Sabah Borneo

Situated on the Equator, the island of Borneo has always held a certain mystique for me. Rich in biodiversity with its plethora of exotic flora and fauna, the island is home to the oldest tropical rainforest in the world, the largest flower in the world (the Rafflesia) and the majestic UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mount Kinabalu, which soars to an impressive height of 4095 metres. Living in Singapore, Borneo is a short two and a half hour flight away. So when my good friend and guide Julio Dino of Borneo Fly Fishing Outfitters messaged to tell me the rivers were in perfect condition, I immediately went online, booked flights and found myself in Kota Kinabalu the following weekend. Kota Kinabalu is a beachside tourist town situated in Sabah in the northeastern part of Malaysian Borneo and is the main gateway for international tourists. It also happens to be where Julio lives during the week, working as an electrical engineer at the local power company. Julio is a rarity, not only in Malaysia but also in South East Asia, where fly fishing is still in its infancy and dedicated guides are virtually non-existent. He started guiding in his spare time about five years ago: initially friends, but increasingly international anglers with a sense of adventure who are looking for something different. Day 1: Tamparuli We set off early morning for a new river (or Tagal — more on that later) that Julio had recently discovered near the village of Tamparuli, which is roughly 50 kilometres northeast of Kota Kinabalu. As we drove away from the hustle and bustle of the city we were greeted with steep winding roads through lush tropical rainforests, verdant valleys blanketed in morning fog and sweeping vistas of Mount Kinabalu National Park. Tamparuli is nestled at the bottom of a small gorge and is similar in many ways to other villages in Sabah, with large multi-generational families living together in simple rustic houses, each with their own small garden, fruit trees and vegetable patch. The people looked genuinely happy, were generous with smiles and approached us with natural curiosity — unsurprising, as we were among the first few people to ever fly fish on their river. Unfortunately, the river was running high and discoloured from recent rains, but we remained optimistic and pushed on. Our main target were Hampala sabana, a member of the Cyprinidae (or carp) family endemic to freshwater rivers in Borneo. Hampala are known for their aggressive topwater strikes, so Julio suggested a small bass-style popper fished on a 9-ft 6-weight fly rod with a matching floating line. The technique was to cast as close as possible to structure on the opposite bank and retrieve the fly using short and fast strips so it skated across the top of the water. We slowly worked our way up the river and it wasn’t long before a small greedy hampala smashed the popper in an eddy at the top of a pool. After a short but spirited fight we had our first hampala in hand, a stunning fish that looks oddly like a cross between a bass with its oversize mouth and broad shoulders, and a carp with its deep body and distinctive forked tail. Julio was visibly relieved that the fish were still on the chew despite the tough river conditions. We landed several more hampala on poppers before breaking for lunch next to an idyllic pool, a welcome respite from the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity of the tropics. After lunch we continued upstream, crossing the river multiple times via makeshift suspended swing bridges in search of better water. Fishing continued to be slow but we managed to land our fish of the day — a solid hampala that crushed the popper multiple times before I finally hooked it in a patch of pocket water beneath some overhanging bamboo. Day 2: Keningau Roughly 110 kilometres southeast of Kota Kinabalu lies the sleepy rural town of Keningau. The town sits in a valley surrounded by the towering Crocker Range to the west and mountain forest reserves to the east. As a result, Keningau is blessed with rivers and streams that receive constant year-round rainfall. Julio had planned a day of mahseer fishing on his favourite stream near Keningau; a dense jungle river upstream that slowly transforms into an open freestone river in the lower reaches. We arrived at the river early in the morning. Julio was somewhat concerned with the river condition as there had been rain overnight, but fortunately it was fishable, and both water clarity and river level improved during the course of the day. Mahseer is an iconic freshwater gamefish in many parts of Asia but very little is known about the species endemic to Malaysia, as according to Steve Lockett of the Mahseer Trust (, a detailed taxonomic and genetic study has never been carried out. What is clear, however, is that they are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders that readily take big dry flies or a well presented nymph or streamer, making them ideal targets on fly. According to Julio, the best way to elicit a take from a mahseer is to intentionally land a large dry fly such as a Bomber, Chernobyl Ant or a Stimulator, or a weighted nymph such as a Copper John, hard on the surface of the water. Mahseer will frequently be drawn to the commotion and take the fly the second it lands. One technique that Julio likes to use on mahseer is a modified form of short line nymphing. This involves casting no more than 10–15 feet of fly line and keeping as much of it out of the water as possible to minimise drag while letting the nymph dead-drift for 2–3 seconds. This is done repeatedly to cover likely spots as mahseer frequently sit in pocket water near boulders, at the edge of the seams between fast and slow flowing water and at the heads and tails of pools. Given the size of the river, I decided to use a 9-ft 5-weight fly rod with a matching floating line and a green size 6 Bomber. True to form, the mahseer rose eagerly to the Bomber but would either miss the fly or refuse it. Thus, at Julio’s advice, I switched to short line nymphing with an 8'8" 2-weight fly rod and a black gold-beadhead nymph, and immediately started hooking mahseer one after another. Most of the fish, at less than a pound, were small, but what they lacked in size they made up for in fight. Once hooked the fish would swim downstream using the current to their advantage and seek out the closest form of structure. They certainly gave me a run for my money on the 2-weight! The action was fast and furious for the next few hours but it slowed around midday. By this time, the weather was slowly deteriorating as dark clouds threatened on the horizon, so Julio suggested skipping a few pools so we could fish better water upstream before the inevitable afternoon deluge. The river upstream is narrower and more dramatic. Shrouded in a canopy of thick jungle vegetation, the river gently cascades past large boulders, creating an interesting mixture of pocket water, riffles, runs and pools. Mahseer, especially the larger specimens, are known to congregate in the bigger pools but are notoriously difficult to catch as they are wary. Moreover, the smaller mahseer frequently beat them to the fly. So with the weather closing in, we decided to focus on the bigger pools for a chance at a trophy mahseer. After hooking and releasing a couple of average size mahseer, I came tight on another fish at the tail end of a big pool. I immediately knew it was a big fish but had no idea of its size until it rolled on the surface shortly after hookup. For a moment, time stood still. Meanwhile, the fish powered downstream through a series of rapids and boulders in its bid for freedom. Having been in similar situations countless times before, I was sure it was only a matter of time before the fish came unstuck or the tippet broke so I instinctively (and foolishly) followed the fish downstream, half scrambling over the boulders and half floating down the rapids with my rod held high. It was invigorating. I felt like Paul Maclean in A River Runs Through It. Once past the rapids, I found my footing and continued the fight. The fish made several powerful runs and nearly reached the safety of a massive boulder before it was finally subdued. Julio, meanwhile, was waist deep trying to land the fish with a net that was clearly too small for the job while juggling my brand new DSLR camera. After what felt like an eternity, Julio netted the fish and we celebrated with a moment of silence followed by a series of high fives. Perfection. At over four pounds, this was the trophy mahseer we were looking for and sharing this with Julio made it all the more special. The Tagal System The rivers we fished near Tamparuli and Keningau are both Tagals. Tagal, which literally means ‘forbidden’ in Dusun (the language of a minority ethnic group in Sabah), is a community-based fishery resource management system developed by the Sabah State Government and the Department of Fisheries, empowering villagers to manage their rivers in a sustainable manner. Under this system, certain stretches of rivers are designated red zones, meaning no fishing is allowed, yellow zones, meaning the local villagers can harvest fish at certain times, and green zones, meaning fishing is allowed for villagers only. Established in 2001, the Tagal system has been highly successful and is widely credited with restoring mahseer populations in rivers across the state. Prior to the establishment of Tagals, the mahseer faced threats from logging, intensive agriculture and oil palm plantations, which together caused soil erosion, pollution and habitat loss. In addition, there was rampant overfishing and poaching as the mahseer are highly prized as a table fish and can fetch upwards of USD500 per kilo. There are now more than 500 Tagals in Sabah and plans to create more. In recent years a number of Tagals have opened up their rivers to sport fishing on a strictly catch and release basis. Anglers pay a reasonable day fee in exchange for the right to fish a Tagal. The funds collected are used to pay the Tagal rangers, and any excess is used to fund infrastructure and other projects for the benefit of the entire Tagal community. It’s a win-win for all parties involved. There is something truly magical about jungle rivers that completely invigorates the body and evokes the senses, and there’s no better way to experience them than with a fly rod in hand chasing enigmatic gamefish like mahseer or hampala. The Tagals offer a great entry point for those wishing to sample the freshwater fishery in Sabah firsthand, but there are plenty of unexplored waters further afield in Danum Valley and the less accessible jungle rivers in the interior parts of Sabah where proboscis monkeys, orangutans, Bornean pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos, clouded leopards and Malayan sun bears roam free. There, nature is untamed, wild and waiting to be explored. Time to answer the call and plan the next adventure.

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