Chasing the Dream: The Karnali River Challenge

Features Issue 92 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Ravi Man Singh

Some of my friends wonder at my angling craze for golden mahseer, the legendary game fish of Himalayan rivers. They point out the futility of it all, when year after year I hardly catch any. I admit, unabashedly, that in the last five years I have caught just one mahseer. It weighed a modest three kilos. And that one, they say disapprovingly, was released. My friends do not understand – the release was made because the species is endangered.

To explain the craze for a mahseer angler – regardless of the catch, and be it days, months, or even years, regardless of the cost or effort spent, or the innumerable hardships faced on the river – this outdoor sport is nothing short of a dream. The angler strongly believes is his passion. It is his joy, his reason for living, his destiny, and he will never tire of it...

After years of studying about and angling for the elusive Golden Mahseer (Barbus torputitora, or sahar in Nepali) on the river banks of Sunkoshi, Arun, Tamur and Tamakoshi rivers, I decided to try my luck on the much talked about Karnali river in far west Nepal. The longest river of Nepal (507 km), the Karnali originates in Tibet near the sacred Lake Mansarovar. Two feeder rivers, the Seti and the Bheri join it as it cuts across the Chure hills towards the Tarai plains where it through the Bardiya National Park before flowing into India.

With little knowledge of west Nepal, I made my plan based on information gleaned from the Internet, from a friend in Nepalgunj, and a lodge owner at Thakurdwara, in Bardiya. My plan went haywire, however, as a bandh was called smack into my schedule. More bandhs followed, some in the metro and others in the Tarai. After two weeks behind, I finally set off to Nepalgunj, a 55 minute flight from Kathmandu, with an array of fishing rods, a bag crammed with tackle, and soaring expectations.

Contrary to my expectation of a hot weather, the late  March morning, helped by a steady breeze, was surprisingly balmy and pleasant when I arrived in Nepalgunj.  After an appetizing lunch of dal-bhat (rice and lentils), my friend Ashok volunteered to drive me in his pick-up truck to Thakurdwara, 75 km from Nepalgunj. He also suggested that I take his motor-bike along, as hired vehicles in that remote place both expensive and were difficult to find. I jumped at his offer. Although rickety and broken-down to look at, the bike worked wonders for me. With the bike hoisted onboard the pick-up we drove off.

At a small bustling town called Kohalpur, 15 km from Nepalgunj, the road divided into three. The north route led to Thakurdwara, Chisapani and, farther west, to Mahendranagar and Baitadi, while the northeastern route bore towards Surkhet, and the southeastern went to Kathmandu. Better known as the Mahendra East-West Highway, the latter links Nepal’s eastern and western frontiers across the Tarai.

Small settlements, cluster of roadside shops, great expanses of wheat fields – some already cut —flanked the broad road. The Chure hills rolled across in a wonderful symmetry on our right. After Man Khola (river), we left Banke District behind and entered Bardiya District, and the perimeters of Bardiya National Park (BNP for short). Shortly, dense forest converged on both sides and the road continued past a number of park check posts. Over the next hour, as Ashok and a friend who had joined us talked about bandhs and associated problems that the nation faced, my mind wandered off to the Karnali river and the big fish that awaited me.

Save for an occasional bus or truck roaring past, the highway was deserted. Meanwhile, flitting glances of peafowl and langur monkeys were common. Soon, we arrived at the Babai river bridge. The view upriver made me suck my breath through my teeth in awe. The calm clear waters of Babai flowed north to south, flanked by a towering wooded ridge to its west called the Parewa Odar (‘Pigeon Caves’). While a vast expanse of thick forest stretched in the east, the diminutive Chure hills in the north stood sentinel against a blue sky streaked with fluffy white clouds, putting in the final stroke to the ‘post card’ finish. To the south of the bridge, which also served as an irrigational weir, the river sprawled into a vast swathe of flood plains and a lush valley.

We stopped momentarily to watch in fascination a gharial and a mugger crocodile lazing on the sandy banks of the river. And that was not all; a gharial, lurking at the head of one of the weir gates, stalked patiently on a school of tiny fish, which jumped over the incline of the sluice gate, trying unsuccessfully to slither up the slippery slope, only to drop back into the water—and some unfortunate ones to the gaping jaws. Just then a fellow  appeared, a game scout of the BNP, whom I asked if the river held mahseer. “Only four  days ago, a khuiré [foreigner; some villagers say khairé] caught a 45 and a 20 pounder, sir. Both were released,” he said. My adrenalin pumped faster. I decided to try the Babai river first, before moving to the mighty Karnali. At Ambassa, while the main highway continued on towards Chisapani, 13 km away, we turned left on to a dirt road and drove under an arch inscribed ‘Bardiya National Park, Thakurdwara’.

The track went across the shallow Orai river bed, through some farm land, and past a cluster of typical Tarai style thatched mud houses, interspersed with short stretches of forest. After a bumpy half hour ride we reached Thakurdwara, a small sleepy town. At a bend in the road, I noticed a big wooden gate, the entrance to the BNP, followed by an army barrack, and immediately opposite was my  destination, the Bardiya Jungle Cottage (BJC for short).  

The BJC featured  small cottages of mud, thatch and bamboo, with cool and cozy rooms. “No cement, not a single brick was used to build them and the design is exclusively a Tharu concept” (the Tharu being the ethnic Tarai people), explained Mr Khadka, the lodge owner. Thatch grass (khar) completed the roofs. Although crude and primitive, the rooms had all amenities – attached bath, hot and cold running water, and the like. The tariff, too, was reasonable: only 350 rupees for a double with attached bath.

My friends soon left to return to Nepalgunj, and I enjoyed the cool evening in the delightful garden chatting with Mr Khadka. He told me that  the last week’s big catches in the Babai were made by his British guests. The size of the catches, however, was exaggerated by the game scout. A wonderful fellow in his late 50s, Khadka held an encyclopedic knowledge about Thakurdwara – the local history, culture, or wildlife.

Despite a restless night, with nightjars calling out their spooky chuk, chuk, chuk in the dark, I got up the next morning ready for the first day’s  angling. As the Babai river falls within the BNP, Sitaram Chaudhary, my guide, had my mandatory fishing permit (100 rupees for a Nepali; 200 rupees for foreigners) and entrance fee receipt (10 rupees Nepal; 20 rupees foreigner). At 8 o’clock, I kicked the Honda bike into life, Chaudhary at the back, and we started off for the river.

After arriving at Babai, I parked the bike and we took out on foot along a firebreak, which also served as a forest path, through thick sal, saj and simal trees. The jungle was still except for the rustling sound that our feet made on dry fallen leaves. Then, a shrill note of a peafowl sounded nearby, followed by others in a chorus. A jungle fowl, and later, a pair of peafowl startled me as they dashed across our path. Moments later, a cheetal stag (spotted deer) belled nearby, and the startled herd broke into a run. After a half hour we descended down to the river. “That’s the prized spot, sir, where our guests made the catches”, said Chaudhary, pointing to a backwater and deep pool on a corner while the river flowed south towards the bridge.

My pulse raced as I readied my two rods and tackle, while Chaudhary dug up three live crabs for bait from under the wet gravel on the sandy river bank. Then, with the baited crab, I quietly forded (mahseer get easily spooked) knee-deep into the river and cast at the center of the pool. As I prepared to cast a line from a second rod, this time with a metal  lure, my heart skipped a beat at a big splash some 20 yards downstream. I hurriedly cast the spoon at the spot and with bated breath I retrieved it slowly, almost sure of a strike. Nothing happened. I tried again, and again, and kept on furiously hurling the lure  until I realized that it needed a rest. All the while I kept a wary eye at the tip of my first rod, ready to pounce at the slightest jiggle.

Time passed, and after noon, I recast the first rod after checking the bait. With no shade, the day became hot as the sun  bore down on me relentlessly under the clear sky. Because of the heat and my tiring arms, I took longer breaks between the cast-n-retrieves. At about two o’clock, when Chaudhary finally suggested that we eat lunch, I realized I was famished. The packed lunch of vegetable fried rice, salad and bananas, was most gratifying. Even as I munched the food, my eyes kept straying over to my waiting rod. At one time, I almost jumped as I thought the tip of the rod bent down a little. It was only a gust of wind and the current of the river tugging at the line. After lunch I renewed my casts as the baited rod languished. And then I froze. On the other side of the river, a cheetal stag stepped out prepared to cross, then met my eyes and sauntered back into the nearby jungle.

It was after five o’clock, as the shadows lengthened, that I began to have doubts. Time was slipping away as park rules allowed us to remain only until sunset. But, I did not despair. I changed the bait and resumed casting with another lure.  Even Chaudhary looked baffled at the total blank. At quarter past six, with the sun almost kissing the distant Babai bridge, I called it a day.

Back at the lodge, a concerned Mr Khadka suggested trying paste (kneaded flour boiled to a semi-solid consistency). So, day two at Babai began with this alternative bait, a change of spot, and renewed enthusiasm and hopes. Chaudhary foraged for bigger crabs and I cast two rods baited with paste and crab. My cast-n-retrieves, too, were no less fervid. Everything seemed perfect, even the weather. But, by lunch time with no catch, I admit to being a little skeptical; by 4 in the afternoon, desperate; and by six – devastated. At 6.30 pm the second day, we packed up.

That, dear readers, is mahseer fishing. First, their migratory runs, mostly assumed, can be most unpredictable. Secondly, no in-depth monitoring of their migratory runs has been recorded to date by any concerned scientist. If the vagaries of weather influence their runs,  the construction of weirs, dams, roads and soil erosion over the years have disrupted their migration pattern. Far worse, wide scale poaching and overfishing have led to a disastrous decline in their number, making them an endangered species.

Although the Babai let-down flagged my spirits, I comforted myself that the bigger river Karnali remained unchallenged. Slated for the next morning, my trip to Chisapani, 26 km away, was put off by another bandh. After two days, I finally left for Chisapani . The solo ride (Chaudhary was busy) on the highway that cut across the dense forest of BNP was quite an experience. Midway through the forested road on my motorbike I almost slammed into a magnificent peacock that happened to cross the road. Other sightings included cheetal, monkeys and a pair of jackals. Around 8.30 a.m., I arrived at Chisapani and gaped at the stunning cable-stayed bridge that towered over me.

Built by the Japanese in 1993 and measuring 500m in length, the Chisapani bridge is a well known landmark joining Bardiya and Kailali Districts. Beneath it the turquoise blue waters of the Karnali cut through the towering Chure  ridges in the north, and drift placidly southward under the bridge towards the vast plains and forests of BNP. I paced up and down the bridge, marveling at the brilliant feat of engineering the Japanese had created. To linger longer at the bridge was no mean feat, as I literally struggled against the strong wind to keep my balance. Gale force winds are known to lash at the bridge almost ten months a year.

After checking into a hotel called Dolphin near the bazaar area, it took me an hour to find a guide. Sagar, was a young fellow in his late teens who had no idea about fishing spots, but being a local he knew the river. Around 9:30 a.m., we started out on a 45 minute walk to Pitmari, which the locals said was a good spot for mahseer. After Chisapani’s old Tuki bazaar, the road inclined and led across a wooded hill. The ridge served as an embankment rising above the Karnali. As the ridges on two sides rose up, the river narrowed down, forming a steep gorge. Pitmari had few shops that served dal-bhat and sundry. After ordering food for 2 p.m., we descended to the riverside. At 11 a.m. I made my first cast using a dead fish for bait that I had brought along from Chisapani. The river looked almost calm, but the current was pretty strong as I put in an effort retrieving my 28 gram Toby spoon. The difficult part was the steep sides which offered little room for movement. To switch spots meant climbing over precarious rocks, literally doing a balancing act on big boulders. One slip and you either broke a leg, or, worse, dropped straight into unknown depths.

As my casting continued between rests, Sagar held on to the baited rod. At quarter to two a boatman appeared, paddling upriver in a dugout canoe. “Sir, why don’t you try Bungat, a better spot”, he suggested, knowing that we were not hooking any fish. “How far from here”, I called out. “Just, 25 minutes”, he shouted back, and paddled away. So, after our meal in the village we headed for Bungat, which took us 40 minutes. In the hills, when a local fellow measures distance by time, it varies with city folks. We take longer, as we cannot match their steady pace. Bungat, named after the small stream that trickled into the river between steep rocky sides, was much the same as Pitmari. The spot on the other side looked promising, but there was no boat in which to cross.

After, many rounds of spoon casting, I tried a Rapala plug, let it drift downriver at least 50m, then slowly retrieved it. Around 4 p.m. my heart stopped. There was a sudden tug, but before I could yank my rod up, the line went slack. That was the only feeble bite I had so far. I kept at the spot with my Rapala until 5:30 Pm, but nothing happened. Disappointed, I decided to leave, for we had one and half hour’s walk back.

Day two, and my last fling, began early. After much discussion with some locals, I ventured farther afield on the bike to Kachalighat (walking to it would have taken five hours). That was the toughest ride ever, as the bike bounced treacherously about on big gravel and stones. Sagar had to get off umpteen times, and at one place, with help from some villagers, we hoisted the bike over big boulders that had slid down across the road. By the time we arrived at Kachalighat, I was aching all over. The Chure  ridges there descended into a valley, while broad gravel beds flanked the river on one side. At the river bank I marveled at the large boulders that appeared to have been sculpted into works of art. With long stretches of gravel beds and  rapids, the river looked very inviting. Unlike the gorge, the river here provided plenty of spots to work on. Since bait fishing was not practical, as I had to work up and down the river, I stuck to my spoon and plug. After two hours working the ‘swirls’, ‘eddies’ and ‘feathers’, I set out for the rapids. While there a local  fellow approached. “Any luck, sir”, he asked. . To my “Not any, so far”, he told me that, although about time for mahseer, he, too, had none so far this year. He proudly displayed his catch, a ded ( a catfish also called gonj in eastern Nepal), which the night’s bait had gotten him.

After eating paratha (a ghee- fried flat bread) and fried potatoes for lunch (which we had brought along), we retired to a shady place to get out of the oppressive heat. The back of my neck broke out in a rash, and the skin on the upper side of my exposed feet, which got frequently wet and dry, stung painfully. I was sure that my wife, back home, would have a good laugh at my blackened hide.

Around 4 Pm I resumed casting, while working up the river from the rapids. Strangely, I did not notice the migration run of small fish. Usually, migration runs of mahseer coincide with that of smaller fish. Their biological needs trigger such runs as the long and strenuous journey to the spawning grounds demand a lot of protein to supplement their diet, which the school of small fish provides.

At 5:30Pm, with no catch, we packed up. At the village teashop, I met an expert fisherman named Sher Bahadur who shed some light on the lack of movement of mahseer in the river. First, the runs, normally beginning in March after spells of rain, were not triggered off this year, as there had been no rains for the last eight months. The river had also seen no snow melt, which also affected the migration. He also thought that the status of fish in the Karnali was most deplorable. “Twenty years ago when I fished these waters,” he said, “two hours in a single morning harvested as much as one and a half quintal of fish. Today, in two hours my nets bring hardly two kilos”. The status of mahseer, according to him, was even worse, as their number has  fallen by almost 70 percent. “The use of Thiodine (a pesticide) in the streams and overfishing with chaudi (a gill net), has caused this,” quipped Shankar Bista, another villager. Then it was my turn to discourse upon the subject. I spared no effort explaining the significance of conserving this endangered species, and the need to raise communal awareness against poaching and killing during the spawning and breeding seasons. Surprisingly, I had a very attentive audience. After that, we started on the bone jarring ride back to Chisapani.

So my dreams of the year remain dreams, in my pursuit of the golden mahseer. The trip, however, was an experience of a lifetime, a time well spent with Nature, the two great rivers, wonderful people like Khadka, Chaudhary the guide, Sagar quiet but sharp and, course, the local villagers with whom I shared ideas. Catches, as such, did not live up to my expectations, but that does not stop a mahseer angler from dreaming and chasing the dream evermore. g

Ravi Man Singh is a local sportsman and writer. He can be contacted at If you have fishing stories or other outdoor adventure tales to tell, consider writing them for us.