Well I experienced many things on my trip to India, but since I was there primarily for the fishing, I will start with the good stuff. Click through for some photos of the action…
The first day we were due to arrive and camp at one of the most famous spots for Himalayan Golden Mahseer angling…Byas Ghat, the confluence of the Ganges and Nayar Rivers. On the way, my driver stopped the jeep as we caught a glimpse of the ghat from the road:
Who could not be inspired by such a magnificent landscape? I was simply awed by the scale of the place. The final leg of the journey was by raft, and on a calmer stretch my guide Ramesh suggested I jump off and have a dip in the waters of the Mother Ganga, so I did.
The water was very cold but quite refreshing after a hot and dusty jeep ride, and of course my long night in a rail sleeper carriage (complete with my neighbour who spent his sleeping hours snoring very loudly, and his waking hours expectorating interminably) on the train from Delhi. It was too cold though to stay in a long time, so I signalled to the skipper to bring the raft over, and was then subjected to the indignity of being dragged into the raft by my lifejacket with my legs flapping all about, although I challenge anyone to undergo the same procedure and survive with any grace at all.
Soon we arrived at the ghat and we were met by a gaggle of boys from the local village mucking about in the river, some in a remarkable state of undress, who helped us unload our gear and bring the rafts onto shore. By then it was late afternoon, and time just for a short session of fishing. My first cast landed about 2 yards from the bank, and as I tried to hide my embarassment I had another go, possibly even more embarassingly, I landed a tiny mahseer:
Well a fish is a fish regardless, and better than nowt, and this was my first Himalayan Golden Mahseer, so no complaints from me…you can see hints of the amazing colouration of the adult on its fins but the scales were completely silver and yet to develop their glorious golden pattern. I was slightly surprised that such a tiny fish was hooked on a big 1/2 ounce spoon; the fish were clearly in the mood. After taking a picture and having a laugh with the boys, I cast again and straight away hooked another juvenile mahseer.
I fished for an hour or so more and called it a day; the enticing smell of frying Indian breads coming from the camp was too much to bear and it would be dark soon. At camp Ramesh introduced me to a distinguished visitor: a local mahseer ghillie called Surendra who greeted me very warmly and we talked for a bit. He was the guide in the famous ‘Casting for Gold’ video filmed at the ghat, and has been featured in many angling publications and ghillied for numerous visitors (in fact his son Arvind ghillied for me on my first day, as my intended guide was unwell). Despite his fame he was also a very humble and gracious man, refusing a camp chair like we were sitting in and insisting on sitting on the floor. Then Surendra kindly agreed to look over my tackle and gave me lots of advice; quite unconditionally, as after all he was guiding a different group on the river at the time. I re-rigged my spoons and reel according to his instructions and he said he saw no problem with the way I was casting so I should just keep trying. He wished me luck and we shook hands and parted.
The camp staff heated up some water for a bucket shower which was very pleasant, I changed and then dinner was on. I must say over the six nights and seven days in camp, the quality and variety of food produced by the very friendly (and immensely strong) cook was astonishing: Indian, continental (i.e., Western) and Chinese (Chinjabi, or “Indian-Chinese’ food). Breakfast, always served with a smile and a “Good morning, sir! Tea or coffee?” could be any combination of porridge (a very delicious and very Indian interpretation, with sultanas, almonds and cashew nuts), eggs (fried, boiled or stuffed omelettes), curried vegetable or meat rissoles, aloo tikki or chips or pan-fried potatoes, good old baked beans and buttered toast, or perhaps numerous hot paranthas wolfed down with green chilli, dahi and pickles. Lunches were nourishing affairs; while it was very pleasant demolishing a goat biryani with as many freshly fried pooris as you can possibly eat, it is also very surprising to find yourself on the banks of the Ganges tucking into perfectly cooked penne with Bolognese sauce, coleslaw and freshly baked bread on the side or perhaps pile your plate high with chow mein, fried rice “chili cikan” and sweet-and-sour stir fry. Usually lunches were concluded with fresh fruit and tea. However, the cook Gajju and his confederate Pratab always outdid themselves during the evening meal. I usually fished until dusk, then changed and put on my head-lamp and migrated, like a culinary salmon, toward the source of the wonderful aromas eminating from the kitchen. By then a campfire would be going and the young lad Bobby (it is he in the photos above holding the tiny fish) would serve soft drinks and nibbles – anything from hot popcorn, to bhelpoori-style peanuts to onion or whole green chilli deep-fried bhajias – whilst the main meal was brought in tiffin boxes and unpacked and laid out in a buffet. Bobby was then always on hand to light us as we helped ourselves to the food, and describe each in turn as he lifted the lid to reveal the treasures held within. Although every dish was quite excellent, for me the really stand-out creation was the kaddu pumpkin and ash gourd koftas, served in a malai sauce so thick you could cut and dice it; the taste was out of this world, the only improvement being to scoop them up out of their hiding places with freshly grilled hot chapatties. Another was the tandoori chicken: hard enough to make when you are at home in the kitchen but in the campsite at night truly a magnificent feat of cooking; the chicken was of course, cooked through perfectly and quite succulent and delicious, with just the right amount of spiciness. Honourable mention must be made of the Chinjabi meat spring rolls that were fried perfectly crispy, and served with vinegar in which some sliced raw green chillies were floating about: very good. Also the whole mung dal makhani, palak paneer, the chicken curry and mutton biryani were very excellent, just simple home-cooked dishes made completely from scratch with fresh ingredients, that were incredibly satisfying after a long day’s fishing. After all, the schedule was pretty hard fishing and not for the half-hearted: rise at 5:30am, down a quick cup of tea and malaria medicine and then fish till 8:30 and break fast. Then resume fishing at about half nine and fish until 12:30 where lunch would be waiting. After lunch, a siesta and general loafing, start fishing again at about 3:30pm and fish till dusk. An hour or so before lunch, and supper likewise, everyday I was treated to another of the chef’s specials that will remain with me forever: nimbu pani. Made with delicious Indian limes (I have mentioned this elsewhere, but the limes we get here in Japan are simply no comparison to the lush, juicy, fragrant specimens in India) and lashings of kala namak (black salt) which some Westerners cannot abide, but I am rather fond of. A refreshing and healthy drink that really hits the spot. The sight of Bobby coming to the water with a silver tray of nimbu pani – one for me, and one for my ghillie Prahlad – was a godsend after a long, hot session especially when you have been casting incessantly yet haven’t had a bite all day. Although I am not generally a dessert man and more of a sharabi-kabaabi, every evening I was surprised by the dishes that concluded the evening meal. On my first night, the chef Gajju himself brought us hot banana fritters – dusted with sugar and served with lime wedges – straight from the skillet, of a quality you would struggle to find in a top five-star hotel here in Tokyo, and served with a smile and warmness that you certainly would never get in such places. Other desserts from the magical kitchen included hot-from-the-oven pineapple sponge cake, fruit custard, and sweet, sweet kheer. However, a truly eye-opening experience was eating hand-made gulab jamun, hot, soft and sweet; I can never touch those tinned abominations, ever again. After the most satisfying meal I dug out my duty-free Habanos and smoked a cigar by the campfire; nourishment of the bodily nature was followed by nourishment of the mind, as my guide Ramesh proved to be a most eloquent and knowledgable partner in conversation, as well as always ready for a joke and a laugh. With a Masters degree in English Literature and yet a genuine shikari‘s love of the outdoors and wildlife, the hours flew by as we talked at length about many things. In particular, Ramesh’s knowledge of Indian birdlife was amazing, and he could identify any species by its song, and the location of the birds themselves (quite difficult in a deep gorge and in the maelstrom of insect noises). We talked much about the local wildlife, India, and politics, and society as a whole, and compared things with life in Japan. Also, I suspect I bored him slightly with my many questions about the Hindi language, which is both a very beautiful tongue but maddeningly complex, for me anyway. I am still mystified by the nuances of kya and kyun, yeh and iska, whether to use achha or T’heek hai, and how on earth to tell whether a noun is masculine or feminine. Well after chewing the fat for a few hours, to a background of nightjars and mountain goat calls, bed-time was usually about 9pm, as my start was very early each morning; after a long day in the sun casting all day followed by a huge meal, delicious sleep would always come very quickly.
Anyway, I digress. My second day mahseer fishing started slowly, and I struggled to not fall over in the shallows of the Nayar part of the river. The current was very strong – it was impossible to wade further than about one’s waist – but at least the water was fairly warm and I just wore shorts and sockless angling shoes for flats fishing. My ghillie Prahlad, with 30 years of guiding mahseer anglers on this river under his belt, was very patient and helpful, and many a time saved my lures that were snagged on the riverbed, and lent me a hand to prevent me slipping over onto my backside in the water. It was nearing the end of the first a.m. session when my first mahaseer took the bait. It was very close to me, about twenty yards away, and thinking about my next cast – and perhaps what the chef had prepared for breakfast – I wasn’t really paying attention when suddenly my rod bent over and the drag buzzed away…fish on! The ferocity of the fish in such shallow water really surprised me, and all I could do was keep my rod upright and say ‘”My word!” over and over again as the fish whizzed about in amongst the rocks. Bobby happened to be by the water and he said, “Burri, burri” (Big, big!) After the initial bite and the furious running of the fish, the sline slacked a little and I reeled her in, bit by bit. Prahlad appeared over my shoulder and guided me back to the shore whilst I fought the fish, which then ran into deeper water in front of me; I saw the leader coming out of the water so she was close, but still the fish was very game and it was a few more minutes of work before she was in the shallows at my feet and Prahlad got a hold of her…my first good-sized mahseer landed, and what an amazing experience. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for a pension, Prahlad unhooked the fish safely, and, lit by the rising early morning sun, I beheld the beast: what a beauty – living gold! The smiles in the photo can only give you a hint of the feeling:
After quickly taking the photo, the fish was released and without thinking I shook hands with Prahlad and Ramesh, thanking them profusely. All I could say was, “Amazing, amazing” over and over again. I had tasted the chalice of Himalayan Golden Mahseer fishing, and it was incredible; despite having caught over 80 different species of fish myself, I had realised why mahseer fishing can become such an obsession.
That was my first mahseer of the day, and we stopped for breakfast and I was certainly smug as I tucked into my fried eggs on toast and tea and contemplated the rest of the day. By my second day ever of mahseer fishing, my prayers at Nizamuddin Dargah were answered, but things were to get even better, but that is for another post.