The search for giant golden mahseer that led us down numerous Bhutanese rivers experiencing the most humbling generosity from the local villagers. Fast rivers and powerful fish made for exciting battles that were often lost. Golden mahseer are protected and it’s illegal to fish for them in Bhutan. We had been granted special permission from his Royal Highness’ Office for monitoring purposes and on a strict fly fishing, catch and release basis. The magnitude of this permission would only truly sink in as the trip progressed, but in the meantime, I was beaming at the fact that I was in Bhutan, where Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind, where spinning prayer wheels create music with the wind, where menacing beasts and fiery dragons adorn walls to ward off evil and where the Royal Family and government care more for the kingdom’s happiness than for its standing in wealth and modernization. In a world obsessed with consumption, we would do well to take a leaf or three out of their books.
Druk Yul, directly translated it means ‘the Land of the Thunder Dragon.’ Situated in a 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, fiercely guarding its ancient traditions and national identity based on Buddhism. The people are called the Drukpa (Dragon people) and the royal family is the Druk Gyalpo (Thunder Dragon Kings), a title George R.R Martin would be proud of. The traditions, rituals, and cultures are strictly followed with pride with most men wearing a knee–high robe made from a locally colored fabric called a gho and woman dressing in the Kira, an ankle-length wrap dress. Pictures of the royal family adorn pretty much every hotel, shop, and restaurant. The Bhutanese truly love their King. Even if you have deep-seated reservations about monarchy in modern times, Bhutan will give you a glimpse of a responsible monarch who truly loves his people.
From Paro, an hour chopper flight took us from a 10-degree celsius climate into a 34-degree subtropical rainforest as we slowly worked our way down the escarpment in a South-South-Easterly direction to a specially erected tented camp on one of the local rivers. Over the next ten days, our hosts Ugyen and Kencho would be our window into the deeply guarded realm of the golden mahseer. That we had the permanent use of a Eurocopter for the duration of the trip, opened up possibilities to fish three different rivers all with numerous junctions that had been scouted and were being guarded for us. Under Ugyen and Kencho’s tutelage, we would learn to fish differently, slowly planning each spot, not as a leader but as a patient follower. We would be treated to the Bhutanese way of humility, enjoying everything on offer, which included bamboo mugs of potato beer and leaf cups of rice wine prepared by locals who were guarding the pools. It was as much an introduction to local culture, cuisine, and brewing skills as it was a fishing trip.
Mahseer have an exceptional sense of smell and their sensitivity to vibration and movement makes them a mountain too high at times. The one benefit we did have is that their eyesight didn’t seem to be too great, which could have been due to the murky blooms of dirty water mixed into the clear creeks. The scent thing I had heard of before and thought it might be a myth until I saw it with my own eyes. On arrival at basecamp, Ugyen and Kencho walked us up to the clear creek above the camp where a school of fish made up of chocolate and golden mahseer congregated with their noses facing into the flowing water. The reason for this isn’t clear but it could be because the clear water of the tributary was a much better habitat than the dirty mainstream or that the tributaries were warmer and would speed up digestion. Another suggestion would be pre-spawn, which only happens months later. It could be seasonal as the rivers run much cleaner in the winter allowing for the fish to spread out within the mainstream. Set aside their acute ability to reject a fly, these fish are definitely hunting when in the cleaner water.
As the days passed we settled into a rhythm and managed to catch fish most days. The chopper would land downstream from the spot we wanted to fish, decanting our team of Ilya, Uygen, Kencho, and myself. We would then walk up to a viewing point, debate the best way to target the fish if they were there, set up tackle and cameras, 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 spook the fish. We would then walk back up to the casting area and engage stealth mode, eventually making a cast, maybe a couple more and if there was no hook-up we would reel in, return to the chopper, and plan for the next spot.
There was one spot in particular where we saw massive fish in excess of 60lbs. They were way too big for us not to make numerous visits back to the same junction, with much deliberating, planning, and tackle and fly changes. Our hosts even went to the extent of building a bridge to allow us to fish from the other side of the tributary resulting in five hours of fishing frustration a few days later. The first visit to this spot saw Ilya hook a sizable fish on his first cast, which proceeded to head off into the middle of the river down through a set of rapids taking his fly line with it when it parted at the braided backing. On returning to the junction all the mahseer had retreated to the dirty main river and only skittishly returned into the clear junction for a short period before disappearing once again. Our second visit saw more fish and bigger with only a few fish following before retreating to the main river for a short period but returning to their lie and not bothering too much about the flies swinging past. The third visit saw the same amount of fish but not so much as the slightest attention to the fly, almost as if to say, “we know you are here, you not a threat and we not going to bother to react to your presence.” The urge to catch one of these really big fish was realized for a fraction of a second when I hooked one at a junction above a set of rapids. It proceeded to head downstream with me chasing after it as graciously as possible like a fluttering Bhutanese butterfly, running, stumbling, falling, crawling and boulder hopping, only to be spooled a few seconds later. I had to lick my wounds that night while lying in a traditional stone bath sucking on a can of Bhutan Glory, which is named after the Bhutan Glory butterfly I so graciously mimicked six hours earlier.
Often the issue wouldn’t be the lack of fish, but rather that there were too many fish in such close proximity that you couldn’t actively target the big fish without spooking the entire school and ending up with no takes at all. It was hard enough enticing any fish to eat that concentrating on only enticing bigger fish was risky. The rivers would also change on a daily basis with tributaries clearing or blowing out as the main rivers rose and dropped influenced by whatever was happening miles away in the Himalayas.
Eight days and 34 beautiful golden mahseer later – ten over 20lbs and the largest weighing 36lbs – the trip had already exceeded my wildest expectations. It was the last day and by then, in my opinion, we had paid our school fees. If we were going to catch a monster it was going to happen on that particular day. In the chopper, we hopped from spot to spot looking for truly big fish. We fished a pool that revealed some giants only to hook and lose a smaller fish. We moved to the next spot to have the river blow out on us with not a fish in sight. The weather was closing in so we moved to a river closer to basecamp. I’d like to think that it was our inner Zen that played a part in what happened next.
The cast went in and a small fish moved at the fly, spooking the school, yet surprisingly the big fish remained. Ilya made another cast trying to entice these fish. Two mammoth mahseer pushed each other to take the fly but both missed it. Ilya made a third cast into the dirtier water where the big fish had moved to and we watched in amazement as he was immediately hooked up to a freight train heading downstream towards a massive set of rapids. Ilya engaged mountain goat mode as he followed the fish hopping from boulder to boulder. The reel acted like a click and pawl reel, making a crazy noise with minimal drag even though it was on full. No stranger to big fish Ilya used his hands to hold tight and with the tackle creaking he managed to persuade the fish to pause at the top of the rapid. Holding on for minutes felt like hours, while the fish contemplated heading down into the huge rapid – a move that would most certainly end with Ilya being spooled in seconds. It made a move back down towards the rapid with Ilya locked and holding tight before unexpectedly the fish ran straight towards us into a back eddy, stopping a couple of meters away from us in the murky water. In disbelief, I traded my camera for the net and had an immediate swipe at the fish as it rose in the water column for a second. I’m not sure who was more surprised, us or the fish, as with only a third of the fish in the net, we gasped at its size. With two more lifts of the net, I managed to get this incredibly beautiful monster fully surrounded. On my first judgment, I thought it would weight way over 60lbs as it was huge. An Atlantic salmon or taimen of these proportions would weight in excess of 70lbs. 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, making it the biggest golden mahseer ever caught on fly in Bhutan and possibly in the world. What an end to a trip of mammoth proportions as that cast would be the last cast of the trip.