One fine Sunday morning not too long ago, six plucky adventurers came aboard the fair vessel Artemis I to spend a day exploring the waters of our Southern Islands. The dark clouds that had loomed over the marina gave way to bright sunshine soon after casting off, and Artemis steamed out of port over the delightfully turquoise sea, once again on the hunt.
Strong currents were expected over most of the day, which increased the technical difficulty of the fishing, but also held the promise of great excitement should one prove worthy of the challenge. The rapid flow of water demanded increased sensitivity on the part of the angler, and an overall heightened awareness of how the baited offering was being presented in the water column. On the other hand, the magnitude of the tidal movement also meant that the schools of pelagic fish were likely to be up and about, which boded well for any angler lucky enough to tangle with them.
Artemis spent the morning drifting over a shallow reef situated in between two islands, and the anglers employed a mix of techniques. Some opted to present a live bait close to the bottom to target some of the tasty demersal inhabitants like the blackspot tuskfish or the orange-spotted grouper, while others chose to use metal jigs in the hope of catching the fancy of one of the fast-swimming, hard-fighting pelagic predators which patrolled the fringes of the reef.
Off the western-most tip of the reef, there was a buoy which served to warn passing ships of the potential hazards concealed beneath the surface of the water beside it. Even though the primary function of the buoy was to aid in navigation, with the passage of time every surface below the waterline would get encrusted with various types of marine growth like algae, sponges and hard and soft coral. These would attract small fish seeking shelter, and eventually draw in the bigger fish in search of a tasty meal.
In order to take advantage of the underwater bonanza around the buoy, Artemis was positioned to drift past the buoy in order that her anglers might elicit a response from any one of the resident marauders. Alas, it appeared that only the small fish were present in force on that day, and the live prawns being used as bait were mercilessly pestered without a solid hook-up. The only take on a metal jig resulted in this feisty juvenile grouper being taught a lesson about not biting off more than you can chew, before it was sent back to its lair to grow a little bigger.
As the sun rose higher in the sky the current continued to pick up, and our Captain determined that it was time to carry out the next phase of the hunt. Artemis made a beeline for another reef known to hold large numbers of schooling pelagics, and was greeted upon arrival by a handful of other fishing boats anchored in a cluster. There was little visible sign of activity: the surface of the sea was whipped by a light breeze and the fishfinder showed little trace of the abundance of fish that had been promised.
Nonetheless, the order was issued to prepare to anchor. In response to a quizzical glance from one of the anglers, the Captain simply smiled and said with quiet assurance: "Be patient, it's not time yet." Shortly afterwards, as though in response to some unseen cue, a dozen or so white seabirds descended from the sky, and began wheeling around in the area where the boats were anchored. Some hovered over certain spots, while others skimmed so low over the waves that they could have traced lines in the sea with their beaks.
And then it happened. As some of the hovering seabirds lined up and began to dive towards the sea, the water surface erupted in a frenzy of splashes. Each was individually just large enough to be distinguished from the white cap of a breaking wave from a distance, but as entire patches of sea up to the size of basketball courts broke into roiling foam they were unmistakable. The culprits behind this mayhem were hardtail scad, and they were feeding on schools of anchovies that were being corralled and pinned against the surface.
One does not envy the situation of such an anchovy. Hemmed in and being attacked from all sides, they were pretty well stuck between a rock and a hard place. At the same time, there was mounting excitement aboard Artemis as the anglers scrambled to find something, anything that could match the slim profile and silvery sheen of the hapless anchovies. Small, narrow jigs as well as tiny rubber lures were suddenly in short supply, and both would shortly prove to be extremely effective in attracting the attention of the ravenous hardtail scad.
As the anchovies desperately tried to escape from their pursuers, the ball of baitfish darted and weaved about, and split and merged again. Their predators were however relentless in giving chase, and so the center of the action shifted rapidly. The most positive (and thrilling) indicator of its location was where the scad broke the surface in a series of boils, though these boils were ephemeral in nature and faded in a matter of seconds. Any angler who could quickly and accurately present a jig or lure in time was rewarded with either an instant hookup or numerous aggressive strikes from the scad, which would often give chase till boatside.
And the strike, intense though it was, was only the beginning. The hardtail scad is a worthy adversary on light tackle, and gives a good account of itself through numerous speedy runs and head-shakes that would dislodge the hook should an angler fail to maintain the correct amount of tension in the line. Besides that, its rough jaws as well as the sharp plates on the tail that give it its name pose an ever-present danger to the thin fluorocarbon leaders that must be used in order to give the artificial lure a convincing enough action to draw the strike.
Many scad were hooked up, some were lost while most were landed, and the level of excitement on board Artemis increased with each strike. Happily, so too did the level of teamwork. As more and more anglers took to the bow wanting to get into the action, it became apparent that the fish responded better to a fast, erratic retrieve. Besides advising each other on how to better present their lures, the anglers also kept a lookout for the latest surface action, in order that all on board had the best chance of casting their lures quickly and safely. Any angler who happened to be hooked up was also guided through a delicate tango through the row of fishing lines between the bow and the waiting net near the stern of the boat to land his prize for a quick photo.
Happening upon a frenzy is something that seems to happen more often in videos than in real life. In Singapore's hard-fished waters, such an occurrence is as rare as it is memorable, and certainly to be savoured. Artemis returned to port with one more successful trip under her belt, and a crew of anglers waiting eagerly in anticipation for their next experience at sea.