On The Hunt For Himalayan Mahseer

India is halfway around the world from the U.S., plenty of time to reread Jim Corbett's "Man-Eaters of Kumaon," the book that started the dream of India for me when I was a boy. On The Hunt for Himalayan Mahseer by Keith McCafferty Fishing for mahseer in the Himalayas doesn't begin with a cast. First, you have to hike through the cliffs of the Sarda Gorge, where the slipping of a foothold can cost you your life. Then you have to walk past the tiger in the night. But even that's not going back far enough, for India is a land of dreams, and any trip that takes you here begins as a dream. Nearly all my life, since I first read Jim Corbett's "Man-Eaters of Kumaon," I have wanted to travel to the Himalayan foothills in northern India. As a boy, my dream was to see a tiger, nothing more. Then it was to follow Corbett's footsteps as he hunted a man-eater, to see with my own eyes the country he so vividly painted in words. Finally, my dream expanded to include fishing for India's great migratory gamefish, the golden mahseer.Field & Stream Online Editors
Corbett became famous for killing man-eating tigers and leopards, but his heart was on the river. He considered mahseer fishing to be a "sport of kings." What is a mahseer? The simple answer is that it's a carp. But before you dismiss it as a four-letter fish, understand that a mahseer has as much in common with our carp as a salmon does with a whitefish. Rudyard Kipling may have exaggerated when he wrote, "There he met the mahseer...beside whom the tarpon is a herring," but the comparison is not unwarranted. In fact, with its torpedo shaped body and large scales, the mahseer fairly resembles a sun-bronzed tarpon, and in terms of brute power no other freshwater fish is its equal. Corbett himself considered "fishing for mahseer in a submontane river the most fascinating of all field sports...a sport fit for kings."Field & Stream Online Editors
Welcome to India - luggage for the month-long journey. But to catch a mahseer you first have to catch a plane to Delhi, where the dream that took you here will at least be temporarily shattered. My photographer and friend, Steve Dunn, had arranged for us to spend our arrival night at the Imperial Hotel, built by the British Raj in the 1930s. This opulent palace - no other word can do it justice - with its red-jacketed porters, exotic hostesses, and gold-plated elephant bronzes stands in stark contrast to the moonscape of cracked concrete and rubbish only a quarter of mile away, where homeless thousands jostle sacred cattle for scraps of garbage.Field & Stream Online Editors
In Delhi, thousands of the homeless live on fields of garbage. Here is what a mile of New Delhi showed us upon our departure the following morning: a boy with a twisted mouth and grotesque limbs that his guardians broke, the better to beg you for a rupee; a monkey crushed under the tire of a truck, birds picking at it; a bony cow eating a blue plastic bag; a smoking fire of bicycle tires in a cardboard box village. We passed a cricket game played by rag-tag boys, a barbershop consisting of a broken mirror and a chair, then a woman running toward a car wreck, her mouth open in a silent scream. Add to these sights a sky that is gray as a death mask and the cacophony of constantly beeping horns from buses, taxis, auto rickshaws, motor bikes, and homemade contraptions run by washing machine motors, all but the bullock carts screaming at Mad Max speed (India has the highest vehicle fatality rate in the world and no traffic laws that I could discern), and you exit Delhi indelibly impressed by one face of India - unfortunately, one that tends to overwhelm many visitors and paint a disparaging picture of an extraordinarily diverse country.Field & Stream Online Editors
The second leg of the trip to the Sarda Gorge begins with breakfast on the road. Bhavna Bhoj, one of our hosts, demonstrates a zest for live at all times of day. She has too much personality for just one name. Friends call her Bundl or Choti. "How was your drive," Siddarth Anand asked as we relaxed, shell-shocked after the seven-hour trip, with a cup of tea at Camp Corbett. Camp Corbett is a collection of thatch-roofed huts perched on a bank over the Boar River south of Naini Tal, Jim Corbett's boyhood home in the mountains. Here was another India - forested, filled with birdsong and still tracked by wild elephants - as different from Delhi as it is possible to imagine. And in Anand was another of India's faces - this one strong, welcoming, confidently smiling, a face that inspired trust. Or so we fervently hoped, for not only had we placed our lives in Anand's hands, but he was the one person in India qualified to organize this trip. In addition to running the camp, Anand is an ardent conservationist, a trekking outfitter and a prominent guide in nearby Corbett Park, India's first national park and tiger reserve. It was Anand who had informed me that not only was it possible to journey into a remote reach of the Mahakali River, a famed mahseer river which in Corbett's day was known as the Sarda, but that the trail still followed the route Corbett took while tracking the Thak Man-eating tigress 70 years ago, his account of which stands as one of the greatest hunting stories ever told.Field & Stream Online Editors
India's greatest reward is her people. They may be poor, but a smile costs nothing. Here, we are thronged by boys and young men who want to brew us tea and be guests in their mud homes while we get the tire fixed. The next morning Anand's jeep took us through sugarcane fields divided by swatches of 15-foot high elephant grass. These remnant grasslands, called the Terai, once comprised the most deadly malaria belt in northern India and are still sparsely inhabited. In one small village we stopped to have a flat patched (not our last one, an Indian road being a road in name only) and were soon thronged by young men who see a white face perhaps twice a year. A few words of greeting in my halting Hindi brought smiles, smiles in turn brought invitations to brew us a cup of chai and to enter their mud huts as friends. India is a land of one soul and a thousand bloods. It is a soul that reflects hope, trust, friendship and joy in living, no matter how poor a person may be, or to what caste or creed he belongs. In rural India, you never see an angry face. You may come to fish, to see a tiger, or to chant in an ashram, but for a visitor the nation's greatest reward is its people.Field & Stream Online Editors
The Sarda Gorge. One look at it and your first thought is: "We're going to need some bigger rods." By early afternoon we had reached the end of the road, where the Mahakali emerges from the mountains at the mouth of the Sarda Gorge. "What do think, Keith?" Sid asked. "Is this what you pictured?" I stepped to edge and looked down - way down. The river shimmered in the heat haze, snaking south toward its junction with the Ganges. Here, the Mahakali forms India's border with Nepal, whose chalk cliffs looked to be about 300 yards across. "We're going to need a bigger rod," I said.Field & Stream Online Editors
The pack mules take another route over the mountains. Their loads are too wide for the treacherous trails across the cliffs of the gorge. But the mahseer pools we hoped to fish flowed through the mountains nearly 20 miles to the north, with the first leg of our trek through the precipitous gorge. I had read Corbett's accounts of negotiating this path, "where the slipping of a handhold or foothold would invariably precipitate one into the icy Sarda." And had hoped he was exaggerating. But when the miniature mules that packed our camp gear left on a more circuitous route because the gorge trail was too narrow for their loads, I suspected Corbett's words rang the truth.Field & Stream Online Editors
The gorge, getting steeper here. We were six strong for the trek, including Sid's girlfriend and business partner Choti Bhoj, a young Kumaoni woman with an infectious smile and bubbling personality; Deepu Chandra, our cook; and Nar Singh, a former poacher and expert woodsman who had been in the employ of Anand's family for 30 years. A long-bearded priest whose temple stood on the cliff face gave us his blessing, and so we began a journey backward through time. Before us, the giant river drew hazy S's into the distance, with the mountains of Nepal shouldering toward the horizon. It was spectacular scenery, but we had little opportunity to appreciate it, for in a half a dozens places the path narrowed to a foot or so and ran across cliffs that fell away in sheer drops of a hundred or more feet. The Indians, accustomed to heights from childhood, took the ledgework as it came; I just kept my eyes on my feet and tried not to allow the chasms to register. Having reached the sanctuary of the forest at the far end of the longest and narrowest of these fearful traverses, I casually mentioned to Steve that perhaps one wouldn't die if he slipped. "Oh really," Steve said, a note of incredulity in his voice, "what part of you wouldn't be dead?"Field & Stream Online Editors
Poachers from Nepal cross the Mahakali in truck tire inner tubes. Indian border patrol outposts have curbed their hunting and animal populations, including tigers, are coming back. From this point the trail ran through a cathedral forest of tall sal trees that provided relief from the sun, as well as giving us our first glimpses of the native fauna. A golden-throated martin crossed the trail ahead of us, then a sounder of wild pig. We saw leopard scat and sambar tracks, and once Sid pointed out where a porcupine had dragged its tail in the dust. The evening was well advanced before we reached Kaladhunga, an isolated rest house built by the British forestry department that had been abandoned to ruin after Independence. The caretaker of this stone edifice, which stood in deep forest miles from any inhabited dwelling, was happy enough to see fellow human beings, but a shadow crossed his face when Sid asked if he'd seen any tigers in the area. The man shook his head gravely.Field & Stream Online Editors
Tiger calling card. The big males reach as far up as they can to dig their claws and demonstrate dominance over trespassing subordinates. "Never ask if you"ve seen a tiger," he said. "That is bad to do, very bad." Rejoining the trail, we better understood his superstition. Less than a quarter mile from the rest house a tree tilted across the path, and ducking under it, we saw where widely spaced claw marks had ripped deeply into the wood. A few yards away, fire ants were crawling over a pile of black scat that bristled with stiff boar hairs. We picked up the pace, for we still had six or seven miles to cover and night was fast approaching. Near a spring that seeped across the trail, we were suddenly brought up short by a powerful stench, the rank smell of a kill in the undergrowth. Moments later a kakar, or barking deer, sounded its one-note warning in the gloaming of the forest. It barked several more times, its voice amplified by the confines of the canyon.Field & Stream Online Editors
Tiger scat of wild boar hair. "Tiger?" The word was whispered. Sid shook his head, unconvinced. Compared to larger deer such as sambar, the timid kakar was an unreliable jungle informant, as likely to bark at a snake or a stick breaking under its hooves as it was a leopard or tiger. Later, when we learned that the kill we smelled was a buffalo that had strayed too far from Chuka village, Sid admitted what he had suspected all along, that we had possibly disturbed the king near his dinner. More cliffs followed, these negotiated with flashlight so that, mercifully, we were unable to see the consequences of a foot straying out of the beam of the light. Then the forest broadened and we found ourselves in a moonlit clearing on a bank over the river. "Welcome to Chuka," Sid said.Field & Stream Online Editors
Sunrise at Chuka Camp, with the Mahakali below the bank and the mountains of Nepal swallowed in mist. The rapid below camp is called the Chuka Man-eater. I have stepped from a tent in some beautiful corners of the world, but never have I woken to a sight as unforgettable as sunrise over the Nepal hills in the valley of the Mahakali River. March is spring in these foothills, but a spring that carries the gold tone of autumn as old leaves fall and new ones emerge. The ridges, shouldering over each toward the eternal snows, look faintly bronzed, in stark contrast to the emerald fields of the village and the river's cobalt current. To wake up in Chuka is to wake up in a forgotten heaven, for here time has stood still for at least a hundred years.Field & Stream Online Editors
Steve Dunn casts his spoon, dreaming of golden fish. But we had come to catch mahseer, and that first morning the rod took precedence over the camera. No river is a promise, though some smaller ones may appear to be. The Mahakali wasn't one that invited you to step very far into its current. I looked at the 9-weight fly rod I had brought and then reached for a heavy spinning outfit spooled with 20-pound mono. Mahseer don't grow big by eating mayflies, though the little ones do just that. In fact, a mature mahseer will eat anything, from a chilwa baitfish to a rope of algae to the well-cooked flesh of a man whose funeral was a burning ghat on the riverbank. Traditionally, mahseer were fished for with hammered brass spoons, and the choice is a good one today. But spinners, jointed lures, flies given clear water, and even soft plastics have found their way into the angler's arsenal. Sid Anand pioneered the use of plastic swimbaits in Himalayan rivers and suggested a bluegill patterned, 4-inch Swimshad to start.Field & Stream Online Editors
Fish on! Mahseer are so strong and the current so swift that even a small one can feel like 20 pounds. Mahseer are moody. Similar to steelhead in that they go on the bite or off it, a degree of water temperature can make the difference. A fish a day isn't a good day, but you'll take it. Mine didn't come until near sunset. I had made a long cast, nearly to the far side of channel, when the rod bent. It wasn't the viscous yank mahseer are noted for - the fish was simply on. If there's a strike against the mahseer it's that they rarely jump, but the first rush is unstoppable. This one was 50 yards downriver before it paused, and then it was off again. From the power I expected to see at least a 15-pound fish, but the mahseer, flashing in the current near my feet 10 minutes later, was closer to eight. Sid worked a length of cord through its mouth and out its gill, then secured the free end to a log. This isn't the death sentence it would be to a more fragile species and we'd release the fish later, but Indian anglers are firmly convinced that if you immediately return a mahseer to the river, it ruins the fishing in the pool.Field & Stream Online Editors
My first mahseer, caught in the same run where Corbett fished 70 years ago while hunting the Thak Man-eater. The pool, however, showed us no more action. That fish were present was clear, for we saw several in the 20-pound class break water, porpoising like migrating salmon. Mahseer make long runs into the headwater streams of the Himalaya during spring snowmelt, spawn during the monsoon summer, then return to lower reaches in the autumn as the river drops. There can be good fishing from October through April, but prime time is as the rivers clear in autumn, and again before snowmelt in the spring. The mahseer we had seen were a good omen and the water was sea green with plenty of clarity, but the twilight strip of jungle that lay between us and our camp reminded me that fishing was only part of the reason I had made this trip.Field & Stream Online Editors
This is the golden mahseer of northern India, one of the world's most beautiful gamefishes. The avidly pursued silver mahseer in the southern part of the country run larger, to more than 100 pounds, but are humpbacked and look more like an overgrown carp. When you are walking through a forest, and you know there can be tigers in the forest, the forest changes. The mist that rises over the river gives a smoky chill to the silhouettes of evening, and your eyes never stop searching the twisted branches of undergrowth. In the following few days, I would sometimes be alone when walking on jungle paths between reaches of the river, and the heightened sense of awareness I felt during these walks were more thrilling to me than the savage takes from the mahseer.Field & Stream Online Editors
Sid is one of India's mahseer masters. This is an average-sized fish, but he has caught many to 38 pounds. Which were, admittedly, not so many. Although we all took mahseer, the Himalayan giants eluded us. Once, when fishing in whitewater, Steve had a mahseer nearly wrench the rod from his hands, but it was off in a heartbeat. I had a similar experience casting a Yak-hair streamer fly on a double-handed rod. That one gave the impression of great weight, and left me feeling empty afterwards. On the second morning, Sid did better, solidly hooking a mahseer that fought down through 200 yards of broken current. He managed to land it after half an hour, just as the hook straightened on his homemade spoon. At 15 pounds, it was among the largest we landed.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hammered brass spoons are traditional mahseer lures. Smaller spoons, from one to two inches, score best, even though the fish here can run upwards of 50 pounds. A word or two about tackle. Mahseer break lines, break rods, break hearts. They can be taken on flyrods and bass baitcasting tackle, but distance casting is important on broad rivers like the Mahakali, and a 9- to 11-foot spinning rod limber enough to toss half-ounce to ounce and half baits is the standard outfit. The spinning reel should be spooled with at least 185 yards of 20-pound mono. Braided lines are taboo; mahseer invariably drag the line over rocks, where braids part like cobweb. I've mentioned lure choices, but with the exception of Swimshads, which come equipped with a strong hook, you must remove split rings and trebles and replace them with the stoutest you can find - 4X minimum. Then, you pray.Field & Stream Online Editors
Stout hooks and stout lines pay off when you hook a big one. British angler Julian Stapley took this 58-pound monster in the "Pool of the Golden Fish," where I must have made 100 casts. Perhaps if I'd made the 101st? All this for 5- to 15-pound fish, you ask? Well, mahseer often run to a size, and Sid has made some trips here where 25-pounders came one after another. In fact, an angler on a British-led float down the Mahakali caught a 58-pound mahseer ten days after we left, in what is called Pool of the Golden Fish. I had made perhaps a hundred casts into that pool, but take a look at the picture...that's what might have been had I made the 101st.Field & Stream Online Editors
Thak's slate-roofed houses are slowly falling to ruin. Corbett found the man-eater's tracks in the dust before these houses and suspected her of lying up in wait for him inside one of the open doors. But what was, was enough. I had felt the rod bend deep into the cork, but what I had yet to do was climb the steep ridge to Thak village. For me, this was both a pilgrimage and a privilege, for only 3 or 4 non-Indians have trekked here in the 70 years since Corbett called up the man-eater at nightfall, using his voice to imitate the mating call of a tiger. During the month he hunted the tigress, she had killed two villagers in Thak, causing the small settlement to be abandoned. And so it is today, eerily silent after our 2-mile climb in the heat, the paths overgrown and the dozen or so slate-roofed homes re-claimed by jungle. Up on the high ridge, with its weathered black rock upon which Corbett sat as he called the tigress to the barrels of his 450/400 Nitro Express, one seems still able to hear the echoes of the shots.Field & Stream Online Editors
A conversation with Chuka's headman, Ummed Singh. Singh was a boy when Corbett shot the man-eater and remembers dancing and singing under the bell tree where the tiger's body was laid to rest. When we descended from Thak, we were granted an audience with Ummed Singh, the headman of Chuka village. Singh, a spare man of iron will who is in his 80s, still remembers Corbett handing him a shiny rupee when he was a boy. Singh's legs are withered, but his lungs were full and strong as he cupped his hands and roared for us, imitating Corbett's call to the tigress. Before we left, he pointed out the bell tree where the man-eater was carried, so that all the villagers could dance round it, singing "Carpet Saab conjaho" - "long live Corbett." The dancing lasted until midnight, after which Corbett skinned the tigress and then started the 20-mile march back through the Sarda Gorge.Field & Stream Online Editors
Fabulous Indian dinners were highlights of each day in camp. Here, Choti Bhoj samples one of our cook's secret recipes cooked over a small fire topped by an iron hearth called a chula Far too soon, that is what we had to do as well. I think it is the campfires I'll miss most, the curries Deepu cooked on his horseshoe-shaped grill after a hard day's fishing, followed by the wicked rum or the local rice wine that loosened tongues. There was the story of the leopard that scent sprayed Sid and Choti through the mesh door of their pup tent 4 years ago, and of the friend who went to sleep with a loop of fishing line around his big toe, the other end tied to a chicken bone outside his tent. His plan, perhaps suggested by the rum, was to feel the tug and then sit up and take a flash photo of the animal that had been raiding the camp, presumably a jackal or a small jungle cat. Instead, it was a leopard that started pulling on the bone and nearly yanked the photographer from the tent. The screaming drove it away, and the thorn bushes placed around the tents the next night kept it at bay, but leopards are not always subjects of humorous stories here. Sometimes their name is only whispered, for spotted man-eaters still hold reins of terror in the Himalaya. One was abducting villagers from their huts on the mountain north of Chuka up until a couple of years ago. You don't unzip your tent to answer the call of nature here without your heart rate coming up - such is camping in Kumaon.Field & Stream Online Editors
Sid relaxing at camp. He's deep into a story here, no doubt a good one. Curiously, one feels less threatened by tigers, both because their nature is to avoid humans and also, sadly, because they are far less common than they once were. Outside India's official tiger reserves, most of which are islands of jungle surrounded by cultivation, the largest intact corridor of forest where tigers hold sway extends from west of Corbett Park through the foothills to the Nepal border, where we camped. Here, poaching was a major problem until India set up border patrols in remote outposts. Now, the great cat is returning to its environs, which would undoubtedly have pleased old Jim Corbett, who was India's pioneer conservationist and the first to raise the alarm about the tiger's demise. Knowing that tigers walked the same paths we trod added a dimension to this trip that I hadn't expected, but the biggest surprise, and what I'm going to miss most, are our hosts - Choti, sticking her head outside the tent to say good morning and tell us her dreams; Sid, roaring with laughter at the fire. You may hire this Indian couple as naturalists and guides, but you say good-bye to them as cherished friends.Field & Stream Online Editors
Tiger! Corbett wrote that he left Chuka "walking on air." I left our camp about as full and happy as I have ever been, but with the last part of my dream yet to be realized. A few days later in Corbett Park, among the folds of the Siwalik Hills, I finally saw tigers in the wild. After a lifetime hoping to see them, I find it hard to describe what I saw. A tiger blends in so perfectly that you don't see it, even though every deer and monkey is crying its alarm call. Then, where there was nothing, a flame burns in the forest. Someday, perhaps in our lifetimes, the last of those flames will be put out by the hand of man. Then the jungles will fall silent, and children of all lands will have lost one more reason to dream.Field & Stream Online Editors