The Dancing Beauty and Other Tales of Carp[/crab] Fishing in China, pt. II

[Pt. I of this multi-part series, in which the blogger goes shopping for tackle at what amounts to a giant carp fishing mall, can be found here.]

A friend from Minnesota, a walleye fisherman of some repute, once told me: “The only thing that comes close to the thrill of catching a fish is not catching a fish. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t get to fish with me.” I know exactly what he meant and no, it has nothing to do with six packs in the cooler on the floor of your boat. Instead he was talking about anticipation, and the itchy possibility that the mundane routines of daily like might just run into something wilder – with a little luck and patience. It’s the kind of anticipation that leads experienced fishermen to sit on a boat in the heat of the mid-day sun, lines in the water, knowing that – under such conditions – they’re about as likely to catch a blue whale as a walleye or a bass. And it’s just that kind of anticipation which – along with growing wealth, leisure time, automobile ownership, and restlessness – drives the quickening growth of recreational fishing in China.

Travel China’s cities and I guarantee that – if you come across an urban creek, river, or canal – you’ll eventually find somebody with a line in it, no matter how polluted, fishing for pleasure. Below, a photo of a fisherman beside the creek that runs through East China Normal University in Shanghai (courtesy of China writer, historian, and angler, Paul French, author of the great China Rhyming blog).

Alas, I think it no exaggeration to claim that China’s urban waterways are polluted and over-fished (if there are fish in them, at all), and so – for the serious angler – it’s necessary to look to the Chinese countryside for quality fishing (a topic about which I’ll have much more to say in coming months). At least, that’s what I’ve long thought. But curiosity, along with urban restlessness, occasionally gets the better of me, and so over the last year I’ve taken to asking around Shanghai for quality fresh water fishing (not stocked pond fishing). In other words: is it possible to fish quality, wild freshwater fish in a freshwater fish loving (and eating) city? The answer, I’d long been told, is no. But then, in March, a good friend called to tell me that a friend of his had mentioned a clean lake in the Shanghai outskirts filled with big, wild carp.

My friend told me that the spot was roughly one hour outside of downtown, and that his friend had “caught dozens of fish there.” That last detail worried me: it sounded like a stocked pond or, worse, an over-fished one. The latter issue is real: China’s local governments don’t license fishing, and in China there are – so far as I know – no limits on the number of fish that can be taken, the size or age of fish that can be taken, or even a regulated fishing season. Indeed, even the concept of ‘catch and release,’ widely accepted in Europe and the US, is typically only practiced by those who don’t like eating small fish. Conservation rarely enters into the conversation.

But I’m an optimist when it comes to China, fishing, and fishing in China (one must be), and so I didn’t hesitate to go and have a look at this alleged carp fishing paradise. As detailed in the first chapter of this carp fishing adventure, I’d never before fished carp, much less in China. So, my friend and I, we stopped for tackle and my first Chinese-style carp fishing rod. From there, we stopped at a supermarket, picked up some refreshments and headed out of town.

Now, I’ve had a few people ask me just where we went on this carp fishing adventure, and up until a week ago I intended to reveal it. But after some thought, and for reasons that will soon become obvious, I’m going to keep it quiet for now. If you’d like to know, and you have a good reason for me to tell you, email through the contact form. At this point, all I’ll say is that it’s on a piece of public land in Shanghai’s Nanhui District, roughly an hour’s drive from my French Concession apartment in downtown.

So. We arrived at the public land, parked, packed up our gear, and hiked for twenty minutes down a tree-lined dirt road. The water appeared on our left – a large, brownish lake, surrounded by trees, and a handful of barbecue grills where a group of college students were celebrating the end of the academic year. Just past them, my heart sank: what looked like a somewhat pristine setting turned out to be a construction site. Several large, expensive houses – villas, in the local parlance – were being built along a nearby inlet. Next to it, a completed hotel complex was baking in the heat – seemingly abandoned. Like everything else in Shanghai, this was far from undiscovered country.

Still, we were determined, and so walked in the opposite direction from the housing development. What came next I’ll never forget: our conversation was drowned out by the combined songs of hundreds if not thousands of birds – cranes, gulls, and lord knows what else – atop trees in a small island at the heart of the alleged carp lake. This is simply not the sort of thing one expects to encounter in Shanghai. The island, below; the white specks are birds.

Spirits lifted, we continued shlepping around the lake, in search of some shade (it was late morning) and that indescribable sense that “this is the place. we’ll catch something here.” Alas, this job was made considerably easier by the large volume of trash left behind by previous fishermen. Food wrappers; beer cans (some things are universal); and, most revealingly, empty bags of carp fishing bait of the sort that we bought in Putuo District.

We’re practical people, my friend and I, and the lack of respect for the land and water aside, we chose our spot based upon the largest number of discarded bait bags. Both of us had 1.8 meter carbon-fiber poles – without reels on them. Carp fishing in China is accomplished by tying line to the end of a pole – could be bamboo, could be carbon – and casting it into the water. The absurdity of tying line to the delicate rubber tip at the end of a carbon fiber pole didn’t escape me. But whatever. When in Shanghai, do as the Shanghainese. So, below, my friend knotting his line to the rubber tip at the end of his 1.8 meter carbon-fiber pole.

Lines ready (outfitted with Dancing Beauty-brand bobbers), it was time to prepare the bait. Below, my friend pouring the corn meal bait into a container which we then filled with lake water, and stirred until it had the consistency of chewing gum.

You then take a gob in your hands, roll it into a ball, and sink it onto your hook, like this:

And at that, I thought we were ready. I took my pole, and just as I was about to cast, my friend told me that we had to attract the fish. Attract the fish? “Yes,” he said. “With the fish food.” In his hand was another packet of bait – at least, I thought it was. Just as he did with the stuff now on my inaugural hook, he emptied the packet into a dish and mixed it with lake water. However, unlike the bait on my hook, this stuff smelled awful: sickly sweet like half-empty beer cans that have baked in the sun for a week, only worse.

What do you do with this stuff? Why, you toss it in the water, turning it red, and, presumably, attracting carp. In our case, it instead appeared to attract the farmer who claimed to own the land that we had chosen to fish. Just as I was getting ready to cast, she appeared out of the brush, informed us that we were trespassing, and demanded an RMB 100 ($14.70) fee from each of us. My friend was suspicious, but when she offered to show him her lakeside farmhouse, he conceded the right, and proceeded to negotiate a fee of RMB 30 ($4.40) for each of us, for the day.

With that cleared up, my friend tossed another couple of handfuls of the foul-smelling carp attractor into the water, I rolled some cornmeal bait onto my hook – and proceeded to learn that carp fishing, China style, is harder than I thought it would be. Here’s the problem, from the perspective of someone accustomed to spinning and bait-casting – it takes no small amount of skill, and trial and error, to figure out the proper amount of corn meal that will remain affixed to a hook attached to a 4 meter line attached to the end of a 1.8 meter pole. Too much and it falls off when it hits the water; too little and it dissolves not long after it sinks into the water. And that assumes that you’re actually successful in casting that line into the water. Me, I’m man enough to admit that I spent a considerable part of my first hour or two plucking my line out of the trees and brush behind us. You get the picture.

Eventually, though, I got the hang of it, and we settled into a nice routine of casting, letting the bait do (or not do) its work for a couple of minutes, taking a sip of a beverage, and then pulling the empty hook back to shore. I’d say it was 1:30 or so before I really got the hang of this, and it was 3:00 before we had the day’s first catch, below.

No, it’s not a giant carp. It’s not even a small carp. It’s a crab of the sort that Shanghai gourmands eat by the dozens if given the opportunity. That’s the bright side; the dark side is that my buddy pointed out that I didn’t actually catch the crab, but rather the crab became tied up in my excess line. Whatever. Newly energized, I cast again.

It was getting to be late afternoon at this point, and the fish – I began to think – were finally biting. There were definite pulls and tugs on my line. A couple of them even felt big. Were they? Alas, when I tried to fix the hook, I mostly succeeded in sending the line flying back at me and my friend (again, this was the weirdest rod and line arrangement I’ve ever experienced). Meanwhile, my friend, he wasn’t having much more success than me – though, in his defense, he managed to avoid sending his line flying in my direction. Around dinner-time, just as I was thinking of giving up in favor of the sour cream and onion Pringles in the cooler, I felt a gentle pull on my line. This is what I sent flying past my friend’s head in an overenthusiastic effort to hook it:

Ok, again, not a carp. But, in Shanghai terms, at least, it might be better: a genuine Shanghai hairy crab! Heck, in season, these bad boys can go for serious cash at better restaurants. My friend, a native of the Chinese north, but a lover of the south’s hairy crab, promptly stashed it in his cooler. And then it was time to try again – this time with the help of my friend’s late arriving wife.

An hour passed. Then another. I began to doubt the waters. And then, just as hope was fading, I saw a small silver fish go flying past my head and land in the bushes, accompanied by a yelp from my friend’s wife. It was, indeed, a fish. Not a crab. But a fish. Not much of a fish, mind you – maybe 15 cm (six inches) and certainly not even a kg in weight – but we were – at that point – not picky.

We unhooked it, argued about what it was — and then threw it back, mostly satisfied, though more than a little suspicious about whether or not this rumored-to-be carp fishing paradise was really so.

By 8:30 we were ready to leave when, behind us, a car door slammed and compact middle aged man carrying a rod and a cooler strode down the embankment in our direction, followed by four women – one, his wife, two, his daughters, and one, a niece. He stopped to say hello, identified himself as a local, as well as a regular competitor in the many carp fishing tournaments that – he claimed – occurred regularly in Jiangsu Province, especially near Nanjing. He eyed our tackle with a skeptical rise of his brow and took leave, to a small platform twenty meters from our spot.

My friend and I, feeling considerable insecurity about our technique at this point, decided to obtain some pointers from this self-proclaimed master.

He – the Master – was just then setting up, surrounded by his women, casting with confidence while perched upon his cooler. He invited us to examine his tackle – and it turned out that nothing that he was doing, or casting, was any different than what we’d been doing, or casting. The lines looked the same; the rods looked the same; even the bait looked the same (a little neater, though). Note the length of his rod, and though it’s not visible in this image, the fact that an even longer line is tied to the end of it.

A closer look, below:

So what did he catch? We hung out with him for a good hour, watching his casts, and waiting for Big Carp. But, truth be told, he was no more successful than we were and, in the end, he admitted that this lake – despite the bird sanctuary – has been over-fished. There are a few small fish left in it, he said, and – he suspects – a couple of big ones, too (no comment on the crab population). Sadly, and for better or worse, what used to be a local fishing hole is now a destination for in-the-know downtown fishermen. Anywhere else in the world, that wouldn’t be a problem; but in Shanghai, home to 20 million+ people, a few in-the-know fishermen are enough to wipe out a lake – especially without regulations to protect the fish population.  So, what might in fact have been a well-stocked lake when my friend heard about it a couple of months ago (assuming he wasn’t told a tale) may have become – in the intervening months – something less. Expectations, in general, of fish in China, are often beat down. Take, for example, the March cover of China’s ‘Fishing Magazine,’ and the pathetically small catch being held by the disappointed/disgusted fisherman with the dearly expensive pole. This is increasingly the state of the sport:

The irony is that a sport which, theoretically at least, has the potential to be the grounds for a genuine conservation movement, might snuff out the most easily accessible Chinese waters before the sport really has a chance to develop. I might be wrong about this, but I’m all but certain that such a state of affairs is exactly what exists in (massive) Shanghai. Fortunately, for now, at least, there are plenty of other places in China where fish – predatory fish, at that – swim free for committed fishermen. But as the Chinese middle class rises, and cost barriers to travel fall, it seems likely that Shanghai’s syndrome will spread outward. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Local governments can protect and regulate waters, and perhaps they will. For now, though, I’m going to continue looking around Shanghai; I already have some leads. And, in coming months, I intend to show my readers that it is, in fact, possible to fish in China – so long as you know where to go, and are willing to leave the cities.

BLOG POST-SCRIPT

If I’ve left the impression that I think recreational fishing is something new to China, well, it’s not. Recreational fishing in China enjoys a tradition dating back thousands of years, with artistic works – paintings and poems – connecting it tightly to an appreciation of nature. Of these, none is more famous, I think, than Liu Zongyuan‘s ‘River Snow’ composed over a thousand years ago, during the Tang Dynasty. Below, the Chinese (if you can handle it – I can’t), and a wonderful translation/interpretation by Kenneth Rexroth.

千山鳥飛絕    萬徑人蹤滅

孤舟簑笠翁    獨釣寒江雪

A thousand mountains without a bird.

Ten thousand miles with no trace of man.

A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat,

Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river.

8 thoughts on “The Dancing Beauty and Other Tales of Carp[/crab] Fishing in China, pt. II

  1. Your article ended much too soon and Rexroth’s translation is wonderful.

  2. Great blog! I think carp fishing is the big thing in the cities but if you go out to the countryside you can find bass fishing. I fished bass in Shanxi a few years ago. I wonder though if the lakes are still good.

  3. Over-fishing is sadly restricted to neither population hubs nor fresh water, witness both the Bohai and Yellow seas, politely described as ‘barren’ by scuba divers.

    Though I feel I must share probably the best carp dish I think I’ve ever had: a Northeastern dish with preserved cabbage, carp slices and a few dried chillis boiled together briefly to form a hearty stock spookily (given such different ingredients) similar to Thai tomyum soup.

    Grass carp are also a fantastic addition to a hotpot, bubbling away in the bottom adding much depth to the stock.

  4. I’d like to second W.S.’s comment. As somebody who grew up fishing the trout streams of New England, it’s something I miss dearly here in China. Glad to know somebody with more ingenuity and energy is out there dishing on the fishing.

  5. Adam, I was in a tiny town in Pudong near the airport a few weeks ago and spotted a few old folk fishing in a tiny river that runs through to the East River. They fished to feed cats, not to eat. Pretty sad.

Comments are closed.