Bukit Merah Toman
by Chris Tan

The four stroke 9.9 horse power outboard was throttled back and the twelve foot aluminium boat drifted to a stop. As the waves created by the boat's wake died away, we could see the rises of fishes all around us in the grassy bay. It became clear that the larger rises with the big ripples were caused by toman when they poked the tips of their heads out of the water. Occasionally there would be a big swirl and splash when a toman would roll at the surface vigorously.

The calm smooth waters allowed us to easily sight the rises. With adrenalin pumping furiously through our arteries, we quickly picked up our rods and readied ourselves to cast at the first rise within casting range. A toman rose fifteen metres ahead of us and I managed to shoot off a cast immediately. My torpedo lure landed just past the fading ripples.

Heart stopping action
I started a steady retrieve, just fast enough to get the little propeller at the end of the seven centimetre floating torpedo shaped lure turning. As the little propeller churned the water, creating a splashy and noisy wake, I was tense with anticipation of what might happen. I did not have to wait long. Four metres past the origin of the rise, the toman savagely surfaced with a thunderous splash, slashing at the lure! Unfortunately it totally missed it, and the little torpedo continued its churning untouched to the boat.

There were no more rises or takes at that area after that and we turned our attention to other parts of the bay. Soon Johar, the fishing guide, hooked up a nice toman. He had cast to a rise and had hooked up almost immediately. Deftly controlling the toman, he quickly brought it in. After a few quick snaps from my camera, he unhooked it and gently lowered it into the water, and it swam away.

Sharp eyes and quick casts
The wind had now picked up and this created ripples on the water. This meant that spotting the toman rises would not be so easy, unlike the previous hour when the water was mirror smooth due to the still air. Still, it would be possible but we had to be on a constant look out. We moved to another bay and as the boat drifted to a stop, Johar's sharp eyes spotted a group of toman rising. He pointed it out to me and I saw a few toman heads rising one after another in a small area one metre square. Johar said he counted five rises, a gang of toman. I cast my torpedo towards them and after a short retrieve, the torpedo disappeared in a gentle swirl and my rod was in a beautiful arc!

However it lasted only for a brief second. The lure came off! Unfortunately this is one of the shortfalls of surface lures, the hook up rates are poor. If they do connect it is only just barely as the lure sitting on the surface gets pushed away from the fish by its wake, not being fully in the fish's mouth unlike sub-surface lures, thus the hooks pull free easily. However, the takes are always spectacular and heart stopping!

We tried a few more casts to the water where the gang of toman had risen at, but there were no takers. The gang of toman must have been spooked by the toman that got away. As the boat drifted with the breeze we kept a look out for more rises. Johar managed to get out a few casts to some rises but the toman did not take an interest in his lure.

Changing lures
In the mean time I had changed to a shallow diving lure, as I had too many misses on my surface swimming torpedo. I wanted to improve my hook up rate. I spotted a rise far behind the boat, almost camouflaged by the ripples. Firing off a long distance cast I just managed to get the lure within the vicinity of the rise. Many turns of the reel handle later and my lure was still heading in my direction, I figured that toman was still sitting in its hole.

A sudden tug suddenly woke me up, I was on! I set the hook and kept the pressure on, steadily pumping the rod and cranking the reel, even though the drag allowed the spool to slip. This continuous pressure with its variations in force tends to throw the fish off "balance" and keeps it from being able to control the angler. This is a better alternative than to just lock up the drag and hang on as the toman will just power away or swim at right angles to the angler, heading into a snag. After a few short but controlled runs, the toman was brought along side the boat. As it was still feisty, it swirled and splashed at the surface attempting to surge back to the lake bed. When it settled down, Johar reached down and lifted it out of the water. The toman had been hooked up on the middle treble hook of the blue and silver jointed bomber long A minnow. Johar released it, none worse for wear after a quick snap from the camera.

Conservation and Management
Johar works for Bukit Merah Laketown Resort as a fishing guide. When I first fished with the Bukit Merah Laketown Resort fishing guides last year, conservation and catch and release of fish in Bukit Merah was not a concept they were used too. They had been briefed on its importance, but every time a fish was released they were perplexed by what we did. I am glad to see that now they understand fully why we practise catch and release, and they readily do so themselves all the time now. In fact, they put many "catch and release advocates" to shame. They practise it, whereas those "recreational anglers" talk about it adamantly in public but when they actually have a fish in the boat, they keep it, lip service only.

This is the result of the management of Bukit Merah Laketown Resort actually placing emphasis on conservation and sustainability of the fisheries in Bukit Merah lake. Under the tutelage of Lawrence Tan, the L.A. card manager of Bukit Merah Laketown Resort, the fishing guides actively practise catch and release themselves and encourage the customers to do so too. Also to reduce the impact of pollution on the lake, the Bukit Merah Resort uses four stroke outboard engines, instead of the cheaper but more polluting two stroke outboard engines. It is good to see a company do more than just practise lip service to our natural environment and ecology. Not only do the fishing guides of Bukit Merah Laketown Resort practise catch and release, but they also collect the rubbish left floating on the lake by irresponsible "humans" and collect the destructive abandoned gill nets rotting in the water.

Asisting and educating local fishermen
The resort also has offered to replace the small mesh gill nets used by the local fishermen for free with new gill nets with large mesh netting, allowing the forage and juvenile predatory fish better chances to survive. Currently they provide 3 inch mesh nets, and next year will increase the mesh to 4 inches. All this is a start to conservation and educating the local population about sustainability of the local fish stocks. I have to "take my hat off" to these individuals and management of Bukit Merah Laketown Resort for their active concern for our natural environment. The developer for Bukit Merah Laketown Resort, Tan Sri Mustapha Kamal, has a keen sense of responsibility towards a greener future and it is his concept to live together with nature.

There is a good article with suggestions on how to maintain and improve the conditions in Bukit Merah Lake by Dato' Abdul Hamid bin Haji Mohamad in the December 1998 issue of Rod and Line, page 38. It is certainly worth reading. Many salient points are highlighted here regarding the conservation and sustainability of the fish stocks. These objectives can only be achieved with cooperation of the locals and the authorities.

A fascinating place
Bukit Merah is an interesting place. It is endowed with a variegated watery habitat for toman. In front of the resort is clear open water. Early in the morning as the sun begins to warm the water, the toman and sebarau can be seen chasing and feeding on bait fish. However, anglers being anglers, they have to travel far to find their fish, as fishing is always better far away. The further, the better. The toman can be found ............. all over the lake!

What is nice about Bukit Merah lake is that many good fishing holes can be found only minutes away from the resort. To the right of the resort, towards the south across the open water an area of shallow water can be found with tree stumps sticking out throughout the expanse of water. Somewhere in the middle lies an old river bed, and it is in this area that the toman and sebarau can be seen actively feeding at various times throughout the day. The depth of this area is relatively shallow, an average of 1-2 metres, depending on the water level of the lake which varies from month to month due to the release of water for the irrigation of the rice fields. However during the dry season it is inaccessible due to the water level being so low that all the thick timber normally a metre below the surface obstructs the passage of boats. Thus shallow diving lures and surface lures are to be used here.

To the left of the resort, northwards, there are several inlets and bays that hold toman. As the water here is deeper, an average of 3 metres or more, one can also add medium depth lures to the arsenal. At the nearest outlet of the lake, there are rows and rows of submerged stakes. Here is where the schools of sebarau can be found, churning the water as they chase tiny bait fish in the early morning and late evening.

Local lures
Johar's favourite lures for toman are shallow running lures like the rapala shad rap and the long slender yozuri minnow. He also favours a large rapala fat rap that has accounted for many toman. He has modified the lure to reduce the depth it dives by taking off some plastic on the bib. Johar is a thinking angler, modifying his tackle to suit local conditions, the shallow waters.

Due to the high cost of purchasing these lures, Johar has also carved out his own version of the shallow shad rap. It has met with some success, but probably due to the use of heavy hardwood, the action is different from the original shad rap that uses a lighter wood. He also believes the most effective colours are natural colours like dark silver, greyish or greenish shades. He has one shad rap that he has sanded off the original paint work and repainted with his own colours. The teeth marks on it are proof that his modifications do work.

Further north past the north-south railway line, the boat passes through a narrow waterway that requires a bit of ducking to avoid getting one's head knocked by the low concrete railway bridge. During the rainy seasons when the water level of the lake is high, getting past under the bridge is not possible. The waterway then opens up to a wide expanse of open water and narrows down again. Then it narrows to a slow moving, wide river with bays and inlets adjacent to the river.

The scenery here is reminiscent of Tasik Bera in Pahang, with similar looking vegetation surrounding the waters edge. Here the toman are concentrated and numerous rises are seen during the early mornings and late evenings. In addition, schools of sebarau can be seen feeding near the vegetation along the waters edge. The depth here varies from 2-3 metres with the odd hole of 4-5 metres in the river.

Variety is the spice of life
Overall, toman tend to take a wide variety of lures, crankbaits, poppers, buzzers, spinnerbaits, spinners and spoons. Nonetheless, they do show varied preferences at different times. It pays to carry an assorted selection of lures in the tackle box to cater for the toman's preferred diet of the day. My fishing guide was complaining one evening when the toman refused to touch his crankbaits but were readily hitting my buzzbait and torpedo. The toman here like the propeller type lures retrieved at a steady but slow rate. It seems to drive them wild!

After this Tasik Bera like place, the water narrows into a small water way then widens again into a broad expanse of water, a submerged swamp land, full of submerged standing timber, floating grass patches and floating pulai trees. Very scenic and unique in its own right. When the season is right, the toman and sebarau move up here and this is the place for the angler to be! If kalui is the angler's target, this is a Kalui hot spot.

At the other end of this submerged swamp, the dry land surrounding the wetlands rises to low foothills, and a small river feeds into this wide expanse of water. The locals have built small kelong like structures to trap fish in this small river.

For those fishing with lures here, the use of wire leaders is not necessary as it is rare for the toman to engulf the whole lure, unless a little one is used. However, when fishing with live or dead bait, the angler will wait till the toman swallows the bait down. Thus the line will be exposed to the toman's teeth, making the use of wire leaders necessary. As using bait may hook the toman deeply, injuring it critically, using bait is not a good idea for conservation unless circle hooks are used.

Lawrence Tan flattens the barbs on his hook to allow the hook to be removed from the jaws of the toman expeditiously and with as little injury to the fish as possible. Good conservation ethics. As anyone can see, the water conditions here are quite diverse for a small area, and the toman do not bite everywhere at the same time, so local knowledge is a plus, saving valuable fishing time.

What I like about Bukit Merah lake is its close proximity to the highway. Convenience is the key here, the journey is much shorter than to the other well known toman spots like Kenyir Lake or Temenggor dam. Furthermore, comfortable accommodation is available at Laketown Resort. While the angler fishes, the family can be brought along to enjoy the comfortable rooms and occupy their time at the resort facilities like the marina, shops, food outlets and the Laketown Waterpark. Opening soon is the Eco-park with fish, birds, monkeys, otters and reptiles within the park. In addition the fishing can be as good as if not better than, Kenyir or Temenggor.

For more information, contact Lawrence Tan (Laketown Angler's Card Manager) at Tel: 605-897 8888, Fax : 605-897 8000 (Bukit Merah Laketown Resort)