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Fresh water angling is normally considered an enjoyable and peaceful sport. That it is. But battling your foe from the ragged shores of treacherous rivers, where a slip can mean a watery grave, is practised by very few. Sadly, it’s preffered more by foreigners than by Indians, for many Indians that I have spent time with on the river weigh the price they are paying against the comforts, not against the pure thrill of adventure sport. As a consequence, the great adventure fish of the world are being missed out by our lot. With global pollution turning our rivers acidic, with changing laws and a poverty-stricken populace plundering the rivers for sustenance in an unscientific and uncontrolled manner, the worry is that these denizens of the fresh water might not survive another generation. For those few non-sissy Indians, there are three monsters of old that you should be looking at.
Let’s start with the third most-extreme fresh-water angling fish. Needless to say, it thrives many miles from civilisation deep in the heart of Mongolia. The rivers that run in these beautiful rolling hills, stunning in the most part, take a three-hour long flight from Ulan Bator to get to. The Hucho Taiman, known colloquially as Taiman, are believed to grow to 230 lbs. Though the world record is 100 lbs, this largest trout in the world is believed to grow way more than that. The snow-fed, fast flowing, bitterly cold waters of Mongolia and Russia form the perfect habitat for these long and narrow monsters.
You need to spin for this giant trout and once hooked sprint downstream after it, praying that the fish tires before you do. I know of friends who have battled these fish beyond three kilometres. The totem of the fish is the greatest honour that a ruler can confer on another and it is commonly believed that the rulers of Central Asia were so enamored of the Taiman that they created the Mah-i-Maratib in its honour. This honour was brought to India by the Mughals and to Hyderabad by the Nizam.
The next in line, but running a close second, is the awesome Mbenga. Hydrocynus Vittatus or the Goliath is a stunningly ferocious and elusive fish that is known to bring down large mammals, even an unsuspecting child. Unlike its common cousin, the tiger, the Mbenga can grow to around 110 lbs, but then there is many a lore that puts it well beyond 250 lbs. It’s only found in the Congo river and the mouth of this monster is terrifying, to say the least. The fish has an incredibly sensitive lateral line that helps it to discern even the slightest surface disturbance. This helps it survive in a river filled with the man-eating Nile crocodile and the hippopotamus.
The Congo plays host to many a poisonous snake, scorpion, safari ant, and mosquito causing yellow fever and malaria. Apart from these dangers, one needs to survive a constantly brewing war among local warlords and the government. Kidnapping and killing are common in the Congo valley. Travel here is either by boat or plane. One needs to get in, try his best to land the fish, battle hard to survive that week deep in the Congo, and then get out before the warlords get you.
You would have guessed by now that a few of us love pushing the limits of enjoyment. You are most welcome to join me on our next incursion.
By far the greatest technical difficulties are faced when one goes after our own Barbus Tor Musallah or the Great Humpback Mahseer of the Cauvery. It is the only fish whose propelling parts comprise a surface area greater than that of the rest of its body. Fishing lore puts it at well over 200 lbs with larger catches being less than 130 lbs — Subhan, who I have fished with for 13 years, speaks of a monster which when cut in half weighed around 150 lbs. Anything less than 50 lbs was considered a Chilwa (small fish that is commonly used to bait Mahseer) by him.
This mightiest of fresh water fighting fish is found in the Cauvery river from its upper reaches down to the Mettur Dam, with the record being 122 lbs in the Kabini river, a tributary of the Cauvery. This fish possesses both brains and brawns. It is known to cut a line on a rock or get it stuck in such a way that the mono (fishing line made of a single strand of nylon) loses its tautness and then the fish can shrug off the hook.
The challenges in landing this great fish are many. It lives in the deeper parts of the river and in the mighty rapids; and it’s always difficult to say where the big ones are and what they are feeding on. Besides, hooking is a test and landing a +50 lbs in the snag-filled river is a huge challenge. To top it, the river is known to be a killer and many fall regularly to a watery grave. The rocks are slippery and the currents deadly. And if that’s not enough, you have crocodiles, snakes, elephants, leopards, poachers, besides malaria, dengue, chickungunya, sunstroke and dehydration with the reflected heat in the gorge (below Mekedaatu) sending temperatures up to 55 degrees Celsius. If you want to fish in the Cauvery, be prepared to battle it out like the adventurers of old.
Sadly the fight for the Great Humpback Mahseer could soon be a thing of the past with the government hellbent on trying to ban angling in protected areas in India, the only place where these fish survive. Without the conservation and protection offered to the great fish by angling camps situated in these strategic locations, the pure gene pool of this mightiest of all fresh water fighting fish will be lost forever. Already the gene pool of the Barbus Tor Musallah has been tainted by other sub-species. It’s time to conserve the Panthera tigris on land and the tiger of the waters, the Mahseer, in the waters. Maybe someone in Delhi will hear us.
Saad Bin Jung is a former cricketer, a member of the former royal families of Bhopal and Pataudi, conservationist, angler, novelist and columnist and an authority on safaris in Africa