Fishing in St John Island Singapore
Singapore is not just a miserable island by itself. There are several islands surrounding Singapore that provides good fishing grounds, just like Hong Kong.
The northeast side sees Pulao Ubin, which is well known for the last natural beach for Singapore, several types of residential fishes and crabs. Also, Pulao Tekong, a military training ground that is out of bounds to civilians, has many hidden fishing secrets. In the south, apart from the much talked about Sebakrao fishing area, we have the St John island, Lazarus island which are favorites for some local Singaporean fisher kakis.
Without passport, anyone can board a ferry service in Marina South Jetty for S$15, and visit the three southern islands. The ferry leaves daily at 9am, and return trip is at 4:14pm, with the exception of 6:15pm on Sunday. The islands are: Kusu island (Pulao Batamku), St. John and Lazarus island (joint to St John via causeway). Kusu Island is a lot more famous because of religions reasons. Every September, tens of thousands of Singaporeans will come to Kusu Island to pray in a Chinese temple as well as Malay shrine for good fortune.
Kusu island first become world famous in 1616 when Don Jose Va, Spanish Governor for Philippines, lead his wooden ship formations thru this unknown channel. His flagship ran into deep troubles in the waters just next to Kusu Island. (He must be cursing and swearing in amigo, but that was more than 300 years ago!). In 1806, James Horsburgh renamed this island as Goa Island. In 1819, Daniel Ross, Maritime surveyor for Sir Stamford Raffles, the father of Singapore, recognized the importance of Kusu island and setup all signaling and routes thru this island into Singapore.
Today, Kusu Island is a paradise for Singapore fishing lurers and fishing kakis. But comparatively, St John Island and Lazarus Island are hidden heaven not known to many fishing kakis. Instead of being deserted islands, the Singapore government has done a lot of work for St John and Lazarus Islands since the 70s. Infra structures have been done and you can rent a cheap and comfortable rest house in St John Island for recreational purposes. The islands are safe, scenic and full of fishing opportunities.
Between St John and Lazarus, there is an amazing cause way built some time before 2003 by the Singapore government. The cause way is a unique fishing ground because it provides a location which fishing kaki can take full advantage of the fast flowing waters between tidal differences. The water will flow violently between two directions and have good concentration of fishes. The target fishes on the cause way are Queen fish, Todak, half beak, barracuda, which lurks at the surfaces. If you dare to take the risks of snag lines, bottom fishing provides various opportunities for groupers, barramundi, trout, and even Ang Chor. Constant engineering work is done at the surrounding, and the causeway is now fully equipped with 4 fishing points. Sea urchins are also present for your adventures.
In late 2004/05, Desmond Tan, Jake (the Fishing Ninja), and ‘Extra Terrestrial’ Edmond the Singapore surf caster expert, joint published an amazing blog in the Singapore fishing Kaki forum about their catches in St John Island. They used the noodle rod (without hooks), an ISO rod, and the 5ft Exori Carbon rod and subdued many Todaks on the cause way between St John and Lazarus Island. The article stirred up many interests, but many were apprehensive to fish there because of the heat, lack of comfort, and other varieties of fishes on the island.
If you look at the brilliant picture of the causeway bay, you will be surprised this is indeed part of Singapore. Coconut tress, lagoons, fast waters, fresh air and no one issuing ‘summons’. Usually, in the morning, the tides will become high and water will flow thru the causeway towards the main island Singapore. This is the time excellent for catching tambans; or uses the spoon to catch Queen fishes.
On weekdays, the islands are mostly deserted and quiet, but on weekends and public holidays, there is an increased interests and the island can be filled with many people or as much as the ferry service could hold. Usually you will see a Malay fishing platoon occupying the island, or some oriental women with some white boys trying to catch a quiet moment away from the busy city. Either way, fishing something not to miss!
The usual practice is to arrive on the island at about 10:15am, and proceed directly to the causeway. No one would come un-prepared, so the icebox is filled with ice, cold drinks, drinks, food and all the fishing accessories. A wheeled trolley is mandatory and everyone will move from the jetty towards the causeway as fast as they could. The walk is about ten minutes, and when reaching the cause way every one will try to invade a location. If you can, book a chalet on the island and prepare for 3 days 2 nights of actions. The jetty is well known to have a lot of arrowhead squids at night.
As the main target fishes are Queen and Todak, frozen or very fresh Tamban/prawns are well prepared before hand as baits. Although jigging for fresh Tamban is possible, who would waste time? There is also a possibility that the Tamban may not want to be your baits. Shortly before 11am, everyone will be well deployed at the causeway, with his or her weapons in full operation!
You need to study the tide tables before the trip. When the tide change direction, the same opportunity holds on either sides of the causeway. Todaks, queen, groupers are waiting for you to pick up, Typically, the high tide is about 3m and the low tide about 0.5 m depending on the tide tables. The flow can be very violent and great for fishing on high differentials. Even on low changes, surprises waits for you, your equipment, and of course, your skills.
The kakis aiming for Queen or Todak will not hesitate to deploy on the causeway. Their bait is always small Tamban not more than 2.5 inches or prawns not more than 4 inches. But usually, in the morning, queens and Todaks are not too keen takers.
However, Todak can be very eager takers at anytime. Provide with the Tamban as baits and a noodle rod setup, a Todak can provide warm up exercise or full day fun. Surprisingly, the smaller Todaks are the ones that fight to the last minute and also violent takers. The big Todaks need to have lines out by at least 200m or even 300m, and they are the ones that will fight you for more than 10 – 20 minutes and will test your skills out.
Todaks, while many sneer as rubbish fish and a nuisance fish, are not easy to catch in Singapore waters. You need a Noodle rod, running float, 8lbs fluro or Dupont line, 8-4 lbs braided line and skills to successfully get them and landing them can be a big challenge. Using too stiff a rod will always loose them. The G-Loomis GL2 or the Silstar 4-8lbs rods are superb in getting the Todak. Any other rods, high chance to fail.
Also, as the weather on island is highly unpredictable, a rain poncho or change is highly recommended. If you hide in the rain, the fish will most likely not wait for you. It is know that the Todak, queen or coral trout will bite as much in rainy days or sunny days! The wind on St John can be so strong; it will blow your rods off your rod stand at times!
Just like everywhere in Singapore, St John coastline is mostly man made. So if you see a beach, don’t believe it was there 100 years ago. If you see a mangrove, don’t believe it was there 50 years ago. If you cast out a bottom rig, believe that it will snag or sankok very soon. The reason is, the sea bottom can be very full of rocks or construction wastes.
If you want to try bottom fishing, be prepare for the worse. However, we found a method that was effective. Use a size 1/1.5 sinker and tie a paternoster single hook about 1-2 ft above the sinker, and use it near the high flow area of the causeway. Use prawn as bait, and the hook size is about 1 or 1/0. Lower down the bait (prawn) and let it drift out for 100m then slowly reel back. You may get a coral trout or some surprises. If you leave the rig unattended for more than 10 minutes, you may most likely loose it due to other people’s rig. When a grouper hits, the fight might be dull but very challenging to pull the fish from is hide out.
Another method is to use a very heavy sinker and two small size 6 hooks paternoster. Use Tamban stripes, squid or fresh Ikan Billis as bait. Slowly lower the sinker to the bottom, and you might get baby Stingray, catfish or even other bottom feeders.
My usually trial is to use a Shimano Alivio size 3, length 425 ISO rod. Partnered with a 4000 Shimano Ultegra reel, it worked to bring up several small sized fishes.
Behind Lazarus Island and also St John Island are various secret sports for fishing. Thos locations are highly recommended for surf casters. Usually on weekends, many experienced old timers would form teams of 5-10 men and stay over night on the islands. Their catch rate is very high, which is evident from the sizes and number of iceboxes they have!
Unfortunately, there are no public transports on the islands so walking distances may be 3-5km from locations to locations. There are a few spots that are productive, which are near the huge bright orange boey near Lazarus Island.
Fishing on St John used to be known as an ‘old man’s sport’. That is, a typical fishing kaki must have a lot of patience and sit down to wait for a catch. Usually a book to read or a radio to listen to is recommended.
But this is not so since luring for fishes came to stage. More and more young fishing enthusiasts are now hooked to luring. The fishing equipment is not cheap, and lures come in difference sizes, colors and applications. Even the hook quality, size and how to attach the hooks are not highly studied and tested. Fishing now is no longer a ‘sit down’ sport but an active sport. Casting, retrieval and also knowing what target fishes to hunt for are all part of game.
Fishing kakis trying use to lure would usually spend these time in place of Kusu Island and fish for trout and barramundi. When the locations at Kusu are well explored, anyone can hop onto the round trip ferry to proceed to St John Island for a ‘second chance’. The lurers would have fat, deep diving lures that can go deeper and would try near the coasts. Also, they will try the mangrove areas rich around the island.
I have hit two queen fishes on the causeway using a simple Yozori golden/silver spoon. Other spoons that are highly reflective and have a lot of movement works too. Simply cast out the spoon and the current will easily carry it out and empty the lines on your spool. Quickly retrieve the spoon back would take a while considering the length of the lines out and also to fight with the current. The golden time is in the morning, which the tide is building to a maximum. The queen will strike at the most unexpected moment.
Another highly effective lure is the streamline pencil that can go about 4m deep. Allowing the pencil to go out for about 200 m and retrieve back. Due to the vast area and high flow current, using a spinning reel that holds a lot of line may be a good choice. However, many use the high-speed bait caster like Shimano, Abu Garcia, Okuma or Penn with a lot of success.
One location to try is at the cause way bay on Lazarus Island just off the jetty. Lurers like to cast out 20-30m deep diving lures and slowly retrieve back. There are many coral trout hiding in the rocky areas even though the water may become shallow at low tides. Perhaps the location is still consider ‘fresh’ for luring, some fishes do not fear the lures and even dare to come to the surface to chase the lures.
The choice of lures is very important in St John. I would highly recommend you consult Dave of Lure heaven on the choice and applications of lures. And if possible, join him for fishing and see how he uses it. Do not be fooled by the idea that you like the lure, and the fish will like the lure. The final object caught is not the fish but you yourself. So be prepared to spend about $30 on each lure, and pick a good one. Surprisingly, many cheap lures might look exactly like the real McCoy, they usually do not work.
Luring requires lot patience and repeated castings. With the correct choice of lures and methods, you will be well rewarded. This beautiful Coral Trout was caught by Alex. Ah Boys as usual would hijack the fish and take a picture.... ho ho ho
The Usual Magic
Today, March 2008, we formed a team with the same Singapore Todak expert Desmond Tan, Daz the Sibu Todak record holder, Richard the young but Todak killer in Singapore, Sibu and perhaps Batam also, Leon the Sibu kelong most faithful visitor, Chinese Guy the Singapore fish pond expert/operator, Alex the fishing terror and jogging master, Neil Daniel the Surf Ninja turn luerer, and many other fishing kakis, not forgetting myself, decided to conquer St John for a definitive fishing testimony.
No time is wasted and DesT, Daz, Anthony, old or young, everyone will prepare their noodle rods and running float rig. The usual hook size is the AJI 8 with no more than 10lbs leader. Although the causeway is long, it can only hold about 5 guys at one side to fish comfortably. The prime target is Todak/Queen, and fresh Tamban bait is lowered into the water and gets carried out very quickly.
Although the Todak can move in the fast current easily, they usually engage the baits at a very far distance. Usually, beyond 200m. So your spool must be about to hold 250m of lines. Usually we use 8lbs or even 6lbs-braided line. A Daiwa 1300 or Shimano C3000 can easily hold a lot of lines for deployment, and allow the Todak to strip about 30-40m of lines. If your spool only has 100m of line, most likely you are may not get them at all.
When one person starts to hit a Todak, most likely the rest would follow suit. The sign is the line will suddenly fly out at a much greater speed, and noodle rod will flip a lot more than usual. This is the time to exercise a lot of self-control, and allow the line to fly out for about 10-20 seconds. Set the drag lightly and close the bail arm. When the slack line straightens up, give a firm but gentle strike. The Todak will feel the tension and leap out of the water to try to spit out the hook and bait. If you see a Todak leap out of water at about 200m away, and the line is still tight, maintain the tension and fight the fish!
The Todaks seem to have a formation. The young ones will be nearer to the causeway and the big ones will be further out. If you start getting a few small ones, continue to catch them and slowly you will have the big ones. DesT and Daz focused on catching the Todaks and the ones that came in first were about 0.8m in length. These small will fight until the last minute, which is usually about 5-10 minutes to land one.
Unfortunately, during this trip the rain clouds was forming round the island and rain came and go a few times. The fishing kakis braved the rains and windiness, as there is no danger of lighting strikes.
After landing more than 15 small Todaks by the 5 kakis, it was necessary to let the lines out even further. There is a floating kelong about 1km away from the causeway, and there is where a lot of actions may start. Many need to let the lines out for at least 250m and wait. As the lines are out by such a distance, there is a very high danger of cross lines and tangled lines. Even the best of friends in situations of severe cross lines and line losses is frustrating. But remember this is part of the price of fishing, and cutting the line is the best way out.
When the bigger Todaks start to engage the baits, you can feel the difference on the line. The take is firm and fast, and your reel will start to give sustained and loud screams. If you have a Daiwa SS1300, the screaming sound of the reel can make you really excited! Right now, the drag must be not to loose and not too tight. It should be able to allow the fish to take dashes and yet keep a good tension on the line to load the rod. The rod will put a lot of pressure on your hand, and using the tummy as support is necessary. Right not, you need to see how the fish run and steer it. It can go either side of the causeway and really mess out all the long lines waiting for Todaks. Those who don’t have a catch yet need to quickly reel back the lines. The worse case was we saw a huge plate of ‘fried bee hoon’ aka bird nest of three kakis lines joined together.
The big Todak might no jump and would dive deep into the water (about 3-5m). The pressure and weight is enormous but the fish would slowly wear out. If you take your time to bring back the fish, it would be smart enough to regain strength, and wait for the moment you want to land it, it would give a big flip or dash and burst your line. So it is essential to keep wearing the fish out. On the causeway, there are a few inclined surfaces so it is easy to drag the fish up, or at times with another rod to assist.
The Todak at times can come very near to the causeway bay. You can see them massacre half beak or other small fishes. Often, the half beak would skip on the surface for over 100m like a flying fish, and still get killed by the Todak! Last weekend we witnessed 5 minutes of non stop actions which Todak were feasting on the baits. DesT immediately deployed his rod and rig near the bay area, and he managed to have several hook up.
Talking about half beak, it is fun to catch them and they are great tasting fishes. We would use a tiny float with about 2-3ft of thin line and a very small hook. The bait is fresh prawn meat. You need a polarized visor to spot them. They are usually in a big school on the surface away from the fast flowing current. The usual good time to spot them is on sunny day between 12 noon to 4pm. Casting the float towards them and the fish would come chase for the bait. When the float goes into the water slightly, you need to pull slightly to hook the fish. On a good day, we can easily get about 20-30 half beaks. Gutting them and cleaning them might be some yucky thing to do, but they are great when fried!
Last weekend we did not get many half beak, just only one, but we managed to hit 22 Todaks in a combined effort. Todak can be eaten if you cook Assam Pedas or even made into Todak Otak as demonstrated by DesT and Daz. While I have fished over hundreds of Todak, I have still yet muster up the guts to eat Todak. However, steamed Coral Trot is very welcomed.
Fishing in St John is a great time out. If you feel stressed about work, or not happy about anything, go there to enjoy the open air, bright sun. It is great place for family outing, or bring your loved one to a romantic time away from the busy city. The beauty of St John is it is just less than a 1-hour comfortable boat ride away, and you do not have to drive all the way to Malaysia to fish. Malaysians visiting Singapore are always welcomed to fish in St John to see the natural side of Singapore. Certainly, it is always a happy time and happy hours with the great company of friendly fishing kakis!