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Hooking Your Mother: Trout-Fishing in Bhutan

In trout-rich Bhutan, landing a fish means trashing your karma.

By Beril Lintner

I never thought I would have to hide my fishing rod in shame on my way to catch trout. I thought angling, the world's oldest sport, was accepted everywhere.

I was wrong. Not in Bhutan. The country's almost fundamentalist Buddhist believers forbid the killing of any living being. A Bhutanese would panic if a fly landed in his tea cup. It might drown. Such a disaster could bring down bad karma upon the person who thought he was just about to relax with a cup of tea.

But a trout? The innocent fish might be the reincarnation of one's grandmother, and who would want to put a hook in her mouth, much less break her neck, dip her in batter, fry her and eat her?

It could also be a 15th-century saint who had misbehaved in subsequent lives and as punishment, was reborn generations later as a fish. But no matter who the trout may have been in an earlier existence, the consequences of killing them remain severe.

Nearby Thailand is also a Buddhist country, but fishing there is an extremely popular form of recreation and an escape from the traffic jams of Bangkok. The Thais, however, never admit to killing anything in the process. They just "make the lives of the fish a bit shorter." This flexibility in interpretation of fundamental Buddhist concepts does not exist in Bhutan. The only allowance here, since most Bhutanese still like to have fish in their curries, is to concede that it is no sin to eat the flesh of an animal killed by somebody else.

The outcome of all this is that the markets of Bhutan are full of smelly, dried fish trucked in from India--while the nearby streams teem with trout. But there are a few sinners in Bhutan, and they promised to show us where to look for the best trout in the country. We set off in a hired four-wheel drive along winding and treacherous roads into the Bhutanese mountains. There was also my 10-year-old daughter Hseng Tai, who loves slicing up the fish as much as I do. My wife Hseng Noung, a professional photographer, came along as well to document the crime against species we were about to commit.

The setting of our sinful expedition could not have been more dramatic. Bhutan's mountains are some of the most spectacular in the world. Sparsely populated virgin pine forest still covers the slopes and has not been turned into firewood or building material for houses, as have entire forests in neighbouring India and Nepal.

We were alone with a beautiful forest surrounding us, majestic peaks in the background, and a clear mountain stream full of trout.

We had caught about a dozen trout when we decided that it was enough for dinner that night and breakfast the next day. Suddenly, we discovered that we were not alone. A group of curious onlookers were perched in a row on a rock beside the stream.

My immediate thought was that they wanted to watch the mad foreigners ruin their karma. Fortunately, however, they turned out to be Nepalese workers who were upgrading a road somewhere close to our new found fishing paradise--Hindus and therefore fellow fish killers.

The trout is actually not native to Bhutan. In the last century, British colonialists introduced brown trout to their favourite playground, Kashmir. A century later, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk decided to bring Bhutan out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world. In the early 1960s, roads were constructed from the Indian plains, and the first motor vehicles entered the Himalayan kingdom.

A relative of the king was interested in fishing, and soon as the roads from India were strong enough to carry trucks, he brought in tankfuls of trout from Kashmir. They soon found themselves at home in the fast-flowing, cool and crystal clear waters of Bhutan. The trout grew to a decent size and multiplied rapidly.

By now they have taken over most of Bhutan's highland rivers. But since so few people are interested in fishing, the trout have almost become pests, even to the extent of threatening the survival of the main native species, a slow-moving carp that is no match for the trout in terms of feeding capability.

Such a fishing paradise would be difficult to find anywhere else in the world--but beware: only fish in Bhutan if you are prepared to risk your karma.

This artilce first appeared in the Tokyo Journal, July, 1996

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