A view of the glimmering morning sun reflected off Mount Everest’s snow-capped peak, marking the end of three continuous travel days and the start of our descend into Paro airport. Ilya Sherbovich and I had finally arrived in the mesmerising Kingdom of Bhutan, or Druk Yul, which directly translates as ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon.’ We had been invited by friends and avid fly fishermen Ugyen Rinzin and Kencho Tshering. Years earlier, Ilya, Ugyen and Kencho had fished together for golden mahseer, which was why Ilya was heading back- with me tagging along this time. Golden mahseer are protected in Bhutan, and it’s illegal to fish for them without special permission from his Royal Highness’ Office. Ugyen had received permission for monitoring purposes, on a strict fly fishing, catch and release basis. The magnitude of this trip would only truly sink in as the trip progressed, but in the meantime I was captivated by the fact that I was in Bhutan, where spinning prayer wheels chime to the wind,
where Buddhist prayer flags decorate the mountain tops and where menacing dragons adorn the walls to ward off evil. Bhutan is situated in the mountainous area of the Eastern Himalayas on part of the Ancient Silk Road between Tibet, India and Southern East Asia. Bhutan, or Druk Yul, is one of few countries in the world that has never been colonized. Centuries passed by while Druk Yul remained isolated from the rest of the world, silently guarding its ancient traditions and national identity based on Buddhism. The people are known as the Dragon people (Drukpa) and the Royal Family are the Thunder Dragon Kings (Druk Gyalpo). A key ingredient to the country’s humbling tone is the phrase ‘gross national happiness’. It was instated by the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972 when he declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” Since then the Royal Family and government have concentrated more on their populations happiness than its standing in wealth and modernisation.
“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” -4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck
As Bhutan has vast mountain ranges and deep valleys, the permanent use of a helicopter would be necessary if we wanted to fish the three different rivers planned for this trip. Once cleared through customs and onboard the helicopter, an hour-long flight from Paro took us down the escarpment in a south-southeasterly direction. We moved from a 10-degree celsius cool climate into a 34-degree subtropical rainforest, where our specially established basecamp sat along one of the main rivers. Like many other adventures, we would be relying on local knowledge because we knew very little about where the mahseer’s location. More importantly, we needed to know which rivers weren’t in flood. The one thing I did know about mahseer: their reputation for refusing to eat an angler’s fly.
Over the next ten days, our hosts Ugyen and Kencho would be our porthole to a Bhutanese golden mahseer experience that would quench my long-standing desire. Catching a mahseer had been my wish for two decades, well before I got the chance to travel the world to tackle its various species of fish. We would be treated to the Bhutanese way of humility: savor everything on offer, including leaf cups of rice wine and bamboo mugs of potato beer prepared by locals. It was as much an introduction to local life, culture, cuisine, and brewing skills as it was a fly fishing trip.
Mahseer are fish with an exceptional sense of smell, and their sensitivity to vibration and movement makes them as frustrating as fishing for permit at times. The one benefit we did have is that their eyesight seemed poor, which could have been be due to the murky and at times dirty water mixed into the clear creeks. I had previously heard a rumor about their sensitivity to smell, and I thought it might be an exaggeration until I experienced it first-hand. As one does upon arrival at an amazing river, we walked up to the clear creek above basecamp. A school of fish (made up of chocolate and golden mahseer) lined up in strings, with their noses facing into the flowing water. Watching the congregation of fish, Ugyen said, “Keep quiet, move slowly and avoid the water as the fish will spook.” While my heart was racing, my head was overly confident all those big fish in close proximity would be an easy target with a relatively short cast. I made the mistake of thinking it was going to be easy and made a double blunder by indicating as much to Ugyen. He laughed. To prove a point, Kencho asked one of our expedition members standing 20 meters upstream to put his hands in the water, which he did. The scent made its way down the creek and hit the main river where the fish were congregated. In a split second, every fish in sight was gone and didn’t return until the following morning.
With the point proven that mahseer have an incredible sense of smell and vibration, we had to be as stealthy as possible. At times, this was difficult when factoring in the flight path of a helicopter and the extremely steep descent into the valley. The helicopter would try avoid flying over the clear creek, spilling water into the muddy main stream and land downstream from the spot we had decided to fish. Any disturbance on the clear water would render the spot void of fish. We would then walk up to a viewing point, debate the best way to target the fish if they were there, assemble our rods, walk back downstream, wet the fly, wet the line and leader and wash our hands- all in an attempt to relinquish any scent that might alarm the fish. We would then walk back up to the casting area and engage stealth mode. Eventually we’d make a cast, maybe make a couple more, and if there was no hook-up we would reel in, return to the helicopter and plan for the next spot. Often the issue wouldn’t be the lack of fish, but rather that there were too many fish in such close proximity that you could easily spook one and set a chain reaction in motion, ending up with no takes at all. Through trial and error, we learned how to present the fly and which patterns were more successful in different situations. With this confidence came the added complication of rain. Rivers started to change on a daily basis, with tributaries clearing or blowing out as the rivers were influenced by conditions hundreds of miles away in the Himalayas.
Rivers started to change on a daily basis, with tributaries clearing or blowing out as the rivers were influenced by conditions hundreds of miles away in the Himalayas.
One spot in particular became the focus of numerous attempts, as we watched fish in excess of 60 lbs each time we visited. They were way too big and far too smart. Even with much deliberation, planning and fly changes, we could not get it right. Ilya did hook one of these massive fish on the first cast he made into the pool, which proceeded to head off into the middle of the river and down through a set of rapids. It took his fly line and a portion of his braided backing with it when it parted. Our next visits saw more fish and bigger fish, but they paid not the slightest attention to the fly before retreating to the main river. I experienced the power of one of these really big fish for a few seconds when I hooked a chunky specimen that was laid up at a junction above a set of rapids. In a fraction of a second, it proceeded to head downstream. I followed whilst running, stumbling and swimming, only to be spooled a few seconds later. That evening I had to sooth my physical and mental wounds while lying in a traditional stone bath, sipping on numerous cans of Bhutan Glory. Named after the Bhutan Glory butterfly that I clearly didn’t mimic hours earlier, the drink was a fitting consolation prize.
The Druk Yal river gods waited until the very last day of the trip before aligning the stars and allowing Ilya to hook another monster of a mahseer. That morning, we witnessed a long tailed monkey having a drink on the opposite bank of the river, which is said to be good luck. It didn’t, however, help remedy the instantaneous feeling of déjà vu that set in as the fish disappeared across the river and towards a massive set of rapids at the tail of the run. It initiated a hasty chase over the bolder-lined shore until there was no way of going any further. Unlike the previous monsters we had hooked, the fish stopped just short of the rapids. Holding on for seconds felt like hours, while the fish contemplated heading down into the huge rapid that would have certainly ended with Ilya being spooled in seconds.
The Druk Yal river gods waited until the very last day of the trip before aligning the stars and allowing Ilya to hook another monster of a mahseer.
Once again, it made a move back down towards the rapid, with Ilya locked and holding tight. Suddenly, the fish ran straight towards us and into a back eddy a couple of meters from where we were standing on the murky river bank. In disbelief, I traded my camera for the net and had a swipe at the fish, as it rose in the water column for a second.
The fish could hardly fit in the net. It was massive. After carefully placing it in a weigh sling and weighing it with two different scales, it weighed in at 55 lbs (plus-minus one pound for the sling.) The last cast of the trip, it was an incredible way to end. Eight days had flown by quickly. During this adventure on the rivers in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, we landed 35 golden mahseer. Ten of those were over 20 lbs, and the largest two fish weighed in at 36 and 55 lbs.
Keith Rose-Innes – Managing Partner of Alphonse Fishing Company.
A founding member of Alphonse Fishing Company, which has operations at 6 different atoll destinations in the Seychelles, namely Alphonse Island, Astove Atoll, Cosmoledo Atoll, Farquhar Atoll, Desroches Island and Poivre Atoll. He was one of the first to guide trips to numerous of the now well-known outer atolls of the Seychelles. An avid fly fisherman, photographer, film maker and conservationist. His career extends to over 22 countries and includes over 20 years exploring, pioneering, promoting and establishing the remote atolls of the Seychelles firmly in the worlds fly fishing calendar.
His extensive experience in the Indian Ocean has seen him become one of the most experienced GT guides and fly fishermen around, with over 5200 client and on the fly caught GT’s. He has been at the forefront of developing techniques on how to catch various uncaught fish species found in the Indian Ocean and is credited as successfully deciphering how to catch the first Bumphead Parrotfish on fly.