India's magnificent mahseer
Matt Harris gets caught up in the majestic scenery and wonder of India as he goes in pursuit of the hard-fighting mahseer.
Since I was a little lad in short trousers, winkling a procession of hapless tiddlers from the Grand Union Canal, the mahseer has been swimming through my feverish, fish-filled dreams like stardust.
My younger brother, Olly, and I caught the fishing bug early, and armed with the crude tackle that we acquired at the local pet shop, we would spend most of our summers catching small perch and gudgeon. We stumbled upon a dusty old almanac, full of antique line drawings of porcupine quills and jardine snap-tackles, and would amuse each other by reading out the prescriptive prose in a suitably plummy accent. One chapter however, really caught our imagination: it concerned 'The rod abroad', and featured heroic descriptions of epic battles between pith-helmeted servants of the Raj and the mighty mahseer of the subcontinent. These majestic rivers and impossibly large fish seemed as remote and as exotic as the moon, and whenever Olly or I hooked a particularly stubborn shopping trolley or bicycle frame, we would bend the rod hard and go into a well-rehearsed, pop-eyed routine about how we had finally hooked up with the mighty mahseer.
Times change - Olly traded his rods for computers and, as I pursued my passion for angling, I discovered the singular magic of fly-fishing. Initially, I chased trout, before discovering salmon, and then any number of fabulous aquatic foe, from Russia to New Zealand to the Amazon jungle. I fell in love with the high-flying tarpon and the greyhounding bonefish, the pugnacious peacock bass and the dementedly strong giant trevally. Sadly, my dreams of the magical golden mahseer, a fish normally seduced with bait, were all but forgotten.
Then, in the late summer of this year, I spoke to Misty Dhillon, a charming angler from India's far western city of Chandigarh and a true fly-fishing pioneer. Misty told me how he had managed to start to catch mahseer consistently using fly tackle. He also talked of how the British had fished for the Himalayan mahseer with fly-rods and fly-spoons in the time of the Raj. I was fascinated and intrigued, and when Misty asked if I would like to join him on an exploratory trip, I barely allowed him to finish his sentence.
Flying into Delhi, red-eyed and travel-weary, I was hit by the full force of the juggernaut that is India. No amount of Rough Guides or Lonely Planets can prepare you for the relentless assault on the senses that this unique and very special country provides. The white-knuckle taxi-ride from central Delhi to the Northern Railway Station, skirting the magnificent Red Fort, is typical: hugely exhilarating, but not for the faint-hearted. I met up with Justin Maxwell-Stewart, a fellow angling explorer and the brains behind the Where Wise Men Fish operation, and his lovely Brazilian girlfriend, Tanya, and somehow we forced our way into the maelstrom and wrestled our way onto the train.
Nine hours later, we arrived in Kathgodam, a small, bustling town nestling at the foot of the Himalayas, and after a much-needed night's sleep, we piled into the trucks and set out on the last part of our epic journey to the banks of the Saryu.
Winding on up into the clouds, we were suddenly struck dumb as we rounded a corner and were confronted by Nandi Devi, India's highest peak at over 25,000 ft and just one spectacular snow-swept highlight in the astonishing chain of the western Himalaya. Climbing over the jagged passes, meandering through villages populated by children who were by turns bashful or disarmingly extrovert and friendly, it wasn't until the late afternoon that we started to descend from 14,000 ft down to the river.
Snaking down to the gleaming, silvery water far below, through the dense highland forests, it was easy to imagine Jim Corbett heroically stalking one of the legendary man-eating tigers that used to terrorise the tiny villages scattered throughout this bewitching corner of Northern India.
We were greeted by Misty's crew. Drawn from all over India, each member exuded a disarming warmth and friendliness: they were uniformly horrified to discover that, unlike some of their previous English guests, we didn't want to eat the bland lasagna that they had proudly served up, but instead were coveting the tarka dhal and stuffed paratha that the team were tucking into with gusto: fantastic food that was one of the highlights of a magical trip, once we'd established that our western palates would survive.
Waking early to find the magical valley wreathed in mist, and a preying mantis scuttling across the rod-rack, I decided to spend much of the first day watching Misty through my camera lens, not least in order to see the maestro's technique at first hand. I was enormously impressed by Misty's elegant casting technique, handling the double-handed rod and heavy sink-tip lines that he maintained were necessary with genuine finesse, and yet despite his excellent technique and his use of a gossamer 6lb test leader, Misty only managed one tiny mahseer. Recalling Kipling's famous description of the mahseer, "besides whom the tarpon is as a herring", I wondered at how these powerful fish might possibly be tricked into taking a fly with regularity, without the need to resort to such flimsy leader material.
Finally, as the light ebbed from the Himalayan skies, I saw a fish rise. I suspected that perhaps my eyes had played tricks on me when another unmistakable splash way out in the hazy half-light confirmed that the fish were indeed feeding on the surface.
Unable to find any bugs to copy, I fished out a Stimulator, a big deer-hair bug that might represent any number of moths or other nocturnal goodies skating enticingly across the surface. I knew I hadn't cracked the code - the fish continued to splash vigorously whilst studiously ignoring my fly - but after scaling down to a smaller fly of the same design, I finally managed a perfect little three pounder that punched way over its weight.
A mahseer on the dry fly on your birthday is quite something - Misty's team even made me a fantastic cake to celebrate - but I knew that I'd barely scratched the surface. The mahseer - so dour and elusive during the day - had come out to play as darkness fell, and we heard numerous, often hefty-sounding splashes in the rosy twilight. Yet the evening air seemed devoid of bugs? The fish were obviously feeding hard on something, and I resolved to spend the following day finding out what this might be, in preparation for the next evening's efforts.
I was up early, and chatting to Tapir, my guide, as we stepped over the leopard-prints on our way down to the river, it quickly became clear that I had been barking up the wrong tree. The monsoon, terrifically powerful in the Saryu region, had only recently passed, and its effect is to scour the river of its entomological population. The reason that I hadn't seen any bugs in the air was because there simply weren't any.
When Tapir showed me large shoals of small shimmering fish sheltering in the slack water, I sensed that I was looking at another piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Had those rising fish been eating these silvery morsels as they swam through the surface?
Standing on a suspension bridge high above the river, Tapir pointed out three large shapes holding nonchalantly in the heavy current, and I knew instinctively that these lithe creatures simply couldn't grow so powerful on a diet of small bugs. Watching the fish explode in a panic when Justin's well-presented fly came swinging into view, I was reminded of the sea-trout of the Towy - those magnificent Welsh trophies are often visible, but are almost only ever caught at night, and it cemented my plan to concentrate my efforts under cover of darkness.
Chatting with Misty, I examined his fry patterns, and recognised many as staples of the US trout angler - the Woolly Bugger, Sculpin and Olive Zonker are all excellent flies in their place, but the baitfish that we were seeing in the crystal waters of the Saryu were not smudgy black or olive-hued bottom-dwellers hunkering under the rocks but sparkling silver creatures sitting high in the water-column. Leafing through my fly-box, I pulled out two saltwater patterns that I thought might work: the Gummy Minnow is a silicon-based sub-surface pattern that wreaks havoc even on sharp-eyed tuna, whilst the Crease Fly is a 'waking' surface imitation that can catch everything from striped bass to barracuda.
Misty was intrigued - fly-fishing in India is a lonely pursuit, insulated and isolated by its geography, and most of the anglers that Misty has hosted so far have been freshwater anglers from the USA, UK and South Africa. Saltwater flies were new to him, and he was hugely enthusiastic about trying these new patterns on our quarry.
As the sun fell sharply into the west and the shadows lengthened, Tapir and I made our way to a long, glassy glide at the tail of a wide pool. The monkeys huddled up into the trees to await the night, and the sky filled with an impossible galaxy of diamond-bright stars twinkling in the clear mountain air, interrupted by the jagged black triangles of the Himalayan foothills. Using a short double-handed rod and floating line, I made a long, delicate cast, delivering the crease fly gently onto the mirror-bright surface of the river.
So often, all those carefully wrought plans come to nought: cast after cast unfurls and we slowly realise that all our clever calculations are in fact well wide of the mark. I've been there many times, but on this magical night, everything went to plan. On that very first cast, my heart leapt as there was a big boil at the skating fly, followed by a wrenching take and after a violent tussle, a fish from my childhood dreams - a magnificent, mirror-scaled mahseer - was finally being cradled in the golden light of Tapir's head-torch.
I lost the next two fish after brief contact and digging back into my sea-trout experiences, I attached a tiny stinger barbless treble to the back of the Crease Fly. The change worked like a charm - in all I managed five mahseer on that fabulous star-spangled night. Nothing huge - the best was around nine pounds. But each fish fought like a tiger and made me shudder at the notion of hooking one of the much bigger fish that populate this and innumerable other rivers throughout the length and breadth of India.
The following day, Justin, Misty and I worked our way down to the scarlet-ribboned temple at the mouth of the Saryu, where it joins the mighty Mahakali River, demarking the border with Nepal.
Dodging our way through the early morning webs, spun by the impossibly large bird-eating spiders that hung lazily in the deliciously warm sunshine, we fished our way through magical scenery, the valley's lush banks punctuated by Pancheshwar, a tiny gem of a village bursting with tinkling bells and giggling, inquisitive, bright-eyed children. We managed a few fish on the Gummy Minnow, fishing the fly dead-drift in imitation of a dead or dying bait-fish, but it was the night-time that again provided the bulk of the thrills and spills, four fish again succumbing to my waking crease fly and delivering addictive sport in the inky darkness.
Too soon we had to return - three days on the river had flashed by in a blur, and as we started to wind back up into the clouds, my only regret was that we hadn't had a little longer to employ all we had learned on the magnificent Maharajas of the Saryu. I shared some fascinating conversations with Misty. He told me of the Ramganga, a smaller more intimate river that flows through the Jim Corbett National Park, a little to the west. This river, untouched by anglers, guarded by the tigers of the park and with a much higher density of mahseer than even the Saryu, had become available exclusively to him to fish in the spring. Would I like to return?
The idea of a full week, armed with my new-found knowledge and facing a smaller, more manageable river with even more plentiful and often more sizeable fish was irresistible, and I signed up immediately.
In truth, in spite of the efforts of the British anglers in the days of the Raj, the grand adventure of mahseer fishing with the fly rod is only just beginning, and as pioneering anglers like Misty start to unravel the secrets of this magnificent quarry, who knows just what might be possible with these formidably strong, majestic-looking fish. I for one want to be there as the story unfolds, and I cannot wait for the next installment.
HOW TO BOOK
The Himalayan Outback are represented by two excellent outfitters in the UK.