SINGAPORE — “Singapore has to be the worst place in the world for fishing,” said Jerry Tay, minutes after he introduced himself on the fishing dock. He then pulled out his digital camera and proceeded to show me a slide show of huge peacock bass caught in the Singapore reservoirs.
Tay approached me as I was making my first few casts at the government-approved fishing spot on Bedok Reservoir. Fishing is permitted from only one place, a long wooden dock. The water was as clear as the Tiger Beer I had been drinking all week, and two boys were already tossing out hooks baited with shrimp on a cheap spinning rod.
I was after the peacock bass because it represents everything Singapore is not. It is a brawling bar-fighter of a fish, a foreign invader misfit with bad table manners in the well-ordered Singaporean melting pot. The government may dictate natural order by landscaping the city-state as a well-tended but very unwild suburban park, but it cannot control the underwater jungle of the reservoir ecosystem. There, the peacock bass is the predator king.
For the adventure-starved populace of Singapore afflicted with nature-deficit disorder, chasing peacock bass is the best game in town.
Tay was wearing shorts and a T-shirt with a tackle pack slung across his torso and armed with a stout G. Loomis bait-casting rod. He kept one eye on my casts and another eye on the surface of the water.
He asked me what kind of fly I was using and suggested something silver-colored. Holding local knowledge in high regard, I immediately snipped off the black woolly bugger I was using and tied on a chartreuse streamer with silver tinsel.
“The first time you catch a peacock bass, you will never forget it,” he said. “The smell is like a person with bad body odor. When I first smelled it, I almost wanted to puke, and you can’t get it off you.”
I remembered the stink from some peacock bass I had caught a few days earlier, but I thought their stink was not any worse than, say, a carp from the Mississippi River.
Tay held them in high regard as a game fish. The peacock bass, or P.B.’s, as the locals call them, are more aggressive than the fearsome toman, or snakehead, which is a toothy predator fish that can grow as long as your leg. When the snakeheads protect their schools of juvenile fry, the bass mercilessly swim circles around them and decimate their offspring. In the local Mandarin dialect, the peacock bass is called the emperor fish because it has a yellow tint, and yellow is a color for royalty; and for the single-spotted tail, which symbolizes the stamped seal of a king.
He said the peacock bass (the butterfly strain, cichla ocellaris) were stocked by “some wiseguy” years ago and the population took off; however, angling in the reservoirs was not allowed at the time. When the ban was lifted, fishing was allowed only at designated points, as it still is today. There are no catch limits, size limits, fishing licenses or angling rules of any kind — other than the stipulation that you must fish from the exact spot the government tells you to fish from.
As we fished, Tay apprised me of the social structure of the Singaporean angling scene.
Lure fishermen were the middle rung. They fished with spinning and bait-casting outfits and used artificial lures and mostly practiced catch and release. Fly anglers also practiced catch and release, he said, but tended to look down on the lure fishermen. The snobbery was a big problem, and they thought of themselves as angling elitists.
However, both groups, he said, were united in deep hatred for bait fishermen.
“Everyone is against the baiters,” Tay said. “They come out at night and they throw nothing back. They kill everything.”
The government does not support recreational fishing, he said: “There’s no industry, no money in it, so they don’t encourage it.”
However, over the years, Tay has met anglers from Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America who were in Singapore to fish for peacock bass. Native to the Amazon watershed, there are only a handful of places in the world where one can pursue them outside of equatorial South America.
Those are the reasons Tay laments that Singapore is the worst place in the world for fishing even though his camera is loaded with photographs of trophy peacock bass, huge snakeheads and even tarpon (of the Indo-Pacific species, not the fabled Atlantic tarpon). He says he feels hemmed in by the catch-and-kill baiters, the absurd regulations and the lack of proper ones. He is always hunting for the next best spot.
“If a fisherman finds a good spot, they are extremely secretive about it,” he said, citing a universal angling code.
While we were talking and not paying close attention to our lines, Tay nonchalantly reeled in his lure, and there was a splash on the water. He missed a strike.
“This is always how it happens,” he said with a sigh.
Shawn started fishing in 1994. He caught his first fish (an Ah Seng) on that very first trip to Changi Carpark 4 (before it was barricaded). He built up his fishing knowledge and gear over the years but still keeps his old gear, just like the memories.