Bhutan and the Brown Trout
Bhutan and the brown trout
Back in the 1930s, Jigme Wangchuk, the second of the four Wangchuk hereditary kings to rule Bhutan in the 20th century, decided that his remote mountain realm was missing one important element – brown trout, salmo trutta, a yellow-brown attraction that can weigh up to 5 kilograms but rarely does except in wild kingdoms that anglers never get to. I have venerated King Jigme Wangchuk to this day. May his tribe increase.
In fact, his tribe did. His eventual successor, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, crowned in 1972, determined in the 1980s that his isolated kingdom's measure of prosperity should be GNH -- gross national happiness - rather than crass GDP. Prosperity would be balanced against the health of Bhutan's natural environment, its people and its culture. Fish seem to have been a lucky beneficiary, along with the rare English angler who could make his way there.
Jigme Wangchuk the elder had the rivers of this craggy country seeded with fish imported from Kashmir, where they in turn had been introduced by homesick members of the British Raj pining for the Scottish Highlands in the Himalaya. And while the fish have flourished, few folk ever travel to Bhutan to catch them. A duffer like me is in heaven.
It may of course seem perverse to travel to one of the world’s interesting locations just to fish. But in reality this is a perfect way to see the country, even from my jaundiced perspective. There is a huge amount to see in Bhutan, but as travellers to Asia’s target-rich environments such as India or Cambodia know, it is all too easy to suffer from cultural overload. The great sights start to blur one into another and your Angkor Wat becomes indistinguishable from your Angkor Thom. It is often a good idea to mix stomping around cultural gems with a bit of light entertainment.
Having failed to catch fish in exotic locations around the world, it seemed logical to try my hand in Bhutan. The trip therefore followed a nice rhythm of days spent fishing or travelling mixed with time at festivals or admiring the great dzongs, the white-faced fortress-monasteries teetering over most of Bhutan’s precipitous gorges.
After decades in which Bhutan determined it could preserve its GNH by keeping out the suppurating masses altogether, today a trip is a piece of cake, even if a somewhat expensive one. Although the tourist policy is still designed to restrict the flow of visitors to avoid overwhelming the country’s infrastructure, this is now done via financial hurdles rather than limiting visas. The minimum spend of around US$200 per day per visitor keeps the backpacker fraternity at bay and avoiding the Kathmandu-overload effect.
However for that $200, most travellers will get all they need in terms of hotel lodging, transport, guides and food - unless they choose to head to the more snooty high-end hotels now beginning to appear in the Paro valley, conveniently close to the airport for those who want to tick off Bhutan from their ‘must have done’ list without venturing too far from the spa. Since the tourist industry was liberalised, the internet offers a myriad companies offering to organise a trip to the country.
One word of warning – some of these companies reportedly have still never had a customer as too many agencies opened for the size of the market, so check your choice has some track-record before booking. For the record, I was in the hands of Yangphel Travel who did a better job of organisation and logistics than I could possibly have wished. (Contacts at http://www.yangphel.com ).
So what of the fishing side of the trip? You will get a guide to show you to the promising locations. However, it is fair to say that this is not the sort of hushed-toned, intense hands-on direction you get during guided trips in New Zealand or Jackson Hole. The art of guiding in Bhutan is in its infancy – I had the services of one of the more experienced guides in Bhutan apparently, but as of September I was his fourth client of the year. This means you have to form your own judgments as to choice of fly or fishing lies etc while chatting your choices through with the guide who will be able to tell you how the other groups got on. This is fun and avoids that sinking feeling you get on more travelled riverbanks where your eagerly proffered fly-box is ignored by your guide on every occasion. That said, it does mean you risk a few more unproductive hours as you work out what you are doing.
The rivers themselves are very varied. All run north to south, heading down towards the plains of India, but the change in the size and velocity of the water as you cross the country is considerable. Rivers such as the Paro run over easy gravel banks and are generally full of small to medium fish with the odd pool with something larger. In the rolling valley of Gantey, famed for the arrival of hundred black cranes during the winter, a small stream meandering through the marshes was crammed with small and refreshingly suicidal trout.
In contrast the rivers running down to the Punakha dzong in the middle of the country are large, muscular and glacier fed with some very fat trout sucking under the boulders – or, very annoyingly, under the walls of the monastery where they can sneer at any fisherman peering over the bridge, safe in the knowledge that the monks forbid fishing close to the dzongs. My favorite area was over in the east of the country. The area is known as Bumthang Valley but is actually a network of valleys with a variety of fruitful rivers of manageable size and stunning countryside – redolent of an untouched Switzerland in many ways and with a number of Swiss exiles in the neighborhood to prove it. Each river is a little different, meaning nice transitions between days. Some of the oldest and most revered relics and monasteries in the country dot the countryside, allowing for lots of interesting breaks as you grind along the tracks.
In terms of the fishing in Bhutan, you therefore can flick little dry flies around meandering streams, lug weighted nymphs down torrents and anything in between. The fish are plentiful in most rivers if not particularly large – a 2 or 3 pounder is usually very respectable for most rivers and very large for some. But perhaps focusing on size is to miss the point (an aphorism helpful in so many situations, I find). As you drive between rivers across Bhutan – on the only major road, the East-West highway, a predominantly single track ribbon through the mountains – there are constant opportunities to stop off at the various festivals, villages and monasteries.
Any visitor not up to his creel in fish should take plenty of time out to sit through the dances, clowning and singing of the festivals to appreciate how a non-TV watching culture makes its entertainment. The public events are a mix of religious and secular dances, notable for the use of heavy masks, often very traditional and usually spread over a number of days. The clowning ranges from the slapstick to the lewd, while the singing is often by groups of young girls from the neighbourhood as an entr’acte.
These are also colorful social occasions for folk from up and down the valley (and the further from Paro airport you are, the more likely you are to be the only visitor), as well as religious affairs, and as you approach the dzong hosting the dances the roads for miles around will be full of families walking across country in their best outfits towards the monastery. Lots of film or camera memory will be needed!