Greg Hamilton: Fly-fishing for Bhutan’s hard-fighting golden mahseer |

Greg Hamilton: Fly-fishing for Bhutan’s hard-fighting golden mahseer

Miles from Steamboat: 7,700

10 days (floating the Drangme)

Dates: April 23-May 18

Factoid: Bhutan translates to “Land of the Thunder Dragon” for its fierce storms rolling in from the Himalayas. It was also the world’s first country with constitutional obligations to protect the environment.


Fish the Yampa for rainbows all you want: Steamboat Springs filmmaker Greg Hamilton will take heading to Bhutan to chase the elusive golden mahseer, the hardest-fighting freshwater fish in the world.

Hamilton, a former producer for Warren Miller Entertainment, flew to the remote Himalayan kingdom last spring for his documentary, “Power of the River,” whose mission is to help stop the Drangme River from being dammed. En route he discovered a country wrestling with preserving the region’s environment while quenching its need for generating power.

“Bhutan is losing rivers to hydro-power at an alarming rate,” says Hamilton, who moved to Steamboat in 2010. “We wanted to find a place that had never been fished with a fly rod and show it to the world so that maybe people would give more attention to saving it than damming it. The premise of the movie is simple — in the last of the great Himalayan kingdoms, can fly-fishing keep one river wild and free?”

After spending two years lining up the necessary filming and floating permits, Hamilton spent 25 days traipsing across Bhutan with world-renowned fly-fishers Bryant Dunn, Misty Dhillon and Dave McCoy. Led by local guide Karma Tshering, the trip culminated with a nine-day float and first-ever fishing access on the Drangme Chhu River — ranked No. 10 on the International Rafting Federation’s list of “untouched wild rivers.”

Hamilton got involved in the project after Dunn, who had visited Bhutan before, began soliciting filmmakers for a documentary. He describes the film as “involving a cast of witty, charming characters adventuring into the unknown with a mission of saving one of the planet’s wildest, most beautiful places.”

A synopsis reads, “…Karma Tshering guides foreigners deep into Bhutan’s wilderness to share the wisdom of his culture — the last of the fading Himalayan kingdoms — hoping it’s not too late to rekindle reverence for our planet’s wildest places.”

Hamilton and company were in a good company preaching preservation. In Paris this December, Bhutan was heralded for creating the world’s most ambitious plan for conservation, targeting 60 percent of its lands to be preserved as national forest.

Why a tiny Buddhist kingdom has the world’s ear when it comes to conservation owes itself to the country’s unspoiled beauty, Hamilton says, as well as its acceptance of preservation and politics. In 1972, ruler Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth Dragon King, coined the term “Gross National Happiness” and committed to protect 60 percent of the country’s forests. A year before he abdicated the throne to his son, the Fifth Dragon King, in 2006, Wangchuk finalized the country’s peaceful transition to democracy.

While the fly-fishing adventurers had their hands full with everything from logistics to river running — which included getting through such rapids as Class V Gates of Manas safely — fishing for the elusive and endangered golden mahseer, found only in Bhutan and northern India, was always at the mission’s core.

“The river had been rafted and kayaked a few times, but we were the first group to ever get permission to fish it,” Hamilton says.

They succeeded in that as much as they did in drawing attention to the Drangme.

Despite breaking seven different fly rods — including a brand-new, two-handed spey rod, perfect for large, hard-fighting mahseer, when a gear raft flipped in a rapid — in all, they caught and released 13 of the endangered fish, four chocolate and nine golden. Included in the tally was a 20-pounder “way farther upstream than anyone expected” on a fly Misty Dhillon tied.

“Catching it upstream is important because it shows that the river environment there is still intact,” says Hamilton, adding they also caught brown trout and the endemic asla, or snow trout. “The mahseer is a bio-indicator species. As the river’s biggest fish, it’s the canary in the coal mine for when the river is no longer healthy.”

Unlike the country’s other dammed rivers, the Drangme remains an intact ecosystem. But indications of development, from survey markers to excavating sites, appeared as they got closer to India, where they finished their trip in the Manas Tiger Preserve.

The group also got a surprise when it floated back into cell phone range. While they were on the river, Dhillon’s Indian protege, Bobby Satpal — whose own village is due to be flooded by an upcoming dam — beat his own world record by catching a 50-pound golden mahseer on a fly rod in northern India.

“Misty received the photo once we crossed into India with a mix of both pride and jealousy,” Hamilton says.

Mahseer fortunes aside, the team reeled in something more important when all was said and done — support to help preserve what Hamilton calls one of the most pristine rivers in the world.

“The real issue, we realized, is that the river is very much at risk,” Hamilton says. “India’s hydropower quotas could require damming every last river in Bhutan. The Drangme dam has been in the works since the ‘70s, and more than a quarter of all Indians don’t have electricity. So the momentum for it is heating up.”

Still, he’s optimistic the film might help.

“In a land founded by a saint who rode a flying tiger, and in a place where happiness is a higher goal than money, perhaps anything is possible,” says Hamilton, who admits the trip has made him more interested in local conservation movements as well. “We don’t have the solution, but the movie plunges straight to the heart of what most threatens Earth’s wild spaces—and what will most likely save them.”

Miles from Steamboat: 7,700

10 days (floating the Drangme)

Dates: April 23-May 18

Factoid: Bhutan translates to “Land of the Thunder Dragon” for its fierce storms rolling in from the Himalayas. It was also the world’s first country with constitutional obligations to protect the environment.

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