This article originally appeared on Flylords Mag, which can be read here
Growing up Momma NéNé always told me that a quality opponent is a gift. With that mindset, I can confidently say the Red Kaloi of Indonesian Borneo tops the list as the finest opponent I have fly fished for. Structure loving and with canine level intelligence, Kaloi exit their lairs to inspect your presentation and, if it suffices, they immediately take you back to the woodshed and kick your ass.
Here’s 5 tips to put the odds in your favor if you’re lucky enough to tangle with the Giant Gourami that calls the second oldest rainforest in the world home.
Keep your arm happy
Learn from my mistakes. Pack a slow action rod with a soft tip and stout bottom third. Initially, I focused on the potential fight with my rod choice. I love fighting strong fish with my 10wt Sage Salt HD (Roosterfish, Jacks, Tarpon, etc.) so when my buddy offered up his 9wt Salt HD for the trip, I jumped at the chance. It was an awful choice. I got my first case of fly casting forearm “tennis elbow” with it. The majority of Kaloi casts are tight, precision shots. 20-40 foot casts. Backcast sliding underneath hinging vines, forward cast landing between two submerged tree trunks. And give it a pop so the 2/0 cockroach fly makes a big ripple. Pack a rod that loads easily.
Luckily, I switched to my favorite rod ever, the Hardy Zane Pro 8wt, and paired it with Fajar’s Scientific Anglers Jungle Titan 8wt floating line. It was the perfect fit. Oddly enough, this fishery is one of the few times a fly reel is purely for line storage, you can’t give these fish an inch. Set the hook and hold on for dear life.
Protect your mental health
It’s not you, it’s the fish. The Kaloi’s selectiveness may drive you to madness. I was beside myself in the first few days, convinced that I had pulled the hook out of multiple Kaloi mouths. Then on the second to last day, I watched a Kaloi tap my fly with its nose, circle the fly, tap again, circle again, and tap once more all while swimming down river in sync with the drift. In total, the canoe, fly and fish all moved together downstream in perfect harmony for 60 feet or more. And then the Kaloi disappeared back to the depths. When Kaloi eat, they really eat. But they also like to rise and check things out. And maybe even gulp some water to make the fly sink. To get a better look at it. And make your heart race into your ears.
Keep your back happy
Plan to pack a (truly) waterproof backpack. For all the usual reasons (the rainforest can be rather rainy) but, more than anything, for the boat rides. An airtight backpack makes for a great pillow to sit back on in the narrow canoes. My trusty 5 year old Patagonia backpack whistled out air the first day. Less comfy to lean into water bottles and fly boxes. Peacefully perched on Fajar’s Yeti backpack full of air while reading, motoring up river under the jungle canopy was a borderline religious experience. It also allowed me to rest and be ready to fish to the best of my ability once it was time to stand up and be alert. Since the trip I picked up the Fishpond Submersible rolltop backpack. It is divine. It's the closest I have seen a dry bag get to an actual hiking pack (sturdy hip belt, chest strap that doesn’t ride too high). I have never been a fan of waterproof items with zippers, so having a load-bearing pack which is also a roll top dry bag is the perfect combo.
Keep your mind happy
Even if you aren’t a ‘have an emergency copy, paperback reading, always keep a headlamp with you’ kind of person, I highly suggest being prepared to read a book on trips like these. Diving into an excellent adventure tale saved my sanity as the river rose ten feet in a matter of hours one morning. I got lucky and happened to start the finest non-fiction book I've read yet on this trip, No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo (O’Hanlon). Other favorites from this year I can heartily recommend are Into the Heart of Borneo (O’Hanlon), Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart (Butcher), A Bend In The River (Naipaul), and two bonus classics you've likely heard of but may not have actually read: Ninety-two in the Shade (McGuane) and A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (Maclean). Most know the latter book but I am always surprised how few have actually read it and even fewer have read the other stories. Those stories are golden nuggets waiting for your eyes to discover them.
Pack the best UPF hoody you can find. Equatorial rainforests can get steamy. I grabbed a Simms Intruder snap hoody before my initial trip to Djibouti in 2022 and it’s the best fishing shirt I’ve worn. I wore it for 8 days straight on that trip, wading up to chest deep in saltwater most days. Not a single freshwater rinse the whole time and yet the shirt never smelled and I never got sunburned through it even when soaked. I was sold. Over a year later, I still adore it. The material does not weigh itself down when wet like most hoodies. The buttons allow you to adjust how tight the shirt is around your neck and, most importantly, maintain coverage between the shirt and buff on the back of your neck even if you don’t wear the hoody. I believe I fish better without the hoody on, but always like to have it in case the sun gets to roasting levels. I am also a big fan of the Intruder BiComp shirt and wore that on the trip as well. Both shirts have zippered chest pockets which is crucial for me. I keep a chapstick and lens wipe in that pocket at all times.
Bonus Tip Get a damn good guide
Enthusiasm got the best of me the first few days and I was over-casting. I wanted to hit every single spot that looked promising. The final day, I fished one on one with Ming and took a third of the casts I had earlier. He simply said no to the majority of my cast requests. All casts were intentional. Each location agreed upon verbally. Teamwork at its finest. And that intentional casting paid off. Ming was the first person to catch a Red Kaloi on fly and is an encyclopedia of knowledge about the jungle and its inhabitants. Sharing a boat with him was a richly rewarding experience.