My airbed has deflated in the night and I feel the hardness of the ground in the numbness of my muscles and it is cold, damp and not pleasant. My tent zip is opened a few inches and I then find a hot cup of tea thrust into my hands as the call comes again in an urgent whisper ‘Chai memsahib, fishing time, jildi (quick)’.
This is the start of a typical day on the river in India. The dew has soaked everything. The heavy mist on the river feels damp and the chill penetrates the very marrow in your bones. This is normal for late October and November in the foothills of the Himalayas and it is always an effort to emerge from the warmth of your sleeping bag. But the river beckons and as the hot strong tea flows through your bloodstream it raises the spirit and fuels your eagerness to be first down at the river.
There are few regular parties of anglers descending on the river at this time, the season of the Mahseer. If you are wise you refrain from too many nights on the Black Heart Rum or the Johnny Walker. Many a visiting angler is drawn by the evening fishing and hunting stories around the campfire and inevitably much rum and whisky is consumed. The stories are fascinating and tell of the days of the Raj, tales of man-eating tigers, or rogue elephants exploding through the bushes when fishing and causing the angler to take his chances in the roaring rapids rather than face the wrath of a mad hathi!
In fact one particular evening whilst listening to these tales and partaking of a bottle or six of Thunderbolt, a most enjoyable Indian beer, our blood was chilled when we heard the sound of screaming from the jungle high above our camp site. Even the villagers did not know what this could be. This continued with a persistent wailing and moaning and was pretty disconcerting given the nature of the tales we had been hearing.
It happened that we heard the next day that the villagers had gone out into the jungle in search of a missing daughter who had failed to return from escorting the cows on a feeding foray into the forest. The screaming had been the point in which the search party had just found the young girl’s head and chewed remains. We discovered only then that there was indeed a man-eating tiger or leopard in our midst and we should be cautious. We all slept indoors that evening in the one and only Public Works department bungalow, and night walks in the jungle to pee stopped in preference to crossing ones legs until morning.
However, after a few days, normality returned. It was back to the tent to contend with the scorpions which came in out of the cold at night and the Jackals who robbed your foodstores with the utmost silence as you slept. This culminated in us having to raise a bag of our food supplies into the trees via ropes!
It is easy to see how the attraction of a few rums or beers and all these wonderful tales and exchanges of experiences would allow one to continue socialising well on into the night. However, when morning arrives it is only the hardened few that make it down for the 5am shift possibly missing the opportunity of a monster fish.
I didn’t catch yesterday so my rum intake was limited. By 6am I was a few yards down from the confluence, the first light of day had just backlit the silhouette of the mountains of Nepal, just a stones throw from my side of the river, the Indian side
I had cast out as far as possible over the rapids that were feeding into the main river from the large tributary river on my left. Using a fixed spool Daiwa 6000 Emblem S, containing over 300 yards of 30lb line, I kept my bail arm open after casting, allowing my floating silver/black Rapala lure to be carried downriver with the rapids. When my lure had reached the spot I intended it to, I closed the bail arm and started reeling in. Try this for 20 minutes and it is backbreaking work. One must heave the lure, throbbing as it works it’s way slowly back towards you, through the massive pushing volume of water, and it soon becomes clear that a break taken at 20 minute intervals not only helps rest the swim but also your aching wrists and shoulders!
The rapids are crazy, fast, furious and extremely dangerous. To stand in water past your ankles is dicing with death when the water is high. The pull is tremendous but it is easy to be cautious when a cow, monkey - or even human - races past, bloated and bobbing on the surface, reminding you of how easy life can be taken when one is careless.
My third cast this morning and less than 20 feet from where I stood…. Snagged. Great. There was a submerged log or something down there and so many lures had already been lost at this spot that it was almost a competition to see who could grapple it in and retrieve all the lures for themselves. Then suddenly line zipped out from my reel with that wonderful all familiar zzzzzzzzzz and my rod bent over. I was into a fish! It did not have the usual electric bolt of a Mahseer hitting your lure.
They say hooking a monster is like hooking a car off a motorway bridge! I was fooled, however I was in! The only thing was, I had allowed the fish to take about 150 yards of line and it was heading off towards the rapids downriver on the opposite bank. I had to try and stop it before it got there. I jammed the butt of my rod hard into the top of my thigh for leverage and slowly tightened the drag, but just enough so as not to allow the fish to snap my line, this gradually put the brakes on and thankfully the fish stopped just short of the rapids. I reeled back and managed to gain a good 70 yards of line, slowly, slowly, and then she was off again! My knees were like jelly, and my imagination ran riot. There is just no knowing what size of fish you have on in these rapids. I have hooked a 7lb fish in fast rapids on another Indian River and thought I had hooked a forty pounder, and so had my Indian guide!
Six or seven good runs later, I had tired her out and realised she was probably around mid 20’s. I had no guide on this trip but a hired servant. He had offered his services when I arrived, for 30 rupees – about 50p per day, and that included making all meals, collecting wood, building fires, and washing the dishes, bliss, all I had to do was fish! However, this cold morning, he had made my tea and promptly gone back to sleep!
No one had heard me shout above the noise of the rapids, and I began to realise I would have to try to beach the fish without a net or any assistance. After my forty-minute battle, someone eventually heard my calls and appeared with a net. A stringer was soon slipped behind the gill cover and out through the mouth and the fish was securely tied to a log in a small natural holding pool.
While both the fish and I rested, my servant was shoved out of bed and sent to cook breakfast! However, he was proud as punch of me, and went off to bring all his village friends to see ‘memsahib’s bara machchli’ or big fish!
The fish was rested for an hour or so and by then the sun had risen high in the Indian skies, the warmth had by now seeped into my chilled bones, and the cold of first light had been forgotten. This is the best time to photograph the fish, as the suns rays accentuate the golden glow of this beautiful and most magnificent of freshwater fish. Then time to weigh in. My first few Mahseer had all been small, bite-sized fish up to four pounds. This fish was a big nugget and weighed in at exactly 30lbs! A superb fish in top condition and my best to date. Although my quest for that 60lb plus bar of gold continues!
Guess who was on the Rum that night?!!