The Last Mahaseer – Fishing in India

A fine six pounderPlunk! A silver splash breaks the taut skin of the water just upstream of the grey boulder where the rapid enters the calm womb of the turquoise pool. With slow turns of the handle I begin to reel in my lure; gently easing it as close to the boulder as possible. It’s here in the fast water, among the rocks that the mighty mahaseer thrives. Can feel my lure scraping the rocks on the river bed as the line draws it back. Soon a flash of silver marks the position of the spoon as it makes it’s way across the pool.

Ten or fifteen young ones, all under a pound, warily follow the spoon as it limps along. They are new to this game of deception but with time they will learn. I keep a look out for any larger ones. None! It’s April though and the water is low in these smaller Himalayan rivers. At this stage the larger fish have either been caught or have moved down to the confluence with the larger rivers.

The small fish scatter in confusion as the lure exits the water. I watch them mill around, searching for the strange visitor to their pool. I flick the spoon out again. It bounces off the far boulder with a metallic ping and drops into the backwash. Perfect. Again I repeat the ritual of reeling in slowly. But for the steady gurgle of the small rapid, the steep sided valley of the Ladya is stilled to a meditative silence. I can hear myself breathe.

A day ago we were fishing the much larger river Sarda, to which the Ladya is a tributary. The Sarda was monstrously swollen with steel grey melt water from the glaciers of the greater Himalaya. Only days ago the surging waters would have been part of a gigantic river of ice which took years to move a few feet. The volume and power of the river was an awesome sight, quite a different experience from fishing the Ladya. Long walks, heavy fast water lures, big casts, and heavy line were the call of the day. More of a ‘power game’ as my partner put it. Repeated long casts into the swirling grey current where the odd tree would come floating past, had worn us out. To add to that, two days of unrewarded effort had completely killed any desire to continue ‘working’ the river.

Over a cup of sweet chai at the nearby tea shop the locals informed us that they too had been catching nothing in their nets. Though netting in these rivers is illegal, I had seen a few nets hanging out to dry quite openly. The illegal fishermen in turn blamed it on more destructive reasons. They attributed their dismal catches to excessive bombing, electrocuting and poisoning of the river.

Over the past few years, these activities combined to produce devastating results on the river ecosystem. The bombs, obtained from the numerous road construction projects, rip open the air sacks of entire generations of fish. Electrocution also destroys life in the river. The most destructive by far is the use of poisons such as potash and bleach. The poison doesn’t just kill the fish but also the entire ecosystem. What’s more, once introduced in the water, it doesn’t just kill within it’s immediate vicinity but leaves a trail of destruction as it is carried downstream. Only a fraction of the fish killed by any of these measures are of an edible size, and of these, even a smaller amount are actually recovered from the swift current. Most are either overlooked, discarded or swept away.

Baramdeo, on the river Sarda, is typical of a place that has borne the brunt of relentless bombing, netting and poisoning. It was once a haven for the mahaseer. Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter, wrote about the great fishing at this spot in the 1930′s. Baramdeo also happened to be the spot where I landed my first golden mahaseer. A magnificent five pounder that fought like a wounded wild boar. Now, over ten years later I can still remember every detail; the way my fiberglass rod bent nearly double under the weight, the screaming protest of the reel as meter after meter of line was stripped off the spool, the silver flash of scales in the deep green of the river…I could go on and on.

MahaseerThe Mahaseer, barbus tor, belongs to the carp family and is the most sought after sport fish in India. Since they live in the swift waters of mountain rivers they are very energetic and put up one hell of a fight. If you fish with light line, 10-12 pounds, landing a five to ten pound Mahaseer will be one of the most thrilling experiences of your life. Once hooked, a Mahaseer will strip your reel of line, make you run up and down along the river bank in pursuit and leave you pumped with adrenalin.

Back at the smaller Ladya I was beginning to enjoy the company of the small fish which trailed my lure with youthful curiosity. With every cast I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a larger fish which would provide some sport. Cast after cast I saw none. Despite this apparent lack of larger ones, fishing the Ladya is quite technical and engrossing. Precision and control is required for rivers of this size. Your casts have to be very accurate and your recovery has to be extremely smooth and controlled. I constantly swapped lures to try and change tactics, but unfortunately, nothing seemed to be working.

Just then I caught a glimpse of a magnificent specimen gliding across a sand-bar in the shallow water; a glorious display of golden tinted fins and silver scales. I frantically signal to my friend who jumps onto a boulder to get a better view. We silently watch a flawless display of power and grace that would make any angler’s heart rate double. A light breeze ripples the river’s surface and the proud body merges into the distortion of light and shadow.

So they do exist after all! Waning energy levels notch a few levels higher. I cast in the general direction in which the fish was headed. Have to exercise great restraint to control the speed I’m reeling in at. “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” I keep repeating in my mind. Half an hour later I have seen nothing but the same young ones. Instinct alone has kept that big one alive so far so I suppose it’s not going to be easy to catch him. Reluctantly I move on downstream to try another pool.

A smile after a stiff fightMy friend urgently signals me to join him further downstream. Another large fish? I leap over the broken ground as fast as I can and am by his side in a flash. Silently he points to some white shapes in the green depths of a pool – the undersides of small fish lying at the bottom. I reach down and pick up the closest one. A six inch victim with its belly torn out and eyes misting up as decomposition sets in. Explosives! Must have happened in the last 24 hours. I feel sick as I throw the small fish back and watch it sink back into the green depths.

Further downstream we find the fish in the lower pools have suffered the same fate. After seeing the damage and the senseless waste I cannot get myself to cast again. I begin to feel like a criminal for trying to catch these spirited creatures struggling against such destructive odds. I put my rod away and sit by the river bank to watch some survivors darting around in the shallows. I don’t know what to feel when I see them – hope for the future or a deep-seated sadness. Will they survive or will they concede to what seems like their inevitable fate?

On the walk back to the car I stop at the pool where I had spotted the big one earlier in the day. As I stand there I cannot help but feel that somehow I have seen the last mighty mahaseer.

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