiwan when I was much younger and less experienced were generally met with utter and complete failure despite hours and hours spent stalking fish. I simply had not developed the proper techniques and reflexes required to successfully catch these quick biting and highly angler shy species of fish. But had the past years of species hunting increased my ability to be a successful angler here in the freshwater waterways of Taiwan?

The first location where I had planned to pursue some freshwater targets was a whopping 2 minute walk down the street. Like I had found in many major cities throughout the world, canals and waterways often snake their way through urban areas and the indiscriminate angler can often find a wide variety of hard fighting fish species thriving in these areas.

A quick scan of the area showed what I had known from my first trip to Taiwan: the waters are absolutely bristling with fish. In my experience literally every single body of water, often times only inches deep, will hold hundreds if not thousands of fish in Taiwan. Unfortunately, this ends up actually being a species hunters nightmare because every single one of these fish are usually the same species: the ubiquitous Nile Tilapia. Although great fighters and highly difficult to entice on hook and line, it was a species I had caught plenty of during past visits to Taiwan. Instead, I was much more interested in what other unique species I might be able to find mixed in among these tilapia.

Scanning the water, I was excited to see various other small species of fish traveling in between the cloud of tilapia. A school of silvery elongated fish flashes their flanks as I watched them dig among the stream bed. A few fish hovered in the moderate current and picked off invisible items from the surface of the water. Every few moments a large splash would echo as a monstrous looking plecostomus would dash to the surface to supplement oxygen to its bloodstream. My inner species hunter was salivating at the opportunity to capture and identify all these foreign fish!

However, despite the amount of life found in the water, the frustrating experiences from my childhood were soon to be repeated. These fish were so spooky that crawling to casting distance along on the shore would already send them on the run. Sending a split shot splashing down a few feet from them would spook them immediately. Although I had bought some angleworms from a local bait shop to use as bait, the majority of fish seemed utterly and completely uninterested in the wriggling bait at the end of my hook. It was difficult to judge whether the fish were simply shying away from my terminal tackle and thus avoiding the bait, or whether they were herbivorous by nature. Either way, watching hordes of fish swim by my bait without a second glance was quite frustrating!

Finally, I managed to get my bait in the right position at the right time to intercept a small fish. It sucked up my bait carefully, and I immediately set the hook. Pulling up the fish, I wondered what exciting foreign species it would be! Surprisingly, it ended up being a wild Goldfish! I traveled 1000 miles to capture a goldfish! Luckily, it would be a new species for me, but the idea is still comical!

Seeing some small fish sucking in bait from the water surface, I decided to forgo bait soaking for some fly fishing. Although I did not have any fly fishing equipment with me, I used a clear bubble with a long trace of 2 lb fluorocarbon to get a size 12 gnat fly into the drift. I watched as ripples from rising fish formed all around my fly whilst my offering was systemically avoided. Now I remember why I used to hate flyfishing! However, a couple of hours later, I had an aggressive strike at my fly, and landed a small Taiwanese minnow! Although the species is known to develop spectacular breeding coloration with pastel flanks and elongated streamers on it’s fins, this rather plain female Formosan Pale Chub was nonetheless my first freshwater species endemic to Taiwan.

As I was drifting my fly down the current at the rising chubs, I realized that while retrieving the fly back through the current, once in a while a darker shadow would snap at the fly. Predatory fish always intrigue me, so I began to cast the fly and jig it to make it skate on the surface in an enticing action. A few casts later, I watched as a small shadow smacked the fly from the surface. I quickly reeled in the fish to find a tilapia on the end of my line. But wait, this was not one of the hundreds of Nile Tilapia that were milling around in the water. This was a Redbelly Tilapia, yet another new species for me! Although it lacked the dazzling crimson bellies found in breeding males, my specimen did have lovely fluorescent yellow highlights on its caudal fin accenting its beautiful green scales.

While switching fishing locations, I noticed another angler casting a small surface lure and working it back to the shore. Although he was unsuccessful in enticing a strike while I watched, I knew what he must be fishing for. Snakehead! I knew that snakehead could be caught throughout Taiwan, but I didn’t think they would be found in such urban environments as I was in! As soon as I realized they might be present, I also began to notice them! Ranging from small foot long babies calmly finning along the shoreline to enormous 3 foot long shadows that slinked away as I approached them, there were definitely snakehead here!

I quickly switched to lures, and started casting a variety of lures. Buzzbaits, chatterbaits, poppers, stickbaits, jerkbaits, jigs, swimbaits, my entire tacklebox was soon void of lures that I hadn’t tried yet. Although flukes were half heartedly followed, I had only brought a handful of them, and they were quickly lost to snags. Later in the year, when I would pursue a different species of snakehead, I would learn one major mistake that I had made in Taiwan. Snakehead are incredibly wary, and the moment they spot a person on the bank, they get lockjaw. Long casts and a careful approach are absolutely mandatory in snakehead fishing success!

With plans made for the rest of the day, I couldn’t afford any more time fishing these banks. I woefully glanced over the waterway again. Cavorting in it’s water I had seen at least 2 species of snakehead, and multiple unidentified cichlids, chubs, cyprinoids, and plecostomas that I had failed to tempt onto hook and line. Looks like years of angling experience were still not enough to guarantee success in these well-fished waters!

On my last day in Taiwan, my family decided to take a trip into the mountains of Taiwan. Unbeknownst to many, Taiwan is home to some beautiful mountain ranges that tower around the capitol city and all along the center of the island. These mountains are home to a variety of springs, including hot springs valued by many for it’s therapeutic and relaxing effects. As my first time traveling to this area, it was amazing to see the visually distinct line formed when a tributary from a hot spring, complete with sulfur rich minerals, intercepted a normal crystal clear cold mountain spring. Crisscrossing above these hot springs, a myriad of hoses and lines used by locals to pump the water into private bath houses would be found.

At first, I was highly dubious that fish would be found in an area with so much sulfer and mineral clouded waters. Nonetheless, I had prepared myself with a tub of maggots, a couple of packs of powder based baits in case I ran across any more herbivorous species of fish, and some floats to detect the minute peckings that I had come to expect from freshwater fish in Taiwan. As my family busied themselves with finding a bath house to spend a relaxing evening in, I went exploring for some fishable waters.

Choosing one of the clear tributories of the river, I followed it upstream for only a few minutes. Quickly, I found a gorgeous deep pool of water with a few shadowy shapes. Learning my lesson from my previous day of frustrating fishing, I carefully and slowly approached the water with a single small hook with split shot and maggot. Tossing it into the swift flow to be carried into the deeper pool, I was completely surprised as something immediately took my bait with absolutely no hesistation. Reeling in, I found a decent sized silvery fish with a gaping mouth. As a child I had remembered seeing these fish in a creek and never managed to catch one, but finally I had caught my Zacco pachycephalus, a fish that doesn’t have an English common name. Although my specimen didn’t have the vibrantly gorgeous colors breeding males develop, I was ecstatic at having caught a species I had never quite managed to catch.

Tossing out my bait once again, it was quickly smashed within another few seconds. This time the fish eagerly dashed around before making a few talented acrobatic leaps. This was a Formosan Striped Dace, a voracious and not particularly uncommon species of fish in Taiwan.

Quickly releasing the fish, I added a few split shots onto my line to try and see what might lurk a little deeper in the pool. Tossing a pair of maggots on my hook into the darker waters, I struck as my line twitched. Suddenly, I found myself connected to something with much more strength than the previous two fish. This fish bulldogged hard into the current, around the pool, and even pulled some drag on my ultralight outfit. Expecting a large fish, I was surprised to see a 10 inch fish surface. Despite it’s small size, I was blown away by it’s gorgeous coloration, with black edged criss-crossing on it’s scales, steely gray bars on it’s flanks, orange fins, and a black sail-like dorsal fin. To be honest, I had absolutely no idea what species this fish was, but it was without a doubt one of the hardest fighting fish for it’s size I had hooked in freshwater. Later, I would find it was an Acrossocheilus paradoxus, another fish with no English common name.

After a quick release, I sent my rig back into the pool and soon found that there was a large school of them at the bottom. Cast after cast, these fish were voraciously attacking my bait and I was absolutely delighted in fighting each one of these hard pulling little warriors. Once I had caught and released a handful of them, I decided to see what other species I might be able to wrangle from this little pool. Although Taiwanese Mahseer were not known to be taken from this location, generally found more south of Taipei, I was curious whether there might be anything in the pool that might attack a lure.

Rigging up with a stream standard, I sent a small Panther Martin across the current, and brought it back down. Within just a few rotations of my spool, something hit my spinner and soon I had another Formosan Striped Dace in my hand. Although small, these little fish were definitely a blast to fight. Another cast and soon a hungry Zacco pachycephalus was in my hands. Stream fishing at it’s best!

Time was against me however, as the sun began it’s descent over the mountains and the shadows lengthened. Before I departed, I took the opportunity to scan over the stream, and I hopped onto a boulder next to the stream. Before me, an amazing piscine community unfolded. Although I had caught 3 species easily in front of me, a variety of other species of fish proliferated in the water. Large heavy shouldered unidentified cyprinoids slowly grazed from the rocks. Spooked by my sudden presence, a very large trout shaped fish quickly scooted downstream away from me. Clouds of multicolored fish darted among the crevices in the rocks. An image that will certainly drive me to return one day!

With the last rays of sunlight disappearing over the horizon, I bid the beautiful country of Taiwan a fond farewell. There were so many opportunities and species that I had failed to explore, I could not wait for my next chance to fish on this island. But for now, I had an early morning flight to prepare for… onwards to the land of the rising sun! Konnichiwa, Tokyo!

[i]To be continued…[/i]

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