By Jakob Sørensen
The sweat is running off me, stinging my left eye. Cikader and mysterious birds create a classic, humming rain forest sound in the jungle behind me. I crawl carefully forward on my knees and come closer to the rivers clear water. In front of me lies a wonderful pool and here in are two large, black shadows. They are Mahseer. A beautiful large scaled fish of the carp family, which lives wild, here in the rivers of Thailand’s lush jungle. I have had them in my thoughts for a long time, but for various reasons it is first now that I have the opportunity to travel down here.
I plant myself carefully on my knees, pull line from the reel, and take a deep breath. Thai-mahseer are extremely shy, and it is maybe therefore, I am especially nervous. The two fish lie just under the surface, ten yards away, on the edge of a fast current. I tie a large greased dry fly to the leader. Cast the fly over and let it float down towards the mahseer. I sit with trembling hands, as the fly nears the fish and I can hardly take line in to keep contact with the fly. They ignore it. The fly was not close enough.
I take a little line in and cast again. The fly lands and before I register anything at all one of the mahseer has resolutely taken the fly I strike and plant the fly solidly in the jungle behind me. No. That must absolutely not happen. They are gone. The pool shows no sign of life. I curse myself, remove the fly, wind the line back on the reel and continue my journey along the clear watered and challenging river.
They are incredibly crafty, cunning and shy. Those bloody mahseer. As soon as you make a quick move, a bad cast, rise up or tread on a dry twig in the undergrowth they are gone. It takes less than nothing to scare a mahseer. Actually this is often the biggest challenge in this type of fishing. To come within casting range of a mahseer is not easy, especially when the jungle is so dense and the river to deep to wade in. The clear water does not make the case any easier. All of these massive challenges make the fishing intense in the extreme. Hair-raising yet likable. It is obvious that careful movements are essential for success and without is an almost guaranteed fiasco.
You have optimal cards in your hand. If the terrain is open then the safe distance should be large and the river must always be forded downstream of these crafty beauties. If it is at all possible to ford in the flow, downstream of an exiting looking pool, then this is the best move. On the other hand if you can use the jungle as cover, giving yourself good time, does so by this means can you sneak in really close to the fish. Dapping mahseer with just a rods length of leader is extreme sport for ice cold nerves. The feeling of looking right in the fish’s eye, when it at close quarters attacks the fly is simply fantastic.
That clothing needs to be as neutral as possible goes without saying. In many ways, both fishing and river remind one of the finest trout fishing in New Zealand and Patagonia. It is sheer sight fishing after mischievous fish. It is dry-fly land with a capital D.It is fight for the whole shilling and last but not least, it is fishing with a backdrop of fantastic scenery.
It’s crazy. Crazy, hard to understand let alone believe. At the same time it is incredibly exciting. I stand a safe distance from an exciting current. Exiting, because it looks perfect, but perhaps more importantly because it has never been fished before. We are so far up this clear river that fishermen have never been here before, and it is guaranteed that fish have never before seen a dry-fly. That’s why it is crazy. The feeling of being the first person ever to fish at this spot is both wonderful and horrifying. Wonderful because it’s hard to understand and I feel extremely privileged, even spoilt. Horrifying, because I already fear failing.
The fear fades into fascination as a dark shadow appears on the far side of the current. Kneeling, I crawl carefully down towards the river’s edge. I stop as soon as I come in for casting range and quietly pull line from the reel. Memories of the earlier missed chances and the fact that I am the first person ever to cast a fly from this spot grate on my nerves. God, this is exciting, but behind the excitement lurks nervousness. Now, it has to be. I calm myself, after my crawl, until my pulse is normal again, and then cast.
The fish comes when the fly has traveled just a meter and takes it perfectly. I strike and it is hooked. It’s a lovely feeling, as the fish powers upstream and strips the rest of the fly-line from the reel. The fish fights angrily. Carefully I win back line. Everything is now under control, and half of the line linen is back on the reel. Pressure on the fish is not especially hard but suddenly the hook pulls free of the fish’s mouth and lands on the stony bank. A stream of invective flows from of my mouth. Disappointment is absolute.
Mahseer are strange. It is actually difficult to say whether they are easy or hard to catch. They can be both. They can be selective and shy but also they can greedily attack a well placed dry-fly. Often will they inhale the fly and immediately spit it out again, so that there is no real chance to strike. Even more often the Mahseer will rise to the fly and then turn away just under the surface without even tasting it. It’s an absolute must that the fly is placed in the fish’s lane; otherwise they will not touch it. The situation is completely different when the fish are packed tightly together in a pool and there is competition for the available food.
That is a precise cast in the middle of the shoal. When the fly lands it is seldom there will go more than a couple of seconds before one of the fish has taken the fly in extreme haste. In fact it can so fast that you will not observe anything before the fish has taken the fly, turned away and hooked it’s self. In these cases it is not the big art to catch a Mahseer and of course one has absolutely no influence over which fish takes the fly, as much as one tries to lay the fly right on the nose of the biggest fish in the shoal so can it funnily enough end with one catching the shoal’s smallest.
So if you hunting the rivers biggest you should concentrate on the lone and selective fish. And not in the large shoals with lightning fast gluttons It can be hard to say anything concrete about fly patterns. But large is good. On colour is the one better than the other, or if the shape should be round or long at times appears completely unimportant. But flies that are large and land with a solid splash are the norm. Often it would appear that the fish react instinctively to the splash and in fact do not really look at the fly. If one takes the time to look at the jungles insects it is in fact not so strange that they react this way. The jungle is packed with mystical, flying creatures in large sizes. In addition mahseer also eat many types of fruit that fall from the rain forests trees.
The line strips from my reel, short, short after I have raised my rod. The fly must certainly have lodged in the fish’s rubbery jaws- judging by the powerful take. The quick mahseer bores down in the deep pool and for a split second I can feel the line scrape across the rocks. I hold the rod high over my head stand up and walk towards the fish. Luckily the fish turns back into the rock free depths of the pool, where without any big problem I can wear the last energy out of it. It is a true pleasure to see the fish kilt over on its side and surrender for landing. I pressure it the last few metres and grab it firmly around the abdomen with my left hand. At last.
It is indescribable to at long last sit with this large scaled fish in my hand. Expectations have been fulfilled, mission accomplished, not to mention nerves shattered. The beautiful Mahseer is carefully returned to the clear water, while I am thinking, this is just the beginning. And it was.
It does not require large amounts of equipment to take a dry-fly trip in the jungle and the majority of dry-fly fishermen presumably have most of the essential equipment.
Fly rod from # 5-8 with compatible reel.
Floating line that is suitable for underhand casting.
Short tapered leader and floating polyleader.
Leaderpoints fra 0.25 – 0.35
Large dry-flies of different types and an assortment of nymphs – all mounted on strong hooks.
Polaroid glasses and hat.
Flat boots and wet wading socks for wading
Long trousers and long sleeved shirts in lightweight, quick drying material in neutral colours.
Camera and a broad smile
Thailand is a cheap travel destination and even with some days fishing, with a guide in the jungle, can you arrange a trip for a modest consideration. Fishing for thai-mahseer is typically a long way from civilisation and requires several days. A guide is a must. You can find fish in the rivers all year round but the fishing is most stable from October to May, i.e. outside the rainy season. Thai- mahseer can be found over 15 kilo, but fish over 4 kilo in the rivers are rare in the dry season.
The Thai currency is called bath (THB) and swings typically between 2.1-2.3. Flights can be had for £350, food and accommodation are cheap. If two men take a three day trip in the jungle so will it cost around £125 per day per man all inclusive. If you choose to take a longer trip so will the price fall. An eight day trip will cost around £1120. And a two week trip is not much more expensive. If one is on a family holiday for example you can easily take a one day trip to fish for giant snakehead. There are leeches in the jungle in the wet season There bite is not dangerous.
There are relatively few guides to be found in Thailand, but in the last few years fishing in freshwater has gotten extra attention. There are though big differences in guides ability, engagement and not least tackle. Especially the last should one pay close attention to when hiring a guide. Many have particularly cheap shoddy tackle, while others have tackle that is totally worn out. The best way is to choose a guide who describes precisely the tackle, they use and recommend and not just advertise”top brand equipment”. A good choice is www.thai-fishing.com.
This article is published in the Danish fishing magazine Sportfiskeren in May 2010. The fishing trip was in the jungle rivers inside Khao Sok National Park Thailand.