Fly Fishing in Sri Lanka

Approaching the headwaters of Aga Oya

Approaching the headwaters of Aga Oya

I am not sure exactly what put the notion of trout and Sri Lanka in my mind. I found myself in this country only to try and untangle an ugly Indian visa application nightmare, but I suppose as a fly fisherman, and since I had to be be in the country anyway, and of course since I had all my kit ready to fish in India, there followed a natural interest in exploring the local landscape for possibilities.

And Sri Lanka at least seemed on the surface to be a good bet. Wherever the British were in the world, trout tended to followed, and in Sri Lanka there is a tea industry – the legendary Ceylon Tea – and since both trout and tea thrive in high and beautiful places, and in the absence of anything else in particular to do for a fortnight, investigating the local potential seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

At independence from Britain in 1949, Ceylon became Sri Lanka, but anyone who has ever sipped a cup of tea will have heard of Ceylon Tea, and in fact Sri Lanka remains, if not the worlds leading producer, which is in fact India, then at the very least the world’s leading exporter of tea.

And even to a layman, what this naturally conjures up in the mind is a picture of verdant hillsides cloaked in carefully manicured tea-green bushes, the sight of which can be found in many parts of the world, from Malawi to Kenya, and from Darjeeling to Assam, but most conspicuously here in the central highlands of Sri Lanka.It was thanks to that love affair between the British and India that tea became an established favorite of the Anglo/Saxon palette, where it has remained ever since, and, indeed, tea quite quickly came to define the colonial planter’s identity in a way that coffee, rubber, sugar and cotton never quite did.

There remains something intrinsically genteel about the tea planter’s life, engaged as it was in a labor-intensive enterprise, the bedrock of the Bwana or Sahib mentality, ensconced in lonely but breathtakingly beautiful hill stations scattered across the tropical empire, and sipping the black balm upon polished verandas while obedient natives served up the scones and strawberry jam.

That, of course, does not correspond entirely with the truth. My father was a tea planter, beginning his career in the 1950s in Kenya, and moving then onto Rhodesia, where, in both cases, he was a pioneering member of the local tea fraternity, and very much lived that life. And in keeping with the fact that he was a quintessential son of England, admiring all of the great institutions of empire. He too was a fly fisherman.

As I am apt often to repeat, tea grows in high and beautiful places, and there, too, trout reside. My reading on Sri Lanka, however, was not initially encouraging. In a tropical highland environment, trout typically survive only above 3000ft, and they thrive and breed only above 4000ft. This obviously limits their viable habitat in such regions, but in a heavily populated and rapidly developing nation such as Sri Lanka – and indeed, really, in any tropical highland landscape – human factors loom as a very significant threat to the very narrow survival matrix of a creature existing so far out of its natural environment.

There seemed to be only two places where trout had been stocked – Scottish browns in the first instance, at around the turn of the century, and a little later rainbow – and where they might possibly have survived in meaningful numbers. The first of these is the Horton Plains National Park, located in Sri Lanka’s Central Province, part of a highland complex that marks the highest point on the island, and the headwaters of most of the main rivers relevant to the southern quadrant of the country. The second is Adams, or Siripadaya Peak, around which are clustered numerous tea estates, through which run a number of likely streams.

The focal point o this region is the town of Nurawa Eliya, located in the Central Province, very much within the tea region, and accessible by train from Colombo. However, simply for the sake of travel, I opted first to visit the hill city of Kandy, the seat of ancient Ceylonese dynasties and a beautifully situated city clustered along the edges of a sacred lake. Here, amid the jumble of old colonial architecture, jostling for space with the ubiquitous religious iconography of Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu, I enjoyed a few days of sightseeing, simple food and accommodation, before embarking on the superbly scenic train ride from Kandy to Nanu Oya, graduating from the dense tropical forest and interlocking hill country of the midlands to the rarefied atmosphere of the highlands, alternating between high grasslands, pine plantation and countless acres of tea.

The town of Naruwa Eliya lies an eight mile tuk-tuk ride from the station, and was actually quite disappointing on first impressions, appearing grubby and uninviting, with a curiously lush golf course incongruously located in the midst of a busy town, and with an uncharacteristically grasping hospitality industry that seemed to offer very little for a quite a lot of money.

However, in due course I found myself  in a humble local home, with a rather damp and odorous room, and a host who promised me that he knew all that there was to know about fly fishing in the region, which, on examination was precisely nothing. However, I took a stroll through town, which proved to be more attractive than its exterior promised, and soon enough I encountered Cargills, a onetime general emporium now occupied by the local Food City, but with the original embellishments proclaiming itself as the supplier of fishing tackle and sporting goods, proving at the very least that once upon a time there had been gentlemen in these hills fishing for trout.

So the next day I hired a scooter, and on a dry but cloudy day I set off…

My first stop was Horton Plains, which is reachable via the small agricultural settlement of Ambawela, and along a road that plies through two substantial dairy farms, one, quite surprisingly, with a small pilot wind power project situated on the southwards facing slopes.
The road deteriorates considerably within the park itself, devolving into a series of rough switchbacks that climb the steep and heavily foliated slopes that precede the plateau, arriving eventually on the summit where waited petty officialdom.

Arriving at the gate I was at pains to explain to the ticket seller my intentions, to which he seemed perfectly agreeable, charging me the equivalent of about US$30 to enter the park. With this formality completed I continued on to the single signature trail of the park, beyond the confines of which it is forbidden to venture, broaching a plateau and arriving on a windswept grass plain that was beginning to look very promising.

Soon enough I arrived at the carpark, which was crammed with perhaps a hundred or more tourist vehicles, each unloading a compliment of foreigners who dutifully then walked up the trail and back down, consuming three hours to see the edge of the plateau somewhere in the blue distance. Access was controlled through a turnstile gate watched over by three young Sri Lankans. My water bottle was removed from my backpack and labels cut off before it was inquired of me what was contained within the tube I was carrying.

I explained the purpose of my fly rod, handing it to the nearest youth who received it as if I had just handed him a pair of soiled y-fronts to savor. He shook his head vigorously.

No, no, no! – No killing here.’

Killing! What? I confess I was rather aggrieved to be spoken to as if I was a grubby bow-hunter or some such other purveyor of blood sport. Never had I been made to feel like a violator of the rules of ethical outdoors recreation. My God, the stupid little prick, what right did he have…?

But nonetheless, there was no venturing past that gate with my fly rod, and even an attempt to bribe the lad was brushed aside with the contempt that it probably deserved.

Unlike most contemporary national parks that have stocks of trout where trout do not naturally exist, here trout are not seen as an invasive, and one is not regarded as a cleanser of nature by taking them out. In all possibility, in some central location a statute of some sort exists to allow fly fishing by special permit, but these rather self satisfied youth, glorying no doubt in vaunting their moral superiority over me, had never been informed.

I was, however, intercepted by a middle aged Sri Lankan ‘naturalist’, who, with an air of great authority, confirmed the enigma of a ban on fly fishing, or indeed any fishing in the park, but informed me that not far out of Nuwara Eliya could be found a waterfall, Bumburu Ela, where the waters were ‘gin and tonic’ clear, and where trout could be found.

And so off I sped, but as I neared the location I again found myself in a heavily populated corner of the valley, with the usual stream bank cultivation on both banks of every watercourse, and I began to feel that this might be a wild goose chase. This sense deepen as I passed a sign indicating the existence of a landfill, and indeed, this I passed, a great, suppurating mountain of oozing effluent leaching a cocktail of unspeakable pollutants into the Bumburu Ela stream, that stank so mightily that I did not even bother to trace its course to the waterfall.

Reflecting back on my friend the ‘naturalist’ I thought to myself that a gin and tonic of this clarity might just do him some good.

However, undeterred I returned to my lodging and scoured the web, eventually turning up a local university study that had examined the waters of Kiriketi Oya, the stream that runs through Horton Plains, for evidence of the survival of rainbow trout.

The plains were only declared a national park in 1990, and so stocking of the river had been ongoing until 1989, but the study revealed that only the shreds of a viable population were hanging on, and the reason for this, reading between the lines, was poor water quality.

I then alighted upon a tourist website that informed me that Nuraway Eliya offered many intriguing possibilities for trout fishing, the prime water of the district in fact being the Niuwara Eliya Stream that ran through the town, transecting the golf course and the local Victoria Park.

On my very first day in town I had glanced at this river, needing, indeed, no more than a glance to tell me that this optimistic observation had obviously been written by a travel writer in a cubicle in the Philippines with no practical experience either of Sri Lanka or trout fishing. Whoever he or she was, however, also mention a stream called Agra Oya, which other sources had informed me was one of the favorite streams of the colonial period, and this I determined to explore.

The following day I set off in search of this river, and found it fairly easily where it was crossed by the main A7 highway. At a glance it seemed like an extremely handsome river, with a wide rapid cutting diagonally across the stream in a very trouty configuration. The water, however, was dun-colored and clearly polluted. On either side it was fringed by tea plantations, with a side road on its east bank that seemed at least worth exploring.

As I set off, bumping up a small rural road, plied by the usual traffic of busses, tuk-tuks and motorcycles, I was not particularly encouraged, since a thread of population, thickening occasionally into small towns, fringed the east bank, with the river itself remaining silted, dark and unsanitary.

However, as the road plied deeper up the valley, edging closer to the upper reaches of the Horton Plains National Park, the river diminished in flow, but at the same time settled into a perfect configuration of rapids and pools that must have one time been a wonderful stretch of water. And even though it was cleaner by the moment, the heavy concentrations of population really did not lend much hope for the survival of fish.

Eventually the road diminished to a trail within the interlocking slopes of a high plantation. The population fell away, and I abandoned my scooter and began to hike up along a series of rough estate roads. To my left the river boiled and tumbled in a most satisfactory configuration, and for the first time I found myself nurturing hope. Although hardly gin and tonic, it was reasonably clean, and as I approached the leading edges of the park, presumably free of the pollutants that so compromised it further down, I really began to sense a possibility.

At a certain point I abandoned the trail and made my way down through the tea to the river’s edge, attracting the attention of well meaning estate workers who yelled at me from above that the park was that way, and then fell into dumbfounded silenced as they watched me assemble my rod and start working the riffles with a red coachman, and when this failed a couple of different nymphs.

But I knew it was hopeless. The water was tinted slightly with silt, but it also smelt bad, and about it there was an unsavory air, despite its gorgeous setting and its sturdy appearance.

And as I walked away I wondered why? I had met the river almost at the moment that it exited the national park. If a river could not be relied upon to be clean here, then where?

The next day, just out of curiosity, I plotted the headwaters and made my way to find them, and there, on the fringes of the Horton Plains Park, I came upon that signature scene of heavy stream bank cultivation, crowding to the very edges of the handful of tendrils that made up the catchment of the Agra Oya. And i reflected too on what I had seen in just about every duka and stall in town, and beyond, which was the sale of all manner of nitrogen fertilizers and a cocktail of chemical pesticides, all of which was leaching into the water before it even had a chance to establish itself as a river.

The reality is that there is no fly fishing potential left in this country. There might perhaps be a struggling population of rainbows on the Horton Plains, but frankly I doubt it. And the problems lies with water quality. It is not my business here to discourse on this, other than perhaps to observe that some of the worst styles of peasant agriculture are on display here almost anywhere that one might care to look. Notwithstanding a landfill sited upstream of a substantial river, as just one example, the environmental consciousness in this region of Sri Lanka, despite a sense of surface health in many respects, is almost non existent.

So for those seeking an exotic destination to fish, look elsewhere. There is nothing here.