Fly Fishing for Golden Mahseer in the Indian Himalayas

Maharajas of the Sarayu

By Matt Harris

Destination: India


Since I was a little lad in short trousers, winkling a procession of hapless tiddlers from the Grand Union Canal, the Mahseer has been swimming through my feverish, fish-filled dreams like stardust.

My younger brother, Olly, and I caught the fishing bug early, and armed with the crude tackle that we acquired at the local pet shop, we would spend most of our summers catching small perch & gudgeon. We stumbled upon a dusty old fishing almanac, full of antique line drawings of porcupine quills, centre-pin reels and jardine snap-tackles, and would amuse each other by reading out the prescriptive prose in a suitably plummy approximation of a BBC presenter from the early fifties. One chapter however, really caught our imagination: it concerned “The rod abroad”, and featured heroic descriptions of epic battles between pith-helmeted servants of the Raj and the mighty Mahseer of the subcontinent. These majestic and impossibly large fish, and the misty Indian riverscapes they populated, seemed as remote and as exotic as the moon, and whenever Olly or I hooked a particularly stubborn perch, or more usually a shopping trolley or bicycle frame, we would bend the rod hard and go into a well-rehearsed, pop-eyed routine about how we had finally hooked up with a golden mahseer of titanic and record-busting proportions.

Times change – Olly traded his rods for computers and, as I pursued my passion for angling, I discovered the singular magic of fly-fishing. Initially, I chased trout, before discovering salmon, and then any number of fabulous aquatic foe, from Russia to New Zealand to the Amazon jungle. I fell in love with the high-flying tarpon and the greyhounding bonefish of the Carribean flats, the pugnacious Peacock bass of Brazil’s Sao Benedito River and the rocket-fast long-tailed tuna of Australia’s far northern shores, and my dreams of the magical Golden Mahseer, a fish normally seduced with bait, were all but forgotten.

Then, in the late summer of this year, I spoke to Misty Dhillon, a charming angler from India’s far western city of Chandigarh and a true fly-fishing pioneer. Misty told me how he had managed to start to catch this most wily of adversaries consistently using fly tackle. He also talked of how the British had fished for the Himalayan mahseer with fly-rods and fly-spoons way back in the time of the Raj. I was fascinated and intrigued, and when Misty asked if I would like to join him on an exploratory trip, I barely allowed him to finish his sentence.

Stately elegance of the colonial barracks in the Red Fort - Contrasting crowded confusion of Old Delhi

Flying into Delhi, red-eyed and travel-weary, I was hit by the full force of the juggernaut – or “jaggernath” - that is India. No amount of “Rough Guides” or “Lonely Planets” can prepare you for the relentless assault on each and every sense that this unique and very special country provides. The ride from central Delhi to the Northern Railway Station, skirting the magnificent “Red Fort”, is a white-knuckle ride of blaring horns and death-defying brinksmanship as everything from rattling tuk-tuks to articulated lorries to livestock do their level best to bar your way.

All human life is assembled on the sprawling platforms of the train terminal and boarding the train with a large collection of camera gear and rod-cases in tow is not a feat for the faint-hearted. I met up with Justin Maxwell-Stewart, a fellow angling explorer and the brains behind the “Where Wise Men Fish” operation, and after exchanging brief pleasantries with him and his lovely Brazilian girlfriend, Tanya, we forced our way into the maelstrom and somehow wrestled our way onto the train.

Nine hours and a good paperback later, we arrived in Kathgodam, a small but bustling town nestling at the foot of the Himalayas, and after an excellent curry and a good and much-needed night’s sleep on crisp white sheets, we piled the kit into the trucks and set out on the last part of our epic journey to the banks of the Sarayu.

Chatting through the long hours winding on up into the clouds, I was suddenly struck dumb as we rounded a corner and were confronted by Nandi Devi, India’s highest peak at over 25,000 ft and just one spectacular snow-swept highlight in the astonishing chain of the western Himalaya. Climbing over the jagged passes, meandering through villages populated by children who were by turns bashful or disarmingly extrovert and friendly, it wasn’t until the late afternoon that we started to descend from 14,000 ft down to the river valley, catching our first view of the emerald waters of the Sarayu River as the sun started to dip into the west.

Despite the long journey sights such as this make the experience unforgettable

Snaking down to the gleaming, silvery water, through the dense highland forests, it was easy to imagine Jim Corbett heroically stalking one of the legendary man-eating tigers that used to terrorise the tiny villages scattered throughout this bewitching corner of Northern India.

We were greeted by Misty’s crew – drawn from all over India, each member exuded a disarming warmth and friendliness, and all seemed desperately keen to make our trip as comfortable and as enjoyable as possible. They were uniformly horrified to discover that, unlike some of their previous English guests, we didn’t want to eat the bland Lasagna that they had proudly served up, but instead were coveting the tarka dhal and stuffed paratha that the team were tucking into with gusto: fantastic food that, once we’d established that our western palates would survive it, was one of the highlights of a magical trip.

So, how was the fishing? Well, Misty portrayed it as being much like salmon fishing – a relentless procession of cast-and-step, down-and-across presentations with a very occasional hit from the elusive Mahseer. The crucial difference of course is that Mahseer, unlike salmon, are obliged to eat whilst in the river. Waking early to find the magical valley wreathed in mist and a preying mantis scuttling across the rod-rack, I decided to spend much of the first day watching Misty through my camera lens, not least in order to see the maestro’s technique at first hand. I was enormously impressed by Misty’s elegant casting technique, handling the double-handed rod and heavy sink-tip lines that he maintained were necessary with genuine finesse. Misty employed a range of flies similar to the ubiquitous “woolly bugger”, dark, buggy, impressionistic flies that might represent bugs or possibly small loaches or sculpins, tied to unnervingly light 6 lb test nylon. However, despite his excellent technique, Misty only managed one tiny Mahseer. It was clear that even the smaller Mahseer were extremely wily customers. Having heard Misty’s accounts of the terrific power of these fish, and recalling Kipling’s famous description of the Mahseer: “Besides whom the tarpon is as a herring”, I started to wonder at how these powerful fish might possibly be tricked into taking a fly with regularity, without the need to resort to such flimsy leader material.

Every single scrap of land is utilised for crops or grazing – terracing on an incredibly grand scale

Picking up my rod as the light started to ebb from the Himalayan skies, I was about to make a cast when I saw a fish rise. I was moved to question whether perhaps my eyes had played tricks on me when another unmistakable splash way out in the hazy half-light confirmed that the fish were indeed feeding on the surface.

I looked up into the gathering gloom but couldn’t find any bugs to copy, so, flicking on my head-torch, I fished out a “Stimulator”, a big deer-hair bug that might represent a big caddis, a moth or any number of other night-time goodies skating enticingly across the surface. I was soon very sure that I hadn’t managed to crack the code – the fish continued to splash vigorously whilst studiously ignoring my fly – but after scaling down to a smaller fly of the same design, I finally managed one small three pounder that punched way over its weight.

A mahseer on the dry fly on your birthday is quite something – Misty’s team even made me a fantastic cake to celebrate – but I knew that I’d only just scratched the surface. The Mahseer – so dour and elusive during the day – had come out to play as the light leeched from the sky, and walking back to camp along the river, we had heard numerous, often hefty-sounding splashes in the rosy twilight. And yet the evening air was devoid of any discernable bugs? The fish were obviously feeding hard on something, and I resolved to spend the following day trying to find out what this might be, in preparation for the next evening’s efforts.

Misty fishing the tail of a glassy pool on the Sarayu River

I was up early, and chatting to Tapir, my guide, as we stepped over the leopard-prints on our way down to the river, it quickly became clear that I had been barking up the wrong tree. In spite of language problems, it was soon apparent that Tapir was hugely knowledgeable and very experienced in fishing for mahseer. The monsoon, terrifically powerful in the Sarayu region, had only recently passed, and its effect is to scour the river of a large percentage of its entomological population. The reason that I hadn’t seen any bugs in the air was because there simply weren’t any. Tapir produced a couple of Mole Crickets, remarkable creatures that burrow into the glacial sands on the riverbank: they looked like a hearty meal for a mahseer, and when he tossed one into the river, it sent out enticing signals as it swam confidently back to shore. I wasn’t convinced that they represented a huge part of the mahseer’s diet, but what did strike me was that a surface fly represented a way of making a gentle and stealthy presentation. The mahseer is a member of the carp family and is typically sensitive to disturbance, which surely means that heavy sinking lines are “out” in all but the most turbulent of flows.

When Tapir showed me large shoals of small silver fish sheltering in the slack water later that morning, I thought that perhaps I was looking at another piece in the jigsaw puzzle: standing on a suspension bridge high above the river, I looked down on three large shapes holding nonchalantly in the heavy current, and knew instinctively that these lithe creatures simply cannot grow so powerful and strong on a diet of small bugs.

Watching the fish explode in a panic when Justin’s well-presented fly came swinging into view, I was reminded of the sea-trout of the Towy back home – those magnificent Welsh trophies are often visible, but are almost only ever caught at night, and it cemented my plan to concentrate my efforts under cover of darkness.

Chatting with Misty, I examined his fry patterns, and recognised many as staples of the US trout angler – the woolly bugger, sculpin and olive zonker are all excellent flies in their place, but the baitfish that we were seeing in the crystal waters of the Sarayu were not smudgy black or olive-hued bottom-dwellers hunkering under the rocks but sparkling silver creatures sitting high in the water-column. Leafing through my fly-box, I pulled out two saltwater patterns that I thought might work: the Gummy Minnow is a silicon-based sub-surface pattern that wreaks havoc even on sharp-eyed tuna, whilst the Crease Fly is a killing surface imitation that can catch everything from Striped Bass to Barracuda.

Misty was intrigued – fly-fishing in India is a lonely pursuit, insulated and isolated by its geography, and most of the anglers that Misty has hosted so far have been freshwater anglers from the US, UK and South Africa. Saltwater flies were new to him, and he was hugely enthusiastic about trying these new patterns on our quarry.

As the sun fell sharply into the west and the shadows lengthened, Tapir and I made our way to a long, glassy glide at the tail of a wide pool a mile or so above the village. While the monkeys huddled up into the trees to await the night, Tapir and I discussed our tactics. Just as I would on a sea-trout stream back home, I decided to wait until all light had slipped from the sky, and as we finally edged our way down to the river, all that I could see was the impossible galaxy of diamond-bright stars twinkling in the clear mountain air, interrupted by the jagged black triangles of the Himalayan foothills. I wound up my short double-handed rod and full floating line and made a long, delicate cast, delivering the crease fly gently onto the mirror-bright surface of the river.

So often, all those carefully wrought plans come to nought: cast after cast unfurls and we slowly realise that all our clever calculations are in fact well wide of the mark. I’ve been there many times, but on this magical night, everything went to plan. On that very first cast, my heart leapt as there was a big boil at the skating fly, followed by a wrenching take and after a violent tussle, a fish from my childhood dreams – a magnificent, mirror-scaled mahseer - was finally being cradled in the golden light of Tapir’s head-torch.

The prize - A beautiful Golden Mahseer - The size of the tail gives an indication of the sort of power these fish can muster.

I lost the next two fish after brief contact and digging back into my sea-trout experiences, I attached a tiny “stinger” barbless treble to the back of the Crease Fly. The change worked like a charm – in all I managed five mahseer on that fabulous star-spangled night. Nothing huge – the best was around nine pounds - but each fish fought like a tiger and made me shudder at the notion of hooking one of the much bigger fish that populate this and innumerable other rivers throughout the length and breadth of India.

The following day, Justin, Misty and I worked our way down to the scarlet-ribboned temple at the mouth of the Sarayu, where it joins the mighty Mahakali River, demarking the border with Nepal.

Dodging our way through the early morning webs, spun by the impossibly large bird-eating spiders that hung lazily in the deliciously warm sunshine, we fished our way through magical scenery, the valley’s lush banks punctuated by Pancheshwar, a tiny gem of a village bursting with tinkling bells and giggling, inquisitive, bright-eyed children. Justin managed a couple of nice fish on the Gummy minnow, fishing the fly dead-drift in imitation of a dead or dying bait-fish, but it was the night time that again provided the bulk of the thrills and spills, four fish again succumbing to my waking crease fly and delivering addictive sport in the inky darkness.

Too soon we had to return – three days on the river had flashed by in a blur, and as we started to wind back up into the clouds, my only regret was that we hadn’t had a little longer to employ all we had learned on the magnificent Maharajas of the Sarayu. I shared some fascinating conversations with Misty, who had pulled out a travel vise and a huge bag of fly-tying materials, and had very quickly knocked up some excellent Crease flies to try on many of the other beautiful rivers flowing out of the Himalayas. He told me of the Ramganga, a smaller more intimate river that flows through the Jim Corbett National Park, a little to the west of the Sarayu, This river, untouched by anglers, guarded by the tigers of the park and with a much higher density of Mahseer than even the Sarayu, had become available exclusively to him to fish in the Spring. Would I like to return? The idea of a full week, armed with my new-found knowledge and facing a smaller, more manageable river with even more plentiful and often more sizeable fish was irresistible, and I signed up immediately.

In truth, in spite of the efforts of the British anglers in the days of the Raj, the grand adventure of mahseer fishing with the fly rod is only just beginning, and as pioneering anglers like Misty start to unravel the secrets of this magnificent quarry, who knows just what might be possible with these formidably strong, majestic-looking fish. I for one want to be there as the story unfolds, and I cannot wait for the next instalment.

Final look at the Sarayu River as we wound our way back up the mountainous slopes.

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