Written by: Mike Dawkins, WorldCast Anglers
“Look!” My driver, Lakhi, announced. “Snow Mountains!”
Gradually, I sat up straight from my reclined position in the front seat of the car, trying to open my eyes and remove my sunglasses. The seventy-two hours of travel had taken its toll, and I was tired. The continuous curves, thousand-foot drops off every side of the road, and blind overtaking of freight trucks and passenger buses had hit me with a bit of motion sickness. Leaving the Indo-Gangetic plains and passing through Haldwani, I had visibly noticed the side of many passenger buses painted with a blend of betel tobacco juice, chai tea, and other unidentified food splattered downwind of the passenger windows. Previous passengers must have lost their lunches. Welcome to the Himalayas, I thought to myself.
I never dreamed I would see the Himalayas. However, my journey to find the mighty golden mahseer was taking me straight to the world’s tallest mountain range, in India’s Kumaon region in the Uttarakand state. The Himalayas were a simple sea of cavernous valleys and jagged peaks all linked together into one cohesive unit that spanned the landscape for as far as you could see. And I thought the Tetons back home were impressive!
Rain had fallen the previous evening and morning of the drive. Fog and mist had socked-in most of ridge-lines where we traveled. The weather had suddenly broken for a moment when Lakhi spotted the first snow-capped peaks out of the corner of his eye. I grabbed my rain jacket and camera and jumped out of the car. A family carrying firewood up the ridge passed by me, obviously staring at the Caucasian tourist standing in the rain taking photos of some clouds.
The Himalayan towns and cities were settled on knife-edges. Buildings spilled off these sharp ridges in both directions until it was physically impossible to construct some type of structure. Dwellings existed on cliffs, drop-offs, notches and in steep valleys. Terraced fields containing wheat dotted the landscape around each settlement. Dry grass cuttings were stacked up in trees to be stored for the monsoon season, out of the reach of cattle and goats. Every animal and human used the road, as it was the flattest, safest, and sometimes the only way to travel. As I jumped back in the car, a Himalayan vulture soared off in the distance. We continued west towards the India-Nepal border.
I could tell we were getting close as we turned onto a gravel road barely cut out of the side of a mountain. Dotting the roadside, rectangular concrete barriers took the place of steel guard rails, in hopes of blocking vehicles from falling thousands of feet into the canyon below. Monkeys jumped from barrier to barrier as the landscape changed from the ridgeline timber of the Himalayas to the dry and hot canyon of the Saryu river.
“Saryu Camp,” Lakhi explained as he pointed to a group of tents next to a large landslide area. “That is your camp, sir. Saryu looks very good. Good color for Mahseer.”
We looked at each other with a big smile, as we were both happy to arrive. After three days of traveling, I had made it to the Himalayan Outback Saryu Camp, home of the mighty Golden Mahseer! (GPS Coordinates – 29.450718, 80.222127)
The Saryu is a picture-perfect Himalayan river—a classic freestoner, with boulders the size of small buildings breaking up the current. These are the marks left behind from the previous monsoon season, where the power and rage of the river moves the earth out of its way. Small rapids and riffles give way to deep-green plunge pools where mahseer wait and rest in preparation of the hunt. Glassy tailouts are at every river bend, inviting a swung fly to grab the attention of a mahseer hiding and ready to attack. Small homes and dwellings mark the valley, with more terraced wheat fields and farmers tending to their animals and land. A suspension bridge links the communities on both sides of the river. It also provides access to the Pancheswar Temple where the Mahakali River joins the Saryu, which forms the border between India and Nepal—a very holy and spiritual place for Hindus.
“Hello, sir, glad you made it sir,” said Bobby, head fly-fishing guide for the Himalayan Outback.
“It feels great to be here,” I responded as I marveled at the Saryu river and the magnificent canyon deep in the Himalayas.
“This is Roshan, he will help you with your bags,” Bobby said, as we hopped on a cataraft and rowed across the river to the Saryu Camp. I was quickly met with a homemade lemonade under the dinning tent as I stretched my legs and back from the long car ride.
At that moment, to be honest, I was in shock as reality set in. I had made it, and I was a long way from home, around 7,500 miles. The feeling was heavy, surreal, exciting, and daunting all in one dose. With 1.2 billion people, India’s humanity can seem suffocating at times. The poverty is disturbing, its people always moving, their vehicle horns always honking, and the unexpected waits around every corner. The wild India ride continues every second of every day! The 25 million people in New Delhi showed me just that. However, the riverside camp provided a warm, welcoming, and calming effect that I had not yet experienced during my time in India. I greeted it with open arms.
I was given a tour around camp, complete with shower, bathroom tent, deluxe beds with fresh linins, and a wonderful dining tent adorned with lights. I reveled in the comfort and the peace of mind that I had arrived. It never ceases to amaze me how sitting for three days, doing nothing but traveling, can exhaust you to the point that you can’t keep you eyes open. I unpacked my bags, organized my gear, washed my face in the wash basin outside my tent, rigged my rods, and settled down for a quick nap before fishing an evening session on the camp water in front of my tent.
“What knots do you like,” I asked Bobby, as we built some leaders made of fluorocarbon.
“Albright knot and uni-knot,” he replied. “They are very strong sir. Very strong. The mahseer is very strong.”
Looking at the boulders and maze of rapids these fish may run down, I agreed to let Bobby tie my knots. Our tackle was simple: 9-foot 7- and 8-weight fast-action rods paired with a 250-grain and 300-grain sinking-tip lines, respectively. I had also brought a 13-foot 7-weight two-hander paired with a Skagit Compact head and assorted sinking tips to cover larger runs and bodies of water. Sculpins were the patterns of choice. Our water was low, clear and on the cooler side. I had heard stories of mahseer eating large Chernobyl-style dry flies, but the water was too cool to expect that type of activity. We stuck to the sinking lines.
“See the rock, sir,” Bobby stated as he pointed to a large boulder across the river. “Cast there, mend, and swing your fly right by that sunk boulder.”
I cast as far as I could, mended, and began my swing. I love swinging flies! Most importantly, I love steelhead fishing with a two-handed rod, so I immediately sunk into a state of comfort and ease. To be honest, though, I don’t do much streamer fishing while wading with a single-handed rod. With the advancements of switch and micro-Spey rods, I rarely grab a single-handed rod with a sinking line while on foot. However, the two-handed rods have their disadvantages: they are loud. Anchor placements and sweeps (especially with sinking tips) can create quite a commotion that is not favorable for low, clear, and cold conditions. My fly bounced on the rocks behind me as I continually tried to adjust to the steep, boulder-ridden streambanks that I would be casting from for the next days. My feet felt wobbly and my hands trembled. I was nervous, tired, and excited, all in one punch.
A fish grabbed my fly. Tug, tug, tug. I went to strike the fish with a strip set, and the fish was gone. Bummer! I cast and mended again. Tug, tug, tug! This time, we connected—mahseer on! Line ripped through my fingers as the fish surged downstream. I gained some more stable footing on a boulder and turned the fish into a calm eddy. The fish was maybe a pound, but it pulled like it was five times that big. No matter, it was my first Himalayan golden mahseer.
I had heard stories of the golden mahseer and their armor-clad bodies, prominent lateral lines, and incredible fin-to-body ratio. Almost every color in the rainbow can be seen in a golden mahseer. Turn it one way in the light, and you see warm tones of gold, yellow, orange, and red. Change the angle, and you see cooling blues and emerald greens. Native to the Himalayas, they survive the harshest environments with the largest swings in water levels created by monstrous monsoonal flooding and snow melt from the highest mountains in the world. How they do it, no one knows. Now I was holding one in my hands, one of the most beautiful and inspiring fish known to man!
Bobby and I retired back to camp. A campfire glowed as lights in the homes scattered through the river valley and neighboring Nepal turned on like fireflies on a warm summer evening. Two empty chairs sat by the fire pit, strategically placed to warm your body, reconcile the past fishing day, and enjoy the flickering light and sound of the flames. Sunder greeted me with a smile and some hors d’oeuvres.
“How was your day, sir?” he said with a smile.
“Fabulous,” I replied. “Do you have any cold beer in that cooler?”
“Yes,” Sunder stated. “We have Haywards 5000, Extra Super Strong Beer.”
“Sounds perfect. I’ll take one of those, please,” I quickly answered.
I spent the next couple of days hiking a trail along the river downstream of camp with Bobby and his Himalayan Outback fishing guide counterpart, Sanjay. I was often behind, soaking up new landscapes with my eyes, new sounds with my ears, new smells with my nose, and new breezes on my face. My mind felt like that of a toddler: Everything was new, everything was different, and my brain was on overdrive trying process it all. We spent the next days fishing runs with the names such as “Long Run,” “PJ Pool,” “Black Rock,” and “Confluence,” among others. From the elevated suspension bridge over the river, we watched small mahseer hunt and chase snow trout. Sundar would meet us late in the morning with coffee and a late breakfast as we continued our day’s fishing. Afternoons were spent napping in camp, as we prepared for evening fishing sessions on the river when the light was lower in the sky.
“Do you think mahseer come out of the Mahakali into the Saryu to feed?” I asked Bobby as we worked through the bottom end of “Black Rock” toward the confluence of the rivers.
“Yes, sir. For sure, sir. They come into the Saryu to hunt minnows at night.”
I had my Spey rod in my hands, trying to launch a heavy sinking tip as far as I could to the other side of the river. The Pancheswar Temple was now illuminated and a busy place. Bells were ringing, and I could see the temple visitors’ headlamps bounce on the trail alongside the river. Bobby grabbed his headlamp from his pack. The sun had disappeared behind Nepal, and the dusk started fading into night.
I thought we were finished fishing for the evening, but Bobby insisted we continue. I was struggling to find the transition point between my Skagit Compact head and my running line. I cast again, mended, began my swing, and the running line tore from my hands. A fish was on. . .a big fish! It screamed down toward the Mahakali but turned back when it got to the final tailout of the Saryu. I tried to keep constant pressure on the fish. Flashes of gold and yellow solidified our guesses that the fish was big. I quickly noticed the old charred firewood scattered along the river-bank. My thought process transitioned from excitement to worst-case scenario of losing the fish in one of the snags.
Finally, I was able to maneuver the fish between the logs, where Bobby landed his hand on the tail. “Proper fish, sir!” Bobby exclaimed as the weight on my shoulders left and traveled to some other angler in the world. After a couple photos, high fives, and sighs of relief, we packed up our gear, turned on our headlamps and headed back on the trail to hike back to camp. We passed many locals walking to the temple for the evening with some customary stares at the tourist carrying the funny looking fishing poles. As we rounded the corner towards camp, I could see the flickering from the campfire and lights from the dining tent. With the final light of the day waning over the mighty Himalayas, we arrived at camp.
“Hayward 5000, sir?” Sunder asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “Absolutely! We have a fish to celebrate, sir!”
Stay tuned for Part II next week. . .