Mabul Island in Sabah is now synonymous with Sipadan Island. For scuba lovers, the Sipadan raid in 2008 by Abu Sayaf guerillas has meant the closure of resorts on that island. The nearest resorts available to them would be Kapalai Resort or the few located on Mabul Island. The breathtaking underwater flora and fauna found in Sipadan has seen it regularly placed among the top two in terms of popularity among divers. Apart from the Babagon outing, our itinerary in Sabah included a 4D/3N stay at the Sipadan Water Village on Mabul Island.This would be our second time here; and I bet repeat visits would also follow for anyone else who has had the opportunity to visit this piscatorial heaven. It's a designated marine park so strict no fishing/take rules are enforced. After arriving in Kota Kinabalu and doing the necessary at his in-laws place in Tuaran, Akashah and I boarded an Air Asia flight bound for Tawau. We were joined by Guvnor and Lefty, fellow MFN forumers from KL. From Tawau airport (airport-Semporna-resort transfer and back is included in the package price) we were transferred to Semporna where we put up the night at the Dragon Inn - a popular hotel on stilts. The real atraction for us here would be the large enclosures where they kept some big GTs and Longtans as pets. There was also very fresh seafood (my fave is live seacrabs kept in cages) but as we had arrived late, the restaurant was already closed. An early night and an early morning breakfast saw us arrive at the resort via speedboat transfer and promptly settled in. We were put up in very spacious and comfortable units facing the sea - for our meals, the package included buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner. At other times there are pastries and hot/cold drinks up to 7pm at the dive center. The last time we were here, we were told that the resort would gladly let us rent a boat to the local FAD (fish attracting device) to fish with some seasoned fishing guides, but we were not prepared. We thought it was a strictly no fishing area! This time, we brought appropriate gear to take up their offer. Unfortunately, this was not the season for tuna, but we decided to give it a go anyway. According to the local expert, last year there was an 89 kg YFT landed for a American group of cameramen who had wanted to film the locals landing YFT using the traditional handline method. They didn't disappoint and the YFT played ball. The huge fish took 3 hours to land on 150lb line. Unfortunately for us, YFT season is from Feb - May the latest. But it seemed such a waste not to try our luck! We spoke to the operators and planned our trip as well as our session in Sipadan. Sipadan trips have to be pre-arranged earlier as there are limited permits given out per day. We have met some tourists at the resort who ended up regretting a case of so near yet so far where Sipadan was concerned!
We just have to slum it out now, don't we? NOT ! The establishment is rated 3-4 stars. On the assigned date, we were up early before even breakfast was ready. But the kitchen had made a packed breakfast especially for us, and this was gathered early beforehand by the crew. Now, as we got on the boat, I asked the boatmen the method of fishing we were going to do. I was flabbergasted when they told me they were going to use artificials all the way (they did not have any bait aboard!). I was under the impression that we'd be using bait all the way as that was the method described to us earlier in forums as well as on our previous trip. Way to go! We didn't bring with us any trolling lures, only big game hooks and leaders! The only thing we had close to it was a 1.5 oz Jackson Pin Tail minnow that was designed for casting to big gamefish. This showed how important it was to finalise even the smallest detail when it comes to fishing trips in faraway locations.
Aldam the boatman and his assistant - they are full time tuna fishermen We left the jetty at about 5.30am (there was already some light - it's 6.30am peninsula time) and headed straight to the FADs (there were several in the area). We encountered a few local fishing boats, and they were landing some mahi-mahis, skipjack and frigate tuna, all on bait. As we reached the FAD area, the boatmen began trolling their lures using handlines. One trolled a big white feather for tuna, while another used a 3m Halco rigged to a slender in-line lead sinker to make it go deeper. The first to come aboard was a sleek and fast skipjack tuna of about 2kg.
Skipjack tuna - up close and personal
Next up, we had a strike on the Halco down deep, and Guvnor soon had the fish boatside. It was a wahoo, and his first!
Not many of us can say they have landed a wahoo - he certainly can, now ! The wahoo was still green when we boated it. Everyone got out of the way when it was hauled aboard, but the fish slid towards me as it hit the deck. I stuck out a leg and pushed it away gently (I had my sandals on, and I used the sole). Unfortunately the fish slid towards Aldam who could not get out of the way in time. The fish thrashed once, and opened up a 1 inch gash underneath his second toe with its razor sharp teeth. The cut was deep, and blood began to flow but luckily we had brought band aids and soon stopped the bleeding. After that incident which reminded us how dangerous it can be on the water, we then continued trolling around the FADs. Then there was another strike on the Halco, and Akashah pulled in a smallish mahi-mahi which was certainly punching above its weight in the pulling stakes.
Brilliant colours on this fella, and when they hit, they don't mess about ! By this time I had rigged the Pin Tail Minnow for trolling and joined the boatmen at the back of the boat. We reached another FAD, and suddenly there were flying baitfishes all around as a group of mahi-mahi chased after them. Both the hunter and the hunted were clearing the water, and the whole thing was quite a spectacle! One of the mahi-mahis was headed towards my trolled lure, and sure enough, there was a violent take. The trolled nature of the lure took out a lot from the fish, but it still created havoc on board as it was landed.
A mahi-mahi - been quite a while since I landed one of these We also brought (med-heavy) popping rods, and we would take turns to pop towards the FADs as the boat trolled around them. The boat was very spacious and high gunwales meant safe popping. Apart from a lone strike which failed to stay connected by Akashah on a YoZuri popper, there was no other action on that front. We wondered what it would be like during tuna season - we were told there would be tuna schools boiling on the surface! Maybe another trip then !
Guvnor then took a turn on the trolling outfit. After a while, he was finding it tiring to maintain his concentration. The monotony was about to get the better of him when the Pin Tail was again hit by something fast. After a solid hit and loading up the 15kg rod to the maximum, the line suddenly went limp. Guvnor thought the hooks had pulled, but there is always a chance that the fish was headed straight for the boat! I told him to keep on winding, and he came on tight again. This happened a second time before another wahoo emerged; it was his second of the trip ! Both the wahoos went well over 4kg, and would make a lovely meal.
No wonder he's smiling; it's his second! The sun was up and the weather was getting hotter by the minute. According to the boatmen's experience, once the sun was up, the fish would stop biting. We were near the tail end of the trip, it was Akashah turn on the trolling rig.
Patience, and it soon paid off! After covering quite a bit of water without any action, the Pin Tail was again hit by a show off of a mahi-mahi as we trolled around another FAD.. It came from quite a distance, clearing the water in multiple jumps as it headed straight for Akashah's lure. Fish on! Akashah made short work of the fish and it was soon boated.
The biggest mahi-mahi of the trip We then decided to call it a day at around 1pm. We kept the two wahoos, the other fish were given away to the crew. One wahoo was cooked for lunch and the other dinner. We even gave away quite a bit, as there was no way the four of us could finish the generous portions each fish yielded. We even gave away the very productive but now well worn Pin Tail when we saw the crew admiring it - after all it was very effective despite being used in a way it was not designed to! We'll be back next time, when the tuna season is in full flow - and with proper trolling lures too!