Romancing the Mahseer: Angling in Himalayan Rivers

Features Issue 77 Jul, 2010
Text by Ravi Man Singh

After what seemed ages, March 2005 saw my dream trip come true—an angling
tour of east Nepal’s Sapta Koshi in quest of a legendary fresh water game fish, the
yellow-finned Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), known as pahenle sahar in Nepali. Friends and family thought my wandering off into the countryside was sheer lunacy with the Maoist insurgency at its peak. But, for dedicated anglers of the mighty mahseer—undisputed king of the Himalayan Rivers—such a sporting trip is an epic adventure.

After a 45 minutes flight to Biratnagar and an hour’s drive, I was shaking hands with my fishermen friends from Dharan: Bharat Sunuwar, Tek Bahadur Limbu, Upendra Limbu and Prem Gurung. This trip would have been impossible without their participation, for they are well acquainted with Sapta Koshi and the Tammar rivers. They’ve been angling there for the last 20 years.

Our destination was Mai Beni, a bumpy hour-long ride in a vintage Land Rover on a treacherous hill track with sheer drops to the Koshi below. I learned later that these vehicular ‘war heroes’ are often crammed (can you imagine!) with up to 40 passengers. When we reached Baraha Chhetra, a small village mainly of tea houses lining the stone paved path to the famous Baraha temple, we got an imposing view of Sapta Koshi rolling along some 200 meters below. The temple is believed to house an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in the manifestation of a pig. After a rice meal we checked into a local guesthouse.

Our angling began that evening, in beautiful surroundings. The Sapta Koshi, the largest river system in the country, stretched out in all its glory, awesome and dignified, the water a soothing turquoise hue. At a confluence of a small feeder stream devotees offer prayers and take holy baths, and the bridge over Coca connects two districts, Sunsari and Dhankuta. That evening, however, we returned to the guesthouse with no catch.

Next morning the local fishermen kept us company. Against our metal lures they used flour paste for bait. After about an hour of ‘cast-n-retrieve’, Prem hooked a silver mahseer weighing nearly two kilos. It was our first catch and a moment to rejoice. Pleasantries over, we released it.

Owing to a disastrous decline in the mahseer population in recent years, our team had decided to release all that we caught during this trip. That first ‘catch-n-release’ caused concern among the locals. Eyebrows were raised and fingers pointed at us when we walked by the bazaar empty-handed. To the locals, releasing a hooked fish was a shock.

It did, however, help me rub shoulders with the locals who listened curiously to what I had to say about the mahseer, about their dwindling population and the need to save them. I particularly mentioned popular but unethical methods of fishing like blasting, poisoning, electro-fishing and fishing during the spawning season.  To one local fisherman named Gorey, I described how disastrous it would be if fishing continued during the spawning season.

A spawning female mahseer”, I explained, “lays eggs in batches, something like 25,000 eggs per kilo of body weight.” I compared this with the commercially-bred Rohu fish that lay almost 125,000 eggs per kilo of body weight. “So a mahseer weighing 10 kilos can lay up to 225,000 eggs,” I went on. “But, mahseer eggs and fries have a high mortality rate,” I explained. “If, say, only 25% of them make it to adulthood, what will we have the next
season, 56,250 to be exact, plus the spawning mother, right? But, if we kill the breeding female we will loose all 56,251. No?” Gorey was overwhelmed by the figures and looked confused, but made it a point to nod vigorously.

The next morning we trekked off towards Mai Beni, lugging our backpacks. Mai Beni is named after ‘Mai’, the goddess of the river, and a beni is a confluence of two rivers, the Arun and the Sun Koshi (also called Dudh Koshi). The place has a few houses and is quiet and isolated most of the year. People from nearby villages throng there for the festival of Magh Purne (the Full Moon Day of January), and at other times for cremations on the river bank.

Mai Beni is on the main walking trail to Bhojpur, on a steep hillside with sparse vegetation. Some 150 meters below the Koshi rolls steadily along. Our way took us past Ghumti Khola, the proposed site for a hydro-electric dam, then through a small village called Tenkara to Tribeni, the confluence of three snow-fed rivers, the Sun Koshi, the Arun and the Tammar. After Tribeni, the river takes on the name of Sapta Koshi, a merger of seven rivers, namely Sun Koshi, Indrawati, Tama Koshi, Likhu, Dudh Koshi, Arun and Tammar.

The Sun Koshi’s chalky blue color impressed me, while the Tammar appeared azure, gin clear, shorter in span, and much rockier. According to a local legend, before the suspension bridge was constructed over the Tammar, a village lady used to ferry travelers across the river in a dug-out canoe. Thus, Tribeni is also known as Majhini Ghat after this lady of the Majhi fisher and ferryman caste, plus ghat meaning river bank where travelers cross rivers on boats. Ghat also signifies as cremation ground.

We stopped briefly in Tribeni, and then continued on to Mai Beni, an hour and a half hike away.  This area is populated mostly by Rais, especially of the Bantawa and Chamling clans, who live by fishing, raising goats, selling bamboo, but with very few crops. The boundless Koshi kept us company all along. We occasionally stopped for a while to gaze silently down in awe at the great expanse of water where the river transformed itself into deep pools, then down crashing rapids between boulders the size of trucks, then in serpentine fashion cutting its way through wooded hills before disappearing into the distance. After an hour or so, exhausted and famished, we arrived at Simle and stopped for lunch. Simle boasted a suspension bridge over the river Arun separating Bhojpur and Dhankuta Districts. Mai Beni lay ahead, over one more ridge.

That simple ridge turned out to be back breaking steep, and the sight from the top was frightening: not for the faint-hearted! The knife’s edge trail was only a foot wide in places, with the Arun on the left and the Sun Koshi on the right down sheer drops that made me almost crawl on all fours.

At Mai Beni, we put up in the house of a man named Kanchha whose sinewy figure reminded me of the king of Kung Fu, Bruce Lee. Kanchha gave us the room above his goth (a cow and goat shed), but we had to tread like cats lest the thin bamboo flooring, rotten at places, cave in.

Mai Beni is where Tek-ji hooked onto a big brute two years back, had lost all his fishing line—the last snap sounding like the crack of a pistol shot. That evening we tried our luck, and came up two catches, both ‘Goldies’ (golden mahseer). Upen’s fish weighed one and a half kilos, while Bharatji’s tipped our hand scales at four kilos. The big mahseer put up a real fight before giving in. With a long streamlined body and pointed snout, the big Goldie displayed resplendent hues of olive green at the top, silvery golden at lateral line with the dorsal, ventral and caudal fins a yellow with a golden tinge at the trims and a gaping mouth that could easily accommodate the fist of Kanchha’s 10-year old son. After
photos we released the big one, but not the smaller fish as the hook had torn open a big gash. So, we ate it forn supper. Cooking on this trip was done in turns, but mostly by Prem and me, as we both considered ourselves to excel in the culinary arts.

We assaulted the confluence the second day where the Arun looked chalky because of snow melt, and the Sun Koshi appeared bluish green. The confluence presented us with our third release, a Goldie again, just over one and a half kilos, courtesy of Prem. Later, my eyes met a strange sight: two village guys drifting down the Sun Koshi towards us on a flimsy raft made of bamboo poles tied together. I learned they were carrying these bamboos to Chatara Ghat to sell. It gave me the shivers! It was too dangerous, as the ride meant navigating many intimidating rapids churning up between massive boulders. A day later Kanchha reported an accident at Tribeni claiming one life. The Koshi is believed to claim two to three bamboo rafters each year. 

Days three and four were uneventful. Strong gusts, choppy water, a dust storm, and then an unremitting drizzle made angling impossible. Day five saw some excitement, however. Tek-ji hooked a gonj (catfish) weighing almost two kilos and the ever-lucky Prem bagged one ‘small cutle’ (a copper mahseer). Both catches were kept back for the camp kitchen.

Day six saw a lot of misses and feeble bites, and infirmity in our camp. Kanchha’s daughter had high fever, Prem developed gastritis and Bharat was doubled over with stomach trouble. Nothing to worry about, though—the marvelous Dharan team had brought along a virtual mobile pharmacy!

Day seven saw Upen hook a golden mahseer weighing nearly two kilos. My teammates were not very optimistic about its release because of a slight tear at the lips. But after half an hour tethered in the water it regained strength and started darting around. Fearing someone from of our team might have other thoughts, I persuaded my fisher friends for a hasty release, our fourth and last. Day eight proved unrewarding, a total blank. 

On day nine our team decided to attempt Ekuwa, one and a half hour from Mai Beni. The trail was scary (Kanchha had suggested a questionable short-cut). At one place we had to slither like rock climbers on a near vertical cliff groping for handholds in crevices, while the Koshi raged deafeningly along, a few feet below. Narrow at the confluence, the Koshi at Ekuwa abounded with big rocks and deep pools. The spring-fed Ekuwa was a little bigger than the Coca, and offered ample gravel bed and fine pebbles that are so ideal for spawning mahseer and other migratory species like gonj (catfish).

Then the incredible happened! Lightning struck! —I finally had a strike. The rod was almost torn out of my hands and the reel jumped. With baited breath, I yanked my rod up, my Abu 7000 reel screeching as a couple of yards of 30-pound line spun out. Then, hardly a minute had gone by when the line went slack. I had lost it, just like that! Later my veteran team mates, upon checking the drag of my multiplier, guessed the weight of that near miss at something between eight and 10 kilos: my tough luck! After a dry lunch of chiura (beaten rice) and Waiwai (noodles), we headed back to camp. That night, feeling completely washed out, I nursed my bruised ego with a few ‘extra’ glass of the local brew.

On day 10 we bid Kanchha and his beaming family good-bye, and headed back down to Baraha Chhetra. There we learned that there was a bandh called by the Maoists, so there were no vehicles on the road to Dharan. Later news started trickling in that we could get a ride to Chatara Ghat. There, sipping tea, we decided to stay the night over and take a ride to Dharan next morning, provided the bandh was lifted. That night over a glass of local brew, someone proposed a last crack at Kosappa.

The next morning saw us casting our lures at Kosappa. A suspension bridge, the only one to be erected over Sapta Koshi, joins Sunsari to Udaypur District at this point. The bridge flaunted a number of Maoist banners. I learned from the locals that wayfarers who often stop at the bridge are body-frisked, their bags rummaged through and asked a lot of questions. We were lucky, for the bridge was deserted that morning and although I breathed a sigh of relief, I was silently rehearsing what to say should we be confronted. Kosappa, despite our high hopes for fish, did not bring any luck. Next morning we headed towards Dharan, our journey over.

Shortly after my return home, my Dharan friends on their second trip met with two incredible sights. At Chatara bazaar, a Gudi (the Gudi are fishermen who live a nomadic life on the banks of the Koshi at Chatara Ghat) was seen selling his day’s catch: 12 kilos in all, out of which almost nine kilos were mahseer fingerlings. And, as if to compensate for this ghastly sight, the next day at the confluence of the Coca and Sapta Koshi they spotted mahseer fingerlings darting around by the thousands.

Looking back on our trip, although it did not bring in any prize catches (10-12 kilos) like my Dharan friends used to have some years ago, I am optimistic about the future of mahseer in Sapta Koshi. My findings and study of this magnificent species over the past few years have given me some hope about the future of these enigmatic ‘tigers of the Himalayan Rivers’. The question now is how long these already threatened species can hold out if nothing is done to conserve and rehabilitate them.

I cannot wait to return to Mai Beni to continue my little study of mahseer and extend my survey deeper into the mighty Sapta Koshi and the mysterious Tammar. But if the proposed high dam at Ghumti Khola happens, I read somewhere that almost 40 villages will be inundated along with most of those beautiful places I visited! Tight lines!

Ravi Singh is a free-lance writer as well as an avid angler, and can be contacted at