Written by: Mike Dawkins, WorldCast Anglers
I had heard of the golden mahseer before my journey to the Himalayas of India. My friend, globe-trotting fishing expert and renowned artist Jeff Currier, had spent plenty of time on the famous mahseer waters of India, including the Ramganga, the Saryu, and the mighty Mahakali rivers. Naturally, I contacted Jeff when my India plans began to formulate. Jeff referred me to Misty Dhillon and his Himalayan Outback team. Misty pioneered fly fishing for Indian mahseer and built his exceptional team and business by providing high-quality experiences and exceptional service to their clients. Most importantly, the Himalayan Outback has a conservation-oriented approach to benefit the locals, the future of natural habitat, and the Himalayan golden mahseer. They have participated in various efforts by providing support to local communities for the benefits of sustainable angling tourism.
Now, that wasn’t the only recommendation Jeff made. He suggested that no trip to India is complete without reading The Man Eaters of Kumaon. Written by famous hunter and conservationist, Jim Corbett, these stories take place during the early years of the twentieth century. They detail the experiences that Corbett had in the Kumaon region of India while hunting man-eating tigers and leopards. Corbett’s man-eater chronicles starts with the Champawat man-eater, a female Bengal tiger responsible for an estimated 436 deaths in Nepal and the Kumaon district. The tiger grew so bold that she began killing people in broad daylight. Our Saryu River camp was centrally located in the Kumaon district, not 12 miles (as the crow flies) from the town of Champawat. Corbett also encountered the golden mahseer, an estimated 50-pound fish that he describes in the “Fish of my Dreams” chapter of the book. It was perfect reading material in the perfect setting!
“Are there tigers in the jungle around here?” I said to Bobby as we walked on the river trail from one fishing spot to another and I reflected about the “Chuka man-eater” chapter I had read the previous night in my tent.
“No sir, not here, not anymore,” he replied. A sigh of relief lifted from me, and I was able to walk a bit easier.
“We do have leopards, sir,” he continued, in a calm and cool tone. “Last week, we saw a leopard on the road, right across from camp. Sometimes you can look at the sand trail in and around camp and see its pug marks. They are shy and do not like people.”
Living in grizzly bear country, I feel quite confident in the backcountry. However, tigers and leopards are an entirely new game.
“Look,” Bobby said as we walked upstream for our morning session of fishing. “That is leopard pugmark,” pointing at a mark in the sand—the common human footprint and cow hoofprint providing stark contrast to the large member of the cat family.
We both crouched down to take a closer look. It, in fact, was a leopard pugmark, clear as day and imprinted on the trail made of sand that parallels the river. I stored an imprint in my brain and compared it to the prints I had seen walking on the beach outside of my tent the evening before. They were the same.
Bobby and I journeyed upstream from camp this day. The water and fishing runs looked perfect. The rains had stopped and brought the river up a couple of inches and decreased the clarity a bit. I was told these were both good things. Water that is low and cold makes fish very spooky and lethargic. Similar to our steelhead in the Western U.S., shifts in water levels move fish around from place to place. That moving stage is where they feel confident and a more interested to investigate or take a fly. Slightly decreased water clarity adds a bit of a comfort blanket to the fish’s decision-making process as well. A small mahseer grabbed my fly and was brought to hand, as some villagers gathered on the other side of the fishing run to wash, clean, and gather water for the day.
I continued to methodically fish the run with perfect swings and casts. I was in the zone now. My energy level had increased and I was beginning to feel comfortable, as much as I think I could so far from home and in such a foreign, different, and unique place. I felt some taps on my line as my swing crept closer and closer to the river bank below me. I hooked something as I began to retrieve my line, but it wouldn’t budge. What the heck, I thought. As I went closer to investigate, I found a baited line tied to a large rock on the river bank. Smaller rocks, used as weights, dotted the line to keep it submerged. The large hook was covered with an even larger caddis pupa that someone had pulled from a rock. The caddis was true size 2 or 4—a monster!
“Poacher-man,” Bobby explained. “We try to tell them that they can not do this. But sometimes they just do not listen.”
My final day of fishing arrived. Sanjay and I loaded up our gear and headed out of camp downriver toward the confluence. As Sanjay and I came around the corner to the beginning of PJ Pool, we noticed a group of men swimming in the river. They were swimming in the slack water between PJ Pool and Long Run, which was defiantly not the fly-friendly water we were looking to target. We relaxed and drank water as we waited for the group to finish, as well as let the water calm down a bit.
“What were those guys doing?” I asked Sanjay, as we began fishing the head of the run. We had seen very few people during the week besides the local villagers using the river.
“They were bathing, bathing for temple” he replied.
We covered PJ Pool thoroughly, as well as Long Run and crossed back over the suspension bridge to fish Black Rock from the temple side.
As we rounded the corner, I noticed a plume of smoke in the air near the ghat (stairs) on the opposite of the river, directly across from our fishing spot. It was a funeral. The confluence of the Saryu and Mahakali is a very spiritual and holy place for Hindus, so much so that the sacred Pancheswar temple hovers over the confluence with authority and grace. A group of people had assembled on the ghat, while a large fire was tended to on the riverbank. We stood back and watched. The fire cremated the deceased individual and the ashes were then thrown into the river. The goal and hope was that someday that deceased individual would reach the Ganges—a true sign that rivers are cultural symbols of life and also death in India. I surveyed the landscape of the confluence to see scattered burnt wood pieces in places. We audibled from our original fishing plan, showing the utmost respect to the funeral gathering. We fished Long Run again and head back to camp for one of Sundar’s belly-filling lunches and a midday nap before our evening fishing session.
Bobby and I departed camp a bit earlier than usual for our last evening session of fishing to visit the temple and meet the Baba. The Pancheshwar temple is a holy shrine of the Hindu God “Shiva,” the third god in the Hindu triumvirate. The other two gods are Brahma and Vishnu. Brahma is the creator of the universe, Vishnu is the preserver of it, and Shiva is the destroyer. Shiva’s trident marked the colorful flags that waved in the breeze surrounding the temple. It is believed that a dip in the confluence near the temple is highly sacred.
We removed our shoes outside the temple, while Bobby rang the large bell hanging in the entrance that announced our entrance. The Baba came out of a side room and greeted Bobby and me. The Baba is a holy and sacred man who looks after the temple. In fact, his life is dedicated to the temple. His skinny frame was contrasted by long thick dreadlocks that made their way past his waist. After a couple of photographs, Bobby and I journeyed down to fish the confluence and Black Rock one last time before I headed back to New Delhi the next day.
After a fruitless fishing attempt at the confluence, we moved up the river to Black Rock. Bobby had been joking and laughing about the Kreelex patterns in my fly box. A mix of solid copper and gold gaudy flash, this small streamer was originally tied and used for smallmouth bass in Virginia by Chuck Craft. It has now migrated west as a trout streamer of choice in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Now the Kreelex had found itself in India. I had specifically tied these patterns with a stout hook to withstand the power of the golden mahseer. We agreed that this was the right time to try it, as I got ready for a proper pass through the run.
With the ashes still smoldering from the funeral on the opposite side of the river, I glanced around to take in my surroundings, every sight and the sound, on my final evening session on the Saryu River. On cast number five, my swing connected again with another large mahseer. My reel screaming, the fish headed toward the Mahakali with lightning like speed. Turning the fish back upstream and paying close attention to the burnt wood on riverbank, I now had the upper hand in the fight. Bobby tailed the fish with a great smile as we celebrated another proper fish from Black Rock! We both laughed out loud as Bobby removed the overtly flashy Kreelex from the fish’s mouth.
Bobby explained that the elongated and pronounced snout of this fish was a characteristic of a resident fish of the Saryu River. We continued fishing as night overtook the day and the sun faded over the Himalayas of Nepal. With the Pancheshwar temple illuminated and temple goers heading down the path, we journeyed back to camp along the river trail. My headlamp beam was on full strength as Corbett’s man-eater stories were fresh in my memory. When we arrived, a Hayward’s 5000 Extra Super Strong Beer was poured and waiting for me by the campfire. Sundar must have known we either landed another fish to celebrate or I was going to be really thirsty!
Since I returned home, the question that continues to come my way from friends, co-workers, and angling counterparts is “Would you go back, would you do it again?” Would I again travel that far, to such a remote and demanding place, a place of 1.2 billion people, to fish for a fish that is so difficult to catch? My answer is simple: Yes. As I grow as an angler and consequently as a person and human of this world, fly fishing has become more about the experience than the fish. Don’t get me wrong, the fish is the focus of the journey. However, for me, it is not about the numbers, the size, the bragging rights or winning the tournament. It’s about the people I meet, the cultures I experience, the wildlife and landscapes I see, the food I taste, and the places I go.
Subsequently, these fly-fishing experiences bring me a worldly perspective on life that I feel we have a hard time grasping this day and age. And ultimately, the greatest benefit is the new friends I bring into my life from these wonderful fly fishing adventures. It often gives me comfort to think about the many marvelous and wonderful people I have met, many who have become close friends, solely based on the shared passion and love for our great sport of fly fishing. And to think, this is all the added benefit from trying to catch one fish. It never ceases to amaze me!