David Popp heads two hours north of Phuket to fish the jungle rivers of south-east Asia
South-east Asia has its fair share of famous saltwater destinations for the fly fisherman, like the Maldives or the east coast of Malaysia near Romping, which is known as a sailfish haven. Freshwater fly fishing on the other hand has been much less publicised. I have worked as a research scientist in the city state of Singapore over the past five years and as an ‘outdoor enthusiast and fly fishing bum’ have experienced the hardest time so far in my life. In particular, when it comes to catching fish in the former English crown colony, good sport fishing on fly for predatory species like big ten-pound peacock bass can well be had in the many reservoirs, yet unfortunately about 99% of it remains illegal. As Singapore is also known as ‘fine city’ you don’t want to mess with the regulations, especially as an expat.
Although fly fishing in Singapore can be considered poor, due to regulations, there is one place of salvation for the fly fisherman’s soul. It is called Coho, the only dedicated fly shop in Singapore. If someone asks me, what do you like best about Singapore? I always tell them, Coho. Most people don’t like the answer. Anyway, Coho is kind of a hangout for fly-fishing addicts and after a while I met two guys there, which were on the same groove. One of them Lyall, who at the time was ambassador general at the Australian High Commission in Singapore, the other Pak Amin, also known as Uncle Amin, a local fly fishing legend, who was one of the first Singaporeans ever to pioneer fly fishing from the early 1970’s and is a well-known fly casting and fly tying instructor in south east Asia.
The author with a Malaysian mahseer.
It was early November 2013, when Lyall and I took the short, one-hour flight from Singapore to Phuket, Thailand, these days a tourist super-destination for families and singles alike. What most of Phuket’s visitors do not know is there is fantastic fishing for freshwater mahseer just about two hours’ drive north of Phuket airport. The tributaries of the man-made Cheow Lan Lake were our final destination. We met our guide Mike, a tall and friendly Danish bloke, who is married to a Thai woman at the lake’s port and boarded a longboat to cross the lake, which takes more than an hour, as it is 40 kilometres wide. The landscape surrounding the lake is a spectacular feat of old volcanic peaks, and appears reminiscent of an ancient super-volcano.
Peaks of bizzare-looking extinct volcanoes surrounding Cheow Lan lake in the mist.
Finally, a floating village loomed into view and Mike proclaimed: “Lads, that’s your five-star hotel for the next few days”. Lyall and I each had a small hut to ourselves. A mattress on the bamboo floor, mosquito net, blanket, pillow and that was it. No fan, no air-con, and a short dive into the lake would replace the non-existent shower: the simple life. In future, I’ll bring a head-torch, otherwise it’s difficult to get around when it gets dark, and the small generator is operated only from dusk to about 10pm. In the jungle of Thailand it gets really dark at night; it’s been a while since I was able to see the stars and the Milky Way in all its magnificent beauty. Unfamiliar noises of croaking fish and hunting geckos made me fall into a restless sleep. And towards morning it actually grew unexpectedly cold in the jungle and I was glad I had brought along a fleece jacket for extra warmth.
As this is a National Park, we were, besides Mike our guide and the boat captain, accompanied by a park ranger. He had his semi-automatic gun on hand, in case we would come across aggressive elephants or poachers. He usually took the lead when we started marching up the river, his rifle slung over his shoulder, the barrel pointing right at the guy behind him. I quickly dropped to the end of the line. The rivers were not what I had expected in the jungle. Actually, they were more like fast-flowing, tumbling mountain streams, like I am used to fishing in the Austrian Alps or in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, USA. The only difference: the dense surrounding vegetation and the temperatures: the air was about 34°C, and water 24°C. Oh, and the ‘Uh, Uh, Uh’ calls of groups of orang-utans from the surrounding jungle.
The author plays a typical hard-fighting mahseer.
Lyall and I took turns in casting, depending on the pool being more suited to the right-handed caster, like Lyall, or me, the lefty. We started with big dry flies and I mean really big #8 Wulffs, Chernobyl Ants or Gurglers.
It took a while until we got the hang of it, but mahseer on dry fly proved to be a great experience. Long casts, around 20 metres are a must; get too close and the fish are easily spooked.
Mahseer inhabit the pools in shoals. I waded directly into a pool that I previously had no success in raising a fish and was astonished to see 20 or more fish darting in all directions. The mahseer hits the fly hard, and strong, ten-pound leaders are ‘a must’ to avoid breakage. If you see the fish hit the fly do not hesitate to strike, as the mahseer is quick in spitting it out again. A hooked fish immediately attracted the attention of other fish in the shoal, which excitedly darted around it during the fight. The hooked fish obviously releases ‘Schreckstoff’, a substance first identified by the 1973 Nobel-prize-winning behavioural scientist Karl von Frisch, warning the other fish in the shoal of danger and causing them to stop feeding. No other fish in the pool could be enticed to take a fly after one had been hooked.
Although streamers can work very well, big dry flies proved the best for mahseer.
The mahseer belongs to the large carp family, its scientific name being Barbus Tor, which identifies it as a member of the barbel sub family. The name mahsheer has its origin in the Hindu words ‘maha’ (big) and sir (head), therefore literally means ‘large head barbel’. Different species of mahseer inhabit the waters from the Indian Himalayas down to Indonesia. When I was preparing for this trip I acquired Henry Sullivan Thomas book: The rod in India written in 1881 and was astonished to read that mahseer of over 100 pounds were then regularly caught on rod and line. We caught both Chinese mahseer (blue-green fins) and Malaysian mahseer (all brown) on this trip, the biggest fish being about five pounds. They were fun to hook, and spirited fighters.
On that first day we fished from about 7:00am to 3:30pm, when our guide told us it was time to head back. Darkness in the jungle sets in about 6:30 pm and he said it would take us at least two hours to trek back through the jungle, mostly on paths elephants had created. That turned out to be really tough for under-trained guys over 50 years old, like us. The ranger sprinted at the front, because going fast meant the leeches had less chance of getting on him. In the river itself there were no leeches, but once you got into the vegetation you would have at least one inching its way up your leg if you stayed at one spot for too long. So there was one incentive to keep moving; that, and the fact that the jungle is so dense one can lose sight of people very quickly indeed.
At the inlet of the stream we parked the our longboat. On the boat is our captain, to the right is our guide.
Fortunately, our boat-captain always stayed close to us and used his hatchet to hack the way free of vicious, thorny sling plants. Finally, after over two long hours we reached the boat, more dead than alive. I had extensive leg-cramps and really did not know if I would last another day. Lyall, after removing his boots, found he’d torn off a toe-nail. Fortunately, as always, I had brought a small first-aid kit, which kept Lyall’s worries about bacterial infections at bay. Note that in our camp, which is actually the official national forests rangers’ camp, there was nothing to buy: you have to bring it all along with you. So be sure to bring sufficient electrolytes in powder form to keep you going in the intense heat.
Lunch is served in freshly cut bamboo.
After eating more salt than usual with dinner and breakfast the next day, my legs seemed functional again and we hit another river, which had a less steep gradient and slower moving water. It did not matter. The fish were as interested in our dry flies as the day before, so we never really tried any nymphs or streamers, which our guide Maik said can work fantastically well at times. The main four river systems flowing into Cheow Lan Lake are vast, and you could hike up to the headwaters of each stream for several days. Maik also offers such trips, with camping in the jungle and he claims fishing can be fantastic upstream when the water levels are right, as the big fish (over ten pounds) rarely see a fly there. Lunch next to the river was fried rice served in a
freshly cut and split bamboo culm and the boat captain proved to be an expert in brewing coffee in a fresh stalk of bamboo stuck into the open fire.
On the second day we turned around a bit earlier, but our ranger had a surprise up his sleeve. After a while he said he had a new short-cut. So we started climbing this steep hill for half-an-hour. As we reached the summit, Lyall and I were pretty wasted. After scouting the area for 15 minutes more, our intrepid ranger announced that he had lost his way and we’d have to turn back. Lyall and I somehow managed to get down the steep incline without getting injured, clinging to trees and bushes, the last 30 metres towards the river being almost vertical. It was quite the jungle adventure we had hoped for, and we left with Maik the next day to head to a small town at the coast of Thailand, Khao Lak, to pursue giant trevally with the fly. Unfortunately, it was much less successful than the mahseer trip, but a few Singha beers and some spicy Thai food provided a relaxing end to our adventures in the land of smiles.
Minimal equipment needed: Either single-handed 8-9 foot rods for 3-6 weight lines or light #3/4/5 switch rods with matching reels and floating lines. Fast drying pants and shirt, wading boots, sunglasses, hat, sun-blocker as well as a first-aid kit are a must. For more information visit Maik’s website: www.thai-freshwaterfishing.com
Dr David Popp works at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore, and spends much of his spare time in Coho – a hang-out for fly fishing addicts planning trips away.
Mahseer – a British favourite
Mahseer are members of the carp family and a variety of sub-species can be found across India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. There are a number of different sub-species, all of which inhabit both rivers and lakes, migrating to rocky, fast-flowing streams to spawn.
Mahseer have been a favourite sporting fish amongst the British colonials since the 1850's, particularly in India, where the golden mahseer species can grow to large sizes. (British anglers called them the ‘Indian salmon’ and they occasionally achieved sizes of over 100 pounds.) They eat algae, crustaceans, insects, frogs, and even fruit.