Cheow Lan Lake - The Hunt for Gold!

A typical fishing environment in the lake. 

Couple of months ago, i had an opportunity to travel with my colleague Hui to Cheow Lan Dam, in Surat Thani, Thailand for a work assignment to oversee the filming for an upcoming DVD for Zerek Innovation. Prior to the trip, i had spoken with my friend Lewis, who had fished there before and he was adamant that i should fish for the Thai Mashseer. I wasn't too keen on walking along the rocky river banks and through the jungle for hours upstream but he convinced me that it would be worth my while and i agreed. (Albeit a little reluctantly)

Rice Noodles with an assortment of meat and greens

Due to flight availability issues, we had to travel from Singapore to Surat Thani via Kuala Lumpur - Where we  met up with our cameraman and my good friend Alan. We met on my very first overseas filming assignment. We have since worked together on several occasions. We spent the time on the flight to Surat Thani catching up. After stopping for a quick meal, we headed for the dam where we would take a transport boat to one of the raft houses within the lake. The transport boat and the boatman will stay with you for the duration of your trip. They are your only way out in case of emergencies.

The Transport Boat

The lake is surrounded by mountains and offers breath taking views of scenery

The journey to the raft house took awhile and it was time to relax and take in the scenery. Mobile signals got cut off after about 30 minutes and we passed by many raft houses filled with locals and tourists alike taking some time away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Some of these raft houses grander than others as we made our way towards our accommodations for the next couple of days.

The First Raft House

Our raft house was located in a remote part of the lake and surrounded by mountains. It had no phone signal or wifi access. People were simply swimming in front of their huts or canoeing within the area marked out with buoys. Others were hanging out in the dining area, playing games and having some ice cold beer on a hot and sunny day. We were notified that the power points were only located at the dining area and had to request a permanent slot for charging the camera batteries. Other electronics would have to be charged on a turn by turn basis. The huts were pretty simply furnished with some mattresses and had a single light bulb. Windows on either side for ventilation. A communal toilet was located away from the huts. This was home for the next couple of days.

Early morning view as we set off.

After a night of tossing and turning (and turbo charged snoring from me) we set off the next morning for the tributaries. We had to stop by the Ranger station to obtain permission before we left the vicinity of the areas which were otherwise out of bound. Hui and Alan set off first as there was some problem with my boat's motor. I took a walk around the ranger station and they showed me some of the fish they had caught and were rearing as pets. I was shocked to see a big mashseer in a deep blue hue! i don't have a picture of this fish but you can check out my video here.

Always time for a selfie

We finally set off after 20 minutes and i was told that it would take an hour to reach the fishing grounds. My Thai guide, an elderly gentleman, told me to take a nap and i obliged. The fishing boats were pretty narrow and low and i had to really move slowly and watch my balance each time i got into the boat to prevent it from capsizing much to the amusement of my guide. (imagine King Kong on a surfboard!) The bases of these boats were made with bamboo so i had to tread only where the support columns were. I had a boat all to myself, and once i had decided on what lures i would be using, i proceeded to my short nap. The boat's shape was perfect for this.

Prior to departing the ranger station, my guide informed me that we would be targeting Giant Snakehead and Hampala Barb for the first day. These were referred to as Pla Chado and Pla Krasoob or Soob in short. (Pla means fish if i am not mistaken.) I didn't object because i really didn't feel like trekking. (yeah lazy ol' me.)

My selection of lure chosen for this trip

The cool temperature increased my casts by 50% at least

I was awoken from my nap and was greeted by this magnificent view. I put on my Zerek Gandalf jump frog and began casting it into the weeds and ripping it back out in hopes of enticing a Chado to hit. My guide was singing and slowly paddling as i made casts into potential fish holding areas. I didn't have any takes for the first two hours, and i had reverted to a seated position. I took a water break as the guide changed location. The sun was starting to peek through the clouds and within the first few casts, i had a hit. It was an adolescent snakehead. Still, it provided some entertaining moments on my Zerek Naginata 5-10lb rod that was paired with an ATC Vitattus reel.

My guide didn't know how to use my phone so i had to selfie instead.

I had to land the fish myself as the guide was too far away from me. The little guy gave me a little bath before he was agreeable for a photo. I sent him back home after a quick snap. I continued to cast but to no avail. I was told that the water level had risen to continuous rain a few days before we had arrived and the fish were scattered. It's an explanation i 've often heard when the fish aren't biting in Thailand, so i just smiled and continued to cast. A couple of hours passed and i had not had another bite so my guide suggested that we stop for lunch.

A mini waterfall where i stopped for lunch.

He brought me into a little cove that led to a mini waterfall. We could see juvenile Hampala and Mashseer as we paddled up to a tree and tethered the boat to it. Lunch was a simple affair of white rice, some stir fried pork and beans and a fried egg. I tucked in right away and so there is no photo of that sumptuous meal unfortunately. After lunch, my guide signaled to me that it was nap time. (Much to my delight) I made myself comfortable and dozed off pretty quickly. I was rudely awoken by a ruckus between some feuding primates awhile later. My guide from his sleeping position muttered, "Bunky... Bunky..." and went back to sleep. i followed suit and we napped for an hour before heading off to the next spot.

Bird watching tourist boat

Refreshed by my little nap and rejuvenated by my yummy lunch. I resumed casting with renewed vigor. Occasionally i would sight Hampala surfacing in schools but these were very small and quickly shied away when i cast towards them. Even resisting the allure of my shiny Zerek Twinkle spoon. I realized we were fishing back towards the raft house as we passed a bird watching group as we changed to the next spot. The next couple of places did not yield any catches either so we called it a day and headed back. I took a shower and hung out at the dining area until Hui and Alan got back.
They had gone trekking and hit about 10 pieces of the Thai Mashseer that were mostly below a pound.

We had a dinner of deep fried Tilapia, a sour soup (not the usual tom yum) with catfish slices and some mixed vegetables. I don't have a picture because someone unplugged my phone while it was charging and plugged in their phone leaving my battery to drain. (how rude!!!) We sat around for a bit and eventually drifted off to never never land. We woke up the next morning to find out that we had a visitor last night. Mickey Mouse had visited us while we were sleeping and raided our supplies. We had to throw away whatever he got into and so the tin foil barbs that call the raft house home, had a treat. We set off after breakfast and both boats were headed in the same direction.

It threatened to rain every morning but only experienced showers on the last day.

We were told that heavy rain was expected later in the day and we had to travel together for safety reasons. As we headed into a smaller tributary, i immediately realized that this was going to be a problem as both boats went into the same narrow river. My boat was ahead and this meant that i would potentially come into contact with the fish first. This would hinder the filming process of the other boat. I signaled to the other boat to overtake us, much to the displeasure of my guide. I was unable to make him understand the reason for that and he refused to speak to me thereafter. I found out in a couple of seconds why he was so angry. As soon as we entered a section of the river which had black water the bite was on! Hui was hauling in Hampala barbs with every cast. These were pretty good sized specimen that were above a kilo in weight. I could only watch so as not to interrupt the filming. 

I hope those that are reading will realize that although my employment with my company is considered to be a "dream" job to many, my colleagues and my peers in the industry have to make sacrifices like this to ensure that the work gets done. To be in the midst of a feeding frenzy and to resist the temptation to wet your line is a true test self control and professionalism. It is a privilege and not an entitlement to be able to fish during work and i hope that this gives you guys a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes when you are watching fishing videos from your favorite brands.

Taught him how to take a photo!

Alright. Back to the story. The frenzy died off after an hour or so and i made peace with my guide by offering him some snacks and getting the other guide who spoke English to explain to him why my actions were as such . He broke into his usual song as the boats headed back out into the lake. We split up after that as the predicted storm didn't occur and the heat was sweltering. I made a couple of casts and scored another snakehead on my Zerek Gandalf jump frog. Awhile later, we met up with the other boat for lunch. We had some spicy stir fried chicken, some vegetables and an egg. (Sorry too hungry for photos again!) My guide offered some of his smoked tilapia and it was all consumed ravenously by the 5 of us under the shade of some overhanging branches. Once our bellies were full, sleep beckoned and we took a nap before heading off to the next spot.

We ate him.

We headed to an area that was like a mini lake within the dam. There was only one way in. Here the water was a little deeper and there were very few snags so i switched to the Zerek Barra X Pro minnow in the gold UV finish and began to comb the area. My target here were the Hampala Barbs, more commonly known as Sebarau. I connected with several smaller fish before this fish smashed the lure. They are really good fighters and i thoroughly enjoyed the battle on my Zerek Naginata 5-10lb rod. A quick photo and i was about to release the fish when my guide gestured that we would be keeping it for dinner. I passed it on to him and he quickly dispatched it with a piece of wood (or a priest as it is known in some places) and threw it into my cooler box with the drinks. Leaving my bottled drinks all slimy and fishy. The action slowed down after that and i did not land anything bigger. 

We headed back and washed up before dinner. We pretty much had the same food as the night before except we had deep fried Sebarau instead of Tilapia. It was good eating but it had a lot of "Y" shaped bones that were a chore to pick out. The other guests next to us made a big deal of our deep fried fish and so we sneakily passed on half the fish to them as we were all pretty tired of picking out the bones. ( They meticulously picked out the bones and finished whatever we gave them.) After dinner, we retied our leaders and prepared our tackle for the next day before hitting the sack. That night i woke up sick. I had some how gotten food poisoning. And spent most of the night puking and shuttling to and from the toilet. By the time the sun rose, i was out of it and we decided it was best for me to remain in the hut while the other two went out. When they got back, we had to moved to another raft house due to a double booking that evening.

View from my porch in the new raft house.

 The sun had almost set as we arrived to the new location. It was much better developed and so more expensive. Almost triple of what it had cost us at the other raft house. We had a nice little room with a built in shower and an outdoor porch to which some kayaks were tethered to. We were also able to get signals on our phones so we received an influx of messages after 3 days of being uncontactable. We touched base with our families and caught up with the happenings of our social circles on Facebook. I skipped dinner because i was still feeling queasy and went straight to bed after a nice hot shower. By the time the other two came back i was already knocked out and in full turbo mode. (Snoring.)

Fried Gourami for dinner i was told.

A little bit of luxury in the middle of the lake.

The next morning we woke up a little late. (Must have been the comfy beds.) After a quick wash up we headed to breakfast. We were greeted with a mini buffet of local food. I stuck to some simple porridge and dried anchovies just to be on the safe side. Our guides were really concerned and got me some medicine just in case i had a relapse of the food poisoning later in the day. The guys were heading further north for some trekking and i was told i would be trekking in an area closer to our old raft house as the terrain was more forgiving. I departed first as Alan had a last minute visit to the toilet.

We have to trek up river from here.

After about an hour or so we pulled up at river that began narrowing the further we went in. we had to maneuver through brush and bushes and finally emerged at a small pool of sorts. Here we tied up the boat, picked up our stuff and walked in by foot. We were trekking up stream on rocky ground and i kept bumping into plants and trees and rocks along the way as i tried to keep up with my guide much to his amusement. He stopped me and gave me a quick lesson that started with, 1. Looking at where i place my feet. 2. Pausing when i look up to see where he is. 3. Taking the route with the least resistance. Once i began putting these tips to effect we were moving along faster and in a short time arrived at our first crossing.

I was wearing the Shimano Evair water shoes and they did not help at all. (Rock Boots will be better) The rocks were covered in algae and really slippery. The river, although shallow, had a fast current i found myself slipping and falling a couple of times before i made it to the other side. Once we crossed, we had to cut through the jungle for a little bit before we emerged at the other side of the river. My guide told me to sit and disappeared for a bit. So i took a water break in a shady spot and waited for him.

At the second river crossing where i was given my walking stick.

He emerged a couple of minutes later with some herbs (for medicinal use) and a walking stick for me.
He gave it to me with a big grin and told me to get moving. As i approached the river, he showed me how i needed to use it and it really made the 2nd crossing a breeze. The key is to plan your route, and stick as close to it as possible. The stick aided in feeling the ground ahead and also acted as an additional anchor point when i moved my feet. I felt like a silly goose initially because my guide was above 50 years old and was walking barefoot! But, i really appreciated the gesture. The Thai people are really one of the most hospitable and humble folks that i have met.

Finally he said, "Ok. Fishing." I had taken Lewis's advice and gone with an ultra light setup consisting of a Zerek Naginata 3-6lb spinning rod paired with an ATC Valiant CF 800 sized reel. I had picked a handful of lures from the Zerek Finesse Craft Series like the Trail Weaver, Popparazi, Tango Shad 50mm Floating model and Venus Trap. The first few casts with top water lures yielded only one bite but the fish missed the lure. I changed to the Tango Shad and hooked up with the next cast! Because the rivers are so clean and clear, i could actually see the fish come out from where he had been holding and hit the lure as i cranked it back. To work this lure is simple, cast, crank and pause when you hit something, then repeat.

My first!

A quick photo and i released him back into the river. Do note that you should revive them for a bit before you release them or else they will get swept down river. These fish spook easily and when one or two fishes have been caught in a location. They become wary and stop biting. It's time to move on to the next area to fish. They are also sensitive to noise so best to be silent when fishing for them. Try the top water lures whenever you arrive at a new location. Chances of hooking on to one are higher.
If they don't respond, try switching to shallow minnows and crank baits with small profiles. If all else fails, spoons should do the trick. Gold is the preferred color.

Don't know where the old man went so selfie time.

The average depth of the areas i was fishing was a little over a meter at the deepest point. Although in some places there could be broken tree branches or bigger rocks that can cause your lures to get snagged. I found that the Tango Shad 50mm floating models, worked really for this as i could pause to allow the lure to rise when the bib bumped into something. The fish were also more receptive to this lure profile. There were several more catches as we made our way up river. The tiny ones were released without pictures, but i would estimate that i hit about 12 pieces in total before we stopped for lunch. 

Another one. Cast to areas with shadows. They lurk in the shade.

My guide who had his lunch before me, was rummaging through my lure box while i hungrily wolfed down my lunch of stir fried chicken, fried egg and rice. Taking a sip of water, i had realized that although i had been fishing and trekking for more than 2 hours, that i didn't actually stop for any water breaks since the first crossing. The temperature of the environment was cool and even if we worked up a sweat trekking once we entered the cool water, our body temperature cooled down quickly reducing thirst. (If i was trekking in Singapore i'd need at least 2 1.5L bottles of water.)

Old man getting in on the action with the Zerek Tango Shad.

He picked out a Tango Shad and asked me if he could use it. I smiled and nodded as he made his way down to the river and proceeded to cast out the lure. Within a couple of casts he was onto a fish. I went and assisted him with landing the fish and got him to post for a picture before we released the fish. He walked back to the area where i was eating and left my tackle where he took it while i resumed my lunch. A short time later he muttered," Rapala. Good." as he pointed to my lure box. For those who are unaware, many locals refer to lures as "Rapala" in general as they were one of the pioneers to introduce artificial baits into Thailand. The brands name was adopted as the local lingo for all hard body lures in general.  I decided that i'd give him the lure he used to catch his fish as a memento.

UV colors work well when the sky is overcast.

As i was finishing my lunch, i heard the sound of thunder in the distance. The sky had been over cast all day and we were told to anticipate rain later in the day as we departed. We made one more crossing and arrived at a series of mini rapids that eventually converged into a deep pool. Here the Tango Shads were out of their element and were unable to get to the depth that i need them to go to. There were also a lot of tall shrubs on the river bank that made casting very difficult.

I swapped out the Tango Shad i had been using for the Zerek Venus Trap. A silent vibe that was a little heavier and could hopefully get down in the pool. The first few cast just saw the vibe swept down river to shallow stretch that was about 50 meters long and there was a series of rapids after that which were potential snag zones. I squeezed in between two shrubs cast up stream in hope that the lure would sink by the time it arrived at the pool and it worked like a charm. 

My biggest of the trip on the Zerek Venus Trap.

As soon as my line went pass the rapids into the pool I gave the lure a couple of twitches and i felt a strong take. I instinctively set the hook and the fish was off. I was fishing on light drag and my reel was screaming! I saw that the fish had shot off towards the shallows that led to the series of rapids down river. I tried to remain calm as i moved away from the shrubs towards a clearing where i could have the upper hand. Once i got there i spotted the fish. It was a magnificent gold bar with bluish hues on its fins. The force of the river added to the resistance of pulling the fish in. As i reeled the fish in, my heart was racing. I moved slowly as the rocks were very slippery and the last thing i wanted was to fall. 

My guide came over with my Boga which i had left in my backpack and helped me land the fish. He tried to be funny and pretended to drop the fish several times. My hands were trembling as he passed the fish over to me. It was the biggest fish of the trip. The guys had been telling me about the 1 pounders they had been landing over the last few days. I took a quick look at the scale and it read 3lbs! What a blessing. I took a couple of pictures and revived the fish before releasing it. My guide smiled and suggested we head back as the rumbling thunder had caught up to us.

Weighing in at a little over 3lbs.

My guide with a magic photo in which i look like i lost 30kgs and went back to being 18 years old.

We made our way back through a short cut in the jungle and got back to where we had tied up our boat before the rain. We packed up all the gear put on our rain gear and headed out where we ran into the other boat. Something was wrong as i saw Alan lying down in the boat looking very pale. I learnt that he had become ill, half way through their journey upstream. He too had succumbed to food poisoning. Fortunately his guide had brought along some of the medication they had bought for me and they managed to contain his condition until they got down to the boat. 

We raced back and it began to pour just as we arrived into the lagoon which our raft house was located. After unloading our stuff and taking a hot shower, i began to recite the story of my solo adventure to my companions who had a tale of their own to recount about being attacked by leeches in a shallow stream. After packing up our stuff, we went for dinner. We hung out at our outdoor deck talking late into the night and left early the next morning to catch our flight back home.

Released to fight another day.

Although i rarely go freshwater fishing, this trip was a good break from the daily grind. It gave me an opportunity to overcome my laziness and clumsiness, it allowed me push myself to the limit physically and it forced me to appreciate what i have. I am truly blessed to be able to have my passion and occupation intertwined. I am looking forward to my next adventure as i chase the bite. 

Til then, tight lines.

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