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A Thai River Runs Through It: Adam Trina’s Fly Fishing Empire

By Peter Luitze and Hilary Cadigan

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Anyone who has seen the classic film ‘A River Runs Through It’ knows that fly-fishing is more than just a hobby – it’s a way of life.

Here in Chiang Mai, we have a real world example of the all-encompassing nature of fly fishing in an American expat named Adam Trina. A lifelong lover of the sport, Trina worked as a guide in Montana for eight years and tyed flies in the winters to pay for college at the University of Montana, where he studied Freshwater Aquatic Biology.

Just a few years later, at the young age of 24, when most people are eating beans out of cans and wading through their first quarter life crises, Adam was opening up his first fly-tying factory in Costa Rica. Business boomed and the factory soon grew to employ 50 people, but Costa Rica turned out to be a bit too expensive. So, two years later, in 2000, Montana Fly Company opened its first Asian fly-tying factory here in Chiang Mai.

“I moved the operation to Thailand because of the better business climate and the innate skills of the workers here with their hands-on small products,” says Trina. “We now have more than 300 employees at two factories in Northern Thailand and one in Cambodia.”

At Trina’s factories, employees are paid about 50% more than an average Thai employee with a college degree, and working conditions are top-notch. The five-floor Chiang Mai factory is air-conditioned and clean, and employees are welcome to bring their children to work with them.

The investment is paying off. Montana Fly is now a multi-million dollar business, with Asian factories pumping out nearly half a million flies per month, and serving markets in the US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, South America and Europe.

But, like most of us, Trina found Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas to be more than just an economical place to do business. He fell in love with the special magic that exists here, and discovered that, in addition to its other myriad charms, Northern Thailand posesses some truly excellent places to fly fish.

“My factory manager, Greg Cunningham, and I have fly fishing in our blood, so even though we are surrounded by fishing flies all day at the factories, we were not able to use them, and that was very frustrating,” explains Trina. “Then we saw some pictures on a blog of [local river guide Peerawat ‘Bobby’ Kaotakul] fly fishing on a clear stream. We immediately contacted him and quickly developed a relationship with him and the hill tribes that have these beautiful rivers.”

About three hours west of Chiang Mai, just along the Burmese border, lies the beautiful little town of Mae Sariang. Here there is a crystal clear river called the Yuam, locally known as the River of Reflection, where Trina and his team decided to set up their newest venture. In 2009, they opened Chiang Mai Fly Fishing, which provides guided fishing trips with unrestricted access to remote, community-managed Protection Zones.

“The area is perfect because it has mountains and clear-water streams,” says Trina. “Fly fisherman don’t like to fish in muddy water.”

In the River of Reflection’s crystal clear waters, anglers will encounter gasoup, jungle perch and Burmese trout, but the prize catch is the rare and legendary mahseer which is actually quite easy to find in this particular river. Interestingly, mahseers’ favourite snacks are the cherries that fall from overhanging trees and plop into the water. As such, a very specialised cherry-shaped fly is required to attract them. Luckily, Trina is just the man for the job, and provides all the necessary gear with the price of the trip. But the mighty mahseer is a clever and powerful fish that can weigh up to seven kilos, so trying to catch one can be a serious challenge.

Mahseer are considered prized game fish and a culinary delicacy, but they’re also endangered, so don’t expect to take your catch to the dinner table. Chiang Mai Fly Fishing values sustainable tourism and follows a strict no-kill catch and release policy. Trips are limited to one group per day on each river and all fishing is fly-only. This eco-friendly method of fishing is part of Trina’s efforts to protect over 60 kilometres of river in Mae Hong Son.

“To protect the river we are offering monetary compensation both per trip and annually to the villagers for them to not kill the fish,” explains Trina. “It is only just beginning, and they are already ahead, so the future looks great. The villagers are actually coming to us now asking to extend the no-kill zones.”

In this case, ecological and economical benefits go hand in hand for the hill tribes of Mae Sariang. “We have the vision of making entire rivers catch and release to attract fly fishermen from all over the world, which will bring a lot of money to these cash-starved villagers,’ adds Trina.

In addition to Bobby and Chatpong ‘Poppy’ Churekham, the two expert Thai fly fishing guides that switch off leading trips, all anglers are accompanied by members of the local Karen hill tribes that live in the area. These guides are trained locally at their own villages to help with gear, show where they’ve seen the biggest fish recently, and help get the flies out of the trees when they get stuck – a common problem, apparently.

“Fly fishing is unique in that you are not casting the weight of the fly, but instead you are casting the weight of the line. The more line you have out, the more weight you have out, and the more line-speed and distance you can build,” says Trina. In layman’s terms? “It takes many years to be very proficient, but anyone can do it with the right guide and a lot of patience.”

Today, Trina has gained a great deal of attention in the fishing community for his conservation efforts and no-holds-barred approach to fly fishing. Last winter, Trina, Cunningham, Bobby, fellow angler Kris Keller, and Trina’s Thai girlfriend Nareena Tawanmai, who has become quite adept at fly fishing herself, shot a film called ‘Thai One On’ with renowned documentary filmmaker Travis Lowe. Scheduled for official release in 2013, the documentary will tell the tale of their quest to save the River of Reflection and open it up as a world class destination fishery. It is “a feat that may require a witch doctor, a spirit curse and quite possibly the introduction of some sort of fish aquaculture,” according to the film’s producers.

“The film was not only picked up by the Fly Fishing Film Tour in the USA, but they made it their feature film!” says Trina. “So it will be playing in 185 cities in the USA starting in January. The equivalent of that film tour has picked up the film for all of Europe, New Zealand and Australia. It’s going to invite a lot of attention!”

To watch the rather thrilling preview of ‘Thai One On’, visit http://www.vimeo.com/37844634

You can book a trip with Chiang Mai Fly Fishing at http://www.cmflyfishing.com

Learn more about Montana Fly at http://www.montanafly.com

Originally published in the Dec 2012 issue of Chiang Mai Citylife.

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