Looking for trout in Sri Lanka

I was recently forced by my wife to take the family on a three week intrepid adventure around Sri Lanka to appease her for the “numerous” flyfishing trips I do. Sri Lanka has a phenomenal history, but the part that excited me the most was the English occupation of the highland regions of Sri Lanka in altitudes above 1800 metres. Here the temperature stays around 12-25 degrees all year round, has lots of rainfall, huge cloud forests, mountains, rivers and awesome curries.

In 1882 the English occupied what was then Ceylon and created one of the largest tea plantations in the world. Naturally, poms like to create a homely environment wherever they go, so they stocked the lakes and rivers in the highlands with brown trout then rainbows later on. The English left Ceylon in 1972. Ceylon became Sri Lanka and with their newly formed republic, all traces of flyfishing disappeared. In an exhaustive internet search for flyfishing for trout in Sri Lanka I came across negativity and some downright awful reports. Claims of waterways pollution, netting and dense habitation along waterways apparently have all but eradicated the humble trout. The challenge was on.

Next I had to convince my wife that taking a 5 weight and some gear was for emergency purposes in case the tour minibus broke down and we had no food to survive ….. My wife commented that we would most probably starve to death if we waited for me to catch a fish.

Nevertheless, permission was granted by the minister for family affairs and the rod was packed.

Lake Gregory

Lake Gregory

Being on an organised tour there was little time for me to escape, so careful planning had me focussed on Nuwara Eliyah and in particular Lake Gregory and the rivers flowing into it as this was where the main stocking occurred. I figured I had an evening and a morning session to myself.

We arrived in Nuwara Eliyah 3 hours late as is usual on the awful roads of Sri Lanka. I quickly dumped the bags, kids and wife. Three of the rivers I had identified on the map were densely populated, full of rubbish and had vegetable plots running up to them. I quickly discarded these. As time was of the essence I went straight to Lake Gregory to try my luck. Being the Buddhist New Year, one side of the lake had a carnival of sorts along it and many motor boats cruising around the area. So I focused on the opposite side of the lake which was devoid of any activity or people. It only took me 15 minutes of walking and an armed military man with an AK 47 for me to realise why that side of the lake was so quiet. It was a military installation. Word of advice –  do not walk into a nervous military installation in cammo gear with a bumbag and a fly rod in its tube! Especially if you are white and have a shaved head.

I pieced together my rod and showed the army guy (and the curious entourage) what I was planning to do. Laughter went on for 3 minutes or so and a lot of banter in Sinhalese until the army man in charge told me I should be using bread or a sausage. Then to my surprise they let me into the barracks to fish. (I think I may be in some Sri Lankan YouTube clip labelled “weird white man fishing with fluff and no sausages.)

The ubiquitous tilapia.

The ubiquitous tilapia – and how not to hold a fish for the camera!

The lake was alive. The main species in the lake are tilapia, carp and supposedly trout. Every minute or so a tilapia would spear itself out of the water to eat the numerous orange dragon flies and water spiders. I sat and watched carefully, camera at ready to film any trout I could see. The insect life on the lake was surprisingly robust. After an hour of trying everything from Woolly Buggers, Bunny Leeches, blood worms, spiders, beetles, Stimulators, a Royal Wulff and even a pappadum (that was for my own enjoyment, not the fish)…. nothing. At this stage some of the pleasure boats from across the lake, each filled with 20 or so passengers, had moored themselves 40 metres or so away from me to watch the crazy white man. The pressure was on. I had 10 men with AK 47s behind me and 100 or so Sri Lankans in boats in front of me and tilapia jumping all around me. It was time to show Sri Lanka that flyfishing beats sausages and bread any day… Unfortunately that time is still to come. After 3 hours of frustrating flyfishing I didn’t have a take. I did see one small rainbow leap out of the water, so I had my proof that trout still exist there. The worst part was having to walk back out of the barracks where sergeant smart-arse had a sausage in bread waiting for me.

The next day I planned to explore some of the national park cloud forests where the leopards live. Here, there are clean rivers flowing into Lake Gregory through pristine untouched forest and no one ever goes there. Unfortunately we had to leave to catch a train early in the morning so my plans were quashed.

Nice water, but are there any trout?

Nice water, but are there any trout?

Basically, after touring most of the lower two-thirds of the country past numerous tropical lakes and rivers and some subtropical, I can make the following conclusions. If you want to flyfish for tilapia or carp there are plenty of varieties of considerable size nearly everywhere you go and they seem to be unperturbed by the pollution in the rivers. The national parks hold the most pristine places to fish. Trout however will require a lot of patience, an adventurous approach and a willingness to go to some remote places. A driver would be needed as it is very hard to get to the remote places by local transport. I only saw one trout but that is all I needed to see. I am sure it was not the only trout in Lake Gregory.

At least the scenery was nice...

At least the scenery was nice…

Sri Lanka is a fantastic island to visit. The people are super friendly, extremely generous, curious and have a great sense of humour. Travelling takes a long time as the roads are poor and very congested and road rules… well that’s another story. I would not target Sri Lanka as a hot spot for freshwater flyfishing but if you were planning a holiday there, it would be a great add-on, especially for those who want to explore the unknown.