Unable to get out and fish due to Coronavirus restrictions, Angling journalist and author Gary Newman relives one of his greatest captures as he makes plans to get out and chase dream fish once the current situation has passed. It’s a must read for anyone who has mahseer fishing on their bucket list!
Currently it is looking like at least one, if not more, of the overseas trips which I have planned and booked are going to be postponed until next year, as a result of Covid-19 and the fact that the windows of opportunity where conditions are prime, are often quite short.
So, I’ve been reminiscing about a trip last year where things couldn’t have gone any better, and after many years of trying, I finally managed to catch a fish of a size that I never really dreamed was possible. Having spoken to several fisheries scientists since then who have done a lot of work on mahseer, it turns out that this particular species of them is now quite rare and the one that I was lucky enough to bank is amongst the largest ever weighed!
An obsession begins…
My obsession with mahseer began when I was just a kid and it wasn’t until many years later that I finally got to hold one myself.
I first became aware of the species when I watched John Wilson catching them on his ‘Go Fishing’ TV show. At the time, however, catching one seemed completely unobtainable and it wasn’t until 15 years or so later that I made my first of many trips to India.
That initial holiday to the Bheemeshwari fishing camp, on the famous Cauvery River, in Karnataka, resulted in me catching a humpback golden mahseer of 44lb. That was the start of a love affair with the species which saw me spending many months in total – not to mention most of my spare savings! – pursuing them over the past 15 years or so.
A lot of that time was spent on the Cauvery, where I managed to increase my personal best to 52lb, as well as losing several bigger fish, including one of around 80lb which I saw clearly at my feet just before it made one last dive and cut the line on a rock!
But I also ventured to the northern states to try my luck on the Ramganga and Ganges, as well as across into Nepal on the Karnali and Babai rivers. But a big fish always eluded me and my best Himalayan mahseer stood at 22lb – although I was lucky enough to catch goonch catfish to over 100lb and was once connected to a huge mahseer on the Ramganga, possibly as big as 50lb, for more than 15 minutes before it cut me off around a rock, which unfortunately is quite a common occurrence when fishing for the species.
Mahseer fishing in decline?
Then, all of a sudden, my fishing in India came to an end as angling was banned on the Cauvery, and I went off looking for other challenges, mostly in South America, but a big mahseer was still always at the back of my mind – I just wasn’t sure if I would ever get another chance to catch one.
With the species seemingly on the decline, especially in terms of real monsters being caught, it was great to see the Kali and Saryu rivers suddenly producing a few huge specimens each year, and I decided that I would probably regret it if I didn’t take the opportunity to go and try to catch one myself.
As I’d discovered previously, things can change quickly in India, and soon after booking a trip with The Himalayan Outback to the famous junction where these two rivers meet at Pancheshwar, fishing was suddenly banned across the whole state of Uttarakhand, and it looked like I was too late. I couldn’t believe it as once again it looked like mis-guided bureaucracy was going to put an end to my mahseer fishing.
This whole region is under threat from a large hydroelectric dam project on the Kali, which will turn it into a lake and will likely cause the demise of mahseer in the area, so I was gutted as I thought that I had missed my opportunity, and although I was still looking forward to an exploratory trip up into the north-east states instead, I wasn’t feeling the same buzz as I had been about fishing at Pancheshwar.
So, you can imagine how pleased I was when the rules were changed once again at the start of the year, and the original trip was back on. I would be travelling with three friends – Sean, Nick and Darren – and from the catch reports I’d seen for the past few years, I knew that the seven days fishing that we had on the river at the end of May would give us a good chance of catching a big fish, and hopefully one of us might be lucky to get one in excess of 40lb – although my more realistic target was a thirty, and anything bigger would be a massive bonus.
A fresh adventure
After months of planning, checking tackle, and buying far more lures than I really needed, as is often the way with this type of trip, I finally boarded a flight from Heathrow to Delhi, where I met up with my friends.
We then took an internal flight to Pantnagar, before heading towards the Nepalese border by road – Pancheshwar is located right on the border, and Nepal is on the other side of the Kali river – and by the time we reached the camp darkness had fallen, so our first proper look at the river would have to wait until the morning.
I’ve spent a lot of time travelling all over the world, but I’ve never stayed at a fishing camp quite like this one – from start to finish the staff, tented accommodation (we even had proper beds!), food, and everything else about it was amazing, and I really couldn’t find fault. Having done other trips where I’ve slept under the stars on rocks by the river wrapped in a sheet, and lived on daal and rotis for a couple of weeks, this was proper luxury and included some of the best Indian food that I have ever eaten anywhere, and that includes top restaurants. This type of five-star treatment on a trip isn’t essential, but it certainly helps you to fish more effectively if you’ve had a good night sleep and have eaten well.
Tackle and lures for mahseer fishing
For the first day I just set up a lure outfit, opting for a Daiwa Taimen Special rod coupled with a Shimano 10000 Saragosa reel loaded with 30kg Power Pro – these fish can take a lot of line so I wasn’t going to fish too light and risk getting spooled. My leaders were 10ft of 40lb Momoi Neo fluorocarbon, which has a nice pinkish tinge and would give me a chance if a fish went around the rocks – I’d rather get less bites and stand a chance of landing what I hook, but if the fishing proved very difficult then I would drop down to 30lb leaders. I attached my leaders via an FG knot, which is essential when casting the knot through the rings, and a swivel and Decoy 5+ split ring allowed me to quickly change lure. The lures themselves had all had the trebles removed and replaced with appropriate sized Decoy JS1 inline single hooks.
Water levels were low and very clear, which meant that the chances of a bigger fish close to our camp was slim, so we headed off down the Saryu river to the junction, where the clear water meets the milky snow-melt of the Kali, and the mahseer gather around here prior to migrating up the Saryu to spawn when the monsoon rains come.
It quickly became obvious that the chances of catching a big mahseer in these conditions during the middle of the day were very low – plus it was incredibly hot with temperatures hitting 40 degrees or more and made the fishing hard work – as they are one of the wariest fish I’ve targeted, and this area receives a fair bit of angling pressure. That said, there was still a slim chance as new fish would be moving into the area each day and wouldn’t have had any lures cast at them. However, they’d still easily be able to tell the difference between an artificial lure and a real bait fish.
I tried various natural patterns of Rapala J13, plus some hand-made jointed huchen lures, fan casting upstream in order to work each spot and cover as much water as possible, but with no success, having tried both the Saryu and the Kali.
So, I decided to have a few casts on the Saryu with one of my favourite lures on these smaller Himalayan rivers – a number five Mepps Aglia long blade – and after a couple of casts to the far bank of the Saryu it was suddenly hit hard halfway back across the river, but although the fish stripped some line initially, I could instantly tell that it wasn’t very big, and after a spirited fight a beautiful little mahseer of around 2kg was unhooked in the edge and immediately returned.
That first day saw me land two more similar sized fish – one on a Mepps and the other on a J13 – but I already knew that it was going to be very hard to catch a big one on a lure unless we had some rain to give the water at least a tinge of colour. The fish were there as we’d seen a number of very big ones rolling throughout the day, but they just seemed to know that what we were putting in front of them was made from plastic or metal, and totally ignored it.
A change of plan…
I gave it another day on the lures, without any real success, before a decision was made to switch to bait fishing, which would give us a much better chance of connecting with a fish of the sort of size that we had travelled all that way in pursuit of.
My bait fishing set up was a 10ft 2-6oz Pacific Bay uptide rod with a Saragosa reel loaded with 30lb Big Game mono, to around 40 inches of 60lb Big Game as a hook link, and two size 8/0 Owner SSW hooks fished in tandem. For a weight I used a large stone tied on with cotton, which was enough to hold bottom but would break off should I hook a fish – this was attached to the hook link swivel.
Bait was hard to come by, but our guides managed to get us a few kalabanse, which we would use either live or dead – we didn’t have enough to be fussy!
We also decided to fish into darkness, as with the water being so clear we thought that this would give us a better chance.
Myself and Sean set-up at the junction for the evening and after a few hours without any sign of activity, he decided to wander upstream in the dark with a lure rod, leaving me to keep an eye on his bait fishing rod.
Shortly after he’d gone there was a fast take on his rod and I connected with a fish that wasn’t really doing much but felt quite heavy. He didn’t hear my calls and the fight was over in a matter of minutes as I landed a tor tor mahseer of 34lb.
It was great to get one and was my first of that species – previously I had only caught the golden barbus tor putitora – and although I had a quick photo with it, I didn’t really feel that I could count it as I hadn’t cast the bait out myself, and all I had done was play it in and land it.
That was the end of the action for us, but it was very encouraging to have had a bite, and Darren had also managed to catch a fish of mid-20s on bait as well, so we were now confident this was the right way to go.
On our next session it was agreed that it was Nick and Darren’s turn to fish the junction itself, and myself and Sean headed a little way up the Saryu to a spot which I had fancied fishing anyway, as the river narrowed slightly due to nearside underwater rocks.
So far all of our action and most sightings of fish had been on the far side of the river, but I was more than happy trying closer in, positioning a bait so that anything moving up the nearside of the river, or using the rocks as cover, was likely to find it.
We had a decent selection of live and dead baits that day, but I opted for a very large deadbait, knowing that anything that properly picked it up was going to be big.
An encounter with a giant
Sean kicked things off with an 18-pounder soon after we started fishing, which he caught from the far margin, but all remained quiet on my rod until early afternoon when the rod tip suddenly buckled over and the spool started to spin. I struck hard several times to set the hooks, and after that the spool went into meltdown despite the clutch being set fairly tight – although not too much so otherwise any contact with rocks tends to result in an instant cut-off if there is too much tension in the line.
The fish headed downstream towards the junction at an alarming rate, with me stumbling over rocks along the waters edge as I tried to keep up with it and keep it on a fairly short line, and it only stopped once it reached the Kali river itself.
Momentarily the line became stuck in some rocks, where the Sarya dropped off into the deeper waters of the Kali, and my heart was in my mouth as I knew from previous experience how easily I could lose this fish, and I could tell that it was very big from how heavy it was to move and pump back.
Thankfully the line pinged off the rocks and I was back in direct contact and started to gain line, steering it back into the clear waters of the Saryu, and I couldn’t quite believe the size of the fish which hit the surface mid-river – I was now convinced that I was playing something in excess of 40lb.
It seemed to grow as it came closer, and after a few last lunges our guide Bobby Satpal grabbed hold of it in his arms at the first attempt and then secured it on a pair of Bogas. At that point it still hadn’t quite sunk in just how big this redfin mahseer was and when I asked Bobby if he thought it might be 50lb, he said that it was much bigger!
He was right, as it bottomed out a set of 60lb Bogas, but luckily I’d packed my 120lb scales and a proper weigh sling at the last minute, not that I was expecting to actually need them, and we settled on a weight of 62lb.
It was the biggest mahseer that I had ever caught, an absolute monster for the Himalayan rivers and way beyond anything that I had ever dreamt of, but more than that, it was also the most beautiful fish that I had ever seen, and I was in total awe of it.
After we’d taken some photos – without the fish ever leaving the water other than when I lifted it up briefly – I slipped it back and watched it swim off into the depths, knowing that I will probably never see another mahseer quite like it, as it really was the fish of a lifetime.
The mahseer were obviously on the feed, as after I had returned my fish my friends landed several more over 20lb, including a cracker of 42lb for Nick, but I refused to cast out again until they had all caught a decent one each.
By the evening the rest of my group had all caught mahseer in excess of 25lb and Bobby was urging me to get a bait back out, so I took him up on the offer as opportunities like this don’t come along very often – in fact at the end of the day Bobby told us it was the most productive day for big fish that they’d ever had.
I couldn’t quite believe it when shortly after casting out a livebait to the same spot, I found myself attached to another big fish, and if anything this one went off even faster, although things always seem more chaotic in the darkness, especially on this sort of terrain where you are having to run after the fish whilst trying to avoid breaking your ankle!
Eventually in the torchlight a long golden tor putitora mahseer surfaced and Bobby soon had hold of it, and initially we thought it was going to break the 50lb barrier, but it was quite lean and the scales stopped at 45lb.
Even this fish was more than double my previous best Himalayan mahseer, and it seemed ridiculous that in two casts I had just landed a brace of mahseer totalling 107lb, which I would imagine is one of the largest weighed braces to be caught in recent times from Northern India. Mahseer are a species that I had never been very lucky with previously, but that certainly changed on this trip.
The fishing was slow for the rest of our stay, but it was nice just being by the river and taking in the stunning surroundings, plus paying a visit to the famous temple at the junction, and all too soon it was time to start making the long journey back to Delhi.
I’ve been lucky enough to catch a lot of great fish over the years, but this rates as my best ever catch, and it wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for all the guys at The Himalayan Outback, and in particular our guides, Bobby, Sanjay, Sunil, and Roshan, who tried their hardest to put us onto fish and ensure that we had a good trip.