Saturday, 28 May 2011

Mahseer fishing Part 1. Karnataka, India. November 2010.

It is time I wrote of my best fishing adventure to date.  An unforgettable trip to South India to fish for the legendary Mahseer.  This was my second attempt at mahseer fishing in India. The first having been in February 2010 and probably subject of a post to come.  This time I actually got to see a mahseer.

This is a big mahseer caught at Galibore by guide Tomraj.

Mahseer are a family of fish found in Asia.  The mahseer of the Cauvery (Kaveri) river in South India are the largest subspecies called tor musallah.  During the later years of the empire gentlemen sought out the mahseer as a sporting fish of a size and strength to rival the mighty salmon.  The record mahseer was 120lb caught by Mysore taxidermist J deWet vanIngen in 1947 although there is talk of a 130lb fish taken this season.  100lb+ mahseer are very rare as local people eat them and use rather unsporting methods such a poisoning and dynamite to kill them.  I heard people fishing with dynamite while visiting a natue reserve near Srirangapattnam last time out.  Fishing on the Cauvery used to take place at Saad Bin Jung's Bush Betta camp and Dodamakkali, Bheemeswari & Galibore camps operated by Jungle Lodges & Resorts ltd. Sadly last year a numbskull of a 'conservationist' sought and obtained a court ruling that catch 'n return mahseer fishing counts as hunting and should be banned within the conservation area.  That has put a stop to fishing at Bush Betta and most of the Bheemeswari beats.  This great bit of conservation will probably be disastrous to the mahseer as, without angling, there will not be any motivation to preserve the fish from poachers and many of the guides previously employed by JLR/Saad will be probably forced to return to poaching to make a living.

Prior to the widespread angling ban I had booked to fish 10 days at Bheemeswari in late November 2010 with my pal from the previous India trip Pete Carroll but was contacted by JLR and filled in on the angling ban.  All but a couple beats at Bheemeswari were now out of bounds so they offered us a choice to fish Galibore instead.  About 2 miles at Galibore were fishable with the far bank being the start of the 'conservation area'.  Traditionally early season (season runs November to March) fishes best at Bheemeswari with Galibore coming good at season's end in the low water conditions but we took the offer of a change of venue with a couple days at Dodamakkali upstream when Galibore was full on the weekend.

A mahseer trip requires some preparation for the angler as a Visa must be obtained for India and specialist tackle must be purchased.  Due to the potential of hooking a monster mahseer tackle must be strong.  An uptide rod and large multiplier reel loaded with at least 200yards of 40-50lb mono is required although people do use large fixed spool reels as well.  The main criteria is to be able to hold a lot of line as a big mahseer can empty out a reel with unstoppable runs of 100s of yards.  I used a Shakespeare Ugly Stik 510 uptide rod and Daiwa SL40SHx multiplier.  Both good kit that I'd recommend for the purpose although the rod is a bit of a brute.

Me with my mahseer tackle and borrowed cricket hat.
I made all my own travel arrangements but some companies do organised trips to the Cauvery.  I flew direct to Bangalore with British Airways but cheaper flights are available via Mumbai. I was picked up at the airport by my trusty driver from the previous trip Abdul Naseer who is not cheap but is reliable and reasonably safe.  He's only tried to kill me once and is pretty good company on the 4 hour drive through Karnataka to the camp.  What one really wants to do is sleep through the drive but I never can as its just too fascinating looking out at India while dodging mopeds/bullock carts/cows etc.  What strikes me is the sheer numbers of people.  On the drive we were never once out of sight of people.
I'd been keeping a close eye on the weather leading up to the trip and was a bit worried that the river would still be very high after the monsoon.  It had not really ever stopped raining although monsoon is supposed to end September/October.  As we finally came round a bend to see the Kaveri river for the first time my fears were confirmed.  It was a muddy brown colour and did not look at all like the river I had seen in pictures.  That was a clear rock-strewn river but what I saw was a brown torrent without any visible rocks at all.  I was prepared for disappointment as it does not do to go mahseer fishing expecting to catch one.  Many people go for years without getting a large one.

View Galibore fishing camp in a larger map

Upon arriving at Galibore camp (a couple miles up a track from Sangam) at lunchtime I was shown to my accomodation.  The camp consists of a few buildings for the functions and numerous staff, a mess tent pagoda type thing and a dozen or so 'tents' which are on platforms with a proper roof above.  The camp is pleasantly shaded by large trees and is pretty sympathetic to the environment being hard to see from any distance away.
The camp is along the Kaveri river with a small (bigger under 'normal' conditions) 'beach' at front.  I was in number 2 tent one from the end which was basic but adequate with a block at the back with shower/basin and proper sit down flush toilet.  Hot water comes from a tank thing with burning logs under it and can be provided by a bloke on request.  Once I'd found the log thing I fetched my own to save time.  Anybody considering a trip to India needs to be prepared to be flexible as things usually do not happen when/how you expect them to.  Much amusement was had over breakfast after each morning's fishing session as we guessed which of the components of breakfast would arrive when or not at all.  We kept it simple by having omelette, fried tomatoes, chips and toast every day but only on one magical morning when I was having breakfast alone did all the food arrive at the same time and with the necessary cold bottle of kingfisher beer.  Pete and terry did not beleive me when they arrived later and normal service was resumed the following morning as the beer came warm and the other things arrived individually with gaps of up to 30 minutes between 'courses'.

Chez moi.  Number 2 tent at Galibore fishing and nature camp.
As well as angling there are activities at Galibore such as 'adventure rafting', nature walks in the surrounding jungle, coracle rides etc and it gets pretty busy at weekends with middle/upper class Indians coming from Bangalore.

As I was unpacking a man in the JLR uniform of green camo shirt and shorts. came over to the tent accompanied by the camp manager Vasanth.  The man was BasavaRaj who was to be my gillie for the duration of my stay.  I'd say he was a little older than me but shorter and quite stocky.  I later discovered he had quite an impressive turn of speed.  Basvaraj helped me unpack all my tackle and set up my rods and spool up my big reel with 40lb Big Game.  I asked if we would be fishing the afternoon session and he replied in the affirmative.

My man BasavaRaj.  He's just caught a small mahseer on a slice of tomato and is amused.
    Here on the Cauvery the gillie or guide is your friend who will assist you with all angling related matters.  He will drive the coracle, supply bait and packed lunch of fruit  as well as doing his damnedest to make sure you catch a big mahseer.  Gillie has got to be one of the better jobs available in the area.  I don't think they get paid that much by JLR (I didn't ask) but they do pretty well out of tips from anglers.  I gave him about £60-70 plus some odd handy bits of tackle and he had a son at University so I think he wasn't doing too bad.  Between 10am and 4pm gillies do bugger all as its too hot for guests to fish.  What they are very good at is eating food.  Even though there were only 3 of us eating sometimes there was always a huge spread of food for lunch and dinner and I suspect this was mainly for the benefit of gillies.  BasvaRaj's brother, the avuncular Saddam Hussein lookalike ChickRaj, was chief gillie but seemed to supervise lunch extremely closely considering it was not his jurisdiction.
As I was having lunch I met the occupant of number 1 tent next door.  It was another englishman and fellow angler Terry Disdale.  He'd been coming mahseer fishing since way back in the 80s and was a regular at the Jungle Lodges camps having his own tackle chest which stays in India while he comes back and forth from his HQ in Richmond.  Terry designs superyachts for a living and has done all the biggest and best ones for the world's richest supertycoons including Roman Abramovich's Eclipse. See here for some astonishing opulence.  I particularly like the little Lear jet. Conversation was mainly piscatorial and Terry was a very keen and hugely experienced angler as well as good company. He'd been fishing a couple days already and the news was not good. He'd not had any decent size mahseer but plenty small ones and the nuisance catfish which plague the river.

Terry Disdale and gillie Renuka with a nice 41lb silver mahseer.
My first fishing session arrived at 16:00 following a nap and a cup of coffee and biscuits brought out by one of the boys.  I'll be describing the details of the actual fishing in part 2. Basavaraj came to fetch me and I followed him down to the waiting coracle.  The river was coloured and flowing pretty fast there was a lot of turbulence from submerged rocks.  The Kaveri here is a big river and it was about 100yards to the far bank.  The flow is actually regulated upstream at the Krishna Raja Sagara dam near Mysore.  The dam was full with monsoon water so every time it rained then the river was filled with dam water.  Further mud was introduced by the Shimsha tributary. 

My first sortie on the Cauvery river. Looking downstream toward Sangam.
 As we paddled/rotated our way out into the river I could hear and see rapids upstream of the camp.  We fished mainly close to the camp bank with Basavaraj tying the coracle up to overhanging trees and bushes poking up from the usually exposed banks beneath us.  It was clear that the river was stuffed with fish as constant small twangs and pulls were felt up the line from the big bait.  I was reeling in and checking/replacing the bait every 10 minutes or so.  It was easy to tell when the whole thing had been eaten as thats when the nibblings stopped.  I had read about the fearsome bite of a mahseer and was ready at all times to strike.  One rarely puts ones rod down and then one must be careful to leave the reel on the click as a mahseer will just take off with the whole setup if it takes the bait.  After a hour or so I had a big long pull much stronger than anything previously and struck, hooking a strong fish.  It was my first ever mahseer of about 5lb.  Mahseers are truly impressive to look at.  Large silver scales cover the muscular body with the large fins being a lovely shade of blue in the variety known as the siiver mahseer.  There are black (Very dark edges to scales), golden (Yellow fins) and silver mahseer but they are all Tor Musallah.  The tiddler was no match for the ridiculously strong tackle but would have been a serious handful on a carp rod.  I was overjoyed to have caught even a small mahseer from the legendary Cauvery and it gave me hope for the days ahead.   
My first ever mahseer.  Caught on the afternoon of day one.
I should emphasise just how exciting it was to be fishing here.  The mahseer is generally recognised as the hardest fighting freshwater fish in the world.  Tales abound of the power of these fish as they empty out reels and must be chased in coracles for miles only to escape when line parts on the jagged rocks that compose the river channel.  I had even tracked down,  bought (at considerable expense) and read the wonderful book 'Somewhere down the crazy river' by Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade on early post-colonial era mahseer expeditions. Having been to India mahseer fishing 9 months previously without actually fishing for mahseer but talking to veteran mahseer anglers had only made me more enthusiastic to 'live the dream'.  I was mentally prepared for the potential heartbreak of being smashed up by big mahseer or of simply not catching any.  At the same time I was conscious of having been pretty fortunate in the past when it comes to fishing (see a 9lb Barbel from Bristol Avon on 1st ever barbel session) and was quite optimistic about my chances.  Knowing that at any minute one's arms could be pulled off by an unstoppable express-train of a fish does help to concentrate the mind and really intensify the experience of just being there in beautiful exotic natural surroundings fishing for the ultimate sporting river fish.
Thats about it for part 1 of the mahseer fishing adventure special.  The next episode will be informative and entertaining as I describe how to fish for mahseer and relate other stories from the jungle like Rudyard Kipling.  Peter Carroll arrives from Manchester with boxes of grog, luncheon meat etc to enter the fray.  Difficult mahseer fishing, rum and one jammy angler make for an explosive combination in part 2 of this blockbuster DHFA special. DONT MISS IT.


  1. Look at that smile on you holding your first Mahasheer !! :p Good catch. Wish you plenty more big hook-ups !

  2. Glad to know that Dear.....hope you had a great holiday at B R Hills .... if you have any special experience of on KGudi Resort or B R Hills to share with us , that would be nice and helpful to others :)

  3. Jog Falls is one of the Adventure tourist places in Karnataka,The sight of this magnificent sheet of water cascading straight down a height of 830 feet unfettered by rocks or other encumbrances is one that has moved thousands of visitors,Visit Best Places In Karnataka to know more places.

  4. try arunachal pradesh as well its an anglers paradise!!