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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Later, back at camp, I found that Howitt had arrived from Nepal and was urging Sundar, now that I had but two days left, to pull out every stop.

Ashore, we worked out a plan for my last day that would take us hiking a couple of miles up to Sambur Pool. Next morning came the drama of the dynamiting and Sundar's wild plunge in pursuit of the gang. As he swam away I sat on the rock, reflecting. Many carp, catfish and small mahseer floated belly up past me. The massacre was quite terrible. This, I could see, was a problem that would not be solved easily or soon. "Sah," Sundar had told me earlier, "these people do what work they can, like carrying stones and firewood-selling. They get only seven or eight rupees a day, like 60 of American cents. For fish you can get 40 rupees a pound. You can buy some dynamite, very easily, for 10 rupees from contractors. We cannot control them."

Sundar was out of sight now across the river. I suddenly realized that I was no longer under guard. I looked down the jungle trail. It seemed elephant-and cobra-free. I took off the ragi doughball and tackle. I clipped on a four-inch Swedish spoon and set off.

A hundred yards down the bank I came upon one of those medium-deep, medium-fast runs that would hold salmon if this were a salmon river. I started to fish it down methodically. About 20 paces on, my lure jammed hard in a rock. Then the rock started to move into midstream, chirk chirk!, slowly at first, then gathering momentum. I was calm. This, I knew, was monster fish. "Sundar! Sundar!" I yelled shrilly. There was no response, of course, and now the big fish was more than 70 yards away from me, on the far side of the river, trying to crash the rocks. I crammed down the drag, the line hummed in the light breeze and the rod doubled over.

I managed to stop him short of the rocks. He surged downstream, keeping up a steady pressure. Then, suddenly, there was no weight. I reeled in. The spoon was still there. The hook had never set properly. I worked my way up the river back to camp. I kept casting. I didn't have another hit.

That evening, my last at camp, I heard Sundar's saga about the poachers. The gang had sat on the hillside laughing at him as he toiled up to them. They had rolled rocks down at him when he drew too close. He retreated, swam the river again and headed back to camp to call up reinforcements from the visiting guards who had fled from the elephants. Together, they had brought some of the poachers into custody. Sundar shouted, and from temporary imprisonment in the cookhouse, under escort, came three of them. They did not look especially villainous. In spite of the hot night their thin bodies shivered. "There is no excuse!" Sundar shouted at them severely. "You should be in jail, three, four years!" He gazed at them fiercely, but his anger had already ebbed, and realism had replaced it. "Next time, six years of jail!" he yelled, but he was already gesturing to the guards to release them. They slipped off into the night.

I told him about my fish, how it had gone chirk chirk! against a heavy drag.

"Oh, sah!" he said. "A monster fish! Only monster go chirk chirk."

"Well, there you are," I said. At least, I consoled myself, I'd felt the power of a big mahseer. Maybe I could try again, lest the best river in India be wrecked, like the others. It didn't seem likely, but if I did, I thought I would travel viceroy class. It seemed to me that the sprightly J. de Wet could still guide the way to a big one.

And I'll bet he wouldn't use ragi dough.

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