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A friend wanted to meet in Chiang Mai so I Googled “fly fishing in Thailand” and discovered that one could target Thai and blue mahseer, Burmese trout, and jungle perch near the Burma border. I set up a three-day mahseer trip on the Mae Ngao River outside of Mae Sariang through Bobby of NG River Guides at www.thailand-fly-fishing-guides.info. Having been trained by Ben Kemp, a retired New Zealand guide, Bobby is an excellent fly fisherman.
As it turns out, Bobby is closely linked with Adam Trina, owner of the Montana Fly Company, which has its main factory in Chiang Mai. Adam handled most of the correspondence and met me at the Chiang Mai airport. After a short and fascinating tour of his fly-tying factory, I was off with Bobby to the local equivalent of Costco, where he stocked up on food for our trip. Three hours later we were in Mae Sariang, where we stopped at Bobby’s fl y shop and had dinner at his mother’s open-air restaurant before heading to the village of Ban Nah Doi, about 75 kilometers (about 46.5 miles) from the Burma border. The two-hour trip was beautiful, curving along the Mae Ngao River through the jungle canopy. With the exception of a few short sections, the road was concrete the entire length.
The accommodations were one of the many highlights of the trip. No fancy lodge that looks like every other fishing lodge you’d find anywhere else in the world. Instead, we stayed in the village
chief’s teak house for a true village experience. Our beds were extremely comfortable with unneeded mosquito nets (we never saw a mosquito the entire trip). The village chief’s wife cooked huge meals, and I’m sure we left the family puzzled as to why we didn’t eat much. The food was fine, there was just enough for ten of us and we were only two.
While Bobby prepared lunches, flies, and got the boatmen together, my friend and I wandered the village, free to take as many pictures as we pleased of the local Karen culture. The Karen villagers are Christians, and it being Sunday, we attended the local church service in the community hall. Men sat on one side while the women and young children were on the other side. In the evening, the young girls put on a local talent show that included the Karen language version of “When You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.” It took awhile for us to place that tune. Our tip for the performers was passed on to support the local school.
My friend and I had spent many years working in Africa and we were amazed at how “uptown” Ban Nah Doi was. The road through the village was paved concrete, there was a K-12 school,
a small government hospital, clean water piped down from the hills above, lush soybean fields, and the Mae Ngao River nearby. Many of the houses sported TV dish antennae with power supplied via large batteries that were charged by solar arrays. We were able to easily recharge
our camera batteries.
Once Bobby was ready, we drove upriver a few miles to start fishing. Our raft had been constructed from about six 20-foot pieces of bamboo lashed together with vines. There were two platforms to sit on, while a boatman in the front and in the back poled the raft downstream. Occasionally I fished from the raft but most often we would pull over and wade.
The mid-January weather was delightful, probably 75 to 85 degrees. Growing up in Laos, I can never remember it being that pleasant. I was happy to have a light jacket for the mornings and the evenings. Wet wading sufficed, no need for hot waders. I was thankful that I brought my wading boots, as I think tennis shoes would have been slippery. I’d recommend a seven- to eight-wt. rod with a floating line (Rio carp line would be a good choice). Although I didn’t bring one, I
would also recommend a 15-foot sinking tip line, and I would have loved to have had a seven-wt. switch rod. It is so much easier to reach across the river with a spey cast. I’d line it with a scandi head and bring an array of tips. No need to worry about flies; Bobby had plenty of them, although I would have liked to have tried some really big baitfish imitations.
The mahseer are really, really, really, spooky. Your first cast is your best chance. The very clear water compounded the situation. We fished wooly buggers, nymphs, and dries, getting fish on all of them. I wish I had brought some fluorocarbon in -1x, 0x, and 1x. I landed three to four fish
a day and missed as many each day. The most exciting fishing was with a “cherry bomb,” a one-inch ball of red fuzz that was a surface imitation of a local fruit that would fall from the trees and fl oat down the river. When we hit the right sections of the river, the fish went crazy for the fruit.
Most of my fish were on the small size, a couple of kilos at most, but they were incredibly powerful fighters. Mahseer have the reputation of being the hardest-fighting freshwater fish known. I had a big one, but the tippet snapped almost immediately. According to Bobby, the larger fish are about 15 to 20 pounds. Looking down on the river from the banks above, I saw a number of really nice fish.
We floated three different sections of the river, passing by villages as we went along. There were tribesmen using local baskets to fish for minnows, as well as kids snorkeling with their homemade
spear guns. Given how spooky the fish were, I’d guess they didn’t get many.
There is a great conservation story that made this fishery a stunning destination for fly fishers. About 10 to 15 years ago, river protection zones were established via a joint effort of NGOs, church groups, and the local Karen villagers. Sparse fish populations in rivers subject to massive flooding in the monsoon season placed some species at severe risk. By establishing the equivalent of “marine reserves” at regular intervals throughout the river systems, the overall fish stocks have greatly increased. The river systems are effectively restocked when populations are redistributed in major flood events. As the monsoon season fades away and the rivers clear, the fish numbers have always remained extremely high within the designated protection zones. Even when rivers are running thick with mud and logs, the mahseer have the ability to survive and hold their positions.
At present, nine miles of the 42-milelong Mae Ngao River are designated as protection zones, where only catch-and-release fishing is allowed. There were signs along the river noting a 5,000 baht ($150 fine) for violations. Adam and Bobby are also working to establish fishponds in each of the nine villages along the river so that the villagers can access the fish without harming the river. One has to admire the dedication of the villagers to their river, as the protection zones mean
that many villagers have to travel some distance to fish rather than fishing right outside their door as they did in the past.
If you’d like a truly authentic village experience, an opportunity to take oodles of pictures of hill tribe culture, to fish in unexplored and unspoiled waters, and to add a few life-list fish to your records, I’d highly recommend this trip. The fee was about $450 a day, plus about $100 each
way for the transfer to Mae Sariang. We paid the village chief about $7 per night for the accommodations.
You can book the trip through Adam at Chiang Mai Fly Fishing, www.cmflyfishing.com. His company owns the fishing rights to the various rivers and has contracted with Bobby as his exclusive guiding partner.—Lee Ann Ross