The opportunity to fish on the Saryu River in Northeastern India was truly a dream come true. As a child, I had eagerly read about Jim Corbett’s exploits hunting the great man eating leopards of India. When The Angling Report announced they were seeking volunteers to evaluate this fishery, I immediately jumped at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My quarry was to be India’s legendary golden mahseer on a 5-day fishing trip hosted by Where Wise Men Fish (www.wherewisemenfish.com) and made available for evaluation to the Online Extra subscribers of The Angling Report. The outfitter was none other than Misty Dhillon, owner of the Himalayan Outback (www.thehimalayanoutback.com). Although Misty is in his early 30’s, he is already a legendary figure in promoting and protecting this wonderfully unique fishery.
Let me begin by making one thing crystal clear, traveling to the Saryu River from just about anywhere in the United States is an epic journey in and of itself. For me, it began with a 1 hour flight Sunday afternoon on 4 October 2010 from Kansas City to Chicago O’Hare, followed by a 14 hour overnight transpolar flight from O’Hare to Delhi arriving in Delhi around 8:30 p.m. on Monday, 5 October 2010. After clearing customs and retrieving my luggage, I was met outside terminal 3, the new international terminal of Indiri Gandhi International Airport by Misty’s manager, David. David had a cab arranged, and took me to a very nice Indian guest house (read Bed & Breakfast). After overnighting in the guest house, and spending Tuesday morning, 6 October 2010, sightseeing in Delhi, David escorted me to the New Delhi Railway Station, where we boarded the 4:00 p.m. train to Kathgodam. We arrived in Kathgodam around midnight that same day, checked into our hotel, had a quick bite to eat, and grabbed a few short hours of shut eye before beginning the last leg of our journey at 4:00 a.m. the next day with a 10 hour drive by 4WD jeep to the confluence of the Saryu and Mahakali Rivers. The drive was the beginning of a visually spectacular adventure, as we were treated to expansive views of the distant Himalayan Mountains, countless small villages, monkeys and numerous types of birds. We eventually arrived at the confluence of the Saryu and Mahakali Rivers around 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 7 October 2010. Upon sighting the Saryu River from our vantage point high on the mountain road, my heart sank - the river was high and off color, nothing like I expected. Fishing began immediately upon our arrival at the confluence, while the remainder of our gear was rafted across the river to camp.
I wish I could say that I caught a fish on my very first cast. Unfortunately, by lunchtime on the next day (my 1st full day of fishing), I was worried I wouldn’t catch anything all week! However, with patience and Misty’s professional guidance, I did manage to land three mahseer the evening of my 1st full day on the river, a 3 lb, 5 lb, and 4 lb mahseer.
The Saryu River runs through a deep valley in the foothills of the Himalayas. To give you a better idea of where the camp was located, consider that the far bank of the Mahakali River is the border of Nepal. Prior to my arrival, the monsoon rains brought floods of biblical proportions to the river valley. Much of the road we took from Kathgodam to the camp was severely impacted by landslides, and it will take many more months of hard labor to repair the road to full use. Indeed, even when on the banks of the Saryu, one could look several thousand meters up the sides of the valley and clearly witness the scars from massive landslides leading all the way down to the riverbanks.
Back to the fishing. During my stay, the Saryu River was running very high. The river itself was a milky green color, visibility was around a foot. In the coming months, Misty claimed the river would become gin clear, and the mahseer would become very difficult to catch in that clear water. The best time to fish for trophy mahseer, again according to Misty, on this or any other Indian river, was right after the monsoon floods scour the river clean of all food sources. The mahseer complete their upstream spawning run during the floods, and now that the waters were subsiding, the large breeder fish were falling back downriver.
I primarily fished with spinning tackle. Stout rods in the 6-7 foot range with properly matched and balanced reels are necessary to cast spoons and plugs across to the far side of the river. Line in the 15-20 lb test range is necessary, as snags are numerous. I specifically used a 6 foot three-piece custom travel spinning rod I built myself on a Rainshadow Forecast blank rated for 12-25 lb line and 3/8 – 1 ¼ oz lures. My reel was a Penn 450ssg spooled with 12 lb Yo-Zuri fluorocarbon line.
The best times to fish for mahseer during my trip was from 4:00 in the morning until about 11:00 a.m., and then again in the evening from 5:00 p.m. until well past dark. Heavy spoons and plugs with stout trebles (one would be well advised to replace the factory trebles with stouter ones) and bend down the barbs to protect the fish.
Fly-fishing is mostly done with two-handed rods, sinking tips , with a variety of minnow, sculpin and dragonfly nymph patterns. A mix-up with my local fly-shop forced me to rely on the good folks at Leland Fly-fishing and Red Truck Fly-fishing, who Fed-x’d me a 15’ Redington 10 weight spey rod, a matched reel and Rio Skagit line only hours before my departure. Needless to say, I did not have time to practice (or learn?) even basic casts on the two-handed rod, and Misty, ever the gracious host, patiently showed me rudimentary spey casting techniques. Single handed rods also work well on this river, just make sure you have enough room for your back cast. I used a four piece 9 weight fly rod I also personally built based on a TFO TICRx blank. My reel was a Tibor Riptide spooled with Rio’s Bonefish fly line. I managed to catch one small mahseer on the fly using a large nymph pattern I tied with hair from my golden retrievers!
The Himalayan Outback’s Saryu camp is the perfect picture of a proper British colonial era expedition. Set on a beach of soft, almost talcum powder-like white sand, the camp consisted of spacious tents, a dining fly, shower and dry pit latrine. The cook tent and staff quarters were set further back in the jungle. Each guest had their own spacious tent containing a comfortable British army cot, a small mesh dresser and a tripod stool. One of my best memories of the entire trip was how fresh and clean the linens on the cot were during my stay. The tents were set back in the jungle in an attempt to keep them cool during the mid-day heat. Each morning, while you were fishing, the camp staff would straighten your tent. You were warned to keep your tent zipped up tight, and to shake out your shoes before putting them on. Scorpions and cobras were common. Biting insects were limited to mosquitoes and flies, and were fewer than one would have expected in this setting. Meals were not your typical camp fare, all were mostly Western with an Indian flair. Breakfast usually consisted of toast, eggs (omelets, scrambled or hard boiled), pancakes, a canned meat, and Indian potatoes. Because of the early fishing hours, breakfast was often delivered and served on your fishing beat on the river. Lunches varied between sandwiches, pasta noodles, potatoes, even fabulous wood fired pizzas! Dinners were often chicken dishes with a variety of sides. Food was always plentiful and hearty. All in all, camp life was exceedingly comfortable, and the day usually ended with hot chai around a roaring fire. The staff of 9 (and there were only 2 anglers in camp, including myself) cheerfully attended to your every need. When you arrived in camp after a morning of fishing, you were greeted with a smile and a cool drink. Afternoon tea was always served; the staff even baked apple pie over a wood fire on several occasions. Local oranges, apples and bananas were served as mid-day snacks.
Over the course of my 5 days fishing on the river, I managed to catch numerous mahseer that mostly averaged 10 pounds. My personal best was a trophy mahseer estimated around 20 pounds. Initially, we only found the fish in one pool on the river. As the week wore on, and the river levels continued to drop, we found fish in other pools and fast runs. The larger mahseer used their massive fins to leverage the current in an attempt to fight the angler. An average fishing day began around 4:00 a.m. with a cup of hot tea delivered to your tent, and a 30-45 minute walk to your beat on the river. As I mentioned earlier, one of the staff members would deliver breakfast to you on the river, a very welcome twist to your typical shore lunch! By 11:00 a.m. or so, we would quit fishing, and make our way back to camp for lunch. By mid-day, the temperature in the river valley was uncomfortably hot, and we would lounge in camp napping, telling stories or tying flies before heading back out around 4:00 p.m. to fish again until well after dark. The best mahseer bites, at least during my visit, were around dawn and dusk. The water was warm enough that waders were not required, but wading boots or shoes are. Walks to your fishing beat were on paths cut into the valley walls hundreds of years ago by the local villagers, and could often be treacherous.
If you go – stout wading shoes with good ankle support are necessary, due to the level of hiking required. One would be well advised to consider walking to your fishing beat in hiking boots, and then changing into your wading shoes to fish, changing back again for your return hike. A good quality telescoping hiking staff (not the flimsy wading staffs currently being sold) is a necessity for navigating the trails, as is a good quality headlamp and a hand flashlight. The types of lures and flies are very much dependant upon water levels and clarity, and one would be well advised to be flexible enough to stock their tackle box days before departure if the fishing conditions are changing. During my trip, plugs like the Rapala J11 and other minnow imitating plugs in silver/black and gold/black color schemes, 4” to 5” long, worked very well as long as they were heavy enough to cast 50-75 yards across the river. Casting spoons in similar color schemes also worked, but would often get hung up on the rocks if you didn’t immediately begin your retrieve as soon as the spoon hit the water. Flies imitating minnows and dragonfly nymphs (in brown and black) also worked very well. I can’t emphasize enough that the type of lures and flies are so very dependant on water levels and clarity, and you would be best to assemble your tackle kit based upon river conditions only a few days prior to the start of your trip. Another recommendation would be to pack at least one dry bag to protect your electronic gear. The river valley is very humid, and overnight condensation will form on your gear and clothing. Light weight, fast drying clothing is a necessity, as well as long pants and long sleeve shirts to help keep the biting insects at bay. Also, if you go, hiking to your beat on the Saryu River will often require strenuous walks on narrow mountain trails. You will need to be in good physical condition for this trip. I purchased medical evacuation insurance from Global Rescue (www.globalrescue.com) . Be advised, however, that satellite phones are prohibited in India, and the camp on the Saryu is a good 3 hours on bad roads before you can expect reliable cell phone coverage. Common sense, caution, and knowing your own personal limits are important. In fact, one of Misty’s camp staff would repeatedly tell me "No compromise safety".
During our mid-day fishing breaks, Misty would frequently ask for advice on what else he could add to the Saryu camp to make it more enjoyable and comfortable. Some of the ideas surfaced included adding a covered vestibule area outside the tents, with a chair and a large mat for guests to change out of their shoes to keep the sand out of the tents. Misty also proposed adding copper or brass wash basins on a tripod outside the tents. Non fishing activities were somewhat limited in the Saryu camp. The camp was in close walking distance to a 1,000+ year old temple, and certainly hiking up and down the river valley was a viable option. Misty was also considering adding kayaks to the Saryu camp, and with the tame class II rapids on our stretch of the river, this would have been a welcome afternoon diversion. Several camp staff members ran the rapids wearing only lifejackets. Misty also considered adding tubing to the itinerary, which would it have certainly been safe and fun.
I was a little disappointed that the opportunity to see wildlife around the camp was limited. At the conclusion of our trip, during the ride back to Kathgodam, we did spot a leopard feeding on a cow carcass on the side of the road. We turned the jeep around and went back for photos, but this spooked the leopard and he bounded off into the forest. On a couple of occasions I caught glimpses of large monitor lizards off the trail on our way to and from the fishing beats, but they spooked as soon as I tried to approach. Shy, black faced monkeys could also be seen along the river banks, as well as numerous species of birds and multitudes of vividly colored butterflies. I was told by Misty that their fixed camp on the Ramganga River offers more opportunities to observe wildlife, including Bengal Tigers and Indian Elephants. The Ramganga camp also has kayaks for guests to use on river tours.
The cost of the Saryu River trip is approximately $6,400. $4,000 for the trip, $200 for my Indian Visa (I used www.us.cibt.com) , $1,400 for airfare from Mid-America to New Delhi, and another $750 for en-route lodging and fishing licenses. I spent another $500 or so updating my vaccinations, and would recommend making sure you are vaccinated for Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid, obtain a Polio booster and a Tetanus shot. I also obtained a Rabies vaccination (My Veterinarian said my distemper and kennel cough vaccinations were current).
A final word on India. I arrived in Delhi during the Commonwealth Games. As you may or may not know, Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games for 2010. The Commonwealth Games is an international, multi-sport event involving athletes from the Commonwealth of Nations, and are very similar, although smaller in scope than, the Olympics. Delhi had gone to great lengths to clean up the city, and security was very tight. If you have never been to Delhi, very little can prepare you for the sights, sounds and smells of this enormous city. Our outbound train ride was at night, mostly in the dark, and I saw very little of the countryside during that leg of my journey. Our return trip was during the day. I saw much more this time and was saddened by the levels of extreme poverty experienced by so many.
Was the trip a success? I would say yes on so many levels. I certainly caught many mahseer, and one trophy fish. I also lost several that were likely even bigger. The mighty mahseer needs to be added to your fishing “must do” list, and The Himalayan Outback’s Saryu camp is absolutely the place to catch a trophy golden mahseer. The trip was culturally enlightening, and I pushed well beyond the limits of my personal comfort zone. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and would like to personally thank Misty Dhillon, my fishing guides Bobby and Hoshiyar, and the rest of the staff, David, Shyam, Lakhi, Pritam, Shibu, and Sanjay, as well as Justin Maxwell Stuart of Where Wise Men Fish, along with Don Causey and Tim Jones of The Angling Report.
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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 ...