Overnight Jigging Bintulu, Sarawak – 5 OCT 2018
For the past 2 and a half years, I have had the privilege to study in UPM Bintulu. Bintulu is a coastal town in the central region of Sarawak, Malaysia. Bintulu is located 610 kilometers northeast of Kuching, 216 kilometers northeast of Sibu, and 200 kilometers southwest of Miri. Bintulu was a small fishing village when Rajah James Brooke acquired it in 1861. Bintulu remained a fishing village until 1969 when oil and gas reserves were discovered off the coast. With the one of the richest oil and gas reserves in Malaysia found off its coast, Bintulu became known as The Oil Town. One thing that hasn’t changed about Bintulu, is its fishing. Bintulu has been one of the best shore jigging spot as the oil-rig situated close the coastal line. Making it a fishing haven when seasonal fish like Spanish Mackerel migrated close to the shore.
Just before our final exams, my partner in crime, Amirul Irfan, and I decided to go on one last fishing trip before we left Bintulu. Luckily one of our good friends and local guide, Pue was already planning a trip with some of his pals, Rudy, Zul, Anas and Ched, and has 2 empty slots for us. That makes 7 of us. Excited, we prepped our gear and agreed to rendezvous at the jetty on the bank of the Kemena River at 3.30pm.
After exiting the mouth of the river, we were met with debris from the previous night’s storm. The water cleared out to a deep blue in no time as we raced to our first stop. Which was located in the shipping lanes where MLNG ships occasionally stop. Our first stop was 20 nautical miles off the coast and is approximately 20m deep. The tactic that everyone used was primarily for targeting Spanish Mackerel which was to cast your 40-60g jig out, let it sink close to the bottom then reel it in as fast as possible while jerking your rod up and down. Although it was a bit late for mackerel season, we used the tactic anyway to target other species.
Nearing sunset, I hooked up to the first decent fish of trip. With a light set up, I let the fish run with loose drag and it was music to everyone’s ears. The fight wasn’t very long as it wasn’t a huge fish but it was still my first Spanish mackerel on a jig. I was extremely lucky because the assist line was right between the fish’s teeth and only the steel was left. Steel core assist line will help reduce bite-off from sharp tooth species, adding an extra safety layer. I have Irfan to thank for tying some steel assists the night before. While we were busy taking pictures of my fish, Ched managed to land a Hard-tail Scad behind us.
The Long Haul
After Pue lost a fish which peeled line just after sunset, after which no other fish ate our jigs. We took a break to eat and put on our jackets as we prepared for the long night ahead. We then decided to move on to another spot just 7 nautical miles further out to sea. It was pitch black by then with only the stars and auburn flames from distant oil rigs lighting the up night. The waters here were about 30m deep and we persisted with our speed jigging technique. The shallow water along the coastal line of Bintulu makes light jigging the preferred technique among anglers.
On what seemed like his first cast, Anas was hooked up to a fish, in the darkness we could only guess that it was a type of Trevally by the way it fought. After a decent fight, Anas brought the first of many Bigeye Trevally into the boat. He later became known as the King of Bigeyes as he alone landed more than 10 Bigeye Trevallies that night. Ched hooked up not long after to his own Bigeye. We were apparently above a school of Bigeye.
Knowing we were surrounded by fish, we switched up tactics and tried using slow jigs to target bottom dwelling fish. It didn’t take long at all for Irfan’s jig to be hit. Thinking it was a Grouper or Snapper, he fought hard to keep the fish from bottom structures. When the fish finally surfaced it turned out to be another Trevally, but nobody’s complaining because we were all catching fish. Not long after Irfan caught his fish, Zul was at the front of the boat fighting his own fish, which everyone correctly guess to be another Bigeye Trevally.
After catching a few more Bigeyes, I switched to using a heavy sinking minnow in attempts to look for faster, toothier quarry. I cast out into the current and let the lure sink for about 20 seconds. I tried a straight fast retrieve but got no bites. I tried reeling in fast then pausing and got hammered. The fish fought hard and kept diving under the boat, but due to the lack of blazing runs I doubt it was a Spanish Mackerel or Barracuda. My suspicions were confirmed when I pulled up a good sized Bigeye. I guess we just couldn’t get away from these suckers. Irfan also switched to a sinking minnow, and was met with the same result. While we were joking around about how Bigeyes are the only fish we’re catching tonight, Ched hooks up. We just casually waited for the fish to rise from the depths as we expected another Bigeye. Once the fish was at the surface and we realized it was a big grouper and everyone scrambled to find the net. The fish was safely landed and was surprisingly caught on a cast jig. Ched just bounced it on the bottom and the grouper took it, which shows the versatility of a cast jig.
A few more bigeyes were landed afterwards but we all just got tired of taking pictures of the same fish over and over again, except for Irfan’s big one he caught using a slow jig. At about 2am the bite slowed down and the wind started to pick up. Most of us were taking a break and caught some shuteye, only Irfan and the king of bigeyes (Anas) were still at it. Eventually even they stopped as the fish stopped biting and we waited for sunrise.
At sunrise, we all started to cast our jigs again. Except this time the Bigeyes are gone and other, toothier predators have arrived. Within a few cast, one by one our jigs were taxed. Assist lines and fluorocarbon leaders sliced clean, tell-tale signs of mackerels. Everyone’s focus was soon interrupted by Rudy’s screaming reel.
Determined, he tightened his drag and brought the fish in quickly. Once the fish was landed everyone took a break to congratulate Rudy and take pictures. With spirits high, knowing the mackerels are indeed around, Irfan casted and was almost immediately taxed. Unfazed, he switched to a 60g cast jig, this is to get the jig to the bottom faster so he could start jigging it up faster. While letting his jig sink, he noticed that his line was going out at unusually fast rate. He immediately closed his bail and set the hook. The fishing took s few short runs then the line went slack. We all thought Irfan had lost his fish until he started reeling in and the line was tight again, turns out the fish was swimming towards the boat. Irfan quickly horsed the fish to the boat and he was rewarded with his first Spanish Mackerel on a jig. He couldn’t be happier!
After Irfan, there were no more mackerels landed. We decided to move out to probe nearby reefs and drop-offs for other species. After catching some groupers, we moved back to our Mackerel spot for a few final casts. We were greeted by a small school of barracudas just circling the boat. Everyone immediately casted at them with just and other lures. With my sinking minnow already tied on I casted at the school.
Even before my lure landed, they were already chasing it and ate it as soon as it touched the water. The first fish managed to shake the hook but was immediately followed up by a bigger Barracuda. With my baitcaster set up, there was only so much I could do. I let the fish tire itself out while I waited for assistance to land it, as everyone was focused on trying to hook some more of them.
After landing and losing a couple more fish, we wrapped up our exhausting 26 hour fishing trip and made a beeline back to land.
This truly was the perfect ending to my time in Bintulu. Both Irfan and I will miss the people and the fish in Bintulu. I really do hope we get more opportunities to visit Bintulu again in the future.