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The mahseer, a fish belonging to the Order Cypriniformes, Family Cyprinidae (which includes minnows, tenches, carp and goldfish), once populated all the colder, fast flowing rivers of India. It was the favorite gamefish – the “Indian salmon” – of British sportsmen in the prime of the Empire. Rudyard Kipling once described it as a fish “…. beside whom tarpon is a herring and he who lands him can say he is a fisherman.”
In the 1970’s, mahseer were thought to have become nearly extinct a victim of dams and dynamite. But then, in the late ’70’s, piscatorial pioneers such as Bob Howitt, Andrew and Martin Clark and Paul Boote “rediscovered” the mahseer for western sport fishermen. Kipling exercised poetic license when he compared the tarpon unfavorably to the mahseer (the world angling record for mahseer is 120 pounds, held by the late de Wet Van Ingen of Mysore in 1946, by spinning with spoon on the Kabini River, a tributary of the Cauvery), but it is a fine gamefish.
The word “mahseer” probably comes from the Sanskrit “Maha Shira” (big head). These often gigantic fish certainly have big heads. They are related to barbels and carps, of which many varieties exist in the Indian subcontinent. But there the resemblance ends, for they are piscine pugilists, not placid inhabitants of lakes and ponds. One of the largest of the mahseer, Barbus tor Mussulah, weighs as much as 200 pounds and dwells in the river Cauvery (Kaveri in Indian geographical terminology) and its tributaries.
In all, there are nine varieties of mahseer and all are listed among the 25 most endangered fish species in India. Fortunately, awareness of the ecological crisis confronting mahseer as well as other wild fauna in India has led wildlife associations, philanthropic societies and government tourism groups to take measures to stop the losses.
Among other things, the Wild Life Association of Southern India (WASI) has turned a 17 kilometer stretch of the Cauvery River below Cauvery Falls southwest of Bengalore (see map) into a fishing preserve. Forest guards protect the area against poachers and there is a strict no kill policy for all mahseer landed by sport fishermen.
I recently made a trip to this fishing preserve. The last leg of that trip was a rugged 50 mile car trip from the town of Mysore. The Cauvery camp is managed by Jungle Tours Ltd., a Karnataka state government undertaking. It consists of five two bed tents with attached Western style bath facilities, a central dining pavilion, a cook house and staff quarters. There are no telephones and precious little electricity. The thickly wooded setting is primitive and pristine, overlooking the beautiful Cauvery River. There were no bugs when I was there in December/January and the temperature ranged between 60 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
The staff includes experienced ghillies. I especially recommend Jawara and Venkata. The cuisine is mainly Indian style with a reasonable variety for Western tastes. The wildlife alone was worth the trip, especially the birds. In the river, in addition to the mahseer, there are carnatic carp, pink carp, catfish and murral, plus gharial (river crocodile) and otter. Chital and sambar deer, antelope, jackal, boar, leopard and elephant live in the surrounding forest and are occasionally seen, particularly at dusk. Monkeys and malabar squirrels scamper around the camp.
There are about a dozen named pools along the 12 kilometer stretch of river that is controlled and patrolled by the camp. Angling guests are conveyed by jeep to various pools in rotation. Floating the river in a small, round boat called a coracle is scenic if sometimes dizzying in the rapids.
The classic book on fishing in India is called The Rod in India, and it was written by Henry S. Thomas of the Madras Civil Service in 1873. In that book, Thomas stated that fly fishing for large mahseer is generally fruitless. It is successful only in clear and relatively shallow northern streams where t