Andy McKinstray goes for a wild ride in PNG, bagging barra, bass and betel nut
Words and images by Andy McKinstray
Stepping off the plane at Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea, the first thing that hits you in the face is a wave of humidity followed by the pungent odour of burning rubbish. I decided it was the stench of capitalism gone wrong and we instantly yearned for our fishing nirvana up the coast. Joining me on this quest were Mathew Scholz and Taylor Smith (of Tide Apparel) and two lads from the Gold Coast, Clint Beechey and Matt. Our mission was to stalk some notorious PNG prowlers, namely black bass, and soak up the local culture. I’d heard about a local (totally legit) hallucinogenic called betel nut and was extremely keen to check it out.
PNG doesn’t give up her secrets easily. Our hotel in Port Moresby was encircled in a concrete wall with a spiked fence and armed security. Apparently they were deterring the local raskols (gangsters) from bothering guests. Our destination beyond “the wall” was a place called Terapo in the Gulf of PNG. Worryingly, none of the locals I chatted to had heard of it. Perhaps it was the epicentre of betel nut production. The place was starting to intrigue me.
BLACK BASS, BARRA AND CROCS
Jian and Moli were our guides for the PNG stopover. They escorted us inside the compound where we were greeted by the rest of our posse: Mick Hasset, Phil Green and Andrew ‘Sticksy’ Cole. In our hotel room, next to the TV, was a pile of well-worn fishing DVDs designed to whet our appetites prior to entering the hotel tackle shop. The shop specialises in gear for subduing black bass – as well as stupefying overly eager tourists. Jian briefed us on fishing spots and techniques for the next six days. He assured us the only raskols in the region were black bass, barra and crocs. We felt so reassured.
The next morning we packed and set off on the five-hour drive to Terapo. The roads were pretty rugged and with no Maccas in sight, we settled on some oversized Cheerios from a roadside vendor with, as it turned out, questionable hygiene standards.
At Terapo, the whole village was waiting outside our lodge to greet us with a traditional performance. They were enthusiastic and inviting, but it was starting to feel like a Marlon Brando-esque experience from Apolcalypse Now.
The fishing expedition was organised by The Wild River Fishing organisation. They go a fair but further than just running fishing tour groups, playing a huge part in the general wellbeing of the community by supplying villages with medical assistance, food, clean water and supplies. Everyone was willing to help on our mission and within minutes a boat had been carried to the water’s edge and we were casting away. Unfortunately, we bagged no bass – only a handful of jacks, fingermark and “rotisserie cod”, named after their familiar twirls to the surface after being hooked. I was getting a bit suspicious of the truthfulness of those fishing DVDs featuring bulbous black bass back at the hotel.
DAY TWO TAKES A CHURN FOR THE WORSE
The fishing on day two followed in much the same vein as the previous afternoon. By far the most action came from my lower bowel. It was churning furiously and I had the horrible feeling something was about to come up very fast. Just as a longboat carrying about 40 people slid by, its passengers gawking straight at me, I said to Phil, “I’m gonna throw up”. I asked our guide to slow down, then proceeded to projectile vomit a day’s worth of water, Coke, fruit and two ham sandwiches over the side. The gut wrenching spew-athon continued for about seven hours. I couldn’t stomach any food, liquid or tablets. All I could do was lay under a fan in the 30-degree heat back at the hut, stewing in my own sweat. I’ve never been in more discomfort – and I hadn’t even landed a bass, let alone tried betel nut!
Seeing my plight, my hosts spirited me away in the back of a ute to the village ‘hospital’, picking up the nurse along the way. At the hospital Iw as greeted the doctor who was carrying the torch. Seems the power was off. A few locals including the village chief rocked up, apparently fascinated by this sad, frail white bloke, drenched in sweat, who once had dreams of bicep curling a 50lb black bass on the cover of a fishing magazine.
‘Medical treatment’ consisted firstly of a syringe of Maxolon delivered directly into my arse cheek. The second needle was twice the thickness and full of an unknown substance. I was held down by the nurse and the village chief as this mysterious substance travelled violently up the right-hand side of my body. I eventually dragged my throbbing limbs out of the hospital, bucket in hand. Thankfully, the drugs worked quickly, so the vomiting stopped. Unfortunately, the body expulsions now headed south and I developed a horrid case of tap arse.
Hell, I was young, with much to do in life. I said a few prayers and much to everyone’s surprise was up and fishing the next day. Maxolon (and the other mysterious substance) was my new best friend.
BAGGING BASS AND GOING NUTS
Pound for pound, black bass are unparalleled fighting fish. Bust-offs in snaggy river systems are common, even on 130lb outfits. Finding bass wasn’t easy given the timing of our trip. Fresh rainfall was running off the mountains and the fish held tight to structure in the slow-running, cold water. We found the best tactic was slow trolling deep-diving hard bodies around the snags on river bends lined with steep banks. This strategy accounted for jacks, cod, fingermark and king salmon. Sticksy even knocked over a 44lb barra, which put on a spectacular show. Fortunately, a few 30lb bass turned up for the party. We found them most receptive to noisy, deep-diving lures trolled under heavy cover. A Scorpion lure proved the most productive.
Having recovered from my stomach tsunami, I promptly got back on the local SP Export. It tastes like a mixture of all my least-favourite beers mixed together in one can. As a distraction, I suggested we try betel nut. It’s a wicked concoction of berry, crushed lime and a stick of mustard. We traded cans of Fanta and Sprite for this substance, which turns your teeth and gums red. The more I chewed, the more, er, ‘elevated’ I got. I’m pretty sure my ears heated up past boiling point. Mick’s beard was dyed red from his drool. Clint proceeded to pass out on the couch like a cooked sloth, and Matt was hunched over the fence, dry-heaving. I drifted away, breaking my melancholy state with a long cold shower.
It certainly was a wild ride on the betel nut – I have no idea how the locals can chew it all day and still function. Matt and Mick did further research, testing if betel nut improved fishing performance. Sadly, it doesn’t. We saw the boys trolling on the river looking like a couple of zombies, eyes sunken in sallow faces and their arms flailing around like malfunctioning outriggers.
ON THE WILD RIDE
PNG was far more than a fishing trip. It was a stimulating life experience in a foreign environment, chasing unknown species with people we never fully understood. One minute you can be trading fish with friendly locals and the next you’re being abused by a machete wielding wildman. It felt like I could spend a lifetime here and still never fully master its ways. Nevertheless, I thoroughly recommend this trip to any keen angler. One thing for sure, no fishing DVD will prepare you for this wild ride.
WHERE WE STAYED
Wild River Fishing PNG, Port Moresby.
Village lodge in Terapo, Gulf Province. http://sportfishingpng.net
- Bait-casting outfits with 60lb+ line
- Repellent with 70%+ DEET
- Travel insurance
- A quiver of good mates (new and old)
- A bucket for chundering
- Anti-malaria tablets
TOP 5 LURES
- RMG Scorpion 125
- RMB Scorpion 150
- Duo Realis G87 15A
- Classic Barra (noisy bastards)