By all accounts, I had every right to be having a miserable time. The wind was pelting us with rain that felt like rock salt fired out of a shotgun, the ocean swells were tossing our round-hulled falowa boat around like a woodchip in a washing machine, and periodic breakers had soaked every piece of clothing and electronic devices we had brought on board. There’s more. Several fish took my bait but got away, we no longer had a fish finder to help our search after having to use another boat that apparently had none, and massive unseen fishes had ripped all our good jigs and lures right out of our hands. But strangely enough, despite all the factors conspiring to get me down, I found myself energized and grinning like a kid at an amusement park, for on these rough seas I had a purpose – I was here to gamefish, and, as I bobbed off the coast of Basco, Batanes, I couldn't think of a better place to do it, or better company to keep while dropping my line.
When the call first came in that InFlight Magazine wanted to send me to Batanes to gamefish, I have to admit that besides the siren call of adventure, travel and recreation, I had one other ulterior goal for my trip: family honor. Let me explain. Thousands of miles away, in the dark basement of my parents’ Colorado house, there is a wall with four mounted fish grinning back at visitors with grimaces locked in permanent toothy grins. Four fish, representing every member of my immediate family besides myself. I had even been out – Hemingway'ed' by my non-fishing New Yorker mom, who has on the wall a 16-inch bass yanked up from some Texas tank. For years, I felt left out, and this trip was going to fix that. This Captain Ahab shall get his white whale, oh yes...
I was overjoyed that a crack team had been assembled for the quest, including gamefishing expert Tony Barrios, Fishing Buddy owner Gordon Uy, Captain Magno Bata of the M/V Viking, one of the only boats in Batanes set up for deep sea gamefishing, with its fish finder, GPS, front and back decks with railing, and sturdy construction. With my ineptitude, I needed all the help I could get. Within an hour or so of our arrival in the capital town Basco, we made our way overland to the Mahatao Shelterport, about 20 minutes south, and were steaming out to sea with fishing on our minds. With Barrios unable to make our flight out of Manila, Uy became my personal guru, introducing me to the discipline of jigging, using lures consisting of a lead sinker with a hook, usually painted in groovy color schemes and shiny surfaces to attract fish.
Jigging is a fairly new school of fishing, enjoying a re-birth in Japan about 17 years ago, and entertaining fishermen here for about three. “Jigging has brought a whole new generation of anglers to fishing, with many of the old anglers switching as well,” says Uy, whose Fishing Buddy store is fully stocked with the gear needed to pick up the sport. As soon as I had soaked in a bit of the technique, I tried my luck, and dropped my jig to 100 meters. It was not long before I was completely hooked on the sport. The hypnotic process of dropping the jig and pulling it up was good exercise, and the periodic bite fired up enthusiasm and resolve. Unfortunately, I could not say that any fish were hooked on my hook, at least not for very long. Over the course of our five hours out on the first day, I got about three or four bites, with one fish giving me a tete-a-tete battle for about five minutes before winning our encounter, and another, which Gordon estimated at 20 plus kilograms (using the strength setting for the line and reel as a measure), pulling the line straight off the rod. Two local Ivatan fishermen had joined us, also trying jigging for the first time, and were having the time of their lives, reeling in the line like possessed robots charged with too much voltage.
Batanes is an optimal game fishing destination for those appropriately outfitted. Tucked between Luzon and Taiwan, Batanes is bounded by two of the most fertile fishing grounds in the Philippines, with Bashi Channel on the north and Balintang Channel on the south, where the Pacific Ocean merges with the China Sea. Its 10 islands make up the smallest province in the country in terms of land mass (229sqkm), but sprawls over 4,500sqkm of territorial waters. “Batanes is a great place to go deep sea fishing – it is unspoiled and rarely fished with jigging techniques, so there's a lot of large fish in deeper waters,” Gordon said. He later brought up our first fish, an 8kg amberjack, which could have been the pick of the day in most wet markets around the country.
Hunters and fishermen always have, as part of their survival instinct, a preternatural drive to wake up before anything else does, in particular their prey. Our second day began at the painful hour of 3:30am, with Gordon’s alarm sounding the signal to get a move on. It was difficult to get out of bed after about only two or three hours of sleep. Finding our way through the darkness, we chugged out of Mahatao and quickly found a place that Gordon and Magno deemed worthy of our efforts. Our focus on day two seemed full of an intensity that day one did not have, and the four jiggers were a' flurry with the cycle of dropping the jig to about 80 to 120 meters, and reeling in the line quickly while periodically jerking up the rig, mimicking the appearance of tasty little bait fish. The process is not a placid or lazy technique, and back, biceps and wrists soon began to burn. “Jigging is a much more physical type of fishing than other types like trawling and even casting. It's more active; and you're not just waiting for the fish...” Gordon said, proving his point over bursts of reeling and muscling the lead jig up from the ocean depths. He soon showed us how it was done by pulling in a 10kg yellow fin tuna, which was later made into about four dishes for that evening’s dinner, including the best sashimi I've had in this millennium.
In the afternoon we allowed ourselves some time on terra firma, and scouted some of the beautiful nooks and corners of Batan Island, including the fishing village of Diura, which, like so many places in the province, seems like a living history demonstration, with ancient traditional ways of fishing practiced well into this era of outboard motors and long line nets. As we pulled up beside the neatly lined bahay kubos, all with a commanding view of the seas in which they worked, I was beckoned over by a fisherman to join him in working through what I call a 'Batanes Combo Meal', which consisted of the provincial booze of choice, Ginebra gin, and two dishes made with arayu, (dorado or mahi-mahi) a migratory fish prized by fishermen. He told me that during dorado season from March to May, about 40 fishermen in tatayas, or small, three-person fishing boats manned with sails, would head out to sea, fishing for flying fish and taking them alive to use as bait for the dorados. Dorados do not eat dead bait.
He recalled that once his friend had a dorado hooked on his line after swallowing the flying fish bait, but the dorado had in turn been eaten by a large shark. After a lengthy struggle, the shark plunged back in the depths, pulling the tataya with him, leaving the fisherman at sea, forced to swim several kilometers to shore.
After we left Diura, we headed over to a rocky point that stretched into the sea just south of Basco. Here, Gordon and I tried our luck at popping, casting off into the surf and pools and trying to attract the giant trevallys with the splash of the lure as we draw it back to shore. As we stood on rock outcroppings, clouds covering Mt. Iraya suddenly cleared, revealing the dormant volcano’s giant mass, perched on the edge of Batan Island like a Hershey Kiss sitting on top of a deck of cards.
On the third day, we had to take a smaller falowa out on the waters, as the Viking was not available. Following the shadow of Mt. Iraya to its northern flanks, we hit violent swells, our falowa thrown around as we tried to drop our jigs into turbulent waters. As my stomach bounced up to my throat, I thought there was no better way to come to understand the Ivatan culture than to jump into a falowa to go fishing in demanding seas.
The Ivatans are natural fishermen. They have as many words for fishing as the Eskimos have for snow and the ancient Muslim sailors have for winds that powered them around their trading ports.
“Taming the Wind”, a history of the Batanes Isles by Florentino Hornedo, lists over 30 different traditional fishing techniques practiced by the Ivatans. Their vocabulary for fishing equipment such as hooks, harpoons, containers and drying paraphernalia is specialized and voluminous, as well as their superstitions and folklore. This is a fishing culture, and has been since the first Ivatans came to Batanes over 4,000 years ago.
I asked local fisherman George Peralta if there were people in Batanes who don't fish, and he said: “There are a few...mostly government employees from the mainland; but it’s okay because we sell our fish to them!”
As our third day started drawing to a close, the weather seemed to get angrier. Some people were spotted on the shore, impossibly far from shelter or civilization, perhaps tending to livestock or beach combing. More dolphins than I've ever seen in one day cruised by several times, some breaching right off our bow. The King Kong Island-like uninhabited islet of Dinem, with its mysterious fisherman taboos, cut through the clouds like an ominous arrowhead jutting from the ocean. As our falowa pulled back into Basco port with the last rays of daylight, I felt a tinge of regret that my time in Batanes had not resulted in some gaping, scaled Leviathan that could complete the empty spot on my family's fishing wall. But the flipside to my coming home empty handed is it ensured I would have to come back to Batanes and continue my quest.
For starters it’s best to rent until you know you are well and truly hooked. Here are the key things you need.
Tica Taurus TP5000S spinning reel
Price US$140 (about P6,553)
Features Aluminum body and rotor with 13-14 precision stainless steel ball bearings, forged aluminum alloy spool, CNC machined aluminum alloy handle, power handle knob, stainless steel main shaft, worm shaft and drive gear shaft, high strength brass pinion gear, one-way clutch instant anti-reverse roller bearing, right/left interchangeable handle, and worm shaft oscillating system.
Good to know
Reel: Attach it to the rod, and wind the line on its spool. High-tech to medieval options available; and the price range is from $40 to $1,000.
Main line: Braid line is $10 to $20 for 100 meters, and it’s good to have about 300 meters.
Leader: This is the thick monofilament line that ties the jig to the main line. Ten meters usually costs $8.
Jigs: Heavier weights (300 grams) are needed for deeper or strong current conditions, to keep the jig sinking. Jigs of about 150 grams are good for shallower or weaker current conditions. About $6 to $20.
GPS: Garmin is a favorite brand of anglers and can cost about $300. With an additional Pacific Blue chart package, the GPS can be programmed to show depth and underwater topography.
Fish Finder: A gadget that uses echo sounding system or active sonar to detect fish. Must be professionally mounted on the boat. Price can range from $400 to $1,000 and is crucial for big game fishing.
Gimbal Belt: A belt used to fix the butt of the fishing pole securely at your waist. Costs around $10.
Trawl Lures: Lighter weight for dragging behind a moving boat to entice fishes to bite. Around $10 each.
XZOGA Taka JI-5814 fishing rod
Features Carbon fiber, Fuji guides and reel seat, PE 4, drag max 10kg, max jig 300g
Price P400-P800 depending on size
Features Red eye and flashing body mimicking wounded fish and fast sinking; made of lead
Heavy duty, stainless steel, split-ring pliers, cutter and crimper
Features Can open up split rings up to 200lbs with ease, cut mono and crimp sleeve
Sufix Mono leader line, great for saltwater fishing
Price P200-P300 depending on size
Features Monofilament line
Features Steel hook wrapped with Kevlar braid rig and ball bearing swivels
The best time for gamefishing is from March to July. The yellow fin tuna season is from September to February.
Fishing Buddies store can help newcomers and veteran anglers with gearing up for the sport. Call tel +632 516 6829.
Fishing expert Tony Barrios arranges fishing trips to Batanes, Siargao and San Vicente, Cagayan, among other fishing destinations. For inquiries email [email protected].
Skyjet has flights from Manila to Basco, Batanes for P6,89, roundtrip. Call +632 863 1333.
Basco town has a handful of charming accommodation, most on the simple side of the spectrum. Shanedel’s Inn and Cafe is one of the most “angler friendly hotels” because it's close to the Shelterport, the jump off point to fishing grounds. Its cliff top location overlooks Basco Port. Proprietor Dely Millan can arrange for land transportation, boat rental, packed lunches and even cooking the day's catch for dinner. Rooms here are not fancy but clean, with private toilet and bath. There’s a makeshift open-air restaurant that can double as venue to pre-plan a fishing trip. Rooms are from P450 per person for fan rooms and P1,300 to P2,500 for air-conditioned single rooms. For inquiries and reservations call +63928 194 1910 or email [email protected].
Homestays can be arranged. Live in an Ivatan stone house or rent a room in a villager's house. Batanes Cultural Travel Agency also offers packaged fishing tours. Call Batanes Cultural Travel Agency (BCTA) to book at +632 635 4810.
Originally published in InFlight Traveller June to July 2009. Updated April 2016