SI Vault
Clive Gammon
December 09, 1985
Once the sport fish of maharajas, this huge species is maddeningly elusive, making the 119-pound catch taken in 1919 (right) all the more special
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December 09, 1985

In Quest Of The Mahseer

Once the sport fish of maharajas, this huge species is maddeningly elusive, making the 119-pound catch taken in 1919 (right) all the more special

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An hour went by. At intervals the bait was changed. Once, after a stronger-than-usual nibbling, I hauled in an X-rated creature, a foot and a half long with enormous, gristly lips and bright red eyes. "A pink carp, sah! Very, very big one, sah!" said Sundar dutifully, but he had the grace to grin. In the Cauvery, I would soon learn, there were all manner of carp, red, black and gray carp as well as pink, all of them with a distressing appetite for ragi. But as dusk fell, all small-fish activity ceased for a minute. Then came chock chock bang! I hauled back the rod. For a moment there was the feeling of having hooked a brick wall that pulsated. Then, nothing.

"Oh, sah," Sundar said reproachfully, "you are too soon." I reeled up. There on one barb of the big treble hook hung a giant, translucent scale, a good two inches across. "Forty-pound, 50-pound fish, sah," said Sundar. "But now we must go home before dark." He looked over his shoulder with some care for a moment; then we were in the coracle again, taking a wet ride home.

In camp it was time for warm Indian vodka and an inspirational tale from Sundar: "You know, actually, sah, my age is seven when I start fishing, and in my short life, for I am 29 years old, I hate to catch any other fish but mahseer, the big monster fish. In my hometown, Sivasamudram, people will fish for anything, carp, eels, anything. But I hate that. I like crash! So one day, I am trying from morning until night with no bite. At a quarter to five, ker-lang ker-lang!, the thunder starts, then big rain. I find a beautiful cave and I sit in it until the rain stops in half an hour. Now there is mud smell and sticks floating and suddenly I see a huge fish rolling in the rapids. Very small head but a huge monster body, a female. I change my hook to a very big one and I put on some bait. It goes to the bottom and sticks, as if a huge snag had it. But it is the monster! My line goes jag, slack, jag, slack, then zee-zee-zee. Then chirk chirk! The line is burning in my fingers, thick line, and the fish is a hundred yards up the river. Chirk chirk! I am not worried. I have 300 yards of thick line. The fish changes her mood, comes downstream into a full, deep channel. I am standing on a rock, but now, chah, chah, chah! the line is going 150 yards, 170 yards, 200 yards. I am jumping from rock to rock, but soon my 300 yards is finished. Now I have covered more than half a mile. I cannot control! I am losing skin! One mile more, I am chasing the fish and jumping rocks. Suddenly there comes a big pool! I try to cross by the rocks, but I am dragged into the water. Now I am 97.5 percent tired, and I am worried I will lose my life. I decide to stop chasing fish. My line goes stretch, stretch, stretch. Then, pa chuff! It is broken.

"I sit for a long time, just thinking. I think she is easy a 170-pound, 180-pound fish, because I could feel. Some people come to pull me out of the river. They had watched. 'Excuse me, please, sah!' one says. He is much my elder. 'I am fishing for 30 years, I am experienced person. I tell you that this is not a fish. This is a ghost.' I tell him it is a monster mahseer. 'No, a ghost,' he say. 'It try to pull you under a rock.'

"Then my mother comes. She tells me I must not go more than two miles from home in future. She tells me I must be home by 5:30 p.m. I tell her, 'I am a big fisherman. And this is my first big fish.' But I am at that time only 11 years old so I obey what she says to do." Every evening thereafter, to accompany Indian vodka at tent temperature, Sundar told stories of great fish hooked on ragi.

My own first mahseer was considerably more modest, a 14-pounder that still made me work for 10 minutes on an outfit that would be adjudged heavy for big Atlantic salmon. But it was a first. I looked at it for a long time as it hung in the water at my feet before I released it. Its sides were a magnificent brassy gold, cross-hatched with proportionately enormous scales, and the fins were a vivid scarlet. The lips, though, were extraordinary, protrusible like a sturgeon's, and leather-hard, but toothless. Instead, like some fish of the drum family, the mahseer is equipped with formidable pharyngeal (throat) teeth, grinders that could crush an incautious hand. The power of that smallish fish made me more eager than ever to go after them in a more sporting, less static way. I wanted to range about on the river, to begin casting flies or spoons instead of merely dunking doughballs. Why not?

It was siesta time, the afternoon of my second day, when I learned why that sort of thing was discouraged. It had been a less than peaceful siesta anyway. First there had sounded the jackhammer persistence of the song of what early representatives of the Raj called the brain-fever bird. "You're ill, you're ill, you're ill," it whistled. Then troops of langurs arrived to raid the tamarind trees and had become engaged in a noisy running battle with the camp dogs. Then a new note—human voices raised in grievance—had been added. A half-dozen khaki-clad guides whom I hadn't seen before had arrived in camp. I asked Sundar what the trouble was.

"These people, sah, are worried about elephants," he said. They were an anti-poaching squad encamped 10 miles up-river. With little rain in three months, the elephants migrate to Cauvery River. "Sah, the elephant is a danger creature. Sometimes he use front legs to stomp you, sometimes kick. These guards have big tusker problem, sah. One big male up there gone musth crazy [a rutting-season frenzy]. Last night, when they sleeping, tusker came right behind their tents, trumpeting. They throw three, four, thunder flashes [firecrackers] at them. Elephants ran into the valley, but one hour later they are back among the tents. So these people, sah, they have run here to ask for protection."

By coincidence or not, that evening, as we walked up the jungle path to fish, Sundar grabbed at my shirt, pulled me down and pointed. "Little bit dangerous, sah, they have babies," he hissed. Ahead of us, maybe 50 yards away, 12 wild elephants, very dark, were moving down to the river. There were two calves and at least two big tuskers. Sundar did the time-honored wind check with a pinch of dust. "O.K. for the moment," he said, "but if they come, what you must do is throw your hat away, run zig-zag, then jump in the water." On that cue, the lead male turned and looked straight at us. His trunk went up. "Little bit dangerous," Sundar repeated unnecessarily. The tusker shook his head, then moved ponderously into the water. The rest followed. There would be no fishing there that evening, and now I understood the insistence on static fishing with ragi. This was no place to go roving, after all. "In olden days, this was a tiger area," Sundar said one day. "Very thick forest. There were no villages, only forest, and an adult male tiger must have 25 square miles...."

In the valley of the Cauvery, it was possible to see, almost before one's eyes, the shrinking of this jungle. Along the banks, bands of itinerant illegal woodcutters were common, sometimes 40 or 50 strong. One saw their campfires at night on hillsides that were almost bare. The wild elephant herds were smaller, too. "Local people made too much poaching for ivory, but they only got a little bit of money for a pair of tusks from the city dealer," Sundar said. "But when dealers sold them, it was for much more."

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