Joe Assassa was the odds-on favourite to win the contest; after all he’d 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 ‘Mahseer Classic 2009’ was the first competition conducted by the Anglers’ Club. There were 12 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 mamas 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 adrenalised, yanked and hopefully hooked the fish, maybe a mahseer, but possibly an ordinary carp or catfish. 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 5lb 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 was caught in March 1946 by J. de Wet van Ingen (of the famous family of taxidermists from Mysore). Obviously, the 1.69m-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 106lb 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 manoeuvre, 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.
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.
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 trump all this knowledge. A novice angler, Pritam Kukillaya, beat the competition on the second day (in full sunshine) by hooking a 36lb mahseer. Experiences such as these make anglers equally eloquent about the effects of falling barometric pressure while nervously fingering their lucky beads.
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 110lb mahseer ran on that day in 1871 and all he had was a 400-yard hand line? He was the first on record to break the 100lb 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, backaches 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 campfire 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.
The true art of angling lies in catching monster fish with as light a tackle as possible. For instance, an angler who catches a 40lb fish on a 20lb line scores more than one who catches the same fish on a 50lb line. Besides, a light line enables the casts to go further out.
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.
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 not going to happen. 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 40lb 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 10lb 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 41lb cock fish from the Bhavani and mentioned that all mahseer above 50lb 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!
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 and weather patterns, among 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. Sunder Raj, the manager of the camp, said that every season they feed 5,000 kilos of ragi to the mahseer to keep them within the protected 30km 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.
None beat Joe’s catch during the afternoon session although it fell short of his own personal best by several pounds. Pritam’s 36lb mahseer came second and Jehangir Vakil’s came third at 35lb. 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 that 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 50m 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 realised 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 120lb mounted trophy which led de Wet to estimate the mahseer to have been 300lb, 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 100lb line and enticing a 300-plus pound monster. So get on down to the river and let a truly feisty giant hen make you a man!