Fishing for the legendary Mahseer in the Himachal foothills of the Himalayas
By Jason Overdorf
DESTINASIAN (May 2008)
MY FEET MUST BE BLEEDING, I KEPT THINKING. I COULDN’T know for sure because I was wading barefoot across a freezing Himalayan river in my underwear, and Prahalad, my leather-soled fishing guide, wouldn’t stop long enough for me to check. But there was no turning back. I was in the middle of the river now, and I really, really wanted to catch one of the golden mahseer that I hoped to find on the opposite bank. Besides, Prahalad had a viselike grip on my hand. And he had my pants.
The mahseer (Hindi for “great fish”) has a storied reputation from the days of the Raj, when India’s British colonizers introduced sport fishing to the subcontinent. Jim Corbett, the famous hunter, considered wrestling the mahseer more exciting, even, than stalking man-eating leopards and tigers. And Rudyard Kipling went so far as to write that the mahseer was a game fish “beside whom the tarpon is as a herring, and he who lands him can say he is a fisherman.”
To Atlantic anglers, those are provocative words. But they’re not unfounded. The
mahseer is one of the world’s largest scaly freshwater fish, capable of growing more
than a meter long and weighing up to 90 kilograms—though the record for one taken
with rod and reel, set in 1946, is 54 kilos. A beautiful fish with green and gold scales the size of silver dollars, the mahseer bears a resemblance to the Chinese carp (a distant relative) and the prized tarpon. An opportunistic predator, the Himalayan variety will strike flies and spinning lures, as well as live bait. It hits like a ton of bricks and fights like hell, too—sometimes snapping an 18-kilo test line like it’s cotton string. The golden mahseer, found in the rivers of the
Himalayas, is swifter and lighter than the monstrous humpback mahseer of south
India’s Cauvery River. But experts say the golden mahseer is more aggressive. It’s also harder to catch. As dams mushroom in the Indian Himalayas and local villagers
empty the best pools, you have to trek deeper and deeper into tiger country to land one of these legendary fish.
This spring, I traveled from Delhi up the old Grand Trunk Road with my 64-year-old father to try to hook one. The trip was organized by Himalayan Outback, a three-year-old company started by a young Indian outfitter named Misty Dhillon, whom a number of graybearded mahseer fanatics have called “the future of Indian angling.” Compared with those of the United States, Europe, or even South America, India’s sport-fishing industry is virtually nonexistent. After the British left India, interest in sport
fishing waned, and a rapidly expanding—and hungry—population stripped the rivers of fish. Something of a revival began in 1977, when Britons Robert Howitt, Andrew Clark, and Martin Clark made a comprehensive survey of India’s rivers as part of their
so-called Transworld Fishing Expedition. A few years later, Howitt convinced the Indian government to protect a section of the Cauvery River from overzealous meat fishermen, giving rise to events like the Mahseer Maharaja World Cup and a steady influx of international anglers. But the golden mahseer of the Himalayas is only now starting to get the same kind of attention, and Misty Dhillon is a good part of the reason why. A quick Internet search on the mahseer shows that he’s written dozens of articles about fishing in the Himalayas, and doggedly farmed them out to every forum, Web site, and discussion board he could find. Today he’s one of a handful of Himalayan outfitters (perhaps the only one) who makes the lion’s share of his revenue from catch-and-release fishing.
“A lot of companies here say they’re angling specialists, but they really sustain their businesses through wildlife tours or rafting,” he says. “We’ve focused on angling, and all our clientele is pretty much angling right now.”
Misty is also leading an effort to prove that the golden mahseer, unlike its fat-bellied cousin down south, will take a fly. “People used to say that you can never catch this fish on a fly, but I believed that you could,” he says, adding that he began experimenting with his own fly lures a few years ago. “That was important, because fly fishermen are the ones who have the money and the passion to be able to afford to come to these wild areas. Now, pretty much all of our work is fly fishing.”
The survival of the golden mahseer could well be at stake. India is hard at work on dozens of hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas, and locals still fill their larders using dynamite, gill nets, bleaching powder, and truck batteries—practices that kill every fish in the water, big or small. As a result, the mahseer has already disappeared from waters in heavily populated areas like the Thumaria, Deoha, and Dhora reservoirs, according to a recent report by the Wildlife Institute of India.
Outfitters like Misty have so far proven to be the best defense. By leasing the fishing rights to sections of rivers like the Yamuna, Ramganga, Ganges, and Alaknanda, angling and rafting companies have assumed responsibility for curbing pollution and poaching. “In prime habitats—our clients want to go to the finest areas—companies like us are doing a lot of education,” Misty told me. “Our main strength is that our staff is all local. When they go to the villages and say, ‘Look guys, if you dynamite you’ll probably make 500 rupees for every 10 fish that you kill, but if
you get a job with Himalayan Outback, you stand a chance of making a lot more money,’ it really means something. Where we are operating, people are actually seeing the benefits.” So far, no detailed studies have been undertaken to track the results. But the condition of the rivers near outfitters’ fishing beats and rafting camps suggests that the scheme is working.
For our trip, my dad and I hiked about two hours into the Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh to reach Misty’s fishing camp on a tributary of the Yamuna—a location that he wants to keep secret from his competitors. “It’s a fishing expedition in the real sense of the word, unlike, say, Alaska, where you’re flown into a remote section of river and you’re fishing out of a lodge,” he’d told me before I left. “Here, you’re trekking and experiencing a lot of local culture. It’s more of a real expedition.”
Even with porters carrying our gear, it was a pretty tough slog up and down the steep, narrow trail that the local villagers use to walk to the nearest road, and now and then I asked myself whether I had overestimated my dad’s physical limits. But Misty was right about the beauty of the place. The psychological fatigue of seven hours swerving around trucks, minicabs, and bullock carts on the Grand Trunk Road evaporated in the crisp air, and looking down at the snaking, green-and-blue river from the track, I made a mental note to escape the noise and dust of Delhi more
often. The year before, my dad and I had made a trip out to central Oregon to fish for trout on the Deschutes River; Misty’s “secret” tributary was just as beautiful.
The fishing camp was comfortable enough, if rustic. Accommodations were canvas, army-style tents large enough to stand up in. There was a shower tent with heated bucket water for bathing and another tent with a freshly dug latrine, a pile of dirt, and a shovel. No 400-threadcount sheets; no electricity. But the beds were soft enough that I never failed to get less than nine hours of sleep, completely dead to the world after the sun went down. We never had to lift a finger, and the camp staff looked after us as expertly as a moderatepriced Indian hotel. A cook equipped with a propane stove, two dogsbodies, and running water from a hose attached to a mountain spring a few hundred meters up the hill managed some fairly impressive culinary feats for the bush, though I will say that “continental” fare should be struck from the menu by all trekking, rafting, and fishing companies throughout India (as well as most hotels). Spaghetti bolognese was never meant to be hammered out of ground mutton and sprinkled with chips of goat bone.
The only problem was one frequently encountered on this sort of expedition: no fish. I’d been to the Ramganga River in April the year before—not for a fishing trip, unfortunately—and I’d seen entire schools of mahseer hunting in the shadows along the bank. No such luck this time; February to May is supposed to be a strong season, but the winter had been unusually long, and a week of sporadic rainstorms had lowered the water temperature even further. Despite our best efforts, fishing hard for four or five hours a day over the course of two days (one day was wasted as we hunkered down to weather a freezing drizzle, finally declaring it a write-off and returning to our sleeping bags), we never felt a tug, never glimpsed a ripple, and certainly never hooked a fish.
That’s probably why I agreed to cross the river, against my better judgment, even though I hadn’t thought to bring along a pair of wading shoes. As with all stupid decisions, I knew it was a mistake before I started out. But I blundered along anyway, and before long I was hip-deep in ice-cold water, dead certain that I was
doggedly turning my half-numb feet into hamburger. And I still didn’t get a nibble.
The only upside? When I finally hobbled back to camp, my miraculously unscathed feet
were toasty warm for the first time on the trip. Come to think of it, they were burning hot.
Most of the mahseer fishing camps in the Himalayan foothills are in Himachal Pradesh or Uttaranchal, a 7- to 10-hour drive from Delhi. For Himalayan Outback’s Camp Mahseer—the fishing spot featured in this article—the outfitters will meet guests at the New Delhi airport and travel with them by train (a comfortable three-hour trip
on the Shatabdi Express) to Ambala, from where you’ll travel another hour by car to the trailhead. From there, it’s about a 90-minute trek to the campsite; this takes you over some steep hills, so even with porters carrying your gear you need to be moderately fit.
WHEN TO GO
The official seasons for golden mahseer fishing are October– December and February–June, depending to some degree on the timing of the monsoon. Like salmon, the Himalayan mahseer migrates to spawn, traveling upriver once or twice a year, during which time they have little interest in feeding. The major migration takes place in
July and August, during the peak of the monsoon and snowmelt, when the rivers are at their highest levels. Weather-wise, February through early May is the most comfortable period for fishing.
Himalayan Outback (91-987/ 280-6359; himalayanoutback.com) offers a six-day Classic
Fishing Adventure at Camp Mahseer, on its secret Yamuna tributary, from US$200 per
person per day, depending on the season. The outfitter can also arrange a variety of
different float trips on the Ganges, Yamuna, Alaknanda, Ramganga, and Mahakali rivers, ranging from 5 to 15 days.
Another reputable operator, Otter Reserves (91-124/256- 4794; otterreserves.com)
focuses on fishing beats in Pancheshwar (on India’s border with Nepal) and the Ramganga Valley, outside Corbett National Park in Uttaranchal. Camp conditions and offerings are similar to those offered by Himalayan Outback.
For more comfortable accommodations, consider Vanghat River Lodge (91-971/924-3939; vanghat.com; doubles from US$70 plus US$50 per day of fishing), which has five spacious cottages on the Ramganga River. –JO