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Hatching in the Himalaya: How the brown trout, a native of the British Isles, found a home in Bhutan’s lakes and rivers


28 July 2022

Tshering Tashi

The brown trout, now abundant in the rivers and lakes of Bhutan, originally came from Kashmir, India, by way of the British highlands.
The brown trout, a foreign transplant from a distant shore, now abundant in the lakes and rivers of Bhutan originally came from Kashmir, India, by way of the British highlands.

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A Bhutanese angler holds a fresh-caught brown trout for the camera.

In 1941, at the behest of Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji (1896-1953), the high chamberlain to the king, the trout eggs were first driven from their hatchery in Kashmir, India, by motorcar to Kalimpong, West Bengal (India), traversing approximately 2,187 kilometers. Then, Bhutanese porters carried buckets of the  ‘eyed’ eggs 4,310 meters (14,140 feet) over the Nathula Pass before descending to 2,895 meters (9,498 feet) into the Chumbi valley, and, finally, to the hatchery in the Haa valley at 2,712 meters (8,897 feet). To accomplish this, the Gongzim used a relay of porters similar to the one tactically employed by Genghis Khan, called Yam. That traditional form of transportation has mostly fallen out of practice today with the advances in modern travel, but it ensured that the load was constantly on the move and delivered at the fastest possible speed without tiring the runners and damaging the eggs. No fewer than 20,000  fertilized ova from the Harwan Hatchery in Kashmir were brought to Bhutan in that way and introduced into the lakes and rivers of the kingdom.

But the project began even earlier when the forward-thinking Gongzim sent his subordinate, a man named Tsudup, to Kashmir to study trout breeding and learn how to build native hatcheries. A European species of the salmonid, the eggs of this pure freshwater fish were originally transplanted to Kashmir from Scotland between 1904 and 1905, bred in hatcheries, and successfully introduced into the rivers and lakes of the Indian province. Prior to that ichthyologists or fish scientists established that the environment and the physicochemical parameters of the snow-fed streams of Kashmir were suitable for this species of the cold-water fish.

The trout flourished and eight years after the trout were first introduced to Bhutan, the English naturalist Frank Ludlow was able to write in his diary: “One thing …I noticed is that the Ha trout don’t fight as well as they do in Kashmir. Perhaps they are too fat.”

Conditions in the Haa valley being similar to that of Kashmir, Bhutan’s first ichthyologist, Tsudup, returned from Kashmir to establish the country’s first hatchery in Haa.

In addition to Ludlow’s diary, there remain two other documents archived in the British Library (from 1944) that tell the tale of the brown trout’s arrival in Bhutan. The first was a letter written by Gongzim's wife, Yum Chuni Wangmo Dorji (1897-1994) to Irma, the wife of Lieutenant Colonel F.M. Bailey (1882-1967). That same year, the Gongzim wrote a second letter to the Colonel, who was a British Intelligence Officer. Both letters contain references to the fish.

Flyfishing on the Mochhu River, Punakha, western Bhutan. Rod-and-reel fishing has a small but avid group of devotees in Bhutan.

“Colonel Bailey will be interested to hear that Tobgye introduced brown trout at Haa three years [ago],” Yum Chuni Wangmo wrote to her friend. From the Gongzim’s own letter we learn that it was Sir Basil Gould, (1833-1956) who provided assistance for the project. Gould was the British Political Officer in Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet from 1935-1945. The letters provide details about the hatchery in Haa valley, and the first two attempts at breeding, which happened in 1943 and in 1944. In the first attempt, one fish was stripped and 200 eggs found. The second attempt took place a year later, and with 1,100 fry was an even bigger success than the first.

The project had its setbacks particularly when for some unknown reasons, thousands of ova perished. However, by 1944, the eggs from Kashmir had hatched and one hundred brown trout weighing two to five pounds were held at the hatchery for further breeding.

The first brown trout caught successfully in the wild on a Bhutanese river, in 1944, was, according to Gongzim’s letter, “10 pounds and two feet in length.” The inaugural catch was released back into the river.

Next, the Gongzim stocked three glacial lakes high above the Haa valley with the fish. “We have also put fish into the Hala & Kyula lakes about three years ago,” he wrote. Anxious about the progress of his experiment, the Gongzim sent his men at regular intervals up to the high-altitude lakes so they could tell him how they were doing. Good news came in the autumn of 1944 when the Gongzim and his men saw a couple of the fish in the Hala Lake on two occasions. The same could not be said for the other lake where they thought they had seen several fish rise to the surface but could not actually verify their presence.

According to the Gongzim’s letter, the trout in the Hala Lake had not grown as much as the ones in the Haa river. They measured only about one to two pounds. But, judging from the big splashes the fish made at the Kyula Lake, he believed that the ones in that lake were much bigger. “They should be bigger as the Kyula Lake is bigger than the lake at [near] Hala & there is also more food in it,” he theorized.

The high-altitude lakes of Bhutan are today well-stocked with non-native trout.

The name of the third Bhutanese lake to be stocked with brown trout fingerlings, sometime in 1943, was Bidang. In 1949, when Frank Ludlow fished for the brown trout in the rivers of Haa he made further comments in his diary about the movements of the brown trout. He said that the rivers of Haa were well stocked with trout and gave credit to Tsudup: “It is entirely due to him the Ha river has now probably the finest trout fishing anywhere in [and near] India.” At the time of his visit, the hatchery had about 20 fish of three to six pounds in weight and a number of smaller specimens. Ludlow, who was a seasoned angler, declared: “I cannot imagine better fishing anywhere.” He was of the opinion that people would gladly pay Rs. 500 a month (a princely sum in those days) to fish in Bhutan and that it would be a commercial success, noting ruefully that he knew the Gongzim Dorji would not entertain such an idea.

Ludlow also confirmed the existence of brown trout in the Kyula Lake. He saw one or two good-sized fish rise to its surface and noted that the little lake appeared to be better stocked. He found the fish in the lake in better condition and made special note of its dark coloring.

In Damthang, Haa, Ludlow caught a two-pounder in the river and found numerous fish in splendid condition. “They are, I think, the most golden and handsome trout I have ever set my eyes upon and there is no doubt that the abundance of food accounts for them,” he wrote. On April 24th,1949, Ludlow also discovered trout at Chunzom, the confluence of the two rivers of Paro and Thimphu. Further, he found that by 1945 to 1946, the trout were already propagating in the Pachhu or Paro River. By the end of 1949 the brown trout–a transplant from the rugged highlands of the British Isles by way of Kashmir–had definitely found a footing in the welcoming waters of Western Bhutan, where they flourish to this day. The National Research Center for Riverine and Lake Fishes is a present-day successor to the early endeavors of the Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji to provide an additional source of food and recreation in the kingdom. These days the trout farms of Haa provide local markets with an added source of protein.

AN EPIC FEAT of transportation brought the common brown trout, a native of the broodingly cold streams and rivers of Scotland, to Bhutan.

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