Friday, February 05, 2010

The Mega-Mahseer of the Cauvery

Published in Outlook Traveller Feb 2010 

Joe Assassa was the odds on favourite to win the contest; after all he had 16 years to get to know the river well. He appeared to be on a personal quest - Operation Big - and had already caught some massive mahseer in the preceding weeks. Bruce Schwack, the self-titled ‘Viagraja’, was another contender in more ways than one, for he and Joe shared a common vocation. What were the odds of two Viagra dealers competing in an angling competition in South India? (Actually pretty darn good, read on!) Conversation around the evening bonfire swirled predictably around pharmaceuticals while one of them liberally dispensed little blue pills which disappeared quickly and surreptitiously into pockets.

The “Masheer Classic 2009” was the first competition conducted by the Anglers’ Club. There were twelve contestants gathered on the banks of the Cauvery at the Bheemeshwari Fishing Camp in Karnataka on a Friday afternoon in December. Besides the two merchants of sex-stimulants, others had less-risqué professions such as a telecom executive, a magnesia company magnate, a landscape architect, a businessman, a writer for a British angling magazine, a freelance photographer.

Each angler, accompanied by a gillie (an old Scottish word for ‘fishing guide’), set out in a coracle (no longer lined with buffalo hide but with plastic tarp). The gillie chose the spot - mid-river rocks, reeds or the opposite bank - and indicated in which direction and how far to cast the tangerine-sized ragi dough wrapped around a hook. Although some used extra weights, the ball of local millet was heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the river where the large mammas hung out. Then one settled down comfortably watching the tip of the rod hour after hour. When little fish fed on the bait, the rod tip bobbed. When there was that slow, steady, strong pull that bent the rod down, the angler, suddenly adrenalized, yanked and hopefully hooked the fish, maybe a mahseer, but possibly an ordinary carp or cat fish. That was the general principle of ‘ragi-balling’, which most anglers agree is very sedentary.

As the largest and most challenging freshwater game fish in the world, the mahseer lives up to every interpretation of its name: ‘big tiger’, ‘big head’, ‘big scaled’, and ‘big front-end’. Such royalty does not take kindly to being caught and the spirited fight of even a little chap weighing about 5 lbs. can lead you to overestimate his size. This combative tendency makes mahseer the sport fish of every angler’s dreams. It grows to a monstrous size in the Cauvery, this is where the record 120 pounder (54.4 kg) was caught in March 1946 by J. de Wet van Ingen (of the famous family of taxidermists from Mysore). Obviously, the 1.69 metre (5.54 feet) long fish was mounted as a trophy and is now lodged at the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore. The second and third biggest mahseer were also caught in this river. In 1993, Mark Thompson set the record for Bheemeshwari with a 106 lb. mahseer.

Despite the popular myth that the monsters can only be taken on ragi, purists consider spooning the rapids to be the real challenge. Since the coracle was too unstable a craft to maneuver, the algae-covered rocks too infernally slippery, and the river currents too strong, the gillies generally discouraged the idea. Although ragi-balling has been used for a long time, van Ingen caught the record breaker on a spoon. So there is no need to sacrifice sport for size – one could do both, but it is just much harder reeling in a fighter when you are stumbling, falling on your back, bruising your shins and punishing your knees while fighting the current and the fish.

When you use plugs, flies and metallic spoons, the action is fast and furious; the angler needs some skill to fool the fish into believing that the lure is the real thing. There is no time to sit comfortably in a coracle and fall asleep gently rocked by the river currents. Despite the liberal sprinkling of asafoetida, cardamom and fennel, a ball of ragi didn’t masquerade as anything else; none of the fish were fooled and if you caught a mahseer, it was because it was really hungry. While spooning, anglers take care not to spook the fish; they wear dull colours, hardly ever speak and sneak around behind boulders and reeds, almost on all-fours. On the contrary, ragi-fed mahseer didn’t care if the gillies yelled to each other across the breadth of the Cauvery, or if the anglers didn’t stick to the dress code. Apparently there was no need to outwit such a dull (but hungry) monster; after all, they must know that when food balls start plopping down that humans are about and some may even remember that these treats to be thorny and dangerous.

After expectantly observing several casts and seeing few signs of action, I watched Basavanbhetta, the tallest hill overlooking the river, change colour and mood as the sun set. An eagle owl soared silently across the river, elephants on the opposite bank trumpeted and flocks of cormorants flew westwards into the redness. The wheeling Brahminy kites swooped low every now and then with no better luck than the anglers.

Rom Whitaker imagined what was happening at the bottom of the river around the bait. Hundreds of little ones were driving the interest in the ragi, he said. They dash to the bait as soon as it hits the water. There were some medium sized ones attracted by the swarming little fish and one or two large ones in the area warily wondering if the food ball was dangerous. Even though his rod was still with little sign of action, he said hopefully that it could still be good; a large one may be circling the bait keeping the others away. It started to look to me as if angling was just an excuse to feed the fish with every coracle feeding about five kilos of ragi dough per session.

As I spent time with each angler in turn, I began to quantify the factors that increase the chances of hooking a mahseer. On a sunny day, one said, “Cloudy weather makes them hungry”. On a cloudy day when the fishing was unproductive, another said, “Rain oxygenates the surface, changes temperature and flushes shore creatures into the water and triggers feeding”. Another added that the ideal condition was when the sun followed the rain. But luck appeared to negate all this knowledge. A novice angler, Pritam Kukillaya, beat the competition on the second day (in full sunshine) by hooking a 36 lb. mahseer. Experiences such as these make anglers equally eloquent about the effects of falling barometric pressure while nervously fingering their lucky beads.

So how much skill and knowledge did ragi-balling require? From observing the contestants, not a great deal it appeared. One retorted, “There is skill involved. You have to know when to yank the line so you hook the fish.” A day later, while an angler was reaching for a bottle of water, I watched the reel suddenly sing its high pitched, excited whine while the line stripped away: a fish had hooked itself. All the angler had to do was be at the right place at the right time. Skill, come again? Another suggested that expertise was needed to choose the fishing sites, but the gillies decided the best spot and anglers’ suggestions, with the exception of Joe perhaps, were usually over-ruled. However, there is no doubt that once a mega-mahseer is hooked, playing it does demand every ounce of energy and expertise.

Most anglers for mahseer use large reels, be it a spinner or a caster, because when a monster bites, it tends to run far and fast. “Your arms are nearly torn out from their sockets”, is Macdonald’s vivid description of the first rush in the 1948 classic, ‘Circumventing the Mahseer’. Can you imagine what Sanderson’s hands were like when his 110 lb. mahseer ran on that day in 1871 when all he had was a 400 yard hand line? (In 1897, H.S. Thomas, the author of ‘The Rod in India’ quotes G.P. Sanderson as estimating that fish to weigh 150 lbs. But in his own 1912 work ‘Thirteen years among the wild beasts of India’, Sanderson says he had no means of weighing the fish and modestly suggested the fish was “not less than 100 lbs”. The figure leapt upwards in 1928 when the curator of the Mysore Museum reported that it weighed 130 lbs. So how did the Sanderson fish get its 110 lb. tag? In 1943, Col. R.W. Burton pointed out that the dimensions of Sanderson’s fish were the same as another fish which weighed at 110 lbs.) Whatever the actual weight, there is little doubt that Sanderson was the first on record to break the 100 lb. barrier in the history of mahseer angling!

Reeling in a monster mahseer is a contest of will, strength and wits. The angler should know where to let the fish run to avoid breaking the line and gauge when his adversary is exhausted enough to be reeled in. Fights have lasted hours, and as the angler uses his back as a fulcrum to reel the fish in, back-aches are an inevitable price to pay. In one case, not even an hour into the fight, the angler’s arms began trembling with the tension (he eventually lost the fish). You can lose a large fish by misjudging the topography and the creature’s feistiness. The story of a loss may be entertaining around a camp-fire and to regale family back home, but earns no bragging points. The more emphatically your arms stretch wide, the more everyone thinks “Yeah right”. It is just one more in the anthology of The-One-That-Got-Away stories.

As if the constant posturing and undercurrent of competitiveness weren’t enough, businessman Dhananjai Golla (popularly called ‘Jai’) of the Anglers’ Club felt the hobby needed to be formalized as a sport. While angling is a multi-billion dollar industry in the West, in India, it slipped into oblivion with the end of the Raj and today remains a marginal sport. A handbook of the 19th century avows that there are only four “gentlemanly” sports: “hunting, hawking, fowling and angling.” The last is perhaps the only one that can be legally practiced by gentlemen of today. Among the older generation, it was usually the former hunters who turned to fishing as an alternative means of keeping their senses alive and honed. I was curious about what attracts younger people to the sport. One said angling was his way of relaxing, another said it gave him an excuse to spend some time alone in a reasonably remote and beautiful spot. Another derived pleasure from buying fancy fishing gear and testing it out in different locales. Yet another said that as a child he fared poorly in sports of any kind and when he stumbled on angling as an adult, he felt “this was it”. But the common refrain of every angler’s dream is to fight a fish, a rite of passage that makes men out of mere lads. There is no escaping the fact that this is a male dominated sport.

On the river the anglers were fairly spread out and often out of sight of each other, so the only witness to a mega catch was the gillie. Once caught, the mahseer was weighed, photographed and returned to the river. This “catch and release” concept provides sport without loss of life and is therefore sustainable. Since the fish cannot be brought to camp, the angler’s word supported by his gillie is accepted at face value. The contest was played by gentleman’s rules. A couple of anglers sprayed their ragi balls with fish pheromones to induce a feeding frenzy and increase the chances of catching a fish. When the competition catches on, the organizers will have to decide if such additives can be allowed while keeping in mind the difficulty of enforcing these rules.

At the end of the second day, Jai grumbled about losing a “monster”; the numerous rocks in the river truly tested the nylon monofilament. One advised that he only used a 50 lb. test line. Even though a 20 lb. line may be sufficient to catch a large fish, if it went under a rock, the line needs to withstand the pressure and abrasion. So why not over-compensate and use an 80 lb. line? To give the fish a fighting chance, replied Jai. Later I discovered that the true art of angling lies in catching monster fish with as light a tackle as possible. For instance, an angler who catches a 40 lb. fish on a 20 lb. line scores more than one who catches the same sized fish on a 50 lb. line. Besides a light line enables the casts go further out.

On the third morning, I figured that I might hear a lot more interesting stories and theories by watching Joe fish. Flightily, he said he had to run the idea by his gillie who in turn said that the boat was too small. “Tomorrow”, he promised. We were all heading our different ways homewards “tomorrow” so it was a non-happener. As I got ready to accompany someone else, another gillie who clearly hadn’t been let in on the story hurriedly beckoned me to join Joe. I brought him up to speed but he retorted, “No, no. Joe has big boat”. That’s why he wasn’t Joe’s gillie. During that session, Joe caught a beautiful 40 lb. mahseer (cloudy day) and beat the competition to the top spot.

What sex were the humongous fish and how does one tell them apart? One fisherman said that a cock-fish above 10 lbs. has a ‘beard’, a flap of skin under the chin that ends in a point. Another muttered the equivalent of “bovine droppings” under his breath. It is suspected that large mahseer are hens (Col. Burton caught a 41 lbs. cock fish from the Bhavani and mentioned that all mahseer above 50 lbs. were females) and there may be no way of telling the sex of the fish from just looking at them. So every mahseer angler’s dream fish was a hen, a girl! And the bigger she was, the more ecstatic the fisherman. This was deliciously Freudian! Now it was easier to fathom why there were two Viagra dealers at the event!

The dining room, the Gholghar, was adorned with pictures of anglers with their massive catch. The fish appeared to be over-weight; they were wider for their length than the pictures of the long, sleek fish from the Himalayas in Macdonald’s book. The reason seemed obvious enough. Joe said that fishing was good after weekends when scores of picnicking people dump leftovers into the river. In fact, he said, he caught his three largest ones (the pictures on display at the Gholghar) around Muthathi, the morning after thousands of people had celebrated the dawning of the New Year.

Further, Sunder Raj, the manager of the camp, said that every season they feed five thousand kilos of ragi to the mahseer to keep them within the protected 30 km stretch of river. If they weren’t fed, the fish were likely to migrate up and downriver where destructive dynamiting, netting and poisoning were rampant. Could this be why these mahseer appeared fat?  Maybe not; the hump-backed mahseer of the Cauvery is known to have a greater girth to length ratio.

Once found in rivers and large streams all over the country, sadly, mahseer are today restricted to a few stretches of protected rivers. They are being exterminated by the dynamiters and poisoners even in fairly remote areas (see ‘Wild Water’, Outlook Traveller June 2009). Angling offers an opportunity for people to become knowledgeable about fish diets, hooks, lines, tides, currents, weather patterns amongst other variables. Such people with a stake in the health of the rivers may be the ones to campaign for river and mahseer conservation while paying for enforcement. Besides, their very presence on the river deters fish poachers. If it were not for the records of fish caught and released by anglers, it would be difficult to monitor the health of the mahseer population.

None beat Joe’s catch during the afternoon session although it fell short of his own personal best by several pounds. Pritam’s 36 lb. mahseer came second and Jehangir Vakil’s came third at 35 lb. The fish who refused to take the ragi balls were obviously the wily old crones. Angus Hutton, a former tea planter, recalled a story that hints at the existence of real monsters.

During the terrible drought of 1950/51, Angus visited the Krishnarajasagar reservoir on the outskirts of Mysore with the van Ingen brothers, Botha and de Wet. The water level was way down to the scum and all the junk people had thrown in over the years lay exposed. Some labourers were digging channels to divert the last remaining water to the Brindavan Gardens located below the dam. A muddy puddle caught the intrepid fishermen’s attention and they decided to investigate.

Botha drove the jeep as far down into the reservoir as he safely could. Normally this area would have been under a hundred feet of water. They pushed and shoved their coracle through the clinging mud with great difficulty for about 50 metres to the fetid green pool. De Wet gaffed around the bottom and soon snagged what he thought were the remains of a crocodile. It was a struggle to hoist the heavy carcass up and when the effort became even more vigorous, Angus feared the coracle would capsize and they would all drown in the muddy, sticky soup. Eventually when the stinky remains broke surface, they realized it was a part of a mahseer. The whole rotten piece fell back before de Wet could bring it onboard and he was left holding a single huge scale skewered by the gaff. The scale was roughly three times the size of the largest scale of the 120 lb. mounted trophy which led de Wet to estimate the mahseer to have been 300 lbs., or even 400! The episode was captured on 8mm film by Angus and is currently in the possession of Botha’s grandson. Ragi-balling for a 100 pounder seems modest when anglers could be kitting out with a 100 lb. line and enticing a 300+ lb. monster. So get on down to the river and let a truly feisty giant hen make you a man!

Getting there: Bheemeshwari is just 100 km away from Bangalore, off the Mysore highway. The turn off at Channapatna is currently a smoother road than the pothole-ridden one off Kanakapura.
Accommodation: The Fishing Camp has eight log cabins (Rs. 3250 per night), eight tents (Rs. 2750 per night) and two cottages (Rs. 3500 per night) overlooking the river. All are air-conditioned with hot and cold running water. Those anglers who have bust their backs can rejuvenate at the Ayurvedic massage centre on campus. The provided rates include all three meals, coracle ride, joy fishing, trekking, camera fees, forest entry fees and tax.  For more details:
Angling Information: Angling season lasts mid-November to March. Coracles, gillies and ragi bait are provided by the Camp. The Camp also sells the necessary fishing license (Rs. 1250). Bring your own tackle (see for a recommended list). The gillies have recently been trained in fish handling, importance of mahseer conservation, and ecotourism and have also been equipped with a weighing scale, and miscellaneous other tools.

The Masheer Classic is expected to be held at the same time next year (
Things to bring: Hat, sunscreen, water bottle, shorts, warm clothing for the evenings, dark glasses, camera, shoes.

PS: Our friend, fish expert, Rohan Pethiyagoda, says "I have heard [the relationship between drop in barometric pressure to fishing success] from anglers many times, but it does not appear to make sense in the context of the depth of water in which mahseer operate. Even a massive barometric fall of 10% would represent only the equivalent of 1 m of water depth, which is well within the range of depths a large fish would routinely swim around in..."