The hampala barb (Hampala macrolepidota) is a common fish in Southeast Asia that eagerly attacks lures and flies. Also known as jungle perch, these fish actually aren’t related to perch at all. I don’t even think they look or act like perch either, so I’m not sure where that name comes from.
Hampala barbs have large scales somewhat similar to other cyprinids such as the common carp, and quite a lot of bones. Hampala barbs are eaten across their range, yet they remain plentiful. They aren’t necessarily the most popular food fish in the region. They taste alright but I don’t think they’ll end up on any gourmet lists. You can find hampala barbs in most markets in Southeast Asia that sell fresh fish.
These fish are enthusiastic feeders that often travel in schools. They seem to take on a pack mentality as they attack prey fish and insects. A group of feeding hampala barbs can cause quite the stir. Yet at other times you might not even know they were there unless you hooked into a fish. Hampala barbs are good fighters that are a lot of fun to catch.
How to find and identify the Hampala Barb
Hampala barbs are slender and sleek fish. Their elongated bodies are lined with large scale in shades of silver and gold. The most distinguishing feature of these fish is the dark black vertical slash line found in the middle of their bodies. They also have bright red tails edged in black. They’re fairly easy to identify, though they could be confused with some other barbs.
Hampala barbs can be found throughout Southeast Asia. They range as far west as Myanmar and as far east as Vietnam. They can be found as far south as Indonesia and as far north as China. I don’t think the distribution of these fish has been fully documented. But we do know for sure that they are common throughout the Chao Phraya, Mae Klong, and Mekong River watersheds.
Most material suggests that these fish are partial to clean flowing waters. I don’t doubt that, but I have also caught them in stagnated canals and impoundments overgrown with vegetation. These fish can travel quite a bit, especially during the rainy season. Some get stuck in different areas and continue on living. So don’t think you can only find hampalas in waters that look like trout streams.
Hampala Barbs are one of the larger barb species, but they’re not giants by any means. The world record hampala barb was caught in 2002. It weighed 14 pounds 5 ounces (6.5 kg). A 14 pound 8 ounce fish was caught in Indonesia in 2019, but it is not listed in the IFGA record book. Most hampala barbs are a lot smaller. I typically catch them in the 10 to 12 inch range. The spotted hamapala barb I catch in the same areas are often bigger. A hampala barb of even 5 pounds would be a very large fish in most areas.
How to catch Hamapala Barb
I’ve caught a good number of hampala barbs in Siem Reap Creek in Cambodia, where these fish are outnumbered by their spotted hampala barb cousins. Hampalas are aggressive biters that will chase down a lure from far away. They can be found in open water but are more likely to relate to cover like limbs or weeds. In some cases I see the fish through holes in the vegetation. Other times I cast blindly to large holes where I expect to find them. I have seen hampalas take down a lot of baitfish and shrimp. My experience and further research tells me that’s mainly what they go after.
A number of lures work well for hampala barbs. These fish will chase down blade baits like the Johnson Thinfisher and swimbait jigs like the Z-Man Minnowz. I do find that these fish tend to tail nip or simply follow lures a lot. I’ve had them nip the tails right off of soft plastic swimming jigs before. I’ve also watched them follow blade baits without ever committing to actually bite, which reminds me of the way musky will trail a bait without ever eating it.
In my experience, lures like the Spearhead Ryuki and Original Floating Rapala are best for hampala barbs. The fish are more likely to actually hit these. You can do a varied retrieve until you figure out what works. Even if they nip at the tail you have a good chance at catching the fish since there are treble hooks in that area. These lures also come in some smaller sizes that are easier for hampalas to engulf. The downside with treble hooks is that these fish can swipe at the lures and get hooks stuck in places other than the mouth. That’s something to consider.
Hamapala barbs will hit dry flies like the neversink caddis and dog biscuit. They’ll also attack Walt’s Grasshopper Popper. This works best when you can single the fish out. When they are mixed in with other concurrent species like snakehead, they don’t seem as eager to attack flies on the surface.
I actually prefer using streamers when fly fishing for hampala barbs. They are voracious predator fish, so it’s usually pretty easy to catch them if you get the fly in the right spot and start stripping. Size 6 to 8 beadhead woolly buggers and muddler minnows work well. I haven’t tried a Clouser Minnow in the waters where hampala barb swim, but I have to think it would work.