Beautiful landscapes, wild Himalayan Golden Mahseer fishing, amazing food and the warmest, friendliest locals: could my trip get any better? Well my third day was certainly different fishing; I didn’t get a single bite until the very late afternoon, and then I didn’t get a hookset and the fish was making her salaams and heading off back into the Ganges before I knew it. It was a little crushing, but after such an amazing day previously I had little to complain about and remained philosophical about the lost fish; it is not like my dinner or my livelihood depended on the catch, and the delicious prospect of Gajju’s heavenly creations and a giant Habano cigar by the fireside was a great comfort. My ghillie Prahlad on the other hand, who held great pride in his work, was very despondent; I must say the previous day fishing on Byas Ghat his knowledge of the river and the spots holding fish was amazing. He would wave over to an apparently featureless part in the shallows and say, “Here, sir” and often within two or three casts I would get a bite; sadly we were not in luck today and he explained that the colour of the Ganges had changed (it looked the same to a rank amateur like me) and that it had probably rained somewhere upriver. That evening Gajju didn’t disappoint; the paneer makhani and dum aloo he turned out were quite simply, out of this world. I smoked my consolation cigar and my spirits remained high as Ramesh regaled me with tales of trout fishing in Kashmir, something that has always been a dream for me, and the wildlife safaris the company runs from their permanent camp near the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve.
The following day we set out as per our usual schedule but the session was rapidly proving fruitless. However, at one stage there was a big splash and Prahlad said he saw a large mahseer jump; this is apparently very rare and at least proof that there fish out there. With such quiet fishing I became distracted and the rod felt heavier and heavier with each cast. Some of the local village lads who had gathered started an impromptu game of cricket on the shore: this is, after all, India, the most cricket-mad nation on the planet. Ramesh and Bobby from our camp joined in and I photographed them from the river.
Having had so much success with spoons the previous day, I neglected to use the other lures I had brought with me: J13 jointed Rapala floating minnow. The morning was looking to be a fruitless one, so I thought I would try anything. I asked Prahlad for the firetiger pattern minnow, he changed them and I waded back to my position. The minnows have a good action but do make for more work than the spoons, and the river current was very strong. With my second cast, I got a half-hearted bite: my hopes were up again. Then, as I was reeling in after a couple more casts, I saw a big fish jump. No less than ten yards away from me, a giant 70 – 80cm mahseer suddenly leapt clean out of the river and back in right before my eyes. It was not the lazy jump of a mullet as they roll over mid-air to flop onto their backs, nor was it the startled escape response of a baitfish; just a leisurely, graceful bound that reminded me of the way dolphins jump alongside ships or dressage horses leap fences, but the mahseer was completely clean out of the water and headed dead straight upstream, no mean feat for a fish that size in that strong a current. With that size of fish, her eyes looked very small and the scales on her back very big; and in a trip and narrative full of hyperbole this was really one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Well with my spirits revived by such a sight I set to fishing again. I cast pretty much in the same area as I had got the bite, and persevered. Towards the end of the early am session, I finally got my mahseer: as the lure was a floating minnow, the fish took the bait very close to the surface and from where I was, it sounded like someone dropping a concrete slab flat into the river. My rod jerked over and then the only noise I could hear was the bzzzz…bzzzz…bzzzzz of the drag as line went flying off my spool; it was very slightly unreal, with the violence of the strike and the speed at which the fish was running downstream. Before I knew it Prahlad was beside me, adjusting the drag to the strength of the fish by feeling the spool with his fingertip as it kept paying out line. “This is very big fish sir, maybe 40, 45 pounds, slowly, slowly please”. For a terrible moment I thought I would be spooled but there was really no point in attempting to reel in, for many minutes:
There was nothing to do but wait, heart racing, until the fish had decided to slow down. Well she did eventually, and then the fight started in earnest; the new hooks and split rings I re-fitted the minnow would surely be tested, and Prahlad’s knot-tying skill also. You are as much fighting the very fast current of the river as the mahseer itself, and the fish was really coming to scratch; keeping my rod as upright as possible I was reeling literally, a few inches at a time. My Japanese braid line was marked every metre, and so just looking at the movement of the line the reeling in seem to last even longer.
By now word had spread along the riverbank that a big fish had been hooked, and a few of the locals who had been loafing by the river came by to watch, as did Arvind and some ghillies from another party of anglers. But I was rather distracted by the immediate task at hand, and although it appeared I had ridden the storm of the initial run, which is apparently when most mahseer are lost, it was still very hot work. Oblivious to everything but the fish and Prahlad’s instructions, I kept reeling but the fish decided to run again. This time she was much weaker and I managed to contain her run to about twenty yards (compared to about a hundred yards of her first). The reeling was getting easier although still heavy, and only occasionally did the fish put in a burst or two. Next to come would be the tricky part: landing the beast; always an anxious time during any fishing. With my polarised glasses on I spotted the fish very early, and the mahseer was a very large specimen; my heart leaped. Despite being pretty much played out, the mahseer still had a lot of power and we nearly lost her as Prahlad got a hold of my line and was wading in to retrieve her, and she gave one last thrash and a struggle before falling into his clutches. My beautiful Himalayan Golden Mahseer, a moment I will treasure for life:
The beast was released with a farewell, and then there were handshakes, congratulations and smiles all around. First off of course was to shake hands with Prahlad and thank him profusely, for without him I would never have landed such a fish, and he was beaming ear to ear. Ramesh came down to the riverside from camp to join in the fun and a photo, and the legendary ghillie Surendra also came up to shake my hand.
Compared to the southern varieties of mahseer, apparently it is quite rare to take very large Himalayan golden mahseer, although I was lucky in that it was prime season – just after the monsoon, when the fish have a wild post-spawn hunger – and I was in the best place for miles around, to catch a big one. One angler called Vijay from our neighbouring fishing party whom I had met the day before, came over to shake hands and congratulate me, and he said that you could come to Byas Ghat for three years and not take a fish like mine. My head was swelling every minute! He was a very much older and distinguished gentleman, wading into the Ganges with a walking stick for support, and he said after fishing many parts of the world, including bluewater game and salmon in Alaska, he had never found a rush comparable to that of catching a large Himalayan Golden Mahseer and that he came here to fish almost all his life: it turns out he knew Prahlad as a little boy starting out in angling guiding! We said our goodbyes and headed for camp and for once, my thoughts were not on Gajju’s creations waiting for me at table, but the euphoria of my experience – my hands were still trembling long after the fish was back in the Ganges and everyone had dispersed – and a sense of gratitude and content filled me fuller than any meal would. At least until lunchtime.
Well words can’t fully express the emotions of that catch, which turned out to be the last of my trip. I doubt in my angling career back in Japan I will ever match the same feeling, and here in my sitting room in Tokyo smoking a cigar, just casting a glance at the reel with which I caught the fish brings back the memory of the great moment. My only fear is that one day when I am old and feeble, I become senile and forget my Byas Ghat Golden Mahseer.