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Early this year I headed there myself. The journey started in earnest at Bangalore when I climbed into an old made-in-India British Morris Oxford, a classic family car of the 1950s, called an Ambassador on the subcontinent. Progress was ambassadorial, slow and stately for 120 miles until we hit the exuberant explosion of temples and palaces in pink, blue and gold that is Mysore City, the ancient capital. It is now one long jam of motorized rickshaws and carts drawn by the amrat mahal, cattle with sweeping, lovingly gilded horns. The Ambassador bulled through, horn blaring. The landscape changed, becoming hillier with fewer villages. The road became a red dirt track and narrowed, climbing for 10 miles and then diving into a series of corniche bends until the Cauvery gleamed silver below us. On its banks were the tents of Bimishvirri, one of two fishing camps. Sundar Raj himself was waiting to welcome me with his crew of river guards-guides, immaculately khaki clad, standing at attention alongside the camp jeep.
Believe it or not, the Cauvery is a river to make a Scottish salmon fisherman homesick. You would imagine that a river in the south of India would be like Kipling's African "great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees." But the Cauvery was a wild, clear torrent, now crashing through the jungle, now crammed into gorges, now opening into broad pools. It looked fine for the gear I unpacked, big bait-casting reels loaded with 20-pound monofilament, heavy metal spoons and saltwater plugs. And I'd also brought, a touch hopefully, a No. 11 fly outfit, bought originally for tarpon in the Florida Keys.
Sundar looked over my plugs and lures skeptically. He said, "Sah, no sah. Here we are using only ragi. Come, sah, and I will show you." He vanished into the dark recesses of the cooking tent and emerged with what looked like two large, rusty cannonballs left over from the Indian mutiny. "Ragi paste, sah," Sundar said cajolingly. "Very good. Made with millet flour, aniseed, cardamom and rice powder." I was aghast. Had I come all this way to dunk dough-balls? In all the eulogies to the fish I had read, nobody had ever mentioned doughballs. I said as much to Sundar.
"Oh, sah, up in north, in Nepal, plug and spoon very good killers," he replied. "But small fish there. Here big fish want the natural bait. Best is ragi." He went on anxiously, "Don't worry, sah. This way I get you one fish, at least 25-to 30-pounder. Then after, we try plugs and spoons."
It was the only game in town. In this river, whose rapids looked perfect for plug or spoon, it was ragi or nothing. Sundar's watchful corps of guides wanted it that way and were reluctant to let me stray too far from the deep pools. And not entirely without reason. The very first evening, we set out to fish a pool called Hati Mudu, or Elephant Pool. There was a beach of white sand which looked to be a comfortable place to sit and dunk ragi. I said so to Sundar. "Oh, no, sah, this is home of marsh mugger," he said. A marsh mugger, it turned out, was a 14-foot, flesh-eating crocodile. I got Sundar's point.
We would fish from the "island" instead, he said, pointing out to a big flat rock in the middle of the river. I looked around for a boat but saw none until Sundar turned over what I had taken to be a smooth brown rock.
I saw that it was—of all things—a coracle. There are only two places in the world where you find coracles, and the other is close to my birthplace in Wales, where they have been used for netting Atlantic salmon since the time of the pre-Roman Britons. Riding one is like sitting in a giant sugar bowl. But it's the perfect craft in a fast, turbulent river; you float on the water, not in it, and you bounce off or slide over rocks with ease.
But the old Welsh salmon fishers I knew, whose coracles are constructed of tarred canvas over wood frames, would have tut-tutted over Sundar's craft. Made of bamboo and buffalo hide, the crude needlework left gaping holes. Sundar was surprised at my concern. "We will get across easy, sah," he said. "The water comes in not very fast." He was close to being right. We crouched in the bottom of the coracle while the Cauvery flowed into it. Maniacally Sundar paddled, maniacally I bailed with a pink plastic bowl. As we reached the rock, the water was only up to our knees.
All this took a long time, and it was 5 p.m., before our balls of ragi, the size of kiwifruit, hit the water. The time didn't matter, Sundar said. "These fish have migrating habits, sah. They go up and down the river, and here they start feeding at 5:30. You having nibblings yet, sah?"
Yes, I told him, I was having nibblings, but I didn't think they came from a 50-pound mahseer. Sundar told me that first, small fish made nibblings, then nibblings stopped, then along came monster fish and your rod went chock chock bang!