Sundar Raj saw the gang of poachers first, flashes of white garments among the trees upstream on the far side of the river. He had the glasses on them before the first dynamite explosion rocked the valley, and his shirt and sandals were off before the second dull "crump!" came echoing back. "I must be after them, sah!" he said. I tried to hold him back. There were at least six of them over there, and they would have cudgels and knives.
But Sundar was wild with rage. The previous night he had spoken with sweet reason of how the local poachers should be handled. "These people are purely uneducated, sah," he had said. "We must talk to them politely. We must say 'This is government river, so please don't poach.' If we say, 'Get out from here!' they will say 'This is our country. Why now come people using bad words to us?' So politeness most important!"
Now he was furious. He broke free of me, jumped into the bottle-green water of the Cauvery River and struck out for the far bank. There was no way that he could call for assistance. The Indian government allowed him no radio equipment even though he was the river's chief warden.
And that was a shame, for the fish he was trying to protect from poachers' dynamite was Tor mussullah. It is the biggest of the six mahseer species found in India and it reaches more than 150 pounds—a fish "beside whom," Rudyard Kipling wrote, "the tarpon is as a herring."
I had no means of telling if Kipling was right or wrong. For a week in India's deep south, in Sundar's company, I had been after a big one without success. This is not unusual in mahseer fishing, and the experience had not eroded my obsession with the fish. It is, as you shall see, a creature that has obsessed fishermen in India for a long time. In the century before this one, in the upper echelons of the Raj, catching one's mahseer was a rite of passage like killing one's tiger. Hardy Brothers, the prestigious British tacklemakers, advertised uncrushable hooks for the great beasts, and shipped out steel-cored, split-cane rods by the dozen to maharajas who might need them should a viceroy come calling. The social apogee of the mahseer was reached in January 1922, when the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, fished as the guest of the Maharaja of Mysore, now the state of Karnataka, on the Kabini, a large tributary of the Cauvery. Unfortunately, HRH had to be content with an 18-pounder while, somewhat undiplomatically, his companion, Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey, landed one of 68 pounds.
A fine fish, but not exceptional. As early as 1906, Mr. C.E. Murray-Aynsley had taken the first mahseer weighing more than 100 pounds, and in 1919 came a 119-pounder, which would stand as an all-India record until 1946. This fish was taken by Lieut.-Col. J.S. Rivett-Carnac, who wrote in a contemporary magazine of a difficult fight which ended when his host, a Mr. P.F. Bowring "gaffed him beautifully in the throat." The colonel, as an accompanying illustration reveals, wore a Custer-style mustache, while Mr. Bowring was rather plump.
That is the kind of story on which obsessions feed. I had come across it in a dusty file I was examining early in 1984, when, through the network of contacts one builds in a lifetime of fishing, I had begun to hear whispers of a river in India where this great crimson-finned, golden-scaled maharaja of a fish still thrived in numbers. My chief contact at that time was an Englishman named Bob Howitt, who, until he was hit by mahseer fever, had been a diamond buyer for De Beers. He had first picked up the bug in 1972 in an antique bookshop in Salisbury, England, where, browsing, he had come upon Henry Sullivan Thomas's 1877 classic, The Rod in India. He promptly fell under the spell of this long-ago-and-far-away fishing. He headed to India and there found a most depressing state of affairs. "Rightly or wrongly, the rivers had been looked after as preserves for sport fishing by the British and the maharajas," he told me. "Nobody ever used dynamite then. It would have been worse than jail if the Maharaja's men caught you. But, unhappily, after Indian independence nobody had a plan for fisheries conservation or development in the rivers. You can't explain to a villager about conservation. Hunger is hunger." The Indians routinely bombed or netted the fish they needed, greatly depleting the population. Then, in 1953, the Indian government began a much-needed damming program, but again there was no thought of fish conservation or protection.
Despite such negative prospects, Howitt persisted in his quest, and everything began to come together at last when he met a young angler in Sivasamudram, a town near the Cauvery's prime fishing stretch. This fellow was the hero of the local fishermen, a native superman who habitually fished with 300 yards of 60-pound test line wound around a cotton bobbin, who clambered down sheer rock faces into the most difficult gorges, and who, more than once, had been pulled into the river by a great mahseer and had swum with it until it was exhausted. This paragon was, of course, my own courageous companion and guide, Sundar Raj. From him Howitt learned of a barely accessible stretch of the Cauvery River where there were still giant fish. "What made it special was that, at the top of the stretch, the Cauvery runs right off the Deccan Plateau, at the Gaganachucki and Barachucki Falls, a straight drop of 400 feet," Howitt told me later. "Then, 25 miles downstream at Meke-datu, there's another set of falls, so that between the two is a perfect fish trap. And, until very recently, the jungle was close to impenetrable here, and a lot of the bank is still tough to reach, with high cliffs and huge, tumbled boulders."
Howitt spent six months learning all that Sundar Raj could teach him, and in that time caught fish of 92 and 88 pounds and 15 more of at least 50 pounds. Then, in 1981, the diamond market crashed, and Howitt soon decided to go back to India. This time he was on a much grander mission than mere personal fishing. "I had decided," he said, "to make the mahseer famous again."
He began by appealing to the Indian government. "I told the officials, 'This river is still rife with big fish. It can be protected. Don't knock your national treasure, the tiger of the fishes, on the head. Protect it as you did the tiger!' " This was the thrust of a campaign which ended triumphantly in 1982 when the state of Karnataka granted the travel company Howitt represents a 10-year lease on 16 magical mystery miles along the Cauvery and let Howitt cut in jeep trails and construct two fishing camps.