A steamy, sticky mid-July weekend in northern Taiwan, there is no better time or place to leave the land behind and take to the water for an all-night fishing adventure. With this in mind, coworker and de facto fishing partner Patrick and I hooked up with Edward Lee from Jigging Master and made our way to Shenao Harbor just southeast of Keelung for some light inshore jigging action. Our main target for this trip was hairtail — aka cutlass fish, saber fish or bai dai yu (白帶魚) in Chinese.
We met up at the Jigging Master shop in Nangang and organized our gear for the night. Since at this point all my tackle in Taiwan is for freshwater angling, we opted to rent a pair of lightweight jigging rods, perfect for hairtail or most any other inshore species we happened upon. We also purchased a couple of jigs and rigging for bait fishing (those jigging arms do get tired).
At about 4:30 p.m., we piled into Edward’s van and headed out to harbor with a quick stop along the way for B&B – bait and beer. Soon we were rolling up to our vessel. Now I’m familiar with the term “party boat” as it is applied in my native California to any large group or charter vessel 20 to 40 or so anglers. Here they seem to take the term a bit more literally. Along with our Jigging Master group of ten plus anglers, there were another eight or so individuals who seemed to be well into their cups long before the lines were cast off, including several scantily clad ladies in their best high-seas high heels and halter tops, who were singing bawdy drinking songs and whooping it up in general.
Soon enough, we were putting out to sea and making the 10 minute run to the fishing grounds. Hairtail are found close to shore and it was apparent where the fish were congregating from the line of other fishing vessels situated a mile or so off Keelung Harbor. Within no time, we were drifting among the other boats, dropping and flipping jigs over the side in search of a hook up. Cutlass fish can be found anywhere in the near-shore water column from around 500 meters right up on the surface. We started off vertical jigging various depths, working the jigs back up to the surface waiting for the unmistakable strike.
It wasn’t long until we were into the fish. Not the strongest saltwater species, cutlass fish still put up a respectable fight, particularly the larger ones. They will occasionally swim toward the boat, leading you to think you’ve lost your fish, only to change direction and renew the battle. Most of the fish were in the two-foot range with a few pushing a meter. They are truly a strange and beautiful species with their scaless metallic skin, eel-like bodies and needle-sharp teeth.
It wasn’t long before the sea around us was alive with creatures of all shapes and sizes drawn in by the boat’s bright lights. Tiny crabs and other crustaceans flitted about and large balls of baitfish swarmed just below the surface. Small groups of trumpet fish and flying fish cruised about hoping for an easy meal. Opportunistic mackerel and their larger cousins the striped bonito soon followed.
Few inshore species can match bonito for light tackle fun and we were quickly tossing jigs, hoping to entice these wily-yet-aggressive predators to bite. A few did and rewarded us with short frenetic battles.
As our jigging arms tired, we switched to bait rigs consisting of a large lead drop sinker on wire leader with a perpendicular wire rigged with a rubber octopus skirt and four close-set 1/0 bait holder hooks. We had purchased what resembled a pizza box packed with four-inch strips of fish earlier on the way to the boat. A single strip could be strung onto all four hooks. While the bait proved to be as productive as the jigs, it seemed everthing was now homing in on our lines, including packs of voracious and ultimately useless pufferfish. At one point I managed to hook three of these swimming pincushions at once and spent a good 15 minutes attempting to gingerly extricated the tangle of hooks from their flopping bodies.
Looking for a change of pace, I switched rigs again, this time to a dropper rig with four flies hoping to entice a few mackerel onto my line. I didn’t have to wait long before I was hooking one, two, three and finally four fish at a time.
I finished the evening with another nice bonito just as the sun was rising over the Taiwan Strait. Patrick had long since found a bunk below to grab a quick nap. Soon we were heading back to port with an ice chest packed with cutlass fish, mackerel, one tiger fish and a trio of bonito (eaten as sashimi later Sunday night).
Cost for the trip: NT$1,500 for boat (noodle dinner with fresh fish and squid included), NT$300 for rod and reel rental, NT$500 for jig, flies, weights and bait rig, and NT$200 for box of frozen bait. So, the total came to about NT$2,500 per person. Not bad for a night of fishing, and of course it would have been cheaper if I had my own saltwater tackle and rods with me.
Jigging Master arranges these sorts of trips throughout the summer, as well as seasonal offshore trips for bigger species like amberjack, tuna and dorado.