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Misty on the river, by Misty Dhillon © 2007

Casting a fly at the Himalayan Mahseer
By Misty Dhillon

"Flies and Fly-Fishing Techniques for the Himalayan Mahseer"

  Most 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, by Misty Dhillon © 2007
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 further.

  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.

Photo by Misty Dhillon © 2007

  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!

  Brief Background:

  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 lure.

  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 Pinto.

  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.

Photo by Misty Dhillon © 2007

  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 at Rameshwar.

  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 Mahseer Forum".

  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 / faster water.

Misty on the Yammuna river, by Misty Dhillon © 2007
Misty on the Yammuna river

  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 distance.

  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 minutes.

  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 cast.

  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 while casting.

  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

The Fly Spoon, by Misty Dhillon © 2007

  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 photograph attached).

  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!

The Blackamoor

The Blackamoor, by Misty Dhillon © 2007

  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 should work.

The article continue on page 2

Text and photos by Misty Dhillon 2007 ©



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