Does Anyone Fancy A Curry?

Does Anyone Fancy A Curry?

Part One of Bob’s Mahseer Adventure on the River Cauvery

Mahseer fishing. Piece of cake really, isn’t it?

Like you, I’ve seen plenty of pictures. I’ve watched TV programmes, read the books and articles, and it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. You save up, part with a load of cash, jump on a plane and success is there for the turning up. It’s a rich man’s indulgence, surely.

Oh really?

If that’s what you think, think again, because you clearly haven’t been there.

This is fishing without any guarantees. In fact I’ll go so far as to suggest you’re not even guaranteed to get there, or back again for that matter.

Our previous exploits in the North took us on roads that reduced one guy to tears of abject terror due to his fear of heights and the heart-stopping sheer drops from the side of the narrow mountain road.

Hurtling through precipitous gorges on a river full of snow melt in a glorified bouncy castle isn’t for the feint hearted, either. I think the reality hits home when you’ve had the safety training, donned a life jacket, an impact helmet and, almost as an afterthought, you’re asked to sign a form that indemnifies the company from legal action should you drown…

Throw in a bit of abseiling, trekking to remote areas and the sheer exhaustion of a near 60-hour journey on trains, planes and automobiles just to reach base camp. So please, do remind me again how easy this lark is. Last time out I had just one fish to show for two weeks of determined effort. On our first expedition Paul didn’t land anything at all other than a few tiddlers on fly gear.

He’s now living in Canada yet still desperately keen to return to the MahaKali with us next Autumn. Damn it. Mahseer fishing gets under your skin and into your blood. It’s a drug that draws you back for more.

Fortunately I don’t smoke. Don’t drink a lot these days either, parties excepted when I’m prone to binge a bit, so what I save more than pays for my annual adventure. The plain truth is mahseer fishing doesn’t have to be all that expensive. Certainly it’s cheaper than smoking these days.

You’ll also find that time spent doing a few price comparisons is well invested. Prices vary dramatically even though you might be staying in the same camp, employing the same guides and fishing the same stretches of river. Do some homework and you might save hundreds of pounds.

The fishing is definitely more organised, some might say civilised, in the South. Permanent camps, showers, refrigeration and a damn site more fish. Big ones, too, but you’ll hear murmurings that the Northern fish are a different genus. Superior even. Wild, sleek, golden mahseer inhabit the northern rivers. Hump-back pigs in the south.

I’ve heard the arguments and can’t help feeling it’s a bit like the hoary old chestnut that French carp don’t count. These mahseer are all related through the barbus tor family. Yes, that’s right, barbus – barbel to you and me, though to compare a barbel to a mahseer is a bit like saying that Citroen CVs are cars, just like Ferraris are.

Whatever the case, with a limited number of decent mahseer under our belts from the tough Himalayan rivers Stu Walker and I decided the time had come to give the Cauvery a shot. Compared with up north, fishing the Cauvery is a veritable piece of cake. Fly direct to Bangalore, make a three-hour transfer and you’ll be in camp enjoying a beer.

Well, that’s how we imagined it.

Then, just days after I’d posted off my passport to obtain a tourist visa from the Indian High Commission all that trouble kicked off in the Big Brother House. Jade, Jo and Danielle created a huge international furore with their bullying of the exquisite Shilpa Shetty and in the back of my mind I begin to wonder if such a stupid pantomime might somehow impact on our trip.

Weeks passed and with no sign of my passport I began to entertain ridiculous thoughts. Was I going to have to make a personal appointment in Liverpool to obtain a new passport closely followed by a trip to the Indian High Commission in Birmingham? With only a week to go I was beginning to get concerned, especially when a few centimetres of snow brought most of the country to a halt. And then it arrived. Was I a relieved bunny or what?

Sorted – only for it all to kick off in Bangalore. You’re hardly likely to be aware of the dispute between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu yet they have been locked in battle over their rights to the waters of the Cauvery for more than a hundred years. A Cauvery River Water Tribunal was set up to rule on a fair division 19 years ago. Their first decree resulted in 18 people dying in rioting on the streets of Bangalore. Appears they take water division seriously in India.

So, with our reels loaded and hooks honed, the Supreme Court judgement only decides to announce changes to the water allocations. And guess what? Both sides got less than they bargained for.

To give you an idea how serious the authorities took this matter, the Bangalore police made over 700 preventive arrests and more than 16,000 riot officers were deployed to ensure peace. Bus services between the two states were suspended as a precautionary measure while many schools and colleges were closed.

“We have heard of some minor disturbances in some parts of the state and we are dealing with it.” Said Karnataka’s Director General of Police, K.R. Srinivasan. “Overall, the situation is well under control.”

Don’t know about you but I tend to get nervous when high ranking officials are keen to broadcast ‘well under control’ messages. I seem to recall someone stating something remarkably similar about Baghdad not long ago.

By now the BBC’s web site was advising travellers to follow developments closely, to consult local news channels and the media and to exercise due caution.

Even so, we weren’t too concerned because we’d be clearing the city at daybreak. Mind you the prospect of farmers’ road blocks was a slight concern.

I guess our obsessive desire to land a big mahseer can be measured by the fact that we were still more worried about the dam situation than the potential for civil disorder. The hydro dams had been closed in Karnataka, denying water to the downstream Tamil reaches, which meant water levels would be decidedly low. On the other hand, if the dams were suddenly opened to release water the gorge would be engulfed by floods. Either way the fishing would be affected.

For several months leading up to our departure Stuart had been corresponding with Owen Bosen, a keen mahseer hunter who lives in Bangalore. Less than a week before departure he broke some bad news,

“Right now there is no problem, but there is a strike called for on the 12th of this month which could mean a few problems. Right now not a drop of water is being released from the dam, and last week end there was not a drop of water in the Kaveri falls at Shivasamundram when we visited. Whatever water that is flowing in the Kaveri right now is from the other little rivers like the Shimsha that join the Kaveri above Bheemeshwar. If Karnataka is forced to release water to Tamil Nadu before the end of this month, you can kiss your chances of catching anything goodbye, so keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.”

His next message announced…

The strike in Karnataka is on the 12th, we will know on that day just how serious Karnataka is about not releasing water to Tamil Nadu. As things stand, there are a few protests happening, but nothing serious yet. After the 12th there could be road blocks set up on the roads leading to Mysore, but the road that you guys take leads slightly away to a place called Kanakapura.

Keep smiling.

Keep smiling indeed!

The risk of protests and road blocks aside, Owen’s phrase, ‘you can kiss your chances of catching anything goodbye’ was pretty much the last thing we wanted to hear. Basically we were stuffed.

By Wednesday (14th) the strike had spread to state-wide status and although its organisers were saying it was not aimed at any group or community, tension was palpable in the city. As predicted, protests had affected traffic on the busy highway between Bangalore and Mysore town.

The developing situation produced a backlash against the Tamils – a linguistic minority community in Karnataka – with theatre owners stopping screening of Tamil films and Tamil television channels being blocked by cable operators.

Could all this blow over before our departure on the 17th? Hardly. Experts were predicting the dispute could linger on for years. Great!

Just to add spice to the mix, three days before departure, the management of BA was meeting with unions in an attempt to head-off a strike by ground crew. Perhaps we wouldn’t even be able to get on the plane.

By Thursday there were signs of a slight improvement. Heaving a sigh over a peaceful shutdown, barring stray incidents, the now weary city police remained on high alert as protests, rallies and sit-in demonstrations broke out sporadically:

“Though the city is returning to normal, we are maintaining a vigil across the city, especially in the sensitive areas where Tamil-speaking people are concentrated.” said one police official.

Forty-eight hours and we’d be hitting the road. Plans A, B and C, in fact all plans right through to Plan Z involved catching a big mahseer and our chances were based on a river in fine fettle. As the old song goes, “Que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be…” What else could go wrong?

Well how about this? Friday morning, I opened up Outlook to find an Email from Peter, our trip leader:

‘Have a problem here as Katharine has injured her knee while skiing and now can’t drive. I am having to go down to France on Saturday to look after her and drive back. I have had to reschedule my flights to go on the 26th arriving on the 27th so will catch up with you all then.

Saad will be in camp when you arrive…’

It could only happen to Stu and me. Still, we’ve travelled on trust before and it has always turned out okay. We rode the overnight train from Delhi to Kathgodam, in the Himalayan foothills, trusting that we’d find Misty Dhillon on a station platform which was no different if you think about it. In fact, isn’t that’s why we accept the challenge of these adventures? The alternative is a fortnight’s boozing and sun bathing in Ibiza or Mallorca. Yeah, right!

Peter or no Peter, come 5am on Saturday morning we’d be setting out on an unforgettable journey, Misty’s now famous first greeting echoing in my head, “Gentlemen, welcome to India, your expedition begins here!”

Bring it on!

Despite the doomy preamble we arrived in camp safely on Sunday morning with nothing to report other than a little tired from the journey. Alas we learned the authorities had been forced to release dam water and the river was up and still rising. Some who knew the river well suggested it was at least ten feet above normal level. In normal circumstances the height of the water wouldn’t really affect the fishing, after all, the previous camp was washed away when monsoon rains raised the river level by fully fifty feet. No, it was the temperature of this dam water that would affect us.

And so it did. Bites from mahseer were few and far between which is a problem because you need to experience a few bites to get your eye in where striking is concerned. Imagine sitting on the hardest, most uncomfortable rocks imaginable, baking in fierce heat. Nothing happens for hour after hour, your mind drifts, you fidget uncontrollably, concentration and confidence withers away and suddenly the rod tip is yanked round like a suicidal barbel has grabbed your bait. We’re talking a whacking great pull on the rod tip of a good foot, maybe two, and that’s just a knock! Seriously, these knocks will practically jerk an uptide rod out of your hands if you’re not careful and your natural reaction is to strike. Do that and you’ll miss it. The fish will be spooked and tragically, in these conditions, you might not get a second chance for several days. Not good.

Well, if you’re not catching on ragi there’s always other tactics you can try. Crabs are good if you can get hold of some. Fish form a large part of the mahseer diet – the locals call them chilwah, a term that covers practically any species of bait sized fish and the Cauvery teems with them, so many in fact that catching them is great fun and it can divert you from the whole purpose of being there.

Take a barbel rod, 10lb line, size 10 hook and anything over half a pound will hoop the rod over and set your clutch screaming. Hook into a 3lb mahseer and it’ll seriously raise your heart rate! Lures are always worth a try and are likely to be hit by a variety of species.

Including Saad there were seven anglers in our party at this stage. Unfortunately the guides were keen that we all fished close together and that didn’t go down too well with Stu and me. We had enjoyed real freedom on previous trips in the North and it led to some fraught conversations with both guides and fellow customers alike. As far as I’m concerned you don’t fly 5,000 miles to share a hundred yards of river with seven anglers, certainly not when there’s six kilometres to go at!

It’s the Cauvery, not a bloody commercial fishery!

Take searing heat, physically demanding terrain, great expectations, an out of sorts river, total strangers in 24-hour proximity and it all adds up to a recipe for tension. We had our own Big Brother house and sure as hell, before the fortnight was out, things would get emotional.

When the first fish did come it was something of an anti-clamax. It fell to my rod and after sitting like a baked potato on a pin cushion for three hours I asked Saad if he wouldn’t mind holding my rod while I shot a few photos. You can guess what happened next…

The rod was duly handed back to me and I landed the fish. Strictly speaking you can say that it didn’t count as my fish but if you take it in that context few mahseer from the Cauvery will ever count. The guides bait your hook, they are practically insistent on doing most of the casting because exact bait placement and hanging the line round a certain rock is paramount. When a hooked fish runs you invariably have to follow it over rocks the size of elephants and to do that safely a rod will get passed from angler to guide while you’re climbing. Guides swim the river to free your line from snags, other lines may be cast over yours to change the angle of pull and you might even take to a coracle.

Nine times out of ten it’s team effort that puts a fish on the bank not the heroics of an individual. Even the weights tend to be estimated. But one guy who’s been there half a dozen times couldn’t wait to tell me that it didn’t really count as my fish. Thanks buddy!

Can you believe this same guy had gone up to the head guide at the beginning of the trip and promised him a tip of £50 plus £1 per pound if he could catch him a mahseer weighing over 50lb? That single act of largesse caused division among the guides and destroyed any trust within our group. With such a massive incentive being waived around (guides earn 3,000 rupees a month which amounts to about £8 a week), who do you think was going to be put in the best spot each day? And would he be casting his own baits? Like hell he would.

When this same guy came out with, “I do hope my girlfriend (she’s much younger than me) hasn’t pranged the Jaguar.” I swear I could hear Harry Enfield screaming, “Loads-a-money!” in my ear.

What a toss pot!

Unfortunately it would be a long time before our ‘team’ put another decent mahseer on the bank but that’s a story for next time.

Camp Details:

We stayed at the Bush Betta camp. Peter Smith normally trips organises trips from the UK by but fishing on the river is currently suspended pending a decision from the Indian High Court (see article here).

Sooner or later a ruling will be made but it will be a sorry day for all if fishing is classified as hunting. Should that happen then many of the key mahseer fisheries in India will be closed to anglers. For now there are a few fisheries still operating on the Cauvery.

(article published in Deccan Herald, 9th September, 2010)

The authorities are saying that the Mahseer Fish gets protected from poachers due to presence of anglers in Cauvery. So, is the forest department is handing over protection to Resorts and Anglers?? Can we start similar operations inside Bandipur and Nagarhole National parks so that the Tigers get protection due to presence of tourists and resorts?

Ban on mahseer angling suggested. Subhash Chandra N S Bangalore, Sept 8, DHNS
The State Forest Department is contemplating a ban on angling of mahseer fish and has sought a clarification from the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) in this regard.

In a submission to the High Court, the State has said the department had already directed the State-owned Jungle Lodges and Resorts to suspend angling in all stretches of river Cauvery and in areas allocated to them.

The Bush Betta fishing camp has fuelled the debate regarding the ban as they have approached the High Court seeking renewal of lease for the fishing camp for angling of mahseer.

The State, based on the Union Government’s letter dated June 7, 2010, has begun discussion regarding the angling of mahseer in sanctuary. The letter says that angling and its release into the water immediately also amounts to hunting.

In a meeting conducted on July 19, 2010, chaired by Meera C Saxena, Additional Chief Secretary, Forests Ecology and Environment Department, K Jyothiramlingam, Principal Secretary, Tourism, B K Singh, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Wildlife warden, N D Tiwari, Additional PCCF, Jungle Lodges and resorts, Sanjay Mohan, CCF and Executive Director, JLR and Nagraj Hampole, CCF and Secretary Forests have resolved to write to Union Ministry seeking clarification regarding the ban.

According to the proceedings of the copy of the minutes of the meeting available with Deccan Herald, the Union Ministry says “capturing, coursing, snaring, trapping, driving or baiting any wildlife or captive animal amounts to hunting and presuming capture of mahseer amounts to sport is wrong. Even hunting was a sport earlier and has been banned now.”

Managing Director, Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR) cites a scientific paper by Dr A J T John Singh, former dean, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) which says angling and release are helpful in conservation as the protection is achieved due to presence of anglers.

He further mentions that mahseer has received more protection in stretches of Cauvery where angling is permitted compared to those area where it is not permitted.

Also citing to another publication ‘Biology and fishery of mahseers in upper stretches of river Cauvery by D S Krishna Rao in 2009, he said that the river stretch from Doddamakali and Shivanasamudra is unguarded and cases of using dynamite to kill fish is reported from here.

The meeting however ended with a resolution to request the MOEF to reconsider the comments made by it until then the angling of mahseer be suspended.

The Gear You’ll Need:

We used Daiwa TDX4-10 uptide rods for the heavy duty work teamed up with Saltist 50 multipliers loaded with 40lb line. Expect to re-spool two or 3 times during your trip, possibly more often if you are catching fish regularly.

Hooks need to be big and strong – 6/0 and 8/0 is the norm. I got hold of a batch of Gamakatsu catfish hooks and they fitted the bill perfectly. Cutting point hooks quickly lose their points on the rocks and cannot be sharpened.

Sheet lead, cut into strips is wrapped around rig tube or similar to make leger weights.

Things To Look Out For:

The wildlife around Bush Betta is staggering. We saw crocodiles, had near misses with elephants, saw leopard tracks, watched deer, mongoose and monkeys. Using a bird book we identified over 70 different species that you won’t see at home including eagles, kites, buzzards, bee eaters, birds of paradise, parakeets, fly catchers, owls, woodpeckers and at least three different species of kingfisher.

As for the sky at night, the stars will take your breath away.

Make sure you pack a pair of binoculars and don’t fall in the river…

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