January 31, 2012
The murky waters of the lake in Theerasart, Thailand, had begun to reflect the setting sun, and Michael Ma knew that his long day of fishing was almost at its end. What he did not know was that a massive inhabitant of the lake was about to propel Ma's name into the record books.
Ma, a self-proclaimed fishing fanatic, has traveled the world to fish as often as his schedule permits, casting his line in the waters of Aruba, Puerto Rico, and Patagonia, among other locations. He was drawn to Thailand by fishing guide Jean Francois Helias, who had helped other amateur anglers reel in record-breaking spotted featherbacks, alligator gar, Mekong giant catfish, and freshwater stingrays.
But with the day at its end, Ma began to doubt that he would be able to catch anything of note, much less a record-breaker. He hooked a small tilapia onto the line and cast it out ten yards. The bait sank. A few moments later, Ma felt a forceful tug. A battle commenced, and a group of locals standing nearby began to watch intently as Ma calmly fought the pull of the unknown beast. Ma could feel that this fish was big, maybe huge, but it did not fight ferociously as would the saltwater fish that he is used to reeling in.
"Just think of a very stubborn person who plays tug of war with you for half an hour," Ma says, explaining the characteristic challenge of landing a freshwater fish. "With freshwater fish of this size, they are going to go in a couple different directions— that's it—you're just coming for the ride. No acrobatics, no tricks, no deep diving."
Ma is accustomed to handling the tricks and the acrobatics. Growing up in the town of Darien, Connecticut, he lived a five-minute drive away from Long Island Sound. His father introduced him to bass fishing at an early age, and before long he fell in love with deep-sea fishing, where the fish are bigger and admittedly a bit more aesthetically pleasing—majestic marlins and sleek swordfish—than the snub-nosed snakeheads and carp typical of freshwater lakes and rivers. "I'm actually kind of a deepsea fishing guy," he says.
After twenty-seven minutes of battle, Ma finally reeled the resilient fish out of the water, revealing a massive redtail catfish. Hearing the gasps of the crowd and his guide, Ma suspected that this catch had record-breaking potential. A measuring tape was brought out and the fish was determined to be 109 centimeters long, significantly longer than the previous record of 103 centimeters. Interestingly enough, the fifty-five pound catfish did not come close to the record in weight, which is held by a 123-pounder caught in Brazil's Amazon River. "That must have been one fat fish." Ma jokes. "I wouldn't have wanted to catch that offensive lineman!"
With one world record to call his own, Ma admits that he would love to pursue additional honors. However, he is not quite ready to make fishing his full-time job for fear that it will eliminate the fun it holds for him. To Ma, fishing will always be a leisurely escape, a counterbalance to his work in real estate and as a co-owner of a college preparatory business. A firm proponent of catch and release, Ma hopes that stricter international fishing regulations can be implemented so that fishing for food or fun can remain sustainable.
Asked whether he ever considered throwing his new world record on the grill, Ma responds "No, any fish that gets to a fighting size like that deserves to live." Besides, the redtail catfish is considered inedible by the locals. Ma unhooked his piscine claim to fame and set it free, knowing that there would be more epic fishing battles in each of their futures.