February 26, 2019
By Oliver White
*This story originally appeared in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman.
All the fish belong to the king, and it is forbidden to fish for them. This isn’t 14th century literature but modern-day Bhutan, or rather the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan translates as “the land of the Thunder Dragon.” The name explains the sound of storms that frequently roll out of the Himalayas, and also touches on the fact that everything about this place instills a sense of magic, myth, and adventure.
This kingdom is slightly larger than Maryland, nestled between India and Tibet with a population of only 800,000. Bhutan is fascinating in its obscurity. It’s one of the few countries in the world that has never been colonized. For centuries, the kingdom consciously remained isolated from the world to ensure its culture and heritage remained intact. This combination of autonomy and geographic isolation has helped preserve Bhutan’s cultural heritage and its Buddhist tradition.
Bhutanese still wear—in fact they are required to wear—traditional clothes. Men wear a gho, a knee-length robe with tall socks. Women wear an ankle-length wrap-around called a kira.
Buddhist rituals and traditions are strictly adhered to. Every major town has a dzong—a combination fortress and monastery—which has helped preserve both the independence and cultural traditions over the centuries. The buildings are painted according to Buddhist traditions including “the eight auspicious symbols” and the ever-present giant phallus—a symbol of fertility.
To help preserve Bhutan’s culture, tourism is tightly controlled and limited. It’s one of the most difficult and restricted countries to visit. There is a daily visa fee of $250 per person, and fewer than 60,000 tourists visited last year. You can probably count on one hand the number of those who had fly rods in their luggage.
In many ways, Bhutan has been frozen in time. Internet and television didn’t reach Bhutan until 1999. Even today it is the only country in the world without a single traffic light.
Wrapped in this ancient tradition is an incredible sense of foresight. Bhutan is a country that coined the term “gross national happiness,” and made it a constitutional mandate and a guiding pillar of government.
It is also the greenest country on the planet. Bhutan is the only country in the world that is carbon negative. It’s a constitution requirement that 60 percent of the country be covered in forest at all times (currently it sits at 72 percent). Bhutan banned plastic bags in the entire country in 1999.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect is the blend of a monarchy and the newly formed constitutional democracy. The Fourth King, affectionately known as K4, went against the will of the people and created a constitutional democracy and abdicated the throne to his son in 2006.
This incredible blend of both historical tradition and democratic royalty creates one of the most fascinating cultures and places to visit on the planet. While Bhutan may be on the bucket list for adventurous travelers, it isn’t yet on the radar for most fly fishers—but that may soon change.
Bhutan is looking to expand its low-impact high-value tourism. From my work in Guyana with Indifly, I know that fly fishing fits those goals perfectly. On behalf of His Royal Highness (HRH), Matt DeSantis, the founder of MyBhutan, extended an invitation to visit Bhutan, and to chase golden mahseer, one of the most prized, mythical, and difficult species in the world to catch using fly tackle.
Our plan was to hit the three main river systems in Bhutan—the Drangme Chhu, Mangde Chhu, and the Punatsang Chhu. Chhu means river in the local language of Dzongkha.
On the Mangde Chhu and the Punatsang Chhu we hit a couple of spots from the road. The primary focus was to float the Drangme Chhu, camping along the river until it joined with Mangde Chhu and became the Manas River. We’d then float the Manas River through Royal Manas National Park to the border with India.
Royal Manas National Park is closed to the public. Few Bhutanese and even fewer foreigners have seen this remote southern boundary. It’s a wild place, with a healthy tiger population, wild elephants, one-horned rhinos, and cobras. The temperate forests there stand in stark contrast to the snowcapped Himalayas on the northern border.
This project wasn’t without challenges. It is illegal for common folks to fish in Bhutan. In this Buddhist country that prays for all sentient beings, fishing for food or sport is outside of cultural norms.
But Mongolia has set a precedent blending catch-and-release sport fishing within its Buddhist culture, and in Bhutan, the royal family has incredible influence. They are revered. In every single shop, restaurant, and home we visited, a picture of the king and often his wife and son adorned the walls.
The royals have set a historic precedent of being sportsmen and anglers. There are even pools on the Punatsang Chhu known as the royal fishing grounds. Our fishing trip was by invitation from the royal family, and with their blessing we had the golden ticket to explore opportunities to see how fly fishing could help this impoverished nation. Royal oversight, mythical places, new species, and dream destinations . . . this was shaping up to be one of the more incredible adventures I’ve had.
Preparation and knowledge are always key on trips like this. I wanted to be as prepared as possible in order to make the most of my time. As with almost all of my travels, I’m never there for just the fish. The fishing ties the whole adventure together, but I was as excited to see the famous Tigers Nest Monastery perched on the side of a cliff as I was for the opportunity to throw flies in “royal water.”
I’d never even seen a mahseer, so I did as much research as possible. A few of my friends had previously been to Bhutan with WorldCast Anglers out of Victor, Idaho, so I hit them up for intel. The consensus was it was an incredible trip, but tough fishing.
I also reached out to Misty Dillon in India, the preeminent authority on catching mahseer on fly. He was helpful on the generalities of mahseer fishing, but specific advice on the rivers I planned to fish and the seasonal habits of the fish was incredibly sparse. Golden mahseer are hard to find, and then hard to catch. The best plan I could come up with was to fish hard and hope for the best.
Mahseer are in the carp family, so it’s safe to assume they are omnivores. Catching plant-eating fish with a fly is never easy, but as these fish grow and mature they become predators and move more toward eating smaller fish. Piscivorous fish are always catchable.
With the rivers pouring out of the Himalayas, I was expecting big water, with drastic elevation changes that created opportunities for big rapids and clearly defined pools. The one consistent piece of advice I heard was to fish the inflows, tributaries, or even trickles of water from cliff faces. Anywhere water entered the main river seemed to be the best place to search for mahseer.
We were locked in for a three-week trip through the country in a whirlwind tour where we would see Tigers Nest, visit the capital city, have tea with His Royal Highness, and hopefully bring a few fish to hand.
Although Bhutan is a tiny country, traveling through it is incredibly time consuming. Once you get out of the capital, the roads quickly turn to one-lane cliffside gravel roads winding through mountains. On one side of the vehicle, the mountains reach for the sky, and on the other side the landscape drops away into jagged canyons. It’s not a good place to be scared of heights. Landslides can (and do) derail you for days, and we had “good” days where our average speed was 12 miles per hour.
What would be a one-hour flight in a helicopter turned out to be a four-day journey in a Toyota Hilux. That made for brutal logistics, and an inordinate amount of time crammed in a truck perched on a cliffside. There is always an upside, in this case the traverse allowed us to meet a lot of people and see a pristine landscape that few outsiders ever see.
Scouting the River
Our cliffside drive paralleled the river we planned on floating, so along the way we stopped and looked at pools known to hold golden mahseer. The main river flows from the Himalayas. It had that glacier-green hue while the tributaries all pumped clear, warm water into the main river. Whether it was the color change, thermal transition, influx of forage fish, or the scent of natal spawning streams I’m not sure, but we saw fish stacked up wherever tributaries entered the main river.
Using binoculars from the road, we could clearly identify our targets. At each junction, there were anywhere from a couple to a dozen or so monster golden mahseer. There were also waves of chocolate mahseer. These are the smaller of the mahseer species. They are more abundant, and pound-for-pound stronger.
Our last scouting session gave us a good look at the first tributary we’d get to fish once we started our float. It was the highest concentration of fish we saw—there were 16 to 20 golden mahseer and probably 50 or 60 chocolates. It would take us a day and half to get to that spot, but we knew they were there waiting for us.
When we reached the river we met up with the rest of our team. It was a full expedition with a scientist, officials from the Department of Fisheries and the Department of Forest & Park Services, rafters, and camp helpers. It was a small army of people all supporting me—the solitary angler in this effort. Just a little pressure!
The guy I wanted to talk to had the most fishing experience. Pema Gyelpo was a Royal Bodyguard—an independent division of the Royal Bhutan Army responsible for the security of the king of Bhutan. He also served as a quasi fishing guide whenever members of the royal family fished. His Royal Holiness had sent him along to ensure the success of our trip, and he came bearing gifts. He brought me a case full of spoons and hard plastic baits, and also a brand new spinning outfit. I did my best to express gratitude, but I had to politely tell him I wouldn’t be using any of those things.
I showed him my flies and could see the disappointment in his face as he fumbled through the hundreds of flies I had. He finally lit up when he pulled out a 6-inch olive Game Changer Blane Chocklett had tied for me—evidently that was the one.
My discussions with Gyelpo confirmed that mahseer are extremely spooky. They can hear you talk, they can hear you walk, and they can smell you if you get in the water upstream of them. Bhutanese people are so superstitious about them, they speak about them like they are ghosts. They believe they are there, but they accept the fact they you often don’t see them.
Harder than it Looks
After launching our rafts, we drifted downriver while I threw streamers toward the banks with no success. In the late afternoon, we reached the same tributary that we had scouted from the road a few days prior. We pulled to shore well above the run, and were careful not to step in the river.
We did have to cross the tributary to get in position, but we walked far upstream and looked for a place to cross with the least amount of disturbance. I finally got in position and bombed a few casts into the transition zone where we had seen all those fish just a couple of days before. Nothing happened.
I changed my retrieve, tried mending and slowing down the flies to get deeper, switched my flies, but didn’t get a touch. I finally gave up and walked up to the spot just hoping to see a few fish—they had vanished. Or maybe, just like ghosts, they were never there. I went to bed thinking it was going to be a very tough trip.
We camped near the junction pool and in the morning I took another shot. I insisted that everyone in our entourage stay out of the river corridor. I belly-crawled along the rocks without ever getting in the water, and I hid behind a boulder as close to the confluence as possible. From my knees, I threw the entire fly line and swung the Game Changer through the pool. My first cast came tight—I was on! I soon landed my first golden mahseer, and a good one. It was the largest our crew had seen taken with fly tackle—I guessed it was somewhere around 25 pounds.
They are beautiful fish, armored in golden scales with huge mouths, and incredibly large, powerful tails. We took measurements and pulled a couple of scales for the scientists. I was stunned at how similar the scales are to those of both tarpon and arapaima.
We continued our journey through a canyon and a tropical jungle on our way toward India. The light was incredible as it poked through the canopy and into the deep slot of the river. We hopped out to explore tributaries and to fish from the bank in areas we had previously seen mahseer. I fished hard, with minimal success. The water clarity meant you didn’t see much, no follows, no tugs, so there wasn’t much to go on. I cycled through all the logical fly patterns and various depths of sinking lines. I covered all the fishy-looking water and even water I would normally ignore.
We did manage to pick up a few chocolate mahseer—they are spectacular in their own right. They are smaller but pound-for-pound stronger than goldens. If you could target them on a 6-weight they’d be amazing, but you’d risk hooking a golden and getting smoked.
A few days later I was feeling a little frustrated, and I asked Gyelpo to fish with the spinning rod. His face immediately lit up and he made a few casts with a giant spoon. Within minutes he came tight and pulled in a nice chocolate. He was beaming. It was one of the few times I saw him smile on the trip.
As we approached the end of the trip, that first golden mahseer seemed like a distant miracle, but I kept at it. From the raft, I threw a small streamer into a big back eddy—it came tight and a fish screamed into the backing as it hit the main river current and headed downstream. This was a different creature!
It took five minutes or so to get my eyes on it, and another ten minutes to have him under control enough to attempt to land it. One of our guides and boatmen had a cradle net, and eventually we slid the giant mahseer into it. What a fish! I could barely get my hand around its wrist. It was a prehistoric monster that weighed probably 35 pounds. We snapped a few pictures and floated into our last night’s camp on an emotional high.
While Bhutan and its people were magical, the fish themselves are almost mythical dragons. The golden fish is one of the eight auspicious signs of Buddhism, symbolizing freedom and happiness. It’s fitting symbolism for me, as fishing has provided so much happiness and freedom.
Despite the challenges and tough logistics I’d go back in heartbeat. In fact, I plan on it. I’m returning in April 2019 with the blessing of the royal family, and there will be a few spots available for fly fishers interested in a fishing trip that also serves as a path to enlightenment.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.