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Saturday June 2, 2007

Hunting toman

Guv’nor, I have a job for you . . .” the Gaffer said. 

I felt like a part-time hit man who holds a full-time day job just like any other responsible citizen while readying to spring into action whenever a “job” needed doing. 

“A couple of Japanese anglers, toman fishing, Royal Belum Forest. Interested?” he explained. 

“I’ll be in touch, Gaffer. Just need to make a couple of quick calls.” 

Victory: Kariu-san’s 3.5kg toman caught in the waters off the Royal Belum Forest. (Below) Sebarau was also caught.
Well, of course, I was interested. I was very interested. I would jump at almost any opportunity to enjoy the wilderness at Royal Belum Forest. It was very difficult to turn down the offer of a few days of fresh air, beautiful scenery, cool waterfalls and action-packed fishing.  

Royal Belum Forest’s 290,000ha was simply worlds apart from my concrete enclosed, air-conditioned office in Kuala Lumpur – although this time the trip was not about me. There were a couple of foreign anglers who were willing to travel a very long way and pay a bit of money to get a taste of what our local predator fish had to offer. 

We are talking about the toman (Channa micropeltes), a member of the snakehead family. They have white markings on their body, with some sporting beautiful shades of green or purple. They boast a set of sharp teeth, a mean look, and a bad attitude to boot!  

The toman has built quite a reputation for itself on the international sportfishing scene. 

Word of the blistering runs of the hard-fighting toman has spread all the way to Japan. There seems to be a small “toman fan club” there, and some anglers have already made their way down here, with more planning to come.  

The adrenaline rush that follows a toman take is undeniable. Mind you, even our local hardcore anglers get weak in the knees after a bout with a monster toman!  

Our friendly Japanese angling counterparts are more used to largemouth bass, an American import. The bass thrives in Japanese waters, but are getting increasingly difficult to catch after many years of catch and release, and one too many anglers going after too few fish.  

And so my good friend Zambri and I became guides to a couple of die-hard Japanese anglers. Our friends flew seven hours from Japan and travelled another six by road to reach the Royal Belum Forest. Now these chaps were definitely not beginners. Kariu-san and Nakakubo-san were well-travelled, and the long drive just flew by with tales of their fishing forays in exotic locations. 

We were to fish for three full days during the long break of May Day and Wesak. Incidentally, it was also a long break in Japan, one they called the “Golden Weekend”. Our main quarry was the toman, with the sebarau (Hampala macrolepidota) to serve as our “warming-up” catch. 

The planning were done months in advance as the Royal Belum is a restricted area and visitors must obtain a permit from the state park. This permit must be presented at an army checkpoint upon entry and exit. And perhaps you might like to know that there is a big machine gun pointing out to the water!  

This is not a place to use the typical “Malaysian-style pass” where you can just raise your hand and hope the guards will grant you entry! 

Deep inside the Royal Belum, things are still pretty wild. On previous trips, I’ve bumped into elephants, wild boars, barking deer and hornbills. 

On the first day, Kariu-san started catching with his home-made lure, from his own Pesca Bonita line. A lively 1kg sebarau went for his pencil bait. His lure was certainly the flavour of the day as another smaller sebarau and two tomans of around 1.5kg and 3kg each were enticed by his unique pencil lure. 

Nakakubo-san, on the other hand, despite an arsenal of expensive fishing tackles, was not doing as well.  

There had been heavy rain in the days prior and the water level was quite high. Perhaps due to the high level of oxygen in the water, there were hardly any toman rises. Fishing for toman is made easier by casting lures to the rises of the air-breathing toman. The lack of it forces anglers to cast almost blindly.  

It meant a lot of hard work to find where the fish were congregating and constantly changing lures.  

On the second day the toman opted for a more familiar flavour, with Kariu-san fishing the ever popular Rapala Shad Rap and netting just a single toman for the day. At 3.5kg, his catch was indeed a decent fish. And that probably made Nakakubo-san seethe with envy, as he still caught naught!  

Then came the last day of fishing. The weather was brilliant, the scenery breathtaking; now all we needed was some bites! We had a heavy downpour the night before, and the rain should cool the water down a little after two scorching days. We had figured out that the fish preferred to stay in the main body of water in these conditions, and so we concentrated our fishing away from the rivers.  

Fortunately, with the help of his pencil bait lure, Nakakubo-san finally managed to break his duck and heaved a sigh of relief with a toman. Just in time! Our friend managed to stay in the mood with a 1kg sebarau, courtesy of a Shad Rap this time. In the final minutes of fishing, with daylight fading fast, Nakakubo-san sealed the day with a well-earned, hard-fighting 2.5kg toman.  

The jubilant look on his face was priceless! 

I was simply relieved they got what they came for! All fish were safely released to fight another day. This is an important exercise to preserve the sensitive balance of nature. The toman and sebarau are more valuable as sportfish than as food.  

The Royal Belum Forest definitely holds great potential in sportfishing tourism. The three days were certainly no picnic, as both anglers struggled to get bites. This was unusual by Royal Belum’s standards. Could it be that the fish stocks are dwindling?  

It would be such a shame if anglers decide to shun the area due to unproductive fishing. Many of our waters have already suffered due to overfishing, poaching and pollution, and more often than not, the effects are irreversible.  

As we drove our two guests to the airport, a smile on their sunburnt faces, I wondered if they had had a good trip.  

“We had a very good trip, Din-san. And sorry to have troubled you so much during this trip,” they replied. 

“Not a problem at all” I said, happy that I had done my part for Visit Malaysia Year. As long as you promise to come back.” 


Compiled and coordinated by Anthony Geoffrey. 


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