Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Carry on up the Jungle. Mahseer fishing in Coorg March 2012. Part I

I've not finished writing up the last mahseer trip and another has come around.  I will finish the other at some stage but must relate to you now the tale of my trip to Coorg in March 2012 to meet up with my friend Pete Carroll and 'Mr Joe' the Cauvery mahseer fishing legend and bon-viveur.
The smallest of my 'proper' fish but the most photogenic

With a view to setting up a trip in March 2012 Pete, based in Bangalore, started making enquiries in 2011 and found that the prices at Jungle Lodges Galibore fishing camp were getting silly.  Add to this the increased angling pressure consequent on being the only camp allowed to fish for mahseer it seemed sensible to explore other alternatives.  The Indian fishing guy Bopanna who runs the Indian Angler website/forum was operating at another location on the Cauvery offering mahseer fishing and later it turned out that Mr Joe was involved in this other enterprise.  Pete was able to contact Joe and book us in for a 5 day fishing week 5-9th March.  Late 2011 the news got back to UK that on 13th March 2011 VanIngen's 1948 line caught mahseer record of 120lb had been broken by UK angler Ken Loughran with a vast 130lb fish from the very stretch we had booked to fish.

Bopanna, Ken Loughran & Nabil Yousef Assassa (Mr Joe) with the record fish.

In the weeks leading up to the trip we were in touch with Joe and hearing tales of fantastic fishing with mahseer being caught on the drop and several good (30-45lb) ones in a session.  The excitement was building and I set about getting all my gear ready for the trip of a lifetime.  I had a failed attempt at obtaining the travel uptide rod that Joe says is the best for mahseer (The discontinued Shimano 6 piece Forcemaster S.T.C Multi Heavy TFMMHD9611648) from the only stockist in europe but they'd refused to ship to England from Italy. Meh. I'd arranged to borrow a nice rod and reel from Joe so as to be able to fish an easy fixed spool reel but I packed my Ugly Stik uptide rod and Daiwa multiplier reel in case we went on to Galibore.  I bought a smart new Shimano baitrunner D 8000 for larger bit fishing and  my old Super GT 4000 for spinning and small fun fishing.  A couple miles of Big Game 40 and 50lb line and 30lb braid for spinning plus lighter monos for bit fishing all went in the bag. Rod wise I took a 2.5lb carp rod & 1.75lb barbel rod plus my beloved Savage-Gear bushwhacker lure rod.  The rod tube was filled out with banksticks and a big landing net that I was bringing out for Pete.  I understood from Joe that the traditional spiral lead and multiplier look was out of vogue down at his place but I put all those and the essential owner SSW 6/0 & 7/0 hooks in.

Now Joe is something of a legend in the small world of mahseer fishing.  He's been in the angling press a few times and the picture walls at the Jungle Lodges camps all feature many shots of him and various huge fish.  Everybody knows him or knows of him and he's famous for bringing his own fridge full of delicacies and cold beer.  Cold beer is the life blood of mahseer fishing as other temperatures of beer just do not cut it at the end of a session in the South Indian heat.  Joe's spent almost 5 years of his life if you add up the hours spent fishing for mahseer and has probably caught more of them than anyone alive.  He's also great company and turned out to be an excellent host and guide to catching the best freshwater sport fish.

Joe with, I think, a fantastic 90lb fish that he's caught.

The website for his fishing ventures is at http://www.mahseersportsandadventures.com with a facebook link where he frequently has updates with videos etc.

The plan was for me to meet Pete and Colin Porter in Bangalore off my early flight from Heathrow at 5am Saturday and make our way down to Kushalnagar via Mysore to meet Joe and on to the camp for a week (mon-friday) with a second week possibly extending there or going to Galibore or something else. As the day approached Joe came back and said for us to stay at the camp Sunday night instead of in Madikeri (the main capital town of Coorg) as we had planned.  This was great as we could then get straight on the fishing early Monday after a few beers to ease into it.

I was due to fly out Saturday 4th arriving 5am Sunday.  On a last minute panic hook buying session in Castaway tackle in Banbury on Friday I spotted a small dusty spray bottle of Richworth luncheon meat flavour. Joe says mahseer absolutely love it but it has been discontinued and is impossible to obtain.  This was surely a good omen and the precious elixir was stowed in the overweight suitcase.  Terry Disdale had maintained that his Corn Steep Liquor flavour got him more bites than a plain ragi bait on the previous trip to Galibore so I was pleased to have a proven bait additive to hopefully give me some sort of advantage (in my own mind at least).

The flight to Bangalore went off without incident and me and my suspicious looking rod tube were waved through customs.  The little cable tie I seal the rod tube for flying with was gone so I assume someone had already checked out my tackle.   As I emerged into the warm Bangalore night a quick phone call confirmed that Peter Carroll was a few minutes away with his driver and air conditioned car.  We duly met and Pete gave me the bad news that Colin was not going to make it as he'd had his passport with Indian Visa robbed in South Africa on Friday.  Absolutely rotten luck for him.  It was good to meet Pete again as he is a really great guy and he was looking much fitter than the previous trip when he was carrying a lot more weight due to health problems.

Santosh the driver then drove us expertly through Bangalore and on to Mysore in the comfy XYLO car.  It was comfortable enough for a sleep but I can never tear my eyes from incredible India as it passes by.  I'm used to the bizarre rules of the road (there aren't any) and near death experiences now but there is always something to see and prevent one from resting.  We almost missed out on breakfast at the Regalis 4 star hotel in Mysore but made it just in time to meet Joe, his local friend Albert and Mitch, an angler who was just about to depart to Thailand via Bangalore.  Breakfast turned into a friendly early beer session by the nice swimming pool with yoga bikini show.

We then popped by Joe's apartment to load all our gear into his truck and were off to Coorg on the (rather good) Mysore to Madikeri road.  Turning off the main road after Kushalnagar we arrived at the cottage in the dark.  Cold beer was already enabled at the cottage so were able to enjoy a few of those before omelette and chips and bed.  The roaring of an elephant across the river broke through the insect and frog noises to remind us we were in or very near the proper jungle.  I was awake early at around 06:30 and emerged to see the place for the first time.  The pleasant green cottage with 2 ensuite rooms and servants quarters and kitchen at back was situated in a coffee plantation under tall shade trees with pepper growing up them.

Coorg mahseer study group HQ.
Across the lane was the Cauvery river.  Here we were well upstream of the huge Krishna Raja Sagara (KRS) dam at Mysore and the river is spring fed from water coming from the ghats to our west.  Thus it is not subject to the rapid fluctuations of flow such as is found down at Galibore/Bheemeswari etc as the sluices are opened and closed at the whim of those supplying water to a lot of millions of South Indians.  On the other side of the river lay 160km of jungle from which wild elephants cross at night to vandalise crops and property.  The monsoon rains finish in October so by March the river is barely flowing with fish confined in a few deep pools as the water is further removed by the irrigation of the rich Coorg agricultural lands round about.  The countryside is noticeably richer than in other parts of Karnataka state with the villages and houses being of a higher quality.  Also unusual to Coorg is the rearing of pigs which I don't think anybody Hindu or Muslim is supposed to eat(?).  Coorg pork and pepper curry is very good if you trust the restaurant enough to take a chance on Indian swine.

Day 1:  5th March. Goldenbollocks

We were soon tea and coffee'd up and had got our kit ready.  Joe handed me he his favourite setup of the Shimano Big Baitrunner Long Cast loaded with 50lb Maxima line on the recommended 6 piece Shimano rod and it was me, Pete & Joe into the truck with Rajinder, the more career minded of our 2 Nepalese house boys, and the ragi bait.  Happily there was no point in fishing before 8am when the mist burns off under the rising sun so late starts were a godsend to the hard drinking anglers and enabled some truly heroic gin drinking later in the week.
All of the action in the previous week or two had come from the 'Forbidden Zone' which was a 2km long pool a mile or two above the camp.  This was where the record fish had come from and fishing had since been restricted to only one weekday a week for foreign anglers.  Or something like that.  We were lucky enough to be allowed to fish this all week as we were the last party of the season.  Restrictions may have been eased as we were talking about staying another week if we had good sport on the first week.

At this time of sinking water levels and almost zero flow, the rigs were simplicity itself.  I had a Gamakatsu 8/0 octopus hook whipped onto the mainline and that was it.  Sufficient weight for casting and holding bottom being provided by the 4-8oz soft ball of ragi bait into which the hook is buried. Peter was armed with his Daiwa uptide rod and borrowed big baitrunner LC and Joe had the same reel on a dinky 7 foot Penn 20/30 boat rod bought for sailfish.

First peg was 'Croc pool'.  Downstream of a brilliant feature whereby 2 rocky islands project into the deep channel from either bank forcing any mahseers moving up or downstream to pass through the narrow gap.

Croc pool.  The 1 stop on the drop drop in ragi centre.
The drill for fishing this whole stretch is to have Raj throw or catapult out 5 or 6 hard ragi balls as loose feed and then cast your bait accurately into the area where these have landed.  Bites are to be expected from immediately the bait hits the water with the baits being left out for up to half an hour before repeating or moving on.  This we duly did but there was no response.  And I mean no response.  Not the usual niggling taps and pulls of small fish and tilapia pecking at the bait until it is gone in about 10 minutes.  Here there does not seem to be the head of small nuisance fish that one gets at Galibore or similar.

The other side of the 2 islands is 'Monster Pool' where the record fish came from.  A large tree is newly fallen in just upstream and again the idea is to cast out to close to the gap between the two islands where the fish concentrate.  The area upstream of here all looks promising but cannot be fished for about 1/2 mile due to the bankside trees and thorns etc.  While there was evidence of big fish coming up and rolling on the surface to clear the gunk from their gills picked up while feeding there were no bites forthcoming here either.

Next stop was 'the Tree'.  A large tree to the left offers shade in the morning and another large tree overhangs the water to the left by about 20 feet.  To the right is another small tree to make casting/playing fish more interesting.  Here Joe had a cast atop the ragi balls thrown in by the whippy arm action or Rajinder. And had a bite almost immediately which he struck and connected with a fish.  Once the initial short run against the clutch was stopped he handed the little sailfish rod to me and I played the fish into the waiting net.  The steep bank here means photography/weighing is impossible so, once rested, the fish was carried in the big weigh sling along about 100yards to an area where it is easy to access the water and get in for a photo.
Gorgeous looking PB roach about 28lb hooked by Mr Joe.
It was the best looking mahseer I have ever seen but, while it was nice to get attached to a good fish again it was not all my own work.  The fishing style here, whilst active and mobile from the bank, is still a lot less gruelling than at Galibore where you sit on an iron stool holding the rod all day long as you cannot risk it being pulled in by a bite.  Here with the use of baitrunners it was possible to put the rod in a rest and relax on proper lightweight fishing chairs in between casting and bites.

Once a fish has been caught from a peg the disturbance makes another one unlikely for at least an hour so we moved up to the 'Beach' peg at the upstream extremity of the golden mile.  The pool really opens out here and a small beach makes for comfortable sitting in hot sun.  Lunch was brought down to us at this peg where it was consumed, along with a few cold beers, in a bit of shade back from the water.
A moment of pure comedy came at this swim as Pete and I sat biteless.  Joe picked up his rod, swiftly wound in and went for a cast straight out instead of upstream into the main pool.  Pete joked "I suppose Goldenbollocks here is going to get one on the drop" and as he spoke the words the bait was seized about second after hitting the water the water and it was 'fish on' (we never say that by the way).  Joe kindly handed the rod to Pete to play it out and it was this attractive 30-something lb specimen here.  Joe had actually seen the fish moving and cast to it eliciting a violent response in classic mahseer style.

Peter Carroll of the Queen's Cheshire Highlanders displays the 'goldenbollocks' fish
We worked our way back to Monster pool via 'the tree' and Joe goldenbollocks had another run which he didn't miss.  I generously let him play his own fish for once and the result was this nice 30ish fish who's exact weight I forget.

Joe's very own fish.  Look at the size of the tail.

So 3 good fish in a day but none actually hooked by Pete or I.  I might have missed an 'on the drop' take at the tree.  I did that rather a lot and was 0 for 3 at one point.

Day 2:  6th March. PB beaten.

 Although we had fished Monday we hadn't actually obtained our licenses.  This required a visit to meet the local representative of the Coorg wildlife society so he could check that we were suitable.  The gentleman was an Indian coffee plantation owner just up the road and had the most splendid moustache.  I forgot to bring my camera so could not capture the coffee drying on the concrete terrace and the man's very nice house.  He was pleasant and filled us out back dated licenses to fish Monday to Sunday.  Even though we would not be fishing with Joe on the weekend we did plan to do some 'fun' fishing.  More of that later.

We would be accompanied today by Baby.  He is actually about 40 and is the Coorg Wildlife Society's bailiff and protector of the fishing.  He was also employed by us as a gillie so it would have been difficult for him to chuck us off the 'Forbidden Zone'.  He spoke pretty good English and was a multi talented individual as he later helped Joe out in an HR consultant role when there was trouble with Dinesh, Rajinder's bone-idle partner in domestic servitude.

The morning session passed off without incident with us ending up at the sunny beach swim for the extreme heat and no shade.
Here I am trying to lure the crocodile using my feet as bait.
  While waiting for lunch to arrive Peter and I had nice swims in the river which I found essential to prevent overheating.  The temperature was lovely for swimming and we were not scared as it was not until later in the week that Baby and I saw a 10 foot crocodile basking on a rock about 400 yards downstream.  After that we didn't swim again.

Buffalo come down for a drink & swim in the beach peg
We met the cow man and his wife a few times as they herded/chased their beasts around.  He seemed to suffer from intermittent deafness but was usually cheerful.  His local superyacht was moored at the beach peg and I think he used to it retrieve buffalos that swam off too far.
Here we see the superyacht being used by 2 local men to impress a young lady.  Or is she being carried off to a rival village?

One of Terence Disdale's more rustic designs.  The cow man's boat.

Around 15:30 we moved up to the tree swim and proceeded as normal.  About 20 minutes after casting in my baitrunner sang its wonderful song as a fish sped off with my bait.  I wound and struck hard and the fish was hooked.  It immediately made off downstream against the drag set tight in keeping with the heavy 50lb line.  It is foolish to try and stop or otherwise impede the first run of a mahseer so I just watched and felt it rip off about 50 yards of line travelling 70-80yards before slowing.  It felt like a good fish and nearly had me down the steep bank and in at one point.  The line was now through the overhanging tree downstream but I was able to pump some line back and the fish eventually obliged by swimming out and upstream freeing the line.  Then it charged into the roots/branches of the small tree to the right where the line snagged.  I could gain line back through this and Baby clambered down onto the small tree to neatly net it.

See the action here.

The line was still through the tree so we cut it to allow the fish to be unhooked and, after a rest, the fish was carried down to the little rocky beach for weighing and photos.  I knew it was a good fish and was not surprised to see the scales go round to indicate a weight of 42lb, beating my previous PB from Galibore of 38lb-10.

42lb Mahseer.  A new Personal Best
The rest of the day is a blur but there was definitely a smashing dinner of steak (the house boys were given the cover story that all the meat was horse beef or Donkey veal) and possibly a few beers/gins to celebrate.  Actually there was always a lot of great food and drink even if we blanked.

Day 3. March 7th. '50lb my arse'

Wednesday 'wrote mr Kipling' was another jammy one for me.  Morning session passed without anything being caught. I wanted to try fishing the large pool at the beach swim from the island feature further upstream and took Raj with me as my assistant.  I did not even get a bite but it made a nice change and I got a really nice view down the golden mile from under the welcome shade of a large tree.  I had 0 bites here & got snagged up on the last cast.  Rajinder heaved it out the snag for me and we headed back around to where Pete & Joe can be seen relaxing in the photo below for lunch.

A bit different to your average carp commercial.  This is why we do it.

I cannot remember much of the afternoon until around 5 pm.  Arriving at croc pool on the way back towards where we parked the truck I got set up ready to cast in with a large ball of ragi sprayed with Richworth luncheon meat on the hook.  Raj fired out a few hard ragi balls with the catapult and I cast my ball reasonably close to where the last few balls landed.  Following Joe's instructions I closed the bail arm and tightened up to the bait as it sank.  It's hard to describe the excitement of the 15 seconds or so as the bait sinks into the bottom of the river channel knowing that a monster of a mahseer could be about to attack it.  I didn't have to wait that long however as the line threw up spray as it tightened to the taking fish.  And here it all went slightly wrong due to a schoolboy error on my part.  When Raj had pulled out of the snag earlier he'd tightened the drag all the way up meaning the reel could not give line at all.  I'd watched him do that and then forgotten to do anything about it and nearly got pulled in for my carelessness.  I'd even left the anti reverse off.  Luckily the video camera was not rolling as I was pulled staggering towards the waters edge.  By luck more than anything I backwound & managed to loosen off the clutch enough for the fish to take line before it broke or I fell in.  This felt like a really big fish in terms of the feeling of weight and power but the fight was over fairly quickly on the heavy tackle and, as the fish came up into view about 12 yards out, I realised that something was not right.
The fish was foul-hooked nearer to the tail than the head.  The male mahseer must have been spitting the hook even as I struck with the hook hitting it in the flank as it spooked off at top speed.   This rather took some of the enjoyment away but I guess its no more traumatic for the fish than getting it in the mouth.  There was still the fight in it as it took a few goes to get the net under it but eventually I managed to drag it backwards into Baby's waiting net.  The fish looked really deep with a big head and Joe was guessing 50lb
The hook came out fairly neatly but it took a scale with it which I have now as a trophy.  Of course I was rebuked by my fellow angler for this unsporting capture 'up the arse' but these things happen in all walks of fishing.

On the drop & up the arse.  

When we weighed this mighty fish the scales only read  41lb.  We soon dismissed this evidence in favour of the 50lb figure we'd bullshitted ourselves into earlier guessing the scales had gone inaccurate in the sun.  The next day the scales were checked against some accurate Nash ones and were found to be correct.  The fish must have been full of air or something,.

Raj, the author, Baby & a beefy male mahseer 41lb.

That evening we enjoyed a steak dinner with the Faustino I gran reserva rioja that I'd got in duty free on the way out.  Followed by about 2/3 of a bottle of local rum between Peter and myself.  As well as conservationists, sportsmen and adventurers we are also international alcoholics.  Joe made sure were supplied with the coldest of  united breweries beer and the tastiest food  the whole time.

Day 4. March 8th. Peter's PB OTD.

Having established that mr Peter was easily fit enough to do the extra walking involved in returning to HQ for lunch, we moved to the traditional mahseer fishing agenda of morning session - Cold beer- Lunch-snooze-evening session - cold beer - dinner - rum/gin frenzy - bed.  Evening session tended to mean arriving back at the golden mile about 15:00-16:00 and fishing until the strict 18:00 cut off as stipulated by the Coorg Wildlife Society.

Morning session started at a very civilised 8am giving us time for coffee/tea etc.  I didn't catch anything but remember that first thing the crocodile had just vacated the 'Monster pool' swim leaving scrapes on the bank and a cloud of mud in the shallow water.  It also left behind a huge crocodile shit which appeared to be made of concrete.  It was a bit like the dump that Elvis died trying to do.

apocryphal on the drop 35lb PB for Peter.
The morning session had not produced much action until today.  It was Pete's go at the on-the-drop shot at 'the tree' and it was a textbook cast and strike on the drop to hook the fish which gave a very good scrap going way upstream for a change. The line ended up through the bush again but Raj messed up his smart gillie outfit doing a fine job of clambering through to net it.  Came out at 35lb but looked much bigger with a massive head.

The afternoon session was without incident until right at the end.  I say 'without incident' but there were usually the odd small bite or pull to keep things interesting.  As 6 o'clock approached we were about to pack up I was fishing at croc pool.  Normally I'd have a last cast hoping for an on the drop fish at about 10 to 6 but this time I left the bait in as I was getting some infuriating knocks and occasional short pulls taking line of the baitrunner before the bait was dropped.  This continued for about 10 minutes and I was at fever pitch as Joe had said that larger fish will often play with the bait a bit before eating it.  You really have to sit on your hands and avoid striking at anything but the big bite which is unmistakeable.  I was jumping out of my skin at the pulls but managed to resist temptation until finally the big bite came and the baitrunner buzzed as line was ripped off the spool.  I pointed the rod at the fish, wound down disengaging the baitrunner, and struck hard.  We were off into a typical fight with initial strong run followed by me slowly gaining line back by pumping the rod until the fish was in the net.   I could feel it was not particularly big and the scales confirmed this with 24lb.
It was a pretty specimen and seemed to enjoy posing for photos flaring out all its fins and holding its tail nice and straight.  I enjoyed catching this one as much as any of them as the bite was so complex and intriguing.

Perfect 24lb male mahseer where the bite took about 10 mins to develop.
One can only speculate at what is actually happening under water when these odd bites are indicated.  Is it small fish pecking at the bait until being seen off by a big fish that eats it?  Or is it the big fish itself playing with the bait?

Day 5 was Friday and the last day fishing on the golden mile.  Joe would be back off to Mysore for the weekend and Hindus would be celebrating Holi festival by chucking paint at each other.  I gather this practice is more prevalent up north.  Day 5 passed off with no fish being caught at all by either of us.  Our first proper blank.
Peter & I were to transplant ourselves to a guest house in Kushalnagar for the weekend to return on Monday.  The regional & international finals of 'Turtlemania', the worlds hardest fishing match were scheduled for the weekend and will be reported, along with week 2 of proper fishing in part 2 of this 2 part blog article.  Its been about 10 days since I returned from India so I'll publish this part now and continue work on Part 2.
Thanks for reading.  Part 2 should be along in a week or so.

6 months later... Part 2