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Luke fishes the sewers of Singapore for a variety of fish including invasive tilapia and peacock bass

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Though the author didnt catch one on his first attempt, his second try at sewer fishing yielding this trimac cichlid.

SINGAPORE — I said goodbye to my friend, Dominick Porcelli, at the Departures curb of Singapore's Changi International Airport. It was about 7 a.m. and like most of Southeast Asia, most everything opened at 10 — not 8. I wanted coffee, but after four Starbucks and three local shops all turned up closed, I looked elsewhere.

My stomach was reeling, so I urgently searched for a bathroom, settling on a mall. Thankfully, Burger King was open. It was the only store in the entire mall open before 10, but it meant the bathrooms were open.

As I sat on the throne, I reviewed the pins on the map I'd created with Dom and our Singaporean friend, Jiayuan Lin. There weren't a ton of options nearby, but one pin fairly close by indicated there were trimac cichlids, Cichlasoma trimaculatum, present in one of the channelized, concrete waterways that are equal parts storm drain, sewer and tidal creek.

Jiayuan's notes indicated there was a pool accessible from a high bridge that contained trimacs during high tide, but I glossed over that as I drove to find worms.

Coffee shops open before 10 are rare in Singapore. Rarer still are those open before 8. Rarer even still are worms. Only a single shop in the entire country regularly sells them, and they are not the worms North Americans are accustomed to. They are tiny, stringy tropical varieties that are so frail that simply holding them usually rips them apart and getting them on even a small-gauge hook is near-impossible. Nonetheless, it was my only option, so I hoofed it to the small aquarium supply store and bought a few before venturing to the bridge Jiayuan had marked for me.

The narrow water channel centered in the massive concrete trough indicated it was low tide, which didn't bode well. At low tide, the water was no more than 8 inches deep, the majority of invasive tilapia, peacock bass and trimac cichlids having retreated below the bridge to what I assumed was deeper water. Fishing with the ultralight for fish I couldn't see from a bridge at least 20 feet up proved untenable. Fish large enough to see from up top proved few and far between. Just as I prepared to admit defeat and took a different route back to my car, I noticed a single rope tied to the chest-high canal railing. A lifeline.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Fishing in complete darkness under the city was a unique experience during the daytime, as the author fished the sewers of Singapore earlier this summer.

Roped in

Returning to the car, I quickly grabbed micro gear, assuming fish were just too small to see from up top. Stuffing this gear into a backpack, I put on a headlamp and began repelling the 15 feet or so down into the canal. A small feeder pipe halfway down the smooth concrete wall served as a foothold. The hole extended about 10 feet under the sidewalk, and a quick crawl into the hole showed someone had been living there — one of the only signs of homelessness I saw in Singapore outside of the mangrove swamps.

Balanced on the lip of the hole, I was able to hang from my arms, awkwardly contorted, and blindly grope my feet onto a single metal pipe the diameter of a quarter jutting from a hole in the wall below. From there, I was able to drop the last three feet or so to the extremely slippery sludge-covered concrete now underfoot. Slipping and flailing my arms and legs like a cartoon character to try and stabilize myself, I managed not to wind up flat on my back, but it was close.

Carefully, I proceeded along the slippery canal bed towards the dark tunnel that led beneath the city. It wasn't my first time fishing a storm drain, but it was my first time physically leaving the daylight to enter a sewer in search of fish.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Getting down more than 15 feet from the road to the sewer was an adventure.


The headlamp deftly sliced through the darkness, and I quickly saw the invasive cichlids I expected as well as several species of native goby, both small and large.

I caught both the prized marbled gudgeon, a large goby found in only the fanciest Singaporean restaurants (sources now come into question), as well as some smaller golden flathead gobies, a new species for me.

Pressing on into the darkness, I was surprised to see the massive scale of the sewer system, which had small pipes feeding in gray water from both sides along its entire length as the main stream, fueled primarily by rainwater and a small, diverted stream split the black cavern in two.

A sodden pizza box left me wondering if giant turtles practiced martial arts in this particular darkness, but a few stray rats were as close as I came to reliving my childhood. Bats coursed overhead, but no other creatures of the night passed into my lone beam of light.

The permanent night of this microhabitat boasted deeper channels and a few wayward rocks and sticks that created current seams, pools and provided some limited features to the otherwise featureless concrete streambed.

Tilapia represented the majority of fishes, but eventually I did find my trimac cichlids.

Sadly, I was using my tenkara rod, a three-foot length of line and only had micro hooks snelled on 1-pound line. Knowing how it would end, I hooked a large trimac but my line was immediately broken off.

I caught plenty of gobies and small tilapia while pining for my trimac. Though probably 100 or more tilapia persisted in that stretch of water, less than a dozen trimacs coexisted, and all were over half a pound. I had assumed these would be very small and had planned for that, but Singapore's sewers grow some decent fish. Several days later, I would return with more appropriate gear, surprised to catch cichlids the size of my hand and just shy of a pound.

Careful not to slip, I trekked until I found the other entrance to the tunnel before making my way back through the daytime night and into the daylight at my original entry point, up the rope, out of the canal and back to a much less exciting itinerary of fishing that included no urban spelunking, fewer storm drains but the exact same amount of ninja turtles: none.

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