FLYFISHING THE GANGES
I can’t remember when exactly I first read about the Golden Mahseer. It must have been sometime during high school, when my unhealthy obsession with flyfishing began to take hold. With it, came an equally unhealthy desire to travel to far-flung places, in search of the strongest, biggest, fastest, fussiest gamefish on the face of the planet.
Bonefish, sailfish, roosterfish, tigerfish, permit, tarpon, golden dorado, peacock bass, steelhead, nile perch, taimen and giant trevally wouldn’t feature in the fantasies of most 15 year-old schoolboys, but they were the leading characters in mine. With each magazine article I devoured, the settings for these fantasies grew ever more obscure. New Zealand’s South Island, the Amazon, Mongolia, the Seychelles, Cuba, Belize, Australia’s Northern Territory, Slovenia, British Columbia, Tasmania, the Baha Peninsula, Tierra del Fuego – these were all places that somehow, someday, I simply had to get to. And so it was inevitable, I suppose, that I came to know of the Golden Mahseer, a fish of legendary proportions and fabled fighting ability – a true apex predator, inhabiting the fast-flowing rivers spilling out of the Himalayas. Catching one on a flyrod – somehow, someday – became another thing I simply had to do.
There’s a sad truth about schoolboy fantasies: they seldom materialise. In the process of starting a career and trying to be a grown-up, whatever the hell that means, I realised I was going fishing less and less. Without so much as a struggle, adventures to secret valleys and remote atolls on the other side of the world had become shelved, replaced by far more responsible ambitions. What a travesty. This trip to India, among many other things, of course, presented an opportunity to rectify the situation.
Silver Sands is a tented rafting camp on the banks of the upper Ganges, erected every year once the monsoon waters subside. It’s set on a beautiful, bleached-white curve of beach in an equally beautiful part of the valley, but it’s hardly unique in this regard. Judging by the number of similar camps dotting the river’s lovely beaches, you’d think that whitewater rafting was starting to rival cricket as India’s national sport. Weirdly though, most of the camps seemed to be empty, and in the 6 days we spent there, we didn’t see many rafts floating down the Ganges. One thing does set Silver Sands apart, however. Every now and again, it plays host to small groups of flyfishermen, led by our new American friend, Aaron Alter.
We (me in particular, obviously) were very excited to be joining Aaron on his latest expedition to Silver Sands. It was the same group that had been up at Kuflon and Musoorie, and it was really nice to have some continuity in the company. The problem with meeting people when you’re traveling indepentantly is that it’s usually so fleeting. We seem to have exchanged e-mail addresses and if-you’re-ever-in-our-part-of-the-world-you-must-come-stays with hundreds of travellers, but in reality we’ve only kept in touch with a handful of them. Fishing and pretty scenery aside, our time on the Ganges was also a chance to really get to know some people. It was an unexpected bonus.
While Aaron, Suman, Terry and myself spent most of the time traipsing up and down the river in search of Mahseer, Kerryn joined the other girls on a rafting trip, visited Rishikesh, caught up on some reading, did plenty of Yoga, had an oily Ayurvedic massage and spent a lot of time sitting cross-legged on the beach, channelling Mother Ganga. Although there was good company and lots of stuff to do, for 6 days straight she still had to put up with an obsessive flyfisherman completely engrossed in the realisation of a boyhood fantasy; a fantasy which didn’t include her. It must have been very hard work. Thanks so much for kind-of understanding and being so patient, Monkey. You really are the best.
I’ll save a more technical report about the Ganges for another post, and perhaps this blog isn’t even the right place for that. To cut a long story short though, the fishing wasn’t easy. But from everything I had ever read about Mahseer, I never expected it to be. There was no doubt that there were lots of them in the river, but for long periods of the day they would just be ‘off.’ Now and again, and quite unexpectedly, they would wake up, and then it wasn’t uncommon to get a hit on every 3rd or 4th cast. These periods of mayhem never seemed to last for more than half an hour though.
By the last day of our trip, I had caught plenty of Mahseer. Mission accomplished. And it felt awesome. But something was missing, and it was nagging at me ever more as time ran out: I still hadn’t caught a BIG mahseer. Big is a relative term for a fish which can reach well over 60 pounds, but considering I was casting a flimsy flyrod, I would have settled for anything over 10.
It was just Suman, Kerryn and myself at Silver Sands on our last afternoon. The others had left for Delhi the previous day and it felt eerily quiet around camp. Suman recommended we go back to a very fishy looking confluence a little downstream, where Terry had caught some small Mahseer a few days before. Kerryn wasn’t keen on coming along, so the 2 of us hiked up to the road and caught a taxi down to our chosen spot. Conditions looked perfect when we arrived, and I landed a small fish on my very first cast. Things just felt right. Sure enough, as if it knew how good fishing stories are supposed to end, the best fish of the trip engulfed my fly a short while later. After tearing off downstream on a few searing runs, I managed to work it into a backwater and it wasn’t long before the most beautiful fish I have ever caught was in my hands. I’m surprised Kerryn didn’t hear my and Suman’s whoops all the way up at Silver Sands. After a few photos, we slid him back into the river and watched in awe as he disappeared back into the sacred waters of the Ganges. There was still a good hour of light left, but I didn’t need to fish anymore. Days later, the smile was still etched across my face.