World Wide Fishing!

Pursuing the Mighty Himalayan Legends
(Mahseer game fishing in some of the world's last frontiers)

Author Misty Dhillon

Text & photos by Misty Dhillon

The rivers of the Indian Himalayas offer the remoteness and the promise of some of the wildest, most untapped fishing and fly-fishing waters anywhere. Out of the several rivers, that drain the Himalayan ranges, Mahseer are to be found in almost all of them, some more apt for the trophy Mahseer fishing, and the others for fly-fishing.

As the promoted and the unsurpassed techniques to fish for these legendry game fish in the Himalayas are fly-fishing and spinning, yet all options need to be kept open and a fishing trip needs to have the flexibility of changing locations and techniques according to the conditions on a river. Some of the best Mahseer fishing is to be had in the remotest rivers of the Himalayas, as they are unspoiled and undammed. The fishing techniques used here are quite similar to Salmon fishing, though the rivers will often run larger.

Undeniably, one of the most effective ways to fish these vast glacial rivers is by rafting down on them, with all supplies for a multi-day trip on the rafts and by floating down over a period of time, accessing the remotest spots with much ease and without getting into the even more complicated logistics and time wastage of trekking.

The Diversity and Possibilities

The Himalayas are too vast an area to pass off a judgment on with regards to the fishing possibilities, and though the primary game fishing remains to be the Mahseer, there are plenty of rivers where there are rainbow and brown trout. The Giant game fish - Goonch - is another attraction for some.

The Himalayan states with some of the most promising fishing and fly-fishing waters are Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Uttaranchal. Some of the good rivers for Mahseer fishing vary vastly in features too, as they could be both spring-fed and glacial.

Spring-fed rivers are slightly more predictable, and run clear for most part of the year - the window you could fish for Mahseer in them is slightly larger. A lot of these larger spring fed rivers could be fished at night too and the results are startling.

Glacial rivers however are fished differently and the chances of taking larger fish are higher. Some of the finest Mahseer Rivers are glacial. These include the Ganges, the Mahakali, the Siang, the Yammuna, the Beas, the Subhansiri, and many others which are inaccessible.

Many large Mahseer will stay put in glacial rivers for most part of the year and then migrate to the tributaries and sub-tributaries on getting an indication, though that is perhaps, because of the gigantic size of some of the glacial rivers, which offer refuge to a majority of them. Large Mahseer reside in the deeper pools and rapids of spring-fed rivers too.

When fishing for these fish a variety of options need to be open keeping in consideration the wide variety of feeding tendencies of the Mahseer - fly-fishing is the recent success story, despite the fact that it has been practiced since decades thought the rivers of India - with newer more off-the-cuff fishing techniques and improvised flies there have been better results. Fly-fishing for Mahseer is a growing trend as there are newer possibilities vacant, and as it has always been, perhaps the most gratifying of all techniques to take a Mahseer.

Out of all I find fly-fishing to be the most sundry and exciting of all, for, if the fish are not feeding on minnows - lures go wrong. I feel the blend of fly-fishing and spinning, both brilliant game-fishing techniques is a terrific one for fishing the Himalayan Rivers.

The Mighty Migration

The Himalayan Mahseer carry out an annual migration to their favourite spawning grounds upriver, once, twice or sometimes even more frequently, though the major migration happens in the peak of the monsoon season, July and August, when due to the heavy monsoon and the snow melt, the rivers are in full flow. Mahseer swim up to the tributaries and the sub-tributaries to deposit their spawn. The Himalayan Mahseer dispatches their spawn in batches and not all in one go.

Shortly after the monsoon these rivers are at their prime to fish, and the timing varies by a few weeks from river to river. The fish essentially are returning from the tributaries of the main rivers and the reciting water level gives them an indication to return back to their habitat, the main river. As the fish return to the main river they are seem to have a rampant appetite for almost every thing. The reciting water levels show clearly the marks the fish make on the rocks to lick the algae clean off the rock and of course fish and even flies are taken rather promptly during this time. This time of the years is principle for large Himalayan Mahseer and all fish are likely to be out of their regular hangout areas and transiting.

The next best time is the spring season, February middle though the early part of May. Again variations occur in the fishing from river to river and some even could be fished till the end of May. The conditions during this period are rather settled and in the case of the glacial river there could be a movement amongst some fish as the snowmelt descends, towards the middle-end of the April. Snowmelt waters are great for the fishing too, specially at the confluences the fly-fishing gets even better.

The rivers of North Eastern India have different conditions to the northern rivers and are situated in a rather lush landscape - the rain forests in the base of the Himalayas. This area still features some of the finest and most untouched rivers. The rivers here generally come to life with Mahseer only towards the end of October as the monsoons here are rather stretched and finish late and for the weather to settle down and the conditions in this impenetrable bush to become favourable, November is a perfect month. February and March are also favourable months for the fishing here.

The Himalayan Legends (barbus tor putitora)

These Mahseer attain sizes of as much as 85 lbs, and a 20 to 40 lb fish is often had on spinning. Often the figures are not found to be impressive, at least for the anglers who get into a comparison of the Himalayan Mahseer with the Humpbacked Mahseer found in the Cauvery river system in the south of India, which of course do not take to lures and flies as fondly as the Himalayan monsters do.

Fish in Hand

The two fish are quite different in physical features as well as other aspects and are to be found in rather different terrain and landscape. The Humpbacked Mahseer, the so called larger Mahseer limits it self to only two river system of in southern India, the Cauvery River, which is the hub of commercial fishing trips in India, and the other - the Kabbini now is more or less extinct, following the construction of a dam on the prime fishing section some years back.

The waters of the Cauvery River are only limited and quite heavily fished. The river has amazing accessibility - which perhaps is also another reason for it being so well frequented by anglers.


Record Mahseer
Some of the preliminary mentions of large Mahseer caught on rod and line were back in 1870, by Mr. Sanderson, author of Thirteen Years Amongst the Wild Beasts of India, with the capture of a Mahseer, which was said to be over 130 lbs. Though this was not confirmed since there were no weighing scales. Over the next fifty odd years there were frequent reports of some of the largest Mahseer primarily from the river Kabbini in Southern India. All of these fish were taken either on live bait or paste - bait, a technique to which Mahseer fishing has always been associated with. The two largest Mahseer, the records of which still stand, are the 119 lbs fish caught by Col. J.S. Rivett-Carnac on 29th Dec 1919, and a 120 lbs fish caught by J. Wet. Van Ingen on the 22nd March 1946, from the Upper Kabbini.

Spinning and fly-fishing for the Himalayan Mahseer, barbus tor putitora, found in the Northern Himalayan Rivers was very common during the times of the British Raj in India. The early twenty-century saw numerous expatriate anglers fish the waters of the River Ganges, the Beas, the Sarda, the Ramganga, including several of their tributaries, for the Himalayan Masheer. The largest specimen heard of was a 140 lbs fish landed by an angler in 1939 from the river Beas - however there are no pictures to confirm this report. Such large fish were reported in the past even from the Himalayan Rivers. Mr. A St J MacDonald author of Circumventing the Mahseer: & Other Sporting Fish in India and Burma, himself had a number of fish over the 50 lbs range including a 75 lbs fish caught from the Irrawadi river in Burma.

Showing off Mahseer

Some of the best fly-fishing was had from the Song, Ramganga and the Saryu rivers of the once Uttar Pradesh region of Northern India. There are also reports of good Mahseer been caught on the river Beas, which runs though the state of Himachal Pradesh. Fly-fishing for the Mahseer in the Himalayan rivers was very common during the times of the British Raj in India as it was a fine alternative to Salmon fishing - something most expatriate anglers were used to back at home. At that time they used large dark flies, mostly black in colour, which looked like minnows, and grass hopper like flies, and often rigged live grass hoppers onto the fly hook and cast with the help of a fly line. Mr. Henry Sullivan Thomas in his classic book The Rod In India has mentioned many of his favourite patterns for the Mahseer. The largest Mahseer caught in recent times caught, on fly, was by Rowecliffe - a lady on a fly-fishing expedition lead by Mr. Robert Howitt, who landed a 40 lbs specimen from the river Ramganga.

Reading the old literature and from the pre and the post British Raj period, one generates a fair bit on interest in the prospects for fly-fishing in the Himalayas, especially with so many rivers and their tributaries to choose from and such remarkable fly-fishing terrain. Mahseer, have been caught by us from almost all of the main river systems that drain the Northern Ranges and in their productive tributaries - which include the Saryu, the Mahakali, the Ramganga, the Beas, the Ganges, the Bhagirathi, and a few others. There is a misconception that fly-fishing for the Mahseer is done better in crystal clear spring fed rivers rather than in glacial rivers - we have had equally good fishing on both types of rivers.

Brigadier J. V. Pinto, author of Angling in Indian Rivers, mentions the capture of several fish over the forty-fifty pound range in the mid sixties from the Himalayan Rivers, on spinning gear. This is one of the most significant books of the post-British Raj period.

In 1977 Robert Howitt, Andrew Clark and Martin Clark set off from England in search of the forgotten monsters, which was called the Transworld Fishing Expedition. The expedition was a good reminder to the western world of the Mahseer, because soon after independence the sport had slowed down and old records needed to be refreshed. They covered all of India in a period of almost six months, fishing the most significant rivers and had great luck towards the end of the expedition with the capture of an 81 and a 92 pounder.

Successful expedition

John Bailey along with Paul Boot shot the famous Casting for Gold film in 1989, on the junction of Byas Ghat, on the Ganges, where Paul caught a 51 lb. fish.

There have been as many large Mahseer in the most recent past from the Himalayan Rivers, as anglers have ventured into newer more untouched rivers and returned with great stories. I had had a 55 lber on spinning from the Ganges near Shivpuri in 2003; this record was evened the following year by James Moorhouse again on a jointed lure, on the junction of the Nayar and the Ganges.

Guidelines to Mahseer Game-fishing

The place to target when you are fishing for Mahseer in the Himalayan Rivers is on the mouth a rapids, and in the pool just before the mouth of rapid, for, you are most likely to connect in this setting. Most large fish associate themselves to structural elements - the presence of heavy structural elements on the mouth of a rapids is indeed a fine spot to look into. Though this makes your job on hooking one far more exciting and tough - as these fish will take no denial when they are hooked - one can only imagine the adrenalin rush as these fish will utterly use the torrent to run as they will take off at race horse speed.

I mostly use braided lines, and in fact it is firmly a matter of personal selection, some of the finest Mahseer fishermen prefer monofilament lines. I personally favour braid - as I have become conscious that I am hooking 30% more fish than when I am fishing monofilament lines. With that said I feel that some of the best braids are not apt for fishing in the presence of such heavy structural elements, the situation I have explained above to the best place for hooking a Himalayan Mahseer - hence I use a four to ten foot monofilament leader in front of my braid, as I apprehend that a monofilament can offer far more resistance to abrasions against rocks and you also know when a monofilament starts to wear out, quite unlike braided lines.

Fishing at Camp

Fishing the drift, on a swift section of river, just above the rapids is ideal. While fly-fishing for the Mahseer the fly is cast into eddies of the current square of the angler and stripped in jerks at a medium speed to keep pace with the current. I have often had large Mahseer take on a dead drift and that has most often happened to me while using Muddler flies. An assortment of Muddlers is a must for the fly box - these are ideal when dressed with lead eyes that pop out like a dragon flies eyes, with the eyes being in proportion to the body.

I mostly tie my own patterns, which are dressed with peacock hurl, rooster neck hackle with bodies of chenille, tinsel and dubbing fur.

In the pools, which one fishes during a warm mid-day, the bottom bouncing technique is quite effective. Here the fly is presented directly upstream and allowed to bottom walk as it drifts along the bed, some 15 to 25 feet deep. This is another very effective technique for when the fish are in deeper waters.

Mahseer are mostly lost from frayed lines during a battle, or off course, due to weak trebles or hooks, which are often bent during a brawl.

If you are interested in fishing or fly-fishing for the Mahseer and would like any information on this wild fishery or would like to join us on our adventures then drop me a line and I'll be happy to help.

Tight Lines. ~ Misty Dhillon, Chandigarh, India

More Fly Fishing in India:

The Mahseer of India
Fly Fishing For Trout In the Himalayas
A Day at the Govind Sagar Resorvoir

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