Madness ensued as the final items of importance were packed ready for this, my sixth trip to India in search of the legendary Golden Mahseer. My well laid plan of bed at 10pm of course went unnoticed as I was still looking for hooks and split rings strong enough to hold the world's strongest fighting freshwater fish, at 4am!
Finally the taxi arrived and the journey began.
18 hours later we arrived in Goa welcomed by the hot sun and wasting no time we made our way to the train station to book our overnight sleeper to Bangalore. On arrival we headed to the offices of "Bush Betta", the fishing camp we had booked into for our three days of fishing. Framed photographs of very large Mahseer adorned the walls of the office and it was slowly sinking in that our quest was becoming a reality. We were collected the following morning by the resort manager and our driver in a white Ambassador car, the official Indian taxi with an old fashioned touch, ivory white paintwork and polished chrome bumpers and wheel hubs.
We left Bangalore at 10.30am and were informed the trip to the Mehkadatu Gorge would take approximately 2 hours. Great, just enough time to sneak in an extra early evening session on the river. The anticipation and excitement was building!
4 hours later and we still had two hours to go to get there. Our car had broken down en-route and after a number of attempts to try and fix the problem, including the driver arriving back at the car with what I was sure was a pack of condoms in his hand, (it was, he had tried to use a couple to seal the leak from a pipe)! We finally found a couple of young mechanics aged around 14 years old who soon had the problem solved and we were once again underway.
On arrival at the River we changed vehicles and re-loaded our gear into a jeep ready for the crossing - straight into the river and across to the opposite bank - approximately 100 feet away, and then off through the gorge on the final leg towards the camp. The gorge was impressive. We stopped for a view of the river and found ourselves looking down into a narrowing of the river that held some very deep still water with searing great cliffs rearing up on either side. It looked menacing.
The heat contained within the gorge was immense and it soon became clear to us that these rocks and boulders absorbed the heat during the day. By mid afternoon when a mild breeze filtered through the gorge it picked up the reflected heat of the rocks and the cool breeze became a furnace of hot winds from which there was no escape.
On arrival at the camp I was shocked to say the least! Having fished in the North of India on my previous trips we had stayed in our tents on the river with little afforded in the way of luxury. Here I found a line of open plan bedrooms, set up on the beach overlooking the river each containing two beds with freshly laundered gingham quilts and fresh white cotton sheets and pillows, two armchairs and a little coffee table, two wardrobes, the sand was our carpet. The absence of a front wall afforded us idyllic views of the river. Five little wooden steps led up onto another level, which was our bathroom. The biggest shock was the western flush toilet, although the room had no back wall and afforded a splendid view to all and sundry that used the path on the hill behind! The showerhead was tied to a tree, which the bathroom had been built around. The pipe leading from the shower led to a large black plastic water tank raised on the hill behind us. Water was pumped from the river into here and the heat was such during the day that we had boiling water by evening.
After a fairly civilised break with tea and biscuits, we were ready for our first trip on the river. Nerves on edge, we boarded the coracle, a fishing boat resembling a giant upside-down Frisbee made of bamboo, jute rope and banana leaves, in which we carefully balanced and set off down river. In many places in India the traditional Coracle is made by blowing up the skin of a dead buffalo, stitching it together and sitting on it like using a large float.
The problem was nobody told us we were just going to play around for little catfish this evening. Large rods with sea reels was not the equipment for 2lb cats but our Indian friends managed to catch three which were cooked in a spicy masala for dinner later that evening. This of course was set up on a dinner table that had been placed with lamps down by the edge of the river. Luxury indeed!
It seemed we were surrounded by wildlife. Elephant tracks were spotted on the beach just downriver, large deep round footprints in the sand leading down to the river's edge where they had stopped to drink in the night. Little frogs and shiny lizards frolicked in our bathroom,. Then there was the cheeky Macaque Monkey who bravely came right in and sat in our bathroom tree making faces at us. He bared his teeth and lifted both eyebrows up and down furiously before being chased off by Kalu, our friendly camp dog, only to return in our absence and steal Sarah's soap and hairbrush! She did manage to retrieve her soap after a search in the forest behind, he must have decided it was not to his taste! However, her hairbrush was never seen again!
6am next day, awakened to the cockerel crowing and the noisy chatter of large rooks in the bedroom! They were sitting on our tree and kept flying into the bathroom to sit on top of the large mirror and fight the crows they thought lived inside!
Subhan, the top fishing guide employed at the camp is Muslim. He has over 20 years experience by the river and his knowledge is priceless. Along with two other Indian guides we set off in the jeep in silence. The atmosphere was now of a more serious nature. This was finally the real thing. The jeep struggled though a jungle path which was very scrubby and dry and strewn with rocks and scree, 20 minutes later we were heading down the bouldered path to our fishing spot. I was used to fishing with spoons and plugs in the north but here in the south, the Cauvery River is best fished using 'Ragi', a large bait resembling a tennis ball when moulded around the hook. It is made with Ragi flour and water and the secret ingredient is Hing (or Asafoetida) which stinks and is said to attract the fish! This was the first time I had fished this method and I was nervous of making a mistake. My friend Sarah who had come to India for the first time normally fishes the fly for Salmon in the north of Scotland. This was new to both of us, although I had caught a 30lb Mahseer from a Himalayan River and a number of twenties so at least had the benefit of knowing how such a fish can fight!
I was positioned by Subhan on a large boulder around 7 feet in height, Sarah on a large boulder approx. ten feet behind me lower down. The rocks all around were huge and mostly smooth and polished by the force of the river during the monsoon rains, but some were also sharp and tightly packed. It would be only too easy to break an ankle or even a leg here. The river was roughly 10 yards across and we were actually in a fast rapid area. This surprised me, as generally I would fish in slacker water either above or below the rapids. The idea was that we cast straight into the centre of the rapids, quickly grabbed hold of the line and led the bait around using the help of the currents until your bait was positioned in the right spot (in this case a slightly slack bit of water behind a boulder downstream, so large I couldn't see behind it! You then start feathering out some line until the bait is on the bottom. You find a comfortable position on the rock then sit and wait. Within seconds, big nibbles! Heart starts beating, Subhan says "no strike madam". "Big nibble bending rod down, then strike"!
Then after an hour of lots of reasonably big 'small' nibbles resulting in having to replace the Ragi ball at least five times, BANG! With no warning whatsoever, allowing absolutely no time to strike, my rod bent over into an arc and my reel wasn't screaming it was exploding! All panic set in as Subhan shouted at Sarah to reel in her line. I was on my feet and had no control whatsoever of the amount of line that was rapidly being stripped from the reel. I could only watch in horror as line was flying off the spool at an alarming rate, and my three hundred yards capacity of 40lb line was down to half and still going! With the rod jammed into my thigh for leverage it finally stopped and I frantically started gaining as much line as I could before the fish started off again. I managed around thirty yards before realising Subhan was shouting at me to run! Where to? My heart was thumping, my knees were shaking and I knew the only option was down my rock and around the twelve-foot high boulder that blocked my access route downriver.
Ramu, one of the Indian guides ran up the boulder and cleanly lifted my line over it whilst I ran around the back of it as fast as I could and carried on over more rocks and boulders of assorted sizes, heading downriver. I managed to gain line at every stop but it was a frantic game. I soon realised the fish had not only stopped but had gone deep and found a rock to rest against thus wrapping the line around the said rock. I gained as much line as possible and found myself perched high on yet another boulder having no memory of how I got up there!
The next series of events were commendable. Subhan started running off downriver and I had no clue as to what he was doing. Then at a slightly slacker section (only just) he promptly dived into the river and started swimming to the other side! He then ran upriver through the rocks until he was opposite me. From my rock Ramu cast over to Subhan, who grabbed the weight and held on while Ramu threw his own fishing rod into the river! Subhan hauled it through the rapids until he got hold of it and then used it to cast line over my own line, hook onto it and he moved downriver pulling until he released my line from around the rock thus releasing the fish! Suddenly we were off again! The fish once more stripped around fifty to sixty yards of line in one go and I was ordered "run madam, run"! "Oh no, not again! " I ran holding the rod high and keeping the strain on the fish, then when possible I gained some line back, being careful not to give any slack to the fish if I could help it. Although it was not easy given the terrain. Finally I came up against a boulder so high and so smooth I could not see any hand holds and in the panic the Indian guide already on top of this rock put his hand out to take the rod for me whilst I climbed up.
I handed him the rod, proceeded to climb when all of a sudden he said the words I refused to hear, "fish gone madam". No, I didn't believe it. I took the rod back from him and reeled in, only my hook came back. The anti-climax was awful in its silence and sudden end to the activity. I was devastated. I was left looking down river and visualising a monster escaped and running free, laughing, mocking. And of this fish I never even saw fin nor splash. Imagine my thoughts when upon asking Subhan "how big?" he suggested "Madam, 90lb"!! It certainly felt like that could have been the size, but partly because I didn't want to believe I could have lost a fish that size I fixed the idea in my head that he was only saying that to make the episode seem even more dramatic. Also, being the client, it would be more prestigious to think it was 'that' big.
However, on understanding a smattering of Hindi, I overheard some Hindi speakers in discussion with Subhan later and heard the words "Madam" and Subhan said "40kg". I realised then this was no dramatisation. Nothing much happened over the next three or four sessions. When spinning with a silver spoon I hooked a beautiful 15lb Silver Mahseer from a tasty pool just above some rapids. But then realised it was foul hooked in the side of the gill cover. It had obviously followed the spoon and turned into the hooks.
It was the last session on the morning we were due to leave. En-route by jeep to the fishing swim the driver suddenly stopped and veered slightly off the path. This was unusual and we were already running a bit late. Then Subhan said "Temple, Temple". We were taken to a little makeshift temple in the forest, a semi-circle of stones built to form a small wall. There was an effigy covered in some strips of brightly coloured material and a wooden structure from which hung numerous pairs of dead chickens yellow feet, and a dead fish of about half a pound tied with string. We were informed this was the temple dedicated to Muniapa, God of the Forest and the River. We were there to ask for his help in catching a fish this day! One of the older Hindu guides was very serious in his quest and after laying our rods across the temple he uttered a few words of prayer, lit some incense sticks, placed some coins in a little dish, and dabbed our rods with red powder before dabbing some onto his own forehead. Puja performed we then set off in silence and slightly in awe, towards the river. I hated to say it but I did think this was perhaps a waste of good fishing time, but then I daren't stir up the wrath of the Gods, therefore I kept it to myself before confiding this in Sarah later!
However, when we positioned at the spot I had hooked the big fish, nothing much was happening. Although the river features had changed. The water was nearly a foot higher and was slightly coloured. There was also a new arrival at the river by way of a most beautiful Brahminy Kite. It continuously circled overhead and with chocolate brown wings spread out like fans and white head scanning the river and rocks, seemed almost to be a sentinel sent by the Gods, and I began to wonder if there was something in this Temple business after all.
We decided to go back to the pool, and Sarah, spinning, caught two beautiful Black Mahseer of around 8lbs. Subhan informed us they were harder fighting than the Golden Masheer. I also caught an 8lb Black Mahseer on Ragi further upstream. I decided to go back to the "Big Fish" pool again to finish off. The Kite was still perched high on the tree overlooking our swim and appeared to be watching us with interest.
It was almost 11am and the rocks were becoming too hot to sit on. I had lost a lot of body fluid in the fierce heat and was feeling a bit dehydrated and a bit deflated also. Suddenly I was jolted from my misery, when once again as before, the rod was almost snatched out of my hands, the line was once more tearing off the reel and Subhan who was further downstream with Sarah came running up over the boulders towards me. However, a mild panic had set in and in my tiredness and determination not to lose this fish I tried to stop the spool with my hands. Bad move. The guides were saying "no madam, let fish run". I said "yes, yes, ok", but when their backs were turned, I tried again. I wanted this fish. SNAP!!! Fish "baga" (gone)!
There were a number of factors here that may have lost me the fish. Firstly due to a problem in obtaining the correct line before going to India, (I was still waiting on what I had ordered arriving in the mail). It showed up at the twelfth hour and I just threw it in the pack without really checking it. It turned out it was the wrong line, two spools of only 150m, which was no use as we needed at least 300yds on each reel. This resulted in me having to make do using only 30lb lbs Berkley Big Game on one of the reels which was way too light. I had swapped rods with Sarah and she was spinning with the 40lbs line as that rod set up was lighter for spinning. Also if Subhan had been with me at the time, I reckon he would have been more persuasive in stopping me trying to stop the spool! However, I cannot blame anyone but myself when it comes down to it. You just put it down to experience, and I now know why, when you hook a fish that is off running and is stripping line, you let it run! A hard lesson, but a mistake I will never repeat!
Subhan reckoned this fish was probably 50lbs. I reckoned possibly 40/50lbs, given that I had caught the 30lb fish and knew what that fought like, and having compared this latest run to the one on the first day, it felt as though this was somewhere in between. Although in the end, who knows?!!
When I looked up, the Kite was gone.
The evening ended with a barbecue set up on the beach. There were more Catfish nuggets, chicken legs, and a big fire. 'Man Mountain', the rather lethargic manager who wobbled around the place just sleeping or eating his fill, shoulders hunched around his plate as a vulture would be with wings spread evilly around it's meal of carrion, informed me when I enquired about the whereabouts of the white chickens from the beach that 'they have already been cut madam this morning, for your dinner'!
Poor old cockerel who did his best to ensure we were awakened in the mornings for our fishing, was also going to be "cut" later that day in order that an offering could be made once more to Muniapa, God of the forest.
I plan to return next year, for longer, I will pay a visit to Muniapa, and being as all anglers are superstitious, I will be scanning the trees for signs of a Brahminy Kite. And I wish once more, to meet my fast friend who I hope at least will hang around long enough for an introduction! Until then, dreams will have to suffice!