Hi­ma­laya’s gol­den mahseer

Sportfishing Adventures - - CONTENT - Text and pho­tos by Dy­lan Smith and Hi­ma­layan Out­back

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.

Midnight mahseer

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…

Chu­ka vil­lage

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 !

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