We do know a good deal about mahseer fishing because of both the past and the present. During the time that the British occupied India, the golden Raj, a great many English sportsmen in the army and civil service fished for mahseer in their vacation periods. Denied the salmon fishing of home, the Ďsahibsí travelled widely to find rivers holding this mighty species. And they wrote about what they found and what they learned in a series of stunning books beginning in the late nineteenth century and only dwindling out in the 1930's when life became too serious for pleasure.
And now we have the present. Most of todayís fishing for mahseer is centred on the river Cauvery in Karnataka, in Southern India. This is a very special river and one I have grown to know well and to love over the past twelve years. Indeed, I would guess that at least ninety-five percent of European anglers wishing to tangle with mahseer make their way to this blessed stretch of river close to Mysore. However Ė and this is a very big however indeed Ė a vast amount of mahseer fishing remains to be rediscovered in the north, along the fringes of the great Himalayan ranges. Naturally, a little work has already been done. Paul Boote, for example, travelled widely through the region in the late 1980's and wrote about his successes and failures in books and magazines. I myself have made several journeys and even though I havenít always been massively successful, Iíve caught mahseer and, vitally, learned a great deal about them and their possible locations in the modern Indian world.
So, as I said, of all the mammoth challenges still facing the worldís fishermen today, mahseer along the Himalayas is one of the greatest. Anyone who goes to the Himalayas and pulls off a fish or two has really recorded a triumph, a place in the brave history of fishing. How, though, do you set about it?
THE UPPER GANGES
The holy River Ganges is Indiaís most famous and most absorbing of rivers. As it cuts through the country and gets wider, deeper and dirtier, mahseer become an impossibility. Further upstream, closer to its source in the mountains, the Himalayan mahseer is still a distinct possibility as Paul Boote and I proved back in 1989. That was the year we travelled to the upper Ganges to record an hour long special for ITV called ĎCasting For Goldí. The journey was not without its dangers and its problems but we still landed some twenty-five to thirty mahseer during a hectic four-day period when the river suddenly became alive with the fish.
The nearest real civilisation to us was Haridwar, a holy town on the river. From there, we travelled some thirty miles or so upstream to the junction of the Ganges with the tributary called the Nyar.
Timing was absolutely essential. The key is to get there at the end of the monsoon, when the tributaries are dropping and the mahseer that have been spawning up them are making their way back to the main river. Thatís the moment to be there, at the junctions, spinning in the clearing water. Of course, the Nyar junction is not the only place to be, although we knew of it of old as a famous, almost legendary spot. Iíve no doubt, personally, that many other areas exist on the upper Ganges where similar sport can be enjoyed.
The mahseer fishing in Nepal has never really been properly exploited at all. In fact, very little about it has ever been written which is a shame because there are many splendid mahseer in several rivers. My own finest moments have come from the River Karnali in the east of the country and, also, in some of the tributaries that run into it. In fact, the whole Karnali system is a very fine mahseer sanctuary indeed. I remember one particular moment in 1992 when the dawn was breaking over a long stretch of streamy water about six feet deep. All the way downstream until mist obliterated the view mahseer were rolling. Many of them were big fish. It was a constant spectacle with often ten or even fifteen fish showing themselves at the same moment in time. I cannot begin to guess how many dozens, if not scores and even perhaps hundreds of fish were present. Catching them though was another thing altogether: if my memory serves me correctly I think I hooked three fish and lost them all before the sun rose fully and activity ceased.
TRIBUTARIES OF THE BRAHMAPUTRA
Assam, that wondrous tea-growing community in north-eastern India has several tributaries of the great river that hold mahseer. They are not necessarily big fish but this is not the point. Hook one and youíll find that these northern mahseer with their long, lean shapes fight far better than the more rotund Cauvery monsters. Indeed, hook a tigerish mahseer from one of the Assam tributaries and you wonít know if itís fifteen or fifty pounds until you get it close to the bank.
Moving further north and east we come to the magical lands of Arunashal Pradesh, squashed in between Tibet to the west, China to the north and Myanmar (Burma) to the east. I visited Arunashal Pradesh for the first time in 1995 and was stunned by the range of mahseer rivers available. Some of these are large rivers like the Seang but many are considerably smaller, often without internationally recognised names at all. In the wilds of Arunashal Pradesh internal transport is very difficult indeed and itís essential to have your own jeep. Mind you, even this might not get you very far and youíll soon find yourself heading into the mountains on foot, often across the flimsiest of bridges spanning the deepest of ravines. Arunashal Pradesh, in my view, offers probably one of the great untapped mahseer challenges still available today. Itís a land whose surface has been barely scratched by sportsmen either in the past or the present.
You will find that the rivers to the north are fast and comparatively shallow over virtually all their course and bait fishing with lumps of ragi paste Ė the most common form of catching mahseer on the Cauvery Ė is all but unknown here. Virtually all the mahseer fishing in these northern rivers is with plug, spoon or spinner. Every angler hereabouts has his own favourite pattern so my advice is to take as wide a selection as you can. Plugs of around four or five inches are generally good, especially in the colours brown, green and yellow. Try silver and copper spoons and spinners Ė anything between two and five inches long. Big Super Shads work well Ė try the gold colour in slightly coloured water. The important thing is to keep experimenting till you find the winner.
Spinning rods of about ten feet in length and not too heavy are the weapons to choose and donít go lighter than twenty pounds breaking strain when it comes to line. Fifty pound fish are not uncommon and remember what I said about their fighting qualities. Some anglers like to use braid but my advice is to stick to nylon in the northern rivers. There are simply just so many rocks and snags that braid can be sheared in a moment. The choice between multiplier and fixed-spool reel is rather up to you: I tend to go for the latter but there will always be traditionalists who prefer the solid engineering of the multiplier.
Timing is essential and the windows are frequently quite tight. Preferred times for the Ganges are roughly between mid-August and late September. Arunashal Pradesh tends to be a little bit later. The fishing in Nepal has a broader season: it can be very good in October and November and then again from February through March and even into April if you can stand the heat.
You will probably fly either into Delhi, Calcutta or Kathmandu and itís important to have some organisation already waiting for you on the ground. The Indian Tourist Office in London has a long list of operators in the Himalayan region who are all fully accredited and who will be able to help with transport, camps and possible locations. Remember, though, not all these outfitters are geared up towards fishing so do ask very pertinent questions when you are either phoning or e-mailing.
Or you can, of course, do the whole thing yourself. A young friend of mine in the early nineties flew himself out to Delhi, caught buses up to Dehara Dun and then onto Haridwar. From there he hired an ox cart up to the high passes above the Nyar. Then he simply shouldered his rucksack and walked. And he managed to catch mahseer too! A young man who deserves a great deal of credit.
Iíve simply pinpointed four very likely areas. I have no doubt that in the future Ladakh and Bhutan will be more thoroughly explored. Back in 1989 when I was in Kashmir I heard tell of some interesting mahseer rivers that could open up again once the trouble there ceases. If ever.
The same goes for Tibet and MyanmarÖboth countries almost certainly hold mahseer rivers of unbelievable potential and we can only pray that political reforms make it possible for us to travel there in the near future. The point Iím trying to make is that if youíre interested in mahseer a world awaits and whilst the Cauvery is an absolutely thrilling venue you mustnít fall into the trap of thinking itís the only one in the world.