First of all let me pay tribute to the team of anglers that I was leading. What a great bunch and how important this is when you’re going away to a far-flung destination. If there are guys with any hidden agendas they pretty well soon come to the surface. What you really want to have is a one for all, all for one type attitude. If any niggling jealousies or egos begin to creep into the atmosphere it is pretty soon soured. When I’m picking people for these trips, I always look initially for those who I know will help add to the team spirit rather than detract from it. It’s often more difficult than it sounds but even over the phone you can pick up pointers. Are people just simply asking about numbers of big fish, for example? Do they show no interest in the river valley, the Indians and the wildlife? Anyway, on this trip, suitable for the millennium, I seemed to have got it pretty well right and what a brilliant bunch they were. As I say, no problems just harmony throughout, which was lovely.
The camp itself is an absolute gem. Some of the Indian fishing camps can be a little…let’s say basic. This particular camp though is ideal. Right on the river obviously but with excellent food and we’ve all got our own private bedrooms with a loo and a shower – albeit rudimentary. Of course, these things aren’t necessary and for many years I was really used to roughing it but, then again, they are nice. If there’s the opportunity to live comfortably, I say take it. One of the best things, however, about the camp in real fishing terms is the fact that each and every member of the team has his own personal guide and his own personal coracle. Now this is very vital in two aspects: firstly, having a guide with you all through the day really does help in terms of fishing efficiency. The guides know exactly – and I mean exactly – where fish are lying in this big, tumbling river. The problem is that if you fish it on your own, blind, you can be just that yard or two out with each cast and that makes a great difference. The great thing about the coracles is that if you do hook a big fish that takes you down rapids you can go after them by boat, rather than simply jumping in and swimming! I never enjoyed that side of mahseer fishing and I do so even less as I get older. I’ve seen legs badly cut and limbs even broken as a result. Not so in a coracle: you can really enjoy the fight and sometimes you get a helter-skelter chase after a big fish which leaves you breathless…but in one piece!
We come inevitably to the river – the real pride of the south these days – the Cauvery. This has become the south’s number one river since independence as others around it have declined, become polluted, dammed or over-fished. Of course, all these problems do affect the Cauvery to a greater or lesser degree and so it’s good to find camp situated in miles of reasonably protected fishing. The ghillies here also act as water bailiffs and they’re quick to get into a jeep and roar off to investigate any muffled boom of dynamite or anybody they suspect of netting.
What a glorious, glorious river the Cauvery is. Sometimes the great, deep pools – so beloved by the crocodiles – seem barely to move and are full of mystery and suspense. Then you come to the rapids, perhaps half a mile of broken white water with pockets of calm behinds rocks the size of a house. Which do I prefer to fish…? Well, hooking a big fish in one of the pools is an awesome experience but give me the quick water and a fifty pounder that tears line off the spool like you’d never believe possible. Then it’s up anchor and away after it on a real white-knuckle ride.
The mahseer in the Cauvery can be big. There’s no doubt about the suspense that you feel. You know that each and every cast could produce the fish of a lifetime. Thirty and forty pounders are certainly not rare and at that size, they’re probably my favourite. You really get a proper fight out of them at that weight…by proper I mean recognisable for us Brits. Above fifty and they begin to pull your arm sockets out, let me tell you. My biggest so far is seventy-four pounds and that led me a dance that I still remember after all these years. And seventy-four isn’t even considered huge out there. I’ve been very fortunate to see two eighties, one ninety and even a magnificent creature of a hundred and four pounds that was caught by Steve Harper a decade ago. At that time that was probably the biggest caught in India since independence half a century before.
Most of the big fish tend to be gold mahseer but for beauty, give me either the majestic silvers or the now incredibly rare blacks. I’ve only ever seen two blacks and what visions they were. It’s as though their scales are overlaid with black lace. And as for the silvers, you will never see a violet-blue like the colour that dusts their massive tail fins. Awesome.
I can’t begin to list all the highlights of the January trip. Perhaps it was seeing the bull elephant one morning as we drove through the dawn. It had just raided the neighbouring village’s nursery! It had eaten half an acre of saplings! Tragic really for the environment but what a creature! Or perhaps it was the monkeys that came down from their tree overlooking the camp every morning at six o’clock sharp. We reckoned there were eighty-three of them living in the one tree and they came down in a solid line yawning, stretching and scratching their armpits. Sometimes they’d try and raid our rooms and Leo found two of them in his bathroom throwing his wastepaper basket around like a basketball. I wandered in one day to find them on my bed using it as a trampoline! Or perhaps it was just the evening times when the excitement and heat of the day was done and we could shower and then relax over a cold Kingfisher beer. Those blissful, milky-warm nights under the stars. Talk of mahseer. Excitement at the day to come. Wonderful moments with wonderful friends on a wonderful river.
Remember that you are pursuing one of the really ferocious fish of the freshwater world here and you just cannot possibly cut any corners at all, because if you do the mahseer will find you out immediately. The guides themselves have very specific ideas on tackle and won’t let you go out with anything that they think is substandard.
The guides will make up the most common bait for you – raggi paste. They come out every morning with huge sackfuls – some of which goes into the river to bait swims up. Alternatively, they will try to catch small fish to use as live or dead baits. They’ll catch even freshwater crabs which are the mahseer’s total favourite. You can also try lures of various sorts. I favour quite large silver or copper spoons. Take a selection of sizes and weights. Big flashy plugs also work well – I’ve done quite well on Super Shads. In truth, you never quite know what lure the mahseer might be taking one day to the next so it pays to take quite a selection if this is how you want to fish.
Uptide rods in the thirty-pound class are now proving to be very popular. These are quite short – generally around about eight-feet – but when you’re fishing from a coracle this is no great disadvantage. They really do have tremendous stopping power and you always want to prevent a fish getting to the rapids rather than having to follow it. Otherwise, I’ve done very well with a rod bought from the Harris Angling Company. It’s about ten-feet long with a test curve of something approaching three and a half pounds. It’s a real brute of a rod and when allied with a very big fixed spool reel is perfect for spinning or for fish up to fifty pounds or so.
For the uptide rod you really do need a big, reliable multiplier. Ambassador nine thousands are the traditional favourites but Shimano’s make excellent alternatives. As long as the multiplier can take three hundred yards of forty or fifty pound line then it should be satisfactory providing it has a smooth casting action. Big fixed-spool reels are fine for spinning and for line to thirty or even thirty-five pounds at a push. Make sure the gearing is sound and that the clutch works well.
In my experience, and I don’t mind what anybody else says to me, I do not like braid. I know this springs in the face of a lot of modern thinking but I have no doubt that on a river like the Cauvery, with a fish like the mahseer, it’s simply too prone to breaking when it slides around a rock. No, give me mono every time. For the very big fish we’re looking at breaking strains of forty or even fifty pounds. The guides themselves like it to merge in with the water colour which is generally a soft green. I’m not sure about this myself but they’re the experts.
LEAD AND HOOKS
The best idea is to take out a sheet of roof flashing which the Indian guides will cut up and shape into their own type of leads for you. Hooks are absolutely vital. For many years, Partridge and Mustard were the leading brands but now people have swung over heavily to Owners. The preferred sizes are 4/0, 5/0, 6/0 and 7/0. Keep your eye on these hooks: sometimes even their incredibly sharp points can bend over when the current bashes them against hard rocks.
You’ll also need a stringer – a five-metre length of soft rope. As soon as a fish is tired and ready to be landed the guide will ask you for one so he can loop it through the gills and tie it to a convenient branch while it recovers. Also take sunglasses, hats, face cream, a water bottle and everything else you need for the tropical heat. You’ll only need a couple of sets of light clothes, so don’t burden yourself down with luggage. There’s some controversy about footwear. Hiking boots were for a long time the favourite but I’m a great believer in good, strong trainers. A pair of sandals is ideal for the evening.
The season in the south begins around November but you’ll often find the Cauvery is very high and strong during that month and even into December. The fishing really comes into its own in January, February and March. It can remain good into April but the sun is really scorching by then and the river is pretty low. Of course, as in all fishing, these are approximate times and you can sometimes get there to find the river a little out of sorts. However, go for January or February and you’ll rarely come unstuck.
1. It’s not a bad idea to practise casting with your new multiplier before setting out to India if you’re not experienced. What you don’t want to do is get out on your trip of a lifetime only to find that you keep bird nesting! The guides are more than happy to cast for you and personally I don’t mind. However, with many it’s an ego thing…
2. Always check your boots in the morning before putting them on even when you’re half-asleep or have had a couple of Kingfishers too many the previous evening! Whilst the camp is spotlessly clean you never quite know what might have crept into them during the night!
3. Do keep calm when you hook a big fish. It’s very easy to get over-excited or to panic. Remember that you’re with a guide and you’re in a coracle and so there’s a great deal of security and experience around you. Listen to what the guide tells you to do and follow his instructions to the letter. Make sure also, obviously, that the tension is set properly on your reel whenever you’ve got a bait in the water.
4. Do respect and trust your guide. They’re all experts on the river and know more about mahseer fishing than you and I can ever guess at. Don’t worry about looking foolish in their eyes. They’ve seen everything before and know how to cope with whatever gets thrown at them.
1. Don’t skimp on the quality of the tackle that you buy. This is your trip of a lifetime and it’s stupid to mess it up buying something a little bit inferior that is almost certainly going to be caught out under the strain of a big, big battle. Just get the best because, anyway, you’ll probably want to go back again and again.
2. Don’t get neurotic about things that go bump in the night! The Indian jungle is full of sounds than can make your hair stand on end if you let it. Don’t. Sit back and enjoy the experience and…. if anything ever were to go wrong we can get you to a good hospital in Bangalore within a couple of hours or so!
3. Don’t expect to be king of the river every night – and don’t want to be. It’s good that everybody on a trip like this has his or her own share of glory. Join in and celebrate every fish and you’ll find your own pleasure is hugely enhanced.
Angling Travel (01263 761602 telephone and fax) organised my own trip in January 2000 and they’re running a similar expedition with some improvements in January 2001. Phone very quickly to see if there are one or two places left.
Martin Founds of Anglers World Holidays (01162 553497) also runs trips to the Cauvery – some under the supervision of a great pal of mine, Peter Smith.