Casting a fly at the Himalayan Mahseer
By Misty Dhillon
"Flies and Fly-Fishing Techniques for the Himalayan Mahseer"
anglers who have experienced it would agree that fishing for the
Himalayan Golden Mahseer is somewhat comparable to fishing for the
Atlantic Salmon and the Steelhead. It is a big fish fishery; and the
fishing has similar standards in terms of takes, size of fish,
tackle and somewhat similar fly-fishing techniques.
I could go on and say a few wonderful things about the sporting
majesty of Golden Mahseer because of it being built for survival in
fast flowing rivers in the Himalayan terrain.
One can only imagine the rage of a flooding monsoon river gushing
though the highest mountain ranges in the world and that is prime
time for the Mahseer to run upriver and spawn. The Himalayan Mahseer
is very mobile, often migrating a few times a year.
The real challenge that an angler may come across would be the
fishing terrain as some of the Mahseer swims that I have fished, and
hooked monsters in, have made the pursuit very challenging just
because of the terrain. This is an advantage even modern day tackle
cannot take away from the Mahseer - the advantage that the terrain
gives to the Mahseer. She is a fish that thrives in heavy current,
and is created by the gods to use the environment to her benefit.
Elements, like the terrain (heavy structure), turbid current, and
its habitat make the Himalayan Golden Mahseer “pound for pound, the
hardest fighting freshwater fish”.
The world is becoming a smaller place, newer frontiers open up for
game anglers and the world of fly-fishing becomes more appealing
with newer tackle and techniques. Exotic shows and articles that we
once saw and only dreamt of, now become something that we hear and
read on a regular basis and we have the opportunity to experience
them ourselves. It is just a matter of time that ones' sporting
dreams are manifested.
As anglers, we all know the sense of exhilaration that goes into
travelling to remote, unexplored frontiers and fishing undeveloped
areas. Going back in time and experiencing wild game fisheries -
just the way they were decades ago!
Under water photo of
Mahseer ready for release
It all started as a dream for me - with a vision of men in khaki
clothing, wearing pith helmets and with double handed salmon rods.
Driving in low bonnet Willie jeeps and eventually trekking through
the Himalayas to remote confluences for Mahseer fishing expeditions.
Maybe it was from a past life, or then the future, all it depends on
is what I believe is true.
Those visions were strong; strong enough to keep the fire within
going for years and fuelling those consummate flames was… the
Mahseer - The Golden Mahseer of the Himalayas!
The Journey into remote Northern India - in fact the remote Indian
Himalayas is something that makes the vision even more worthy of
manifestation. The contrast from bustling New Delhi, through its
walls of history, and then through the remote regions, where time
has stood still.
In 1997 I started my journey – "Manifesting the Mahseer on a Fly".
Sleepless nights, and no matter how many Mahseer I nailed on lures,
I knew, that getting them on the fly would only enrich my soul
Somehow, the Mahseer of the Himalayas has always made the pursuit
feel fulfilling. Something that has kept the fire going. In fact, I
feel it only becomes stronger as time goes by.
Anglers often categorise the Mahseer as an “illusive fish”, and I
would go on and call an extremely intelligent fish that has the
ability to play “mind games” with the angler. She could make you
feel like the top of the world one day and then the next day, she
could put your favourite lures and flies to shame even if she were
swimming a few feet away from you, or then, your lure / fly could
get nailed in the fast thick water you may not imagine a fish in.
There are no set themes that should be religiously followed as
everything is subject to getting proven wrong by the Mahseer.
This fish takes at all times, including the night, in fact, I would
say it is very productive at night, and then they would take as
readily in white-water as they would in a pool, or then they will
nail a fly after a rapid and before a rapid.
Over the years, I have seen more Mahseer lost as a result of line
breakage than any other reason, and one cannot do a thing. It can be
hard to stop a Mahseer on the main rush, and my theory is that the
main rush may not be the first, though often it is, and it really
depends on where the fish is hooked.
Some mature fish are very smart, as I experienced while guiding a
trip with Bob Glynn on the Yamuna. Bob's fish was massive from my
reading of the situating, and the run was ever so violent, it is not
the first or the second rush, but the third rush that was very
violent, leaving Bob shaking while standing on an island in the
middle of the Yamuna.
She was probably hooked close, and took one of my favourite lures, a
CD9, and though I knew I had taken care of everything, the rings,
trebles all reinforced, and the leader a good seven to eight foot of
high abrasion resistant 30 lb stuff, still we could not put the
brakes on her, and she felt the hook and surfaced, and then took two
mild runs as if she had given in - suddenly the third rush was so
violent that Bob could not do much but angle the rod perfectly and
hope for the best.
The braid gave way from behind the leader, as there are car sized
boulders in these rivers, and the big fish associate so well with
these surroundings, and are intelligent enough to know how to make
the right move, at the right time - survivors!
The Golden Himalayan Mahseer were only brought into the limelight
again in 1989 following John Bailey and Paul Boots documentary
“Casting For Gold”, which was shot in Byas Ghat, the confluence of
the Nayar River and the mighty Ganges River in the North Indian
state of Uttaranchal. The expedition was successful in showing to
the world that the way to tackle the Himalayan Rivers was on
“artificials” and brought to light, the forgotten Himalayan
monsters. During the trip Paul Boot captured a beautiful 51lber on a
Confluences like Byas Ghat were a dream for every angler who
fantasized about taking on the Golden Himalayan Mahseer. Few were
fortunate enough to experience the thrills of this wonderful beat,
some of whom were in a party lead by a gentleman called Brigadier
The Brigadier was fortunate enough to be posted in the Indian
Military Academy in Dehradun, which was a few hours drive to Byas
Ghat. However, in those days, Byas Ghat was a two hour trek from the
road head, so the expeditions were supported by an entourage of
mules and porters.
Brigadier Pinto and his team landed many a Mahseer in the 40 to 50
lb range in the 1960’s and 70’s.
The Moorhouse family (father James, son Thomas and son Patrick), did
a fair amount of fishing in Byas Ghat in the 1990’s and recorded
many a fish in the 30 - 40lb range. After leaving India, James
Moorhouse visited India again every year to satisfy his quest for
this legendry game fish and in March of 2004 caught a 55 lb trophy,
one of the largest Mahseer of recent times.
The rivers and these beats still produce some good fish, and
recently fish of 40 plus pounds have been often captured.
The fish that were taken from the Ganges on lures, which I know of,
in the recent years:
March 2004 - James Moorhouse – 55+ lbs (the scale gave way)
April 2003 – Misty Dhillon – 55 lbs
October 2005 – Misty Dhillon - 42lbs
September 2006 – Surendra’s younger son – 42lbs
October 2006 - Adolf – 50 lbs
October 2006 – Misty Dhillon – 40lbs
James Moorhouse’s fish seems to be, one of those forgotten monsters
- the fish took a "fire tiger J13" and took well over and hour to
bring in. Though Moorhouse put his fish at 55lbs, and said that the
scale gave way as it was designed only for 50lbs. I think the fish
was probably closer to 60 lbs and a fish that I regard as one of the
best catches from the Himalayan Rivers in recent times.
Pancheshwar is perhaps the largest confluence in North India – this
is where the Saryu River meets the mighty Mahakali River. The Saryu
River is part snow-fed and part glacial river, while the Mahakali
River is a glacial river. Brigadier Pinto’s account mentions some
interesting tales of Mahseer that he and his team took from
Pancheshwar, along with a picture of a 58 lb beauty on one of the
first few pages of his book.
Brigadier Pinto, went on to even describe the Sangam (confluence) at
Rameshwar, the confluence of the Eastern Ramganga River and the
Saryu River, he mentions some good Mahseer been taken from here and
there are also mentions of Goonch (Giant Cat Fish) that they caught
There have been a number of exploits in recent years, from these
rivers. I have heard stories of Darren Cook on the Mahakali River -
he spent a lot of time camped on the river and I have heard of him
taking several fish in the 40 to 60 lb range. So did Ian Tank, who
fished with Darren Cook, and who in recent times has also had some
beautiful fish from here.
I too have taken and witnessed many a good fish from this section of
the Mahakali River. One of the best bags was when I was guiding John
Wilson’s party - Simon Channing took three fish of 51, 40 and 32lbs
from Pancheshwar. This was in April of 2006.
I lot of expeditions have been visiting Pancheshwar in the most
recent past and have scored very well. A team from the royal family
of Patiala scored very well in May 2006. They had many fish in the
20 to 40 lb range in the week or so while camping on the river.
The fly-fishing here is very good, I have taken several fish on
flies from here, and you may try the flies and techniques mentioned
below and experience it for yourself.
Fly-Fishing for Mahseer
The only fly-fishing that has been heard of in India till now has
been in Kashmir, and that too for Brown Trout. Even though there has
been a great deal of interest in fly-fishing for the Mahseer in the
Himalayas - there hardly has been any research done on it!
This is surprising since there are some amazing fly-fishing
possibilities to be found throughout the Himalayan foothills. Of
course the landscape is remarkable with a terrific game fish like
the Himalayan Golden Mahseer that swims in these rivers.
Fishing for Mahseer on a fly is generally associated with the clear
Himalayan spring-fed rivers. I lay emphasis even on tackling the
large glacial rivers on flies. Glacial rivers have opened new
windows of fly-fishing possibilities.
There has been a great amount of interest on fly-fishing for the
Mahseer in recent years. As innovations in fly-line technology and
the use of some fine life-like synthetic materials have been brought
about into the fly-tying world, and there is hardly anything that a
lure can do that a fly cannot. In recent times the most unimaginable
species have been taken on the fly.
A scientific study done by Mr. Prakash Nautyal, author of “Mahseer
the Game Fish” published in 1995 shows that 81.4% of the stomach
content of juvenile Golden Himalayan Mahseer (barbus tor putitora)
was insect matter, indicating that insects, their larvae and nymphs
were accounted for “basic food” of the fish. After I studied this
account I was convinced that it is only a matter of some ground-work
before we begin catching some good Mahseer, consistently on the fly.
A significant part of the diet of the adult / mature fish are other
fish, namely Chiwa / Asla and the use of minnow replicas, preferably
on sinking lines have produced double figure Mahseer on the fly.
Natural insect patterns (large nymphs and steamers) are also
successful with the Large Mahseer.
“Fly-Fishing in the times of the Raj was very common in the
Himalayan waters. The Himalayan Mahseer which takes the fly, are
longer and thinner per pound than the south Indian monsters. The
technique used in these times were, large black flies which looked
like a small minnows, live bait that is grass hoppers, which were
hooked onto a fly line or then with fly spoons. Now a day's one has
a whole range of large flies that imitate fish or large insects and
they do catch fish. I used to run fishing tours for southern India’s
giants – I did however set up a tour for fly-fishing for the Mahseer
near Corbett National Park, where Rowecliffe managed to land a 35lb
Mahseer on the fly caught on her 12’ salmon rod” – Robert (Bob)
Howitt, March 3rd 1998, in flyfish.com, "Fly-Fishing In India For
Mentions like this one of fly-fishing for the Mahseer in the Western
Ramganga River were within the premises of the Corbett National Park
which was common in the years gone by, and the fishing here is still
is very good, though no longer a possibility.
The Western Ramganga River has long been a river associated to
fly-fishing for Mahseer, and there were many good Mahseer taken from
here by the anglers who fished here in the past when fishing within
the premises of the Corbett National Park was permitted. However,
some years back fishing within the premises of this Park was banned
by the authorities. Ever since lodges along the river started
promoting angling on a limited section of roughly twelve kilometres
(7.5 miles) outside the Park. Having limited understanding of the
concept of fly-fishing they began ground baiting the pools with
paste bait so the fish remain in the pools close to their lodges,
hence coping the concept practiced in the south of India for fishing
the Humpback Mahseer, a different species of Mahseer, that take
better to paste bait. This disturbed the fly-fishing potential here,
as the sizable Mahseer got used to taking bait. Unfortunately, most
good Mahseer along this section of river are now a days taken on
live or paste bait.
I noticed the same phenomena in a few other sections of water where
Mahseer congregated in pools due to being fed with paste bait. This
is something that is also common in religious waters, due to people
throwing in paste bait. Here the Mahseer took readily to paste bait
though showed no interest in artificials.
The conditions that a fly anglers should be looking for are -
undisturbed conditions! Where the fish congregate due to naturally
conditions, hence feeding on what they would naturally feed on,
without being dependent on humans.
There are many rivers besides the Western Ramaganga like the Saryu,
Mahakali, Ganges, and others that are far less commercial and allow
wild fly-fishing beats for the Mahseer. Over the past years I have
witnessed some of the most back-in-time remote sections of Mahseer
rivers that North India offers, and these sections offer some very
rewarding fly-fishing for Mahseer. Most of these lucrative beats are
only accessible by rafts or by short treks.
Same is the case with the North East of India, an area that I
visited last year and found abundant fly-fishing opportunities in.
Mahseer in natural situations behave very differently. Fish up to
six pounds will even follow flies close to the boat or bank, though
the larger ones usually take within the first few strips or then
while stripping the fly on the drift. Large Mahseer have also been
hooked in other ways like dead drift, very slow retrieves, bottom
bouncing large nymphs etc.
Another interesting fact on fly-fishing some Himalayan rivers is
that flies are remarkably productive even when the water is slightly
murky. Coloured water has always scared Mahseer anglers away and it
is a general rule followed by most that if you cannot see your feet
when you standing in knee deep water then the Mahseer will not take!
However, over the years, I have had some good fly-fishing, even in
coloured water. I am not going into the details of coloured water in
this article, though I have observed certain shades of water / at
certain times of the year that are very productive when fly-fishing.
Inputs On Fly-Tackle
A variety of rods could be helpful when you are pursuing the Mahseer
on a fly, and I carry a 5wt, an 8wt, an 11wt and a 10 wt double
handed rod. This enables me to fish a variety of situations that I
may encounter. Little nymphs can be of good use if you fish them in
some shallow swims of little tributaries / small backwater with a
5wt rod, and catch 2 to 4 lb fish. A lot of times I have regretted
having my double-handed rod when I have come across shoals of small
Mahseer instead of my 5 wt fly rod!
The same may be applicable on a larger section of water with larger
heavier nymphs / streamers / wets / tube flies where a 5wt rod is
not appropriate - this is where your 8 wt comes into play. You can
use some higher grain sinking stuff if needed on deeper / heavier /
Misty on the Yammuna
The 8wt on a sink tip is what I use most often to fish my streamers
in pools. A lot of my streamers are weighted too.
An 11 wt rod is of good use when you need to fish heavier water
which you are likely to encounter, also when you need to use “brick
like sinking” fly lines, and when you need to double-haul a good
And then my favourite tool for fly-fishing Mahseer is the
double-handed rod. It allows me to make a variety of productive
presentations for Mahseer, and enables me to fish effortlessly all
day and consistently present in the honey holes.
I also make a number of sinking tips and then arrange them in a
sequence according to the type of sink rate I require, which is
another secret of taking Mahseer on the fly. Yes, fishing with sink
tips, especially the heavy grain stuff is exhausting!
I would also advise 100 yards high visibility braid like Power Pro /
Suffix etc as backing, which seem to be better suited for Indian
climatic conditions than standard backing.
Mahseer take on top water presentations too and the similar nymphs /
wets / poppers presented and stripped fast, especially in the month
of May, can produce some small Mahseer that follow up aggressively
and take – this is very enjoyable!
When you get a take and loose the fish, in most situations I would
tell you to stop fishing that spot, as I have noted, the fish move a
little down river. You can go a little down river and target the
shoal again, or then stop casting and relax. Fish again after ten
Why a Double Handed Rod?
A double handed rod has an advantage on the Himalayan rivers due to
the fact that one could effortlessly cover a lot of more water with
it. On most Himalayan rivers, one can fish more efficiently,
especially if you can Spey cast from both your left and your right
side. There is not always a lot of space available for the back
On hooking a Mahseer, the long double-handed rod also help in
keeping the line away from the rocks.
Double-handed rods even help keeping tippets away from rocks as you
generally use the Spey cast, which prevents unnecessary line frays
Some times it is hard landing these fish without a guide and landing
net with a double handed rod, due to its length. I have learnt my
lesson the hard way. A landing net is always a good idea when
fly-fishing for Mahseer.
I mostly prefer a nine to ten weight double-handed rod.
The Fly Spoon
This is a traditional lure, a favourite in the times of the British
Raj. It is featured in most Mahseer accounts. It is a very simple
design hardly ever seen today which may have been used for Salmon in
the good old days. I have one by "The House of Hardys" (see
We still do sometimes use them on double handed rods. A fly spoon
weighs approximately 1/8th of an ounce, something a ten plus weight
rod could handle easily. You can also use it in a rapid on floating
line, which is very productive!
This is one of the flies described in Henry Sullivan Thomas’s
account “The Rod in India”. And yes, it does work when fished deep -
hence I prefer weighting it a bit.
Basically I am of the opinion that most black flies with black
bodies, little tinsel, black hackle, black wings, and dark tail
The article continue on page 2
Text and photos by Misty Dhillon 2007 ©