Located in the Northern part of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a popular backpacker and vacation destination that is affordable, easy to get to, and offers many opportunities for anglers and non anglers alike. Being that it is a major destination on the backpacker trail, it is very easy to find a comfortable room in the quaint old town for $15-$20 US a night. Old Town, an intricate labyrinth of meandering streets, is the heart of the city. Offering endless opportunities to find street food, eccentric bars, hip hostels, and great nightlife, there is a little something to be found for everybody. For the non anglers in your party the city is ripe with shopping, eating, spas and Thai cooking classes to entertain your partner in the down time. If you have ever read a Lonely Planet, you probably know or have heard about all the wonderful activities in Chiang Mai. What most people don’t know, is that located in the mountains surrounding this quaint city are endless fly fishing opportunities in a world-class destination. The two main fish species of interest are: the giant snake head and the mahseer. Mahseer are a large carp species that can grow in excess of 50 lbs. On the out skirts of town, there are several lakes and reservoirs that offer tremendous opportunities to chase giant snake heads.
Often overlooked by the fly fishing world, the snake head is a fearsome predator that offers anglers explosive top water action. Its long eel like body and massive diamond-shaped head is enough to intimidate even the most seasoned angler. Just like a pit bull, you can tell that its small compact head and muscular jaws have tremendous striking and holding power. It has all the attributes that make great game fish, well, a great game fish: the speed of a pike, the brains of an old brown trout, territorial instincts of a bass, and the power of a tarpon.
Jon Ingi, the owner and founder of Asian Angling Adventures, picked me up at my hotel when the sun was still well below the horizon at 4:30 in the morning. We made our way past downtown, throngs of backpackers wondered the streets just starting their night, and the pulsing lights of the bars and discos were hypnotic. Our destination was a large reservoir on the outskirts of the city.
As the Thai began to rise, revealed before me was a large impoundment surrounded by lush green jungle vegetation and towering limestone cliffs. We motored to several coves and threw large poppers and minnow imitations in to the weed banks and brush along shore. Late spring to August is the prime time to fish for snake head. Like most game fish, the females become extremely aggressive during spawning season. In fact, they are so territorial that everything fly fisherman have learned about presentation is thrown out the window. The object is to take a large frog or popper and try to slap it on the water making as much noise as possible. Then jerk quickly and violently to simulate a small repital or rodent in distress . Often times, the reaction is explosive-angry strikes and line stripping battles. I was a little too early for spawning season, so we tried to cover as much water as possible. My first strike happened so quickly that I missed the fish. Finally, after several failed attempts, I connected on a smaller fish that gave me a good fight on my 6 weight. Violent head shakes and a few quick runs, characterize the typical snake head battle. It was a great way to end the day and start the trip.
When I think of South East Asian rivers, I cannot help but think of the Vietnam war movies of my child hood. They always seem to be depicting throngs soldiers in PT boats cruising down large, wide, and muddy rivers. I pictured all rivers in that part of the world to be the same. Since we were early for the snake head spawning season, Jon suggested that we head farther up into the mountains to try some stream fishing for mahseer. Our drive took us through the mountains of Northern Thailand toward the Myanmar border. Passing through small villages with streets accentuated with small thatch roofed houses, clothe less children playing the streets, and it became apparent that we were going off the beaten path and into a less touristy area minus the elephant petting farms.
The three-hour car ride took us from highway, to black top, to gravel, and finally dirt roads. At the end of the journey we found ourselves standing on a high cliff looking down into a crystal clear river teeming with fish. Unlike many over fished streams in Thailand, these rivers are protected by special restrictions that are enforced by the local villagers that inhabit the stream side hamlets. This way, the fish are protected and the villagers receive some additional income. God took a Montana trout stream and set right in the middle of Northern Thailand. Gravel shoals, rock gardens, riffles with deep holes, and downed trees left us with endless fishing possibilities. After turning over several rocks, we found cased caddis larva, damsel flies, and hellgermites. We walked along the bank and there was absolutely no need to sight fish, because there were literally hundreds of fish in every direction.
Mahseer, a species of carp, are native to South East Asia and India. Mahseer closely resemble that of a fresh water bonefish. Their gold quarter size scales and the blackish blue strip down the lateral sides of the fish, make them shimmer in the water like golden coins fluttering to the bottom of a wishing well. Their selective trout like behavior and the gin clear water makes long fine leaders and a delicate presentation are a must. In addition, staying low and using stream side vegetation to mask your approach will greatly increase your chances of hooking up. The setup that they seemed to prefer was a large size 8-10 Royal Wulff with a dropper fished on 12-20 inches of tippet. After a hook up, a break off, and one smaller fish. Ian Forbes, another angler in our party, hooked into a beautiful 12 lbs. fish. This was the first large Mahseer that I have ever seen hooked, and he made a run much like a bonefish would, charging through the flats fueled by natural survival instinct, adrenaline, and fear. The ensuing battle was epic. I watched as Ian ran along the bank trying to catch the fish before he ran all the line off the reel of his five weight. After many pictures and round of hi-fives, we released the fish and watched him saunter back to the same deep blue pool from which he came. It was a fantastic day of fishing and one that I will never forget.
For the fly fishing enthusiast, waiting through winter for the first spring thaw can be a long and arduous journey. Thailand, warm and sunny year round, is a nice alternative to other fishing destinations because it offers opportunities for both anglers and non anglers alike. Snake head and mahseer are worthy opponents for even the most seasoned anglers and will grow in popularity as anglers realize how explosive and exciting the fishing can be.