Home Fishing Bottom LIFE OF A KELAH FISHERMAN siri 2


By: Aznir Malik

A typical Kelah country

1 minute reading

#2. The Bait & The Kelah

The kelah is the ultimate river fish if you are a bait-fisherman. It is essentially a bottom feeder, and it prefers to stay at what I would call prime lies – locations which give the kelah security, comfort and a food source. In a typical river pool, that will mean a deep trench or pocket in the main channel, just downstream of the fast water entering the pool. Alternatively, it could be a slow but deep eddy filled with cover like woody pile of dead tree trunk.

As you can see, getting your bait to the fish is already a big challenge! But more of this later. Let’s talk about the baits first.

Choice baits differ from one river to another, and depending on season, water condition, even weather. If you are to ask almost any river fisherman, he or she would instantly say, “oil palm fruit”. But that may not be the right choice all the time.

Sawit is the most popular bait for Kelah!

Sawit has been a popular bait over the last twenty years or so, for several reasons. Firstly, it is very available due to the many plantations around the country. Secondly, it is highly oily and smelly (when half-rotten), and so it can attract the fish even when the river is turbid or even muddy. Also, it stays on the hook well (if you hook it on properly). Finally, it is orange/red in colour – many jungle fruits that the kelah prefer are of this colour too.

Kelah has been known to eat stuff like red apple, tomato and even red chilli!

But you must remember that sawit is NOT a natural bait for the kelah. At least not in the remote parts of our jungle rivers where oil palm trees are absent. So, you must induce the fish to feed on sawit before you can achieve success. This means groundbaiting. Sometimes it may take three days before the kelah will feed on sawit. 


We used to employ this interesting method to entice the kelah. We soak a porous bag full of crushed sawit in the rapids above our targeted pool. As such, only the essence and smell of the sawit is drifting down the river. Then we fish the downstream pool or pools with the actual hookbait of a whole sawit fruit.

Here’s a nice story. A bunch of anglers spotted a big kelah rise in a big pool of this Terengganu river. They decided to groundbait it with sawit. They used several big sacks of it. It took them five days but finally that fish took one of the hookbaits. The fish gave them a twenty-minute fight. It weighed in at 25 kg!

But what if the kelah refuse to take sawit? Here’s where you need local knowledge. In some rivers, the prime bait is a small baitfish. In others, it could be the more traditional fruit baits, depending on season (meaning availability). Examples are buah maris, ara, jambu, buah mata lembu etc. Even old school baits like ubi kayu and rubber seeds can have their day. And if the river has turned turbid, it could be protein-based baits like worms, river prawns, crickets (cengkerik) or even centipedes!

The main point is, give the fish a familiar food item. A kampong boy may not appreciate a Big Mac if he’s been eating only rice and fish curry all his life! 

Okay, now let’s get back to the first issue – how to present your bait to the fish. Since it is mainly a bottom feeder, you obviously need to get the bait down to where the kelah is. Most anglers use a running sinker rig. The classic rig has say a size 1/0 bait hook tied to a length of 20-lb mono leader, with a No. 4 barrel lead sitting on a large swivel tied to the mainline of say 15-lb mono. But there’s a lot more to it than that!


  • The stronger the current, the bigger the sinker needs to be, and vice versa.
  • The hooks size needs to match the bait. I usually carry suicide hooks ranging from #8 up to #3/0. My favourite is Gamakatsu Octopus 4X – they almost never straighten under load. Other brands like Daichi and Owner are good too. 
  • Hooks should not be bright. Shiny stainless steel is a no-no! I even go to the extent of painting my hooks dark red or black!
  • The leader needs to be abrasion-resistant mono. My ultimate choice is the old Daiwa Crystal Clear. Many anglers like fluorocarbon leaders, but you need to use thicker lines since they are less durable to abrasion.
  • A leader may be as short as a foot (25cm.) or as long as 3 feet (75cm.). If the river pool is filled with lots of dead leaves and debris, then a longer leader is better – the current will then make the bait “dance” above this thick layer of debris.
  • If a river is especially snaggy, I will not use a barrel lead and swivel. I will opt for a spring-type lead (homemade) twisted around the mainline. The hook is tied direct to the mainline. This way the rig doesn’t get snagged too often.
  • For the mainline, NEVER use braided line. When water flows past it, braided line will give out vibrations which will deter the kelah. Mainline should be mono. My favourites are Maxima Chameleon, Crystal Clear, Berkley Ironsilk and Nanofil, Trilene Big Game (green). Chameleon is very abrasion resistant and is my ultimate line. I have caught big kelah and Indian mahseer up to 42 kg. on this tough line.

I have only covered the basics here on rigging for bait-fishing. Experience will tell you how to rig for specific situations when you fish for kelah. 


Now that you are ready with the rig and the bait, how do you bring it to the fish? In the main channel of the river, the fish is facing upstream. You will need to cast your bait several metres upstream of the fish, to give time for the rig to sink. You can cast upstream-and-across, but chances are the barrel lead will roll along the bottom and get snagged. An alternative is to go up the river and cast downstream-and-across. The barrel lead will then sink cleanly to the bottom. But be careful – if you are standing upstream of the fish, they may see you (and it’s thus game over!). It pays to keep low (crawl if you have to!), and hide behind a bush or tree or rock. Kelah fishing can be commando stuff!

What if the kelah is not feeding at the bottom, but taking food items at the surface? Usually it could be certain fruits that are in season. Then you can’t use a sinker rig. You need to freeline – the hook is tied directly to the mainline, and you need to use the same food item. The kelah will not take anything else! You need to cast the bait upstream and the bait will need to float in a most natural way – any sideways drag and the kelah will refuse to take it. Thus your mainline needs to be almost invisible (crystal clear or fluorocarbon) and thin (down to 8-lb. test). 

Really, I have only scratched the surface here on baitfishing for kelah. It take years of fishing to get that natural instinct to locating the fish and choosing the right bait, rig and casting to the right place before you’re fairly confident of getting that hook-up. But I guess what I have written here is good start for a great journey of learning, to test your wits against our supreme river fish!

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