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Borneo Jungle Expedition - The First Female to Catch a Kaloi
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Borneo Jungle Expedition - The First Female to Catch a Kaloi


Jungle fishing through the ancient and pristine rain forest of the largest Indonesian island, Borneo, is an experience not quite fit for words. The journey into kaloi (giant red gourami) territory in Central Kalimantan, has no dullness to it. Hours of passing rolling hills of luscious green foliage, plants you'd see in living rooms back home, except they're enormous - elephant ear plants where a single leaf could be used as an umbrella for two. Rattan drapes over trees, fiddle leaf figs grow metres high, and bananas hang from every direction. The air is crisp and unbelievably fresh, a huge relief after the stop over in the fume-filled city of Jakarta that supports almost 11 million people. Borneo island is shared in ownership by three countries; Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Central Kalimantan is owned by Indonesia and still inhabits it's indigenous owners, known as Dayaks. Our time through Borneo was heavily supported by the Nyaribungan Village, a Dayak tribe that lives remotely in the Nyaribungan area of the rain forest, living off the Mahakam river system for water and fish, and terrestrial animals of the area. Native terrestrial animals consumed by the Dayaks include canchill (mouse-deer), bearded pig, binturong (bear-cat), reticulated python, and rusa deer. These tribes were head hunting into the late 1960's, meaning if they crossed a person in the jungle who didn't speak their dialect, they would collect their head. They love to remind you of this for a laugh at camp. These communities have strong traditions, they weave tribal hats for each village member and have group dances which they will proudly share videos and stories of. The Nyaribungan Dayaks took us into their homes with no hesitation, always preparing meals, tea and coffee as polite offerings and letting us sleep on our mats in their open plan huts. Refined sugar is a new addition to their lifestyle, and each jug of tea/coffee has 1 metric cup of refined sugar added, it becomes a sludge rather than a liquid drink, but they do this to show they will give you what is special to them. Unfortunately, this new addition with little education has led them to be mostly diabetic, a fatal disease if left untreated. 

This article will explore the entire experience of the traverse into the jungle and the time spent there. For an in-depth discussion on the artillery required to hook and land the kaloi, check out Angus' article here. 


Welcome to the Jungle

A lesson you will learn early on with Indonesian travel is, if it can go wrong, it most probably will. Don't expect the luxury of sure footed and timely organisation that you would find in the western world. Always prepare for the worst, and don't get caught up in what you cannot change. Things will always work out and smooth over. I remind myself of this after we leave the Nyaribungan village towards camp, and sit stuck on the side of the muddy road as the Navara ute is bogged for the 4th time in a few hundred metres, and the snatch strap is a piece of twine rope you'd find in Bunnings aisle 12, with a spanner wrapped in in the middle holding it together. "Duck your head, and let it sort itself out". It comes true, when the supposed 15 minute journey comes to an end 2 hours later, as we reach the river campsite. 

The Dayak's set to work. Their ethic is incredible. They assort themselves jobs; stripping rattan, logging small trees, sharpening said trees, putting together a platform of wood with stretcher beds, held together by the rattan string. They build a kitchen of this natural material. You blink and they have built you a table and chairs, fly rod holders, anything else you'd like whilst they're at it? You can opt to sleep in their stretcher beds made with rice sacks, or a tent and blow up mattress if that suits you more. Our first trip in July was extremely high humidity, bringing a small battery operated fan is ideal for night time. Our next trip in January was less humid, but had more rainfall. For this time of year it's sensible to bring wet weather gear for around the camp, you won't mind the rain so much when you're fishing off the long wooden boats, but back at the muddy camp it's preferable. Leave your wading boots at home, crocs are exceptional in this landscape.


Your Daily Expedition 

Each morning you will putt upstream for 2 hours on the handmade wooden long boats with a Dayak steering the outboard, and another paddling the bow. We found barefoot is the best way to balance on your float downstream as even the smallest of unbalanced episodes will send alerting signals to the fish below the tannin water. Balance and discreetness is everything in these leisurely and slow rivers. The Pari river is littered with kaloi, whereas the Jeremiah upstream holds a healthy population of blue mahseer and further downstream holds predominantly kaloi. The entire distance of the Jeremiah river will have several by-catch species such as emperor snakehead, hampala barb and sultan, aka jelawat. The hampala hunt baitfish mercilessly, sometimes beaching themselves on the sandbanks before thrashing their way back to the water. The sound of a hampala eating your surface fly sends chills, you have to react fast with a strip strike as they will throw the hook almost immediately. There is also an endemic species known locally as beliho, an aggressive little topwater fish that the locals love to eat, if you support catch and release, throw them back as far and as fast as you can before Mahmur, the boat paddler, gets his hungry paws on them. 

The float downstream will take the most part of the entire daylight hours, but should you arrive to the camp section with time to spare, I highly recommend putting upstream the Da'son river, which takes only 40 minutes to float back downstream and holds a good number of kaloi in the faster rapids. This is the section Angus landed a sultan on a white subsurface game-changer fly. Due to the density of the rain forest, walking the banks to fish isn't possible. Some sections have openings and you can hop off the long boats and have lunch and cast in these spots but for the most part the intertwined foliage is too thick to get through and the banks can be steep walls metres high. 


The days are long, casts are in the thousands, your concentration is peak at all times. There is a running joke that kaloi harbour a sixth sense, you haven't seen movement or had a fish hit in hours but if you lose concentration for slight moments to admire a butterfly or a bird, a kaloi will then hit your fly. That moments opportunity is gone. You will kick yourself, promising not to let it happen again, until a family of giant otters swims by singing cheers at your boat, and you're mesmerised. It's bound to happen, there is beauty in everything immediately around you, and living amongst this landscape is a rarity. But the kaloi know, and this sixth sense will happen again. 

Due to the nature of casting repetitively for hours, a sharp shooting line that allows for minimal false casts is necessary, we opted for the Airflo Flats Power Taper in wf10f. Ratan and roots dangle over head in bouts, another added benefit to minimal false casts is weaving and aiming precisely between these traps. A shorter rod will load the Power Taper and allow for less false casts with more precision, I couldn't go past my Scott Sector 10wt 8'4".

The choice of surface fly is an imitation of the giant black cockroach found in the jungle. To present this dense foamy fly, it needs to make a big splat on the surface, a great pup noise, this is done by creating larger loops in your casts. Leave it for 3-4 seconds not allowing the line to drag the fly unnaturally, before you pick it up and recast elsewhere. The tannin water hides what is below the surface well, but at times you will land the fly on the surface and almost immediately that red jelly head appears, staring, swinging back and forth around the fly, deciding whether to eat or return to it's hidden depths. They will use that gelatinous looking head to bump the fly, playing with it, and then suddenly they sip the fly in, without disturbing the surface at all. You must set the hook into their dense mouth by strip striking, a trout strike will ensure you lose immediately and it may be hours before your next opportunity arises. To battle a kaloi is to test your skills. They are intelligent and will rub their faces on sunken logs to remove the hook, they will use their sharp scales to scratch the leader and weaken its capabilities, and their incredible strength will straighten hooks or snap 60lb leader. Some hits are unpredictable, either the subtle sip or a vigorous boof to the surface. The male kaloi is especially a hard fight, their dense paddle-like body allows one kick to send them deep toward the river bed. At no point do you get these fish onto the reel. As soon as they hit and you strip strike, you will begin to hand strip until they are within reaching distance. The reel is simply there as line storage. Due to the intensity of their strength, we highly recommend the Ahrex Patagon Bos Taurus as hook choice.

At the end of the last trip, Angus began to explore subsurface flies which had a promising outcome, in the hours of topwater inaction, he'd tie on a game-changer and the hits would return. He tested white, silver, and black, and all colours had a positive response. If I were to go back, I'd delve further into the options of subsurface flies as up to this point top surface flies had been the only recommendation for kaloi. Snakehead live amongst and around nests of snaggy stick piles that are partially submerged and the hook up rate was higher with subsurface flies, comparative to topwater used on both trips. 

If you land a kaloi, it's imperative to take caution in handling these fish, as their fins are made up of long fragile bone with webbing between them. To bend these fins would break these bones. Each scale ends with a sharp point that can cut you easily. Noticeably, in July most hits and fights were coming from male kaloi, and barely any females, whereas in January, a large portion of our fights were with females, where a male would go to eat, and the female would thrash in front and steal it from him. This is purely anecdotal and our assumption is that this time of year the females were nesting as food was more readily available being fruit season. 

More anecdotal evidence suggests that just before a down pour of rain, a drop in barometric pressure incites feeding activity and more eats. After the down pour, it tended to shut down the activity. You cannot anticipate or prepare for these torrential downpours, the jungle is entirely unpredictable and they happen instantaneously. 


Currently, I am the first and only female to land a kaloi on fly. This type of freshwater fishing didn't come naturally and it took two trips into the jungle and unexplained hours of dedication and persistence to make this happen. There were many lost opportunities and heartbreaks due to snapped leaders, straightened hooks, missed nettings, god forbidden trout strikes and pulled hooks. There is no room for moping at the losses, you have to carry on and wait for your next opportunity and entirely believe that you will make it happen. Fly fishing as a whole teaches you about being present, persistent, and quite relentless. When you commit yourself to a hard task, everything else hurdled at you seems relatively easy. 


Biodiversity in Ancient Landscapes

On the banks of the river between thick vines, ferns, and fallen ancient trees, you will spot bearded pigs, jungle fowl, water dragons, soft-shell turtles, giant otters, and king cobras. Overhead you will see bright blue kingfishers, swallows, hornbills, white-bellied sea eagles, gibbons, macaques and with pure luck, a sleepy sun bear. Macaques are extremely territorial and commonly throw logs or branches from above you into the stream as a scare tactic, you will become quite accustomed to these sudden splashes and growls. 

Jungle insect life is otherworldly, there are giant moths and cicadas the size of your hand, hummingbird hawk moths (a moth, that replicates the physical characteristics and movement of a hummingbird, with a hawk beak-like proboscis), fluorescent damsel flies and butterflies, minuscule black bees that cover your skin and are careful not to sting you, golden bees that shimmer like gold. Strangely there are no flies or mosquitos in the jungle. 

What you most likely won't see is the phenomenal species that are dwindling in numbers, gavials (aka gharials), clouded leopards, bay cats, proboscis monkeys, pygmy rhinos, pygmy elephants, and if you fish further north, the Irrawaddy dolphin. Deep in the jungle where you camp you will feel as if it's untouched and well preserved, but you know from the previous drive into the jungle from the small town of Melak, this preservation is a facade. Large areas have been destroyed by predominantly Chinese and Malaysian logging companies. Between the logging, palm plantations, and riverbed coal mining, the ancient rain forest is struggling. It's confronting to see but further conversation needs to be had about preservation efforts and education for the villagers, so they aren't taken advantage of by reticent mining companies.

For any avid fly fisher, the ideal getaway is one that allows hours on the water uninterrupted, however the jungle is busy with diverse ecosystems, meaning that it isn't a place to escape to for peace and quiet. The noise is constant, no second is spared for silence. Whether it be screaming macaques arguing throughout the night, woodpeckers hard at work, cicadas that whine like the distant noise of mining machinery, other cicadas that sound like crying children, or the warping long calls of orangutans, there is always a white noise there to disturb you that sounds so foreign it's slightly off putting. The most exceptional noise and sight to be seen is the hornbill, who's wing flapping can be heard from hundreds of metres away in the jungle canopy before he passes you by. It's a strong low pitch noise that is so obvious and distinct, you can't help but smile and enjoy stopping to watch as he approaches. There are several species of hornbill that will pass by, the most common will be the Rhinoceros hornbill, with a wingspan of 1.5m, you will never tire of pausing your days fishing to admire him. 

As previously mentioned, January boasts fruiting season in the jungle. This is an exciting time for the Dayak's who get to enjoy their native sweets. On this January trip, they often stopped the long boats with a cheeky grin before disappearing on foot into the dense jungle banks to be next seen climbing up trees to bring back fruits of all kinds and colours. Their favourite seemed to be wild durian, which was unlike the unpleasantly aromatic green durian you see in roadside stalls in towns, these were smaller with a red husk and cream flesh, with a tangy smell and taste. Another favourite which brought much excitement was the gitaan, a brown leathery husk that encapsulated a stringy glue-like membrane, with orange flesh that taste like honey with notes of sour. This was the first time they had fruited in 3 years. They were so kind to share them with us after the long absence. 

In July, the Dayaks collected rattan cane and cooked it over the fire for us to eat. It's something they do as a dessert or snack, and has a taste almost like beer.


Jungle Summary

The intensity and long-winded effort of the goal to catch the elusive kaloi, and finally reaching that goal is something I'll always reminisce on. Fishing these waters gives you a wide spectrum of species to chase, top water poppers and subsurface flies for hampala, snakehead, beliho, and jelawat, dry flies for kaloi, jelawat, and other endemic species like lalang and lampan. When you're on these rivers the exploitation of the rain forest by mining companies feels light years away, what you experience here feels divinely ancient and untouched. This is a rarity in our modern lives, and seeing these exotic species right in front of you doesn't lose its thrill as the days go by. 


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