"It's about average," said the colonel, "but wait till we hook a really big mahseer in that current."
Mahseer were still rolling and splashing at baitfish in the shallows. The minnows seined by the boatmen were silvery little sardines with pale amber backs, and I picked a big mylar marabou with a mixture of white and pale brown feathers. It was tied with silver mylar flanks along its wings. I clinched it onto the heavy nylon leader, and then worked out line as two big fish rolled within range.
"Anything you catch will be the fly record in Nepal," said the colonel. "Make it good."
There was a quick tug and a small fish skipped in across the current, impaled on my huge marabou. "Six inches." laughed the warden. "It's a Karnali fly-fishing record."
We released the little mahseer and I teased the fly back through its full-grown relatives, boiling and chasing minnows in the current. There was a pesky six-pounder that danced across the rapids for 20 minutes before it surrendered, and finally there was a giant swirl behind the fly and a huge maw worked shut across its feathers. The rod doubled into a circle and the reel protested.
The fight lasted less than 60 seconds. The heavy mahseer catapulted into the air and the reel rasped and clattered and its gear system fell apart. The rod worked wildly until I wrapped my arm in the line, pointed the tip at the fish, and waited until the heavy leader snapped.
The fish stopped feeding as suddenly as they had started. The walls of the gorge held the heat and reflected it like an oven. We ate briefly and drank some beer chilled in the river and then we huddled in the shade of the rocks until the sun passed.
Later we crossed the river and rested while the boatmen carried our gear high above the current. Our camp was on the shoulder of the gorge, a hundred feet above the Karnali rapids. The water rises as much as 50 feet in monsoon season, its pale scour-line obvious on the sandstone cliffs below our encampment.
Jumli tribesmen passed along the trail above our campsite, trekking back into the foothills from Sitapur with trade goods and salt. Their women carried huge bundles on their heads, and the porters effortlessly balanced as much as 200 pounds on poles across their shoulders. They climbed slowly without stopping to rest, using the cadence of a singsong melody that drifted down through the bamboo.
Our three Sherpa cooks organized our camp while we settled into our tents and huge flocks of chattering myna birds settled in the poplars.