Delhi, India; is the most relentless attack on the senses imaginable. The capital of the world’s largest democracy is a bustling, noisy, overwhelming place. It’s a fitting introduction to this most remarkable country, and the place which saw the start of my quest to catch a Himalayan mahseer…
After 5 hours of queuing, rejection and plain confusion, I finally purchased a ticket – along with my travelling companion, Titch – for the sleeper train from Delhi to Ramnagar. Next morning we awoke in seemingly another world compared to the hubbub of Delhi. We were now in the lush green foothills of the Himalayas. Where wild tigers still roam and even wilder rivers carve their way through the rocky landscape. This is mahseer country!
Although we had planned to fish for mahseer during this trip we had little in the way of concrete plans. With little more than some basic information found on the internet, a Rough Guide to India and a copy of Boote & Wade’s excellent Somewhere Down the Crazy River for inspiration, our “plans” were pretty haphazard! The Rough Guide mentioned the Govind guesthouse could arrange fishing guides so we checked in upon our arrival. We had soon arranged the services of a local angling guide with a jeep for the following two days. Because there is so much to see in this part of India, including the nearby Corbett National Park (which is superb!), we only allocated ourselves two days for angling. This was not leaving us much time to locate and catch a fish as legendary as the mahseer. Our chances were slim, to say the least.
No time was wasted, as we set-off in the jeep with Kirphal, our guide, who had just enough grasp of the English language to get by. Ninety minutes of winding, forested hill roads later, we caught our first glimpse of the vast valley in which the Ramganga River runs, our venue for the next two days. The word awesome is used far too frequently, but in this case it is justified. The view just took our breath away. Believe everything you read about mahseer – the mystery, the drama, the magical feeling an angler gets when fishing for them. It’s all true, and the dramatic scenery which surrounds you only exacerbates these feelings.
The first pool Kirphal took us to was a deep, long run with a huge rock in the middle, which diverted the current around both sides and left a slack below. The river was running unbelievably clear and from a distance was a stunning azure blue. Whilst setting up, we saw a good mahseer turn, inches from the bank just in front of us.
Whilst testing my drag before my first cast (which at this point was not set very tight), the tip of my new Wychwood telescopic carp rod snapped under hardly any pressure! I was not pleased, but had to fish on without the tip section. The other rod I had taken along was my tiny Shimano Exage Mini Tele-Spin so Titch, who had only ever caught roach when he fished as a teenager, used this rod hoping to catch some smaller fish.
The fish we had seen vanished, and despite us spotting other specimens in inaccessible parts of the pool, we failed to hook a fish all afternoon. The clouds gradually darkened, and thunder claps sounded, before a pre-monsoon storm lashed huge raindrops down upon us. The weather got so bad that we had to take cover beneath a rock overhang for the next hour! We still had it all to do, so a 5.30am start was arranged with Kirphal for the next morning.
By the time we got to the river, its personality had completely changed from a serene and inviting Azure blue trickle to a furious brown soup! When it rains around the mountains here you know about it; this was taking a spate river to a new level! Upon viewing the river Kirphal immediately had his doubts. Apparently, due to the fierceness of the currents, Mahseer are very reluctant to move in coloured water; preferring instead to lie up out of the flow. We decided to go for a cup of chai tea from a local stall, whilst we collected our thoughts.
Eventually the guide pointed to a pool far upstream of the one we had fished the previous day. As he pointed he uttered one word; “Goonch”. A goonch is a ferocious-looking catfish which grows very large indeed. Although I would love to catch a goonch, my heart did sink a little, along with our prospects of catching a mahseer.
So, Titch was set-up with small hooks and flour-paste as bait, meanwhile Kirphal and I stuck to the heavier gear, with 6-inch deadbaits. Kirphal’s exact words to me after I first cast the deadbait out were “Big bite, or no bite!”, so I engaged my baitrunner as the rod was propped up in a makeshift rod-holder made of rocks.
Meanwhile, Titch hooked a small mahseer of around two pounds – a new personal best for him. The guide decided Titch should step-up his hook size and go for a larger bait. Once again, the rod was propped up by some stones, and the drag of the tiny reel was slackened considerably.
As we were gazing around, taking in our amazing surroundings, Titch’s rod suddenly wrenched over and the tiny reel screamed out for mercy as the spool rotated at an inconceivable rate! Titch held the rod high as I hastily tightened the drag for him, but no matter how tight I made it the fish still kept running! Kirphal shouted to follow the fish downstream. It had already run about 70 metres, in just a couple of seconds.
As Titch followed the fish a bow-wave became visible and I instructed him to put more sidestrain onto the fish as it was heading straight for a fast, shallow rapid. The tiny rod hooped into an impossible arc, I crossed my fingers and luckily the fish turned.
Titch slowly pumped the fish upstream, but it made several more lightning-fast runs, with as much power as the first. Already, the rod had blown away my preconceptions of its limits, so I told Titch to keep as much of a bend in the rod as possible, to absorb any sudden lunges.
After a few minutes we caught our first glimpse of the fish and it was a good one! Titch slowly walked back towards a shallow area where we would land the fish, but even then the fish passed him and swam upstream with seemingly limitless energy. After a few more runs and stalemates (where the fish was upstream of Titch, holding its position with only occasional flicks of its tail, against both the current and the force Titch was exerting upon it!), the fish eventually began to tire. After a 55 minute battle of attrition, a fine mahseer was subdued, and Kirphal plucked it from the shallows.
The fish measured 45 inches from nose to tail-fork, had a huge girth, and was estimated at a little over 40lbs.
It was absolutely stunning. A bright yellow tail, huge golden-tipped scales and a thick, dark row of scales tracing the lateral line. Add to this a mouth which would easily accommodate my fist with room to spare, and a long, streamlined body shaped somewhere between a barbel and a carp. An unbelievable new PB for Titch, who played the fish like a seasoned specimen hunter, and acted upon the instructions given to him by Kirphal and I. The rod also performed superbly, and certainly proved that modern telescopics can really handle fish. I felt honoured to have witnessed the whole event and to see such a spectacular creature, which was released alive, right after the photos were taken.
Now there was just one thing missing. Titch had just caught a fish I’ve dreamed about since childhood but I had yet to catch one. A rethink was needed, and after a couple of hours more with the deadbait, I switched to large balls of flour paste (which is simply coarsely ground chapati flour and river water. That’s it!).
The heat of the day gradually came upon us and one-by-one we fell asleep on the pebbles, beneath a burning sun. I could feel my chances of landing a Mahseer slipping away and I started thinking about how many years it would be until I could come back and have another go. Eventually, we decided to reel in and seek shade for a couple of hours. So we all moved to a shady overhang at the bottom of a cliff and resumed our slumber. I did not sleep too soundly though, and I was first to head back to the rods as the temperature started to cool a little. I had awoken with a fresh determination. I must catch a mahseer in the next couple of hours. I would catch a mahseer in the next couple of hours!
I recast all three rods and waited for Titch and Kirphal to join me. Once they did, I suggested to Kirphal that we could add one of our left-over bananas to some of the flour paste, for added appeal in the murky water. He agreed it was wortha try and set about mixing some up.
As I watched a gang of rhesus monkeys cross the rock face on the opposite bank, I realised that six hours had passed since Titch landed his mahseer and we hadn’t had a bite since. On the second cast with the banana paste, I held the rod and felt for bites with my fingers, but left the baitrunner engaged, just in case. Within a couple of minutes of casting, I felt a gentle pluck on the line. I uttered a quiet “Yes…”. Then came a more forceful jerk, which pulled the line from my fingers and set the baitrunner into overdrive. I let out a louder “Yes!…”, then gripped the spool to slow it down, disengaged the baitrunner and struck to set the hooks. “YYEEEESSSSSSS!!!!!!!” I yelled, as I connected with an incredibly powerful fish.
Fifty yards away, the fish hurled itself out of the water, and continued its run towards the same rapids Titch’s fish headed for. It was another good mahseer. Now all I had to do was keep my cool and concentrate on beating the fish.
After a short run down the bank chasing it, I managed to turn the fish’s head and began to slowly bring it back upstream. Because my rod tip was missing, I had to be very careful when the fish lunged. I had to lower the rod slightly in the direction of the fish, to prevent a snap-off, which the mahseer seemed intent on inducing. The fish made several powerful runs, the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. The reel I use week in, week out for fishing at home, was making noises I’d never heard it make before! To battle a mahseer really is something else.
The fight lasted 25 minutes. It was 25 minutes of sheer pleasure for me; you couldn’t wipe the smile from my face! Yet I couldn’t relax and celebrate until the fish was safely away from the water, at which point I was overcome with both relief and elation. My fish came in a shade smaller than Titch’s, measuring 42.5 inches from nose to tail-fork, and the fish was estimated at somewhere around the 40lb mark. Once again it was a stunning fish, in perfect-condition.
I’d done it! We’d done it! Somehow, in six mind-blowing hours, me and Titch had both landed very respectable mahseer; against the odds.
Kirphal took an empty water bottle and drove back to the chai stand we’d visited that morning. He returned with a bottle of tea and some makeshift cups, so we could all have tea to celebrate. We took a few moments to reflect on the events of that day. Kirphal seemed surprised at our success in the murky water, and Titch and I were both over the moon with our captures. Because Kirphal had been so impressed with my Stonze weights, which I’d used because they match the rocky bottom of the Ramganga almost perfectly, I left him with some as a thank you gesture.
The long jeep ride back to Ramnagar seemed to pass in minutes that evening. We found a bar for a celebratory beer, but it was impossible to comprehend the fact that I’d realised a childhood dream and, in the process, accomplished my proudest angling moment to date.
Now that the realisation of my capture is sinking in a little, I can’t wait to return to India and catch another. If anyone is interested in visiting India to try for a mahseer, I now have plenty of information which should help you plan a trip. The organisation of transport, especially, can be ludicrously difficult and very frustrating in India. I would be more than happy to pass on the information I learned through experience, to help any fellow travellers to India who have mahseer fishing in mind.
Good luck and good fishing to you all – wherever in the world you go!
And on Fishbase here: Himalayan Mahseer on Fishbase.org.