It is every angler’s dream to take a trip into the wild Sarawak’s interior to fish the semah mahseer, an indigenous species found only on Borneo’s higher reaches rivers.
Contrary to common belief, fishing for ikan semah in Sarawak is inexpensive.
Aside from paying the airfare, which could be bought at a bargain from the country’s budget airline, and chartering the local long boat to take you into the interior, there are no other hidden extravagant costs for the trip.
Like Chimon Upon, his brothers and sisters of Iban origin, who take annual trips into the deep Borneo jungle to reconnect with their roots through fishing and hunting activities, their journey starts from Sibu. The two-hour trip into interior Song town, a former trading port known for its forest products such as Nyatoh, resin and rattan, in the Kapit District is by ferry that plies the Rajang river.
Song is also the home to many of Sarawak’s Ibans, whose longhouses could be seen along the bank of Rajang, Katibas, Song, Lajan and Iran rivers.
The fare from Sibu to Song costs RM17 per person.
Normally, many people would stay overnight in Song before proceeding further into the interior.
For Chimon, their final destination is Ulu Katibas, a six-hour journey by long boat.
The journey upstream is tedious but beautiful. Aside from having the chance to spot wildlife, such as Bornean gibbon or wak-wak as the monkeys are known locally, taking shelter in the rainforest canopy, one could also observes colourful species of birds such as hornbills flying along the river.
The journey into Ulu Katibas is normally by chartered boats. Depending on the number of people in a group, the cost to travel into the Sarawak’s interior is not so expensive.
It is a basically a rugged trip and one is expected to camp along the bank of Sungai Katibas, one of the many Sungai Rajang tributaries, to fish in the area.
Sungai Katibas is known for its semah. The river is teeming with the species aside from adong or sebarau.
Semah cannot be found anywhere outside this range. Like its cousin, empurau, this fish gives a powerful fight when caught on rod and line.
The different between empurau and semah is its size and colour. Semah is more greenish to brown. One can tell that semah has a diamond shape scale while Empurau is rounder.
The many semah found here, according to Chimon, averages between 1kg and 2kg. However, he said going up river to where the Lanjak Entimau National park is located, the fish there are much bigger in size. Semah is known to grow up to 10kg.
However, catching semah is not as simple as it seems. While this fish takes the spinner, spoons, plugs and soft plastics, it prefers the seed of soaked buah kepayang or buah keluak.
Buah kepayang is an almost oval-shaped fruit which comes in a hard shell and has a seed inside it. The fruit, which is said to be poisonous without prior preparation to eat it, has to be soaked for a month before the seed is removed and used as bait to catch the fish.
Buah payung, which has black seeds and a bitter aftertaste, is often used by the Baba and Nyonya community in Malacca and Penang to make their
asam pedas, and kensurai flower, a type of vegetation found along the Sarawak riverbank, is said to be the most effective bait to lure the semah from its hideout.
For the tackle, a light set up is preferred for this species.
A medium fast action rod, with a 2000 series spinning reel or small multiplier with 20lb line is recommended for such outing.
Catching the semah could be challenging and thrilling. It gives a good fight and run, even the smallest fish.
Like empurau and kelah, it would make several runs before it gives up
As semah is rare and can only be found in Sarawak’s interior, it is always recommended to practice the catch-and-release method.
I have been invited by the Chimon family, who are all teachers, to return to Ulu Katibas in August next year as their guest to accompany them in the annual family outing. I look forward to the trip and to catching the elusive semah.