Himalaya’s golden mahseer
We had just crossed the river Saryu to reach our camp for the next few days. We had barely come to water’s edge when Bobby, the head guide, asked us to quickly look behind a large rock situated 20 meters downstream. Sure enough, behind the swirling water, my fellow fishermen John, Byron and I could finally catch a glimpse at the fish we came so far to encounter : the magnificent Golden Mahseer ! A day exploring Old Delhi for the first time, prior to depar- ting for the Uttarakhand province, was nearly overwhelming with the ambiant chaos, the seeming disorder, sights, sounds and smells that I’d never experienced before. It was at Indira Ghandi airport that I met my fellow fishermen guests, John and Byron, both friendly and capable fishermen from the United States. We set off together toward the Himalayan foothills with mahseer on our minds. We spent our first night, en route, in the beautiful Te Ahora lodge, nested at an altitude of 7000 feet. The comfortable beds and luxurious ameni-
ties were most welcome after a long trip from Delhi. Our last leg of travel by car had brought us to our first location on the banks of the Saryu river, not far from the Nepalese border in the Uttarakhand province in Northeast India. We were warmly welcomed by our guides for the adventure ; Sanjay, Russin and Himalayan Outback’s head guide, Bobby, who invited us to board a « cat » (inflatable catamaran) in order to reach the campsite
on the other side of the river. After a quick refreshment and a briefing on the campsite, Bobby proposed that we meet in the afternoon under the dining tent to talk about tackle requirements and assist us in our preparations. He showed us the selection of fly rods available, excellent 8 and 9 weight setups for either single or doublehanded. He equally revealed his « treasure chest » of flies and indicated which patterns and designs would be productive, mainly tube flies and sculpins. Once we were debriefed and prepared, we were off to dinner.
The first Indian campsite meal we experienced, all confectioned on the spot by the chef, the dal rice and massala butter chicken he served was succulent and promised good things to come for the tough days ahead. While were enjoying our meal in the evening heat, we could hear enormous splashes in the river right in front of our camp. We were informed that the mahseer is extremely active at night, which certainly got my attention… Before retiring that evening, Bobby announced the next day’s fishing configuration and accompanying guides; John would fish with Sanjay, Byron would fish with Bob-
by and I would go with Russin (each guide would fish a half day with one guest and then switch). Our start time was set for 3 :30 a.m. the next morning for an early start.
Although the heat and fatigue encouraged me to sleep, the relentless splashing of mahseer on the river’s surface prevented me from drifing off…The best solution I found was to hop out of bed,
tie up a Rapala X-rap long cast on the spinning outfit I’d brought and make a few casts only meters from my tent. After a few minutes, in the middle of the night, my lure was hit hard. A modest mahseer of 2 kilos appeared under my head lamp. Small but beautiful, it was my first ! I quickly admire it before releasing it safely. These fish are magnificent creatures, even at night, but extremely slippery !
Early riser’s reward
Next morning broke too quickly and we were on our designated spot at 4 :00 a.m. It’s still fully dark and Russin and I are fishing where the warm and clear Saryu meets the colder and darker Mahakali river. We started off fly fishing with Bobby’s custom-made tube flies. The technique required casting
Although the heat and fatigue encouraged me to sleep, the relentless splashing of mahseer on the river’s surface prevented me from drifing off…
toward the opposing bank and letting the fly drift, in similar fashion for salmon fishing. An hour of fruitless attempts on the last 50 meters of the Saryu prompted me to switch to spinning and lures. Once again, I tied up last night’s Rapala X-rap and targeted the swirling pools near the junction of the two rivers. Fifteen minutes and boom ! I’m startled by a violent attack and a healthy run. The fish feels much larger than my first, even if the current is a factor. Russin confirms my thinking by saying « nice fish sir » and prepares his pliers. All the guides with Himalayan Outback are perfectly equipped from head to toe, ready and able to assist. An exhilarting combat finally brings the fish into Russin’s arms.
We estimate it at about 12 kilos. Its large and hard scales remind me of an armored coat. Imagine an armored barbel and you get the picture. Russin gives it a proper and respecful release and it gracefully returns to the swirling pools from which it
came. What a great way to start the day !
An epic fight
A few days later, we were fishing together with Sanjay about 2 kilometers upstream from the river junction on a wide portion of the Mahakali with strong current. My guide mentioned that the water level was suprising low. A sandy beach gave way to a rocky point which seemed perfect for casting with a spinning outfit. This time I used up a Rapala X-rap jointed to change things up a bit. It pro- ved to be a good idea.
After three quick casts to judge my distance and adjust the lure action in the current, bam ! A powerful strike sends my adrenalin levels off the chart. A blistering run puts a beautiful arc in my rod and my reel’s drag screams in discontent. The fish was using the current to run downstream for atleast 100 meters, nonstop, causing me to nevously monitor my line capacity. Sanjy is running downstream holding the braid above his head to keep it axay from the sharp rocks. I’m scrambing after him while attempting to maintain tension. I finally reach another sandy beach area where I stop and realize something is wrong. No more movement, just a strange tension in the line. I immediately resign myself to the fact that I’ve lost the fish as it skillfully used the rock formations to outwit me. Yes, I vocally manifested some desperate frustration !
Sanjay is not convinced. He’s seen it before. I enter the water and try different angles to break free with no luck. I’m definitively stuck somewhere. The current movement and gentle line tugs give me some false hope as I force myself to believe it’s not over.
From the Nepalase side of
the river a group of villagers observing the scene, most certainly entertained by my plight, respond to Sanjay’s request and propose to use their make-shift raft and inspect the entry point of my line. Is it stuck ? Do you see a fish ?
At that very moment, by some magical fishermen’s luck, the line breaks free and the fish is still on. I decrease my drag in fear of a damaged, frayed line and resume my mobile routine of following the fish downstream. The fish has sought refuge in the mid-river depths. At this point I’m sweating bullets and pro-
bably suffering from acute high blood pressure but fifteen minutes later, near the river back, I get color. We see a very large caudal fin break the surface. It’s a beautiful specimen.
Sanjay wades in and carefully seizes the fish. After a few quick photos the fish is weighed : 25 pounds ! Sanjay gives it the customary « thank you » kiss releases it as the Nepalese villagers watch the scene. What a complicated and stressful fight with a hap- py ending ! Sometimes you wonder how a fish throws your hook and sometimes you wonder how they stay on…
After 4 days on our camp on the banks of the Saryu, we’re up early for an incredible 90 kilometer raft expedition towards the isolated village of Chuka. The village is mentioned in Jim Corbett’s essays and books. Packing in an entire camp and loading several rafts in a monstrous job but the staff had experience and knew exactly what to do. John and I were together on a raft with a guide while the rest of the personnel were divided among the remaining embarcations. On longer trips, I was told, they even carry live chickens (for meal preparation) and they too get an exciting rafting adventure.
Reaching Chuka is an expe-
rience in itself. After a long river descent, punctuated by monkey sightings, negociating rapids and waving to villagers, we arrive at afternoon’s end. The river banks are different here with a denser vegetation in abundance. The next morning we begin to explore the area and size up the fishing opportunities. Certain pools were wide and deep separated by shallow rapids. Bobby remains confident despite the low water levels. The weather is perfect for mahseer fishing ; not a cloud in the sky under a burning April sun. In spite of the promising conditions, no fish were taken that morning, neither by spinning nor on the fly. We’ll try again soon.
After lunch and to afford ourselves a break, we visit Chuka and meet some villagers. We are indeed in another world ; they live in modest houses made of brick and dried earth. They live on what they cultivate and take care of themselves when sick. Electricity in Chuka is quite recent and only consists of a solar panel to power an incandescent light bulb in the evenings. In fact, the trips managed by
The weather is perfect for mahseer fishing ; not a cloud in the sky under a burning April sun
Himalayan Outback as they pass through Chuka represent a means to earn a bit of money as they are employed to assist with camp setup, water-fetching and so on. Our return to fishing that evening resulted in a general skunking for all of us with no fish taken. Just a friendly reminder that the mahseer is finicky, wary and quite difficult to catch.
This trend continued during the next day, most likely due to the low water levels. However, as persistence pays, it was perhaps after a thousand casts on a shallow rapid further downstream I spot a shadow with my polarized Wiley X glasses. I’m on the flyrod now and I’m stripping a tube fly quite close to the mahseer. It hits the fly, makes an agile u-turn and downstream he goes for a run. I succeed in landing it with Russin’s assistance near the bank. Very nice 5 pound specimen Even the smaller mahseer are terrific fighters ; agile and powerful, they are like armored torpedoes. Sightfishing for mahseer in India ? YES !
Even in these tough conditions, we were all able to catch mahseer during our trip. For my colleagues and I this was an unforgettable trip deep into the Indian wilderness. Our nights spent on the river banks listening to mahseer breaking water, the outstanding food prepared by the excellent chef, the encounters with local villagers, the lessons learned fom the guides and especially the spectacular mahseer will certainly remain engraved in our memories.
One thing I know for sure, I’ll return to incredible India once again to chase the amazing and mystical mahseer
A beautifully colored mahseer. Their colors can slightly change from one specimen to another.
Spey casting is an excellent method to get these heavy tube flies far out.
Cows are holy animals in India, they roam freely everywhere in the country, even in remote places !
Mahseers are extremely active during the night, we often fished a few hours after sunset.
A quick view of the famous Black Rock Pool on the Saryu.
Delicious Indian breakfast on the Saryu’s bank.
Our chef working his way on the river to reach Chuka.
A typical house in Chuka.
Our campsite near Chuka. The village is only half a mile away.
Top: Closeup on the 26lb mahseer’s head. Below: A selection of the most effective tube flies of the trip.
Mahseers of this size are common on the Saryu and Mahakali, but they’re very smart and spooky !