Sabah has many highland region fed by various rivers that flow down from the slopes of Mount Kinabalu. The cool waters flow over rocky and pebbly streambeds of sandstone and granite. The catchment areas are mainly agricultural; mainly rubber smallholdings, pineapple plots and fruit orchards.
The waters are clean and clear, and abound in aquatic insects like stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies. This provides ample foodbase for the fishes like the pelian (Tor deuronensis; Sabah mahseer) and sebarau (Hampala macrolepidota; Hampala Barb).
What makes these rivers special is that they are very well-managed by the local Kadazan-Dusun people. Many villages have been operating the tagal system (fish conservation) since the 1980’s, with feeding zones and sportfishing zones for paying visitors. It is not uncommon to find more than 200 pelian in a typical river pool!
In our experience, the typical river can produce mahseer of 1 to 2-kg. average size whilst a 6-kg giant would be a local record. The average size for sebarau is 1 to 1.5-kg.
Sabah’s Fly Fishing Potential
Rivers like the Tuaran, Mangkaladun, Mantaranau and Ruminding are pristine with bountiful insect life, and this presents a haven for fly fishermen. The medium to fast riffles are especially productive whilst the deeper pools harbour bigger pelian.
Various nymphs will work for catching the pelian, including Prince Nymph, Clouser Swimming Nymph, Copper John, and other stonefly patterns. Hoppers in sizes 10 to 6 can attract the bigger fish. For the sebarau – a gregarious piscivore – small to medium streamers and poppers are good.
Tagals are protected river stretches. Fishing is pre-arranged with the village tagal committee, and a guide will have to be on hand at all times. The villagers are very protective of their waters. The penalty for poaching – called sogit – is a whole buffalo, about RM3000 worth!
Tackle And Gear
Fly fishing gear
An 8 to 9-foot, wt-5 or 6 fly rod is recommended. Most of the fishing requires a floating line, but you can opt for a sinktip line for the deeper pools. You will need a reliable reel – both the pelian and sebarau are strong fish.
The waters are cool, the rocks slick. You do not need waders, but do wear good felt-soled boots or non-slip shoes to handle the slippery terrain.
The weather is typically warm and sunny, with the odd shower. Hats, polarising sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts are essentials. A light rain jacket is recommended too.
In the clearer headwaters, fish can be easily spooked. Camouflage-type clothing (we suggest greens and browns) can give you an advantage when stalking the fish.
The nights are cool, but seldom necessitating a jacket.
Typical Sabah Fishing Trip (3 Days Fishing)
- Arrival at Kota Kinabalu airport. Local guide with 4X4
- Depart for homestay in Kiulu village. Pitstop at Tamparuli town, for tea, groceries etc
- Casual fishing at nearby tagal (where applicable)
- Dinner in Tamparuli
Day 2 to Day 4
- Breakfast in Kiulu town
- Whole day fishing at tagal, using 4X4 vehicle. River selection will be based on weather conditions and angler preference. Packed lunch
- Dinner in Tamparuli or Tuaran
- Depart for Kota Kinabalu/Airport
In an equatorial region like Borneo, weather is never a certain thing. There is no distinctly dry season. The key is to avoid extremely wet spells, with their inherent flooding. The best window for fly-fishing the rivers is thus from February to June, with another brief spell in September-October. During these periods, there should be at least one or two rivers that are fishable.