About 10 years ago, I went on a school trip to Lille in France and ended up bringing back an issue of a fishing magazine called Voyages de Peche, which has now become one of my favourite magazines. Inside was a feature I found really interesting, which was about fishing for Giant Snakehead and Jungle Perch (also known as Sebarau and Hampala Barb) in Thailand and Malaysia. Fascinated by both of these unusual looking species, I dreamt of fishing for them one day and did a lot of research about where to fish for them and how people target them. One of the places mentioned in the feature was Temenggor Dam, in the Royal Belum National Park, home to some of the biggest Giant Snakehead in the world. Fast forward 10 years, and I’ve recently returned from that very place, which was every bit as amazing as it came across to me after reading that feature for the first time.
My Dad and I had been seriously looking in to travelling there for 2-3 years, but never booked a trip because of the lack of information about the venue, guides and what the best time of year to visit was. However, at the end of last year, Nicolas Jamin, who we fished with in Sri Lanka, fished in the Royal Belum National Park and had a great trip. I contacted him for more information and he pointed me in the direction of Benny Chew, a guide who runs ‘Malaysia Peacock Bass Heaven - Pro Guide Fishing’. Coincidentally, my Mum had also been wanting to go to Malaysia for years as she wanted to visit Penang, famous for its mix of cultures and food, and which was only 3 hours from the Royal Belum Park. We started to plan a trip that would combine fishing at Temenggor Dam with a week in Penang, and by the time it was all booked, we were all very excited about finally visiting Malaysia!
It took 28 hours to get from Heathrow to Penang, via Doha in Qatar, and luckily we’d planned to spend 3 days chilling out in Penang after the long journey. I say ‘chilling’ out - it was seriously hot and humid, and took us a couple of days to climatise! Within a day of arriving, Dad and I had to get our fishing fix, and ended up Light Rock Fishing outside the Lost Paradise Resort, where we were staying. Within a few casts Dad hooked and landed an Orangespotted Grouper, a great start to the trip! Other species we landed I’ve now identified to be Belanger’s Croaker, Javelin Grunter and Scaly Threadfin Anchovy.
After three days in Penang, it was then time to embark on the three hour drive to the Belum Rainforest Resort, an eco resort on the shores of Temenggor Dam, just outside the national park. Later that afternoon, we met Benny Chew for the first time, and he gave us a run down of how we would approach the first days fishing. He also selected a few lures that we’d brought along that he thought looked best to start us off, and gave us a time to meet him at the dock in the morning. That night, we set up our rods - we each had a Fox Rage Terminator Pro Swim and Soft rod, which is 7’2” and casts 20-60g (3/4oz-2oz). Both of us used high ratio bait casting reels for retrieving lures quickly, and both were spooled with 60lb (0.25mm) braid. An FG knot was used to connect the braid to a leader of around 5ft in length of 44lb fluorocarbon, with an extra strong snap at the end.
At 7.30am the next day, we met up with Benny and Mei, who was to be our boatman for the next four days, and left the resort for an army station on the edge of the park, to register and collect our passes for access to the park. It was after we left the army station that we were able to finally appreciate how stunning the Belum rainforest really is, as we travelled up the winding flooded rivers deeper in to the jungle. I’ve been very lucky to have fished in and travelled to some amazing places, but this place was so wild it reminded me of Jurassic Park!
As we stopped the boat in the first area and the motor was cut, the low-lying fog, low pitched booming sound (which turned out to be monkeys) and hornbills calling made it feel quite eery, as if we were isolated and completely cut off from civilisation. This would be our first attempt at targeting rising Giant Snakehead, or ‘Toman’, as they are known in Malaysia. These dinosaur-looking fish are air breathers, and come up to take gulps of air every 15-20 minutes or so. The aim was to spot the rising fish and cast our lures either straight to the roll of where the fish had risen, or in the direction of where the fish was descending. This was much easier said than done, as the Snakehead swim straight back down after taking a gulp of air - our casting had to be absolutely spot on and if our lures weren’t in the water within 2-3 seconds, we’d probably missed our chance. We started off with surface lures - I tried a buzz bait, whilst Dad used a Salmo Bass Bug, a surface wake bait which looks like a giant beetle. It took a good few hours to get in to the swing of casting so quickly and accurately, and in that time Dad had one fish explode on the Bass Bug, but unfortunately didn’t connect with it.
We had a change of location later that morning to a deeper area of the lake with lots of tree stumps, and Benny suggested changing to crank baits here. With these, we needed to cast a few feet over the rising Snakehead and crank down quickly to intercept the fish as it swam back down. Dad quickly spotted a fish rise by a stump, cast to it and within a few reel turns he struck in to a hard fighting fish. There were a few nervy moments throughout the fight, but it wasn’t long before Dad landed his first Giant Snakehead!
We had the chance to admire this amazing fish in the flesh for the first time, and when unhooking it, we were both amazed how powerful its jaws were - so powerful, that it had basically crushed the crankbait, inserting several holes in the body, which had filled with water and had turned a very buoyant floating lure in to a very fast sinking one!
Shortly after, Dad caught another Snakehead, before we started to see less activity from Snakehead rising, and Benny suggested targeting Jungle Perch (or Sebarau as they are known in Malaysia) for an hour before lunch. For the Jungle Perch we were using lighter outfits - either a Rage Terminator Pro Power Fishing rod, which is 7’4” and casts up to 28g (1oz), or the Terminator Pro Jigger spinning rod, which is 7ft and casts up to 40g (1 1/2oz). We headed to the mouth of a creek, where we used much smaller, flashier lures such as spoons and tail spinners. During the dry season (when we visited), Jungle Perch stay in deep water and can be found around structure such as sunken trees and roots, and after ten minutes of casting in a very fishy looking area, I lost a fish, and then a few casts later Dad hooked and landed his first Jungle Perch - what a first morning he’d had!
Now it was time for lunch. Each day, Benny brought with him fantastic beef and fish curries, with rice, salad, chicken and a boiled egg, and it was nice to have a break from the relentless heat and humidity. We didn’t catch any more Snakehead that day, but it had been a huge learning curve and I was really hoping I could boat my first ‘Toman’ the next day.
The next morning, we headed deep in to the jungle, past indigenous ‘Orang Asli’ tribal villages to a favourite area of Benny’s. I started the day with a chatter bait and within a few minutes I had an extremely aggressive take, that tore off and quickly busted at the knot joining the leader to the lure, all within a few seconds - not the start I was hoping for, but I probably had the drag set too tight and Benny reckoned it was a big fish (5kg+). The sheer power of the take and initial run reminded me of the GT’s I’d caught in Sri Lanka. Ten minutes later, I hooked another fish, which I thought I had under control, until everything went loose. I was surprised it had come off as I thought I’d played it well, but it turned out the hook had opened up!
After another 45 minutes with no bites, we moved again. Here I hooked another Snakehead in open water - surely I could land this one?! The fish came up to the boat, and as it approached the net, I thought ‘it’s in the bag’, but about a foot from the net, the fish shook it’s head, and came off! I was absolutely devastated and was starting to wonder whether I would actually land one of these renowned fighters. We decided to take a break and venture up a river where we would stop for lunch, in one of the most scenic spots I’ve probably ever been, just three miles from the border of Thailand. It was the perfect place to reflect on our morning’s fishing, and how we would approach the afternoon.
After lunch, we were motoring downstream when we spotted some Snakehead rising. We decided to stop and make a few casts, and I had an almighty slam and hooked in to a fish. We were in a fairly shallow and snaggy spot, so I tried to not give the fish an inch of line. As it tired, I was able to bully it away from the snags, and moments later it was in the net! The relief of landing my first Giant Snakehead was immense, and I punched the air in celebration!
Things seemed to click from then onwards. We returned to the area where I’d lost the two fish in the morning, and in 45 minutes, we managed to boat four Giant Snakehead between us to 4.5kg - the biggest fish of the trip so far, all caught on spinnerbaits and chatter baits. All three of my fish were caught on a fire tiger spinnerbait, which from that day onwards was dubbed ‘the lucky lure!’
The next day, we explored another river joining the huge Temenggor Dam, and got off to a good start. Dad managed to catch the first fish of the day on a Salmo Bass Bug.
This was one of only a handful of fish we caught on surface lures on the trip, despite having quite a few hits on the Bass Bug. We realised after the first day that we had to make a few changes to the lure, and by replacing the treble hook on the back with a 4XX split ring, size 7 swivel, another 4XX split ring and a 3X strong treble hook, this helped the hookup rate massively and it became the most successful surface lure of the trip.
That morning, we spotted a family of Otters playing on the bank, and just up the bank we saw a Wild Boar too!
Whilst having lunch that day, we’d pulled up under a canopy in the shade and tied the boat to the bank, when Benny and Mei suddenly went in to a bit of a panic. It turned out Mei had spotted a huge centipede, which was almost a foot long, and it was close to crawling in to the boat! Apparently this was a small one and they pack a pretty nasty bite too! This was just one of the many fantastic creatures we saw whilst in the rainforest.
We returned to an area where we’d caught a couple of Snakehead in the morning, and I put ‘the lucky lure’ back on, which turned out to be a good move as I quickly had a brutal take from a fish that tore off towards some stumps. Thankfully I managed to slow it down, steer it away and guide it into open water. I could tell this fish had a bit more weight to it, but when it finally surfaced we all yelled in shock, as this was a ‘mama Toman’, a huge Snakehead that was clearly too big to fit in the net. Whilst still playing the fish we had to think of a way of getting it in the boat without using the net, so when I had it under control, Mei had to almost cuddle the fish and lift it in to the boat, which was a nervous moment, but it worked and then when it was in the boat, we were all so excited, we were probably the noisiest people in the jungle at that time!
On our last day’s fishing, we decided to spend the morning targeting Jungle Perch, as I hadn’t caught one. Whilst fishing for them, we saw a Snakehead come up and take a gulp of air in very shallow water, so whilst Dad was flyfishing, I quickly put down the lighter spinning outfit I’d been using for Jungle Perch, and grabbed my Snakehead rod. I cast to the rolling fish and as I was about to lift the lure out of the water, I watched a huge Giant Snakehead absolutely demolish ‘the lucky lure’, by far the most aggressive take of the trip. As it was only a few feet deep where we were fishing, the fish steamed off towards some rocks a hundred or so yards away downstream. I did manage to stop it by increasing the drag to the maximum tension, but then it tore off again and achieved its mission of cutting the braid around a big rock. Not only had I lost an even bigger Snakehead than the fish from the day before, I’d lost the lucky lure.
I did manage to catch three Snakehead that morning, but all juvenile fish whilst targeting Jungle Perch. They seemed to really like a gold spoon! Later that afternoon, Dad landed his biggest fish of the trip, estimated at around 5kg, whilst being watched by an elephant on the bank!
It had been an amazing four days fishing in stunning surroundings, catching 20 Giant Snakehead between us. Benny and Mei were both fantastic guides and we really enjoyed sharing the boat with them - we had a great laugh, especially when Benny was giving a running commentary when we were playing fish! Benny also guides fishing for Peacock Bass near his home, and also hosts trips to Borneo fishing for Borneo Black Bass, big Barramundi, Grouper, Jungle Perch and other species, which sounds really interesting - hopefully that’s a trip to look forward to in the future!
Although I’d succeeded catching the Giant Snakehead (which was the main target of the trip), I hadn’t managed to land a Jungle Perch. We hadn’t visited Malaysia at the best time of year for Jungle Perch, but the next day we got chatting to a couple of guides who work at the Belum Rainforest Resort, who had caught Jungle Perch from the shore in an area nearby. Excited after receiving that information, we were up very early the next morning at that very spot, before we had to check out at 11am later that morning!
I was casting out to 60+ft of water, letting the spoon sink all the way to the bottom, before beginning a fast straight retrieve, and on my fourth cast, BANG! I’d hooked a fish, and it didn’t feel like a Snakehead. It fought quite similarly to our Perch, except this fish liked to go on short blistering runs - surely it was a Jungle Perch? As it made it’s way up from the depths, it revealed itself be my target - better late than never! They’re a stunning looking fish, like a cross between a Mahseer and a Roach, and are great fighters! I must have found a group of them, because over the next half an hour, I landed another three Jungle Perch.
As the sun came up, the bites dried up and we decided to call it time on our fishing at Temenggor Dam. We had a fantastic time in the Royal Belum National Park, not just for the fishing but for the amazing wildlife and scenery too. I can highly recommend the Belum Rainforest Resort, where we had a great stay and great food, and also the Lost Paradise Resort, which we returned to when we arrived back in Penang.
Our tour guide in Penang, Bonnie, became a good friend and was very knowledgeable - she showed us around many of the highlights Penang island has to offer. Who and what Bonnie doesn't know about Penang isn't worth knowing! We also managed some more light rock fishing in Penang too, adding a few more unusual species to our tally for the trip.
Hopefully we’ll be able to return in the future, and sample some more of the fantastic fishing Malaysia has to offer…