PART TWO – FISHING THE SARYU FOR GOLDEN MAHSEER
We left at 0800 and set out on the very windy road to camp. Leaving the towering pines and the giant red rhododendrons, we climbed with the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas with Everest to our left. Majestic and towering, they gleamed white in the morning haze. The mountainsides changed to smaller, indigenous pines which gave way to terraces with flocks of grazing sheep. Occasionally we passed cows and horses grazing loose by the roadside, obviously used to not straying far. It is a long drive in; scenic to be sure and with a leg stretch or two en-route but traffic was kind to us in the main and the only hold ups we had were as a result of the heavy rains a few days before which had caused several small landslides. At one point we had a very polite stand-off with a Sikh bus (called Harry) but eventually we jostled past with inches to spare and we were soon on our way.
Having spotted the river to our left, we wound down and down until finally we arrived at the police check point. As the river is the border with Nepal, our passports were scrutinised once more before we were waved on our way and were soon pulling up at journeys end. Having extracted Sunder from the back seat, a short but steep walk had us down on the riverbank to be met by Sanju and the gear raft for the quick journey across to the other side of the Saryu and camp. Misty met us as we inelegantly got off the gear boat and there it was – home for the next five days.
Camp is very simple; Meru style tents, all with twin beds, covered porches front and back, fresh long drop loos (your flush is your shovel), shower tents and a bucket bath tent. There is a central dining area, with one long communal table and on slightly lower ground, the evening fire. There is plenty of iodised water for hand washing, anti-bacterial soap and, at night, the hot water bottle although really it wasn’t needed; the warm weather had arrived just ahead of us. We settled in and tackled up after lunch and after a short siesta, headed out for about two hours on the stretch of the Saryu immediately in front of camp.
Misty was delighted that he had woken after the night time deluge and the land slide a few nights before to find a new pool, right in front of camp. It wasn’t yet warm enough for the mahseer to have started making their way up that far but the new pool will be named after the first person to land a fish there. Sadly that privilege will have to fall to someone else as with no fish to any of our flies, we made our way back to camp to shower and change before dinner. It wasn’t long before the gin and takamaka were out of the bags and on the bar and we were sat around the fire. Evening meals always started with popcorn or masala nuts followed by soup before we moved to the table for the next two courses. The food truly was delicious but there is a very real danger of being overfed, highly flavoured but not spicy hot. The hot stuff is on the table if you want it. After our first meal, the green chilli pot was placed in front of Andrew – it saved time.
Up at 0700 with tea and biscuits in bed, hot water added to the water container outside the tent, breakfast at 0800 and we were off by 0900. With four fishing, we had a guide each and Kevin and Derrick set off in one direction while Andrew and I went the other. We were fishing the confluence of the Saryu and the Mahakali; for mahseer fishermen, this confluence is as famous as the Junction Pool on the Tweed is to British salmon fishermen. On our side of the river was the temple with prayer flags flying gently in the breeze which carried with the scent of incense and of curries cooking. On the other side of the river a ghat, a series of steps leading down to the river, also of spiritual significance. From my perch above the confluence, you could clearly see the difference in colour; the Kali was a milky green against the coffee coloured Saryu. The plan for the day was to be out all day and have a picnic lunch under the trees.
Tackling up the previous afternoon, I had quickly realised that I was going to have another challenge on my hands – that of casting heavy sinking lines, with heavy tube flies on my Hardy Proaxis 7#. It was a short and painful learning curve but having whacked myself on the back a couple of times, I decided that one false cast would be enough. The heavy rains a few days prior had given Misty his new pool with one hand but taken away our water clarity with the other and the river was a deep café au lait. Working the fly and fishing the pool down, I felt a hard bump and reacted with a hard strip strike; perfect for the bonefish it felt like but not much good on a mahseer.
Head hung low, I took a ten minute break to reclaim my mojo and ten minutes after I started fishing again, as my fly reached the end of its swing, I stripped once and had another massive hit. Much harder this time, it felt like a small GT had just hit my fly. Lifting the rod, I got the line back on the reel and let the fish run. Run it did and it took me straight into my backing, showing no signs of stopping as it headed right down past the confluence and into the Mahakali. Not looking forward to running after it across the boulder field, I was determined not to lose this fish and equally determined not to break an ankle. Just as I thought I was going to have to boulder hop, it slowed and with the backing eventually retrieved, we had few more short runs and a last wee tussle before I was able to bring it to the bank. Cradling the fish, Misty gently attached the bogar grip and removed the fly as I clambered down the rocks and into the water. I was surprised at how slippery the mahseer was but I was truly taken aback but the beauty and the depth of its colour. Around 8 lbs, I was (and still am) a very happy angler. I have seen beautiful photographs of mahseer close up but nothing can prepare you for seeing one in person. Photographs taken, my very first mahseer swam swiftly off, leaving me sitting in the river, smiling rather gormlessly in the direction it had vanished.
Back up on the bank, Misty handed me my fly, a momento of a ‘first’ and one that I was delighted to have. As we sorted out the leader and chose another fly, I could see Andrew casting away down on the confluence and hoped that the fishing gods would also smile on him. The morning passed swiftly and it didn’t seem long before Lucky and Sunder arrived with our lunch which they set up in the scant shade on our side of the river. From seemingly magic bags, they pulled out a table, shooting stools, cool drinks and a very comprehensive lunch which we took leisurely. It was now pretty warm and we were all quite happy to be doing relatively little.
Having spoken with Misty a little earlier about the ghat and the role they play, we suddenly saw a group of people appear at the top of the bank and work their way down to the river. It seemed that we were going to be witness to a funeral. While we watched from the opposite bank, Kevin and Derrick were at the top of the ghat looking down on proceedings. Once the pyre had been built and the belongings put into the river, petrol added, it didn’t seem long before the remains were pushed into the river of life to be taken away on another journey. The family departed and we carried on fishing.
My afternoon basically crashed around my ears. I got my line wrapped around just about every rock there was, on every twig in the water and I lost several flies having going myself hooked on structure of some kind. Around 1630, I hooked another rock fish and when pulling back my line before releasing it in the hope that my fly would spring free, it snapped. That was enough for me and I wasn’t going to push my luck any further. I’d had an amazing morning and it seemed that the price to pay was a bike crash of an afternoon. On the way back Sanju asked me if the line was mine; I told him that it was actually Misty’s at which point he burst out laughing and told me that I had to tell him! The rest of the gang arrived back in camp a bit later. Derrick had landed two mahseer on fly, two sinning and all of which he said were relatively small. Andrew and Kevin were obviously saving themselves for the following day. I snapped Sunder rowing across to pick them up as the sun was going down.
Misty was very understanding about my snapped line but on the basis that he needed to protect his stock, offered me a line tray for the following day. Having mocked my South African friends for years about using line trays, I found myself on the other side of the fence desperate to use one and realisation that I was going to have to eat humble pie in the not too distant future.
We had a different plan for the following day; up at 0500, out by 0600 and with breakfast on the river. Watching the sun rise over Nepal, while walking down to the river was really very beautiful. Breakfast arrived a few hours later; Indian style vegetarian scotch eggs; they made my morning I can tell you. This time, Andrew and I were on the other side of the river, fishing the right hand bank of PJ’s pool down to the confluence. The move over to the far reaches of the pool took us up and over the Saryu version of the Eiger. Once that had been inelegantly scaled, a Mowgli jungle trail awaited me and all I could think of as I made my slow way up, was that I hoped that there was a quicker way home! Down the other side it was equally steep but at least it was downhill. Eventually in place, we fished down until about 1100 to start the trek back to camp. This time at least the way out was steep but easy under foot and I eventually made it to the top. When I recovered enough to speak, it was to discover that Andrew had landed a 3 lb mahseer so although not a beast, it meant that the skunk was out of his fly box and we could both relax.
Back in camp, it was time to wash up for lunch and then go and see Ester before heading out again about 1600. After the trauma of the Eiger in the morning, I was delighted to be told that I would be fishing PJ’s again, this time starting where we had stopped in the morning and working down to the bottom of the run. I had just finished telling Matt how the mahseer the previous day had taken my fly at the end of the swing when it happened again. As my fly stopped swinging, I stripped once, short and fast, and bang. Fish on. However this fish didn’t run. It sulked. Short bursts were followed by a tussle which eventually degenerated into a tug of war. A smaller fish at 6 lbs, it actually made me work harder! It was a beautiful fish with lovely colouring on is belly.
Andrew, fishing the other side of the pool but much further down had landed two fish with Bobby; the first earlier in the afternoon around 5 lbs.
His later fish, was a very nice 10 lbs mahseer, caught not long before we had to call it a day. Particularly satisfying that they were all caught on fly.
Back in camp, it turned out that both Kevin and Derrick had also brought mahseer to the bank so we were a bunch of happy anglers that evening. Earlier in the day we had listened to thunder rolling in for a while and watched the most amazing storm follow it down the valley. The wind was so strong, I was convinced that my tent was going to take off … with me in it … while I was off seeing Ester after lunch. The rain caught up with us that evening and although we had one small reprieve during the night, it absolutely hammered down. I am sure that the first thing Misty did in the morning was check that his ‘new’ pool was still there and hadn’t been washed away in the night.
We woke to more rain and low cloud and no realistic chance of fishing so we had a later breakfast at 0800 following which Kevin and Derrick tied flies with Misty, Andrew read in his tent and I managed to catch up with the journal. The rain stopped about mid-day but the river was now very dark and had risen a fair bit. It was probably fishable for the sinners but not realistic for those of us who wanted to stick with fly. While we were lazing around, Bobby had walked down to the confluence to see how the Mahakali was doing and that too was dirtier than the day before. Derrick and Kevin went along with him with their sinning rods but came back with no tales to tell. Andrew meanwhile had walked upriver with Sanju and discovered old watermills, wheat being harvested as well as plethora of birds … none of which he could remember. He also learnt how to use berries to write with – something he proved a couple of days later.
Dinner that last evening was moved to the other restaurant – a lovely high spot at the far end of the beach, overlooking Leopard Beach. It was Tandoori night and the sound of the Sanju and Bobby slapping chapattis dough against their hands was accompanied by the forlorn sound of the Nightjar singing his solitary song.
The following morning dawned clear, the river had dropped and although still very coloured was beginning to settle. We were on the move; heading down to the fly camp on the Mahakali for the night. Andrew and I would return the following day but Kevin and Derrick were meeting up with a local gooch expert and we would say goodbye to them there. With overnight bags, we hopped on board with Kevin and Derrick in the front on the paddles, Misty at the back on the oars and Andrew and I just hanging out in the middle taking photographs as we went. It is a wonderful 10 km drift with a few grade I rapids to keep you cool. Along the way, Misty pointed out the marks on the wall that the mahseer make when they are scratching for alternative food sources.
It didn’t take long for the fly camp to come into view; a smaller and simpler version of the main camp, with a similar layout and the only difference being that loos and the bucket bath tent are shared, one between two tents and that dining here is buffet style, eaten on your laps. Once settled in, Derrick and Kevin went back upstream with their gooch rods and bait while Andrew and I spent a couple of hours fishing below camp.
We saw snow trout rising but being best targeted on dry fly, with the visibility being so poor the guides thought that our efforts would be better spent on mahseer. Similar to our barbel in looks, but like the Spanish variety they have a love for feeding on the surface. If an excuse is needed, it’s a good one to back for. Andrew and I, along with Misty and Bobby, were off early and heading back to camp. As the recent rains had ruined some parts of the footpath, Misty had opted to row us upriver, past the damaged section of trail while Bobby and the two local porters took our bags back along the trail. When we met up later in the morning, Bobby confirmed it was the right call to make as in some parts the trail was completely gone. With the high water and the strong current, and with his throw bag line attached to the raft, Sanju left from rock to rock pulling us over the eddy walls.
We rowed / towed for about 1 km upriver, crossing the river as needed. It’s easy to forget that the far side of the river is Nepal but there is a noticeable difference in the hillsides; deforestation on the Nepalese side is much more obvious and there was recent evidence of some big landslides on the hills facing camp. We left Sanju and his raft to return downriver while we scrambled up the rocks to the path which we followed for about 2½ km. It’s a lovely walk, easy underfoot with the river to your right in the most part. We met Bobby and Lucky at the trailhead and were back in camp by about 1030.
Post lunch, we were back on the road around 1530, heading down to the bridge to fish once more; neither of us covered ourselves in glory; Andrews largest mahseer of the afternoon was about 2½ lbs while mine was about 1½ lbs, soaking wet and with the fly in its mouth. On the positive side, it is good to see juvenile fish as its a good indicator to the health of the fishery. We made our way back to the car in the dark and it was a quick shower and change before heading down the beach to the far restaurant. It was glorious evening; clear skies, twinkling stars and the ever present lonely evening song of the Nightjar. During the night we had rain again and as it was still drizzling first thing we decided to skip the fishing and leave early. Once Misty had finished what he needed to do in camp, we said goodbye to the staff who had looked after us so well and headed back to the chillier high passes to break the journey back to New Delhi.
After a short picnic with pine cones levelling out the bonnet, we said farewell to Misty and Lucky, they headed off in their separate directions. Misty home to the Ramganga before heading to Bhutan and Lucky to take the next group of anglers to the river for their first mahseer experience. Meanwhile, Andrew and I met up with David who was to accompany us back to Delhi and make sure that we made it to the airport on time the following day.
Thinking the adventure was over, we were a wee bit wrong as our planned route from the train station back to the hotel didn’t go quite according to plan. The taxi driver we ended up with was obviously not telling the truth when he said he knew where we were going. The first inkling of this was when he lept out of the vehicle at some traffic lights and ran off. The three of us looked at one another in astonishment but as he’d left the keys in, we weren’t that bothered, assuming he’d come back at some point. When he did it a second time, we knew where we were and he just wouldn’t listen; eventually we made it the last 200 metres up the road and round the corner to the hotel. Poor David; it doesn’t matter how well you plan, or how often you check and reconfirm there is always the chance that a curve ball will swing your way. As people who love to travel, we all know that you just have to roll with it. Make a plan, sort it out and carry on.
Would I go back? Absolutely. I came away from a tented camp operation, on the Indian and Nepalese border, that has no electricity, no Wi-Fi, no cell phone cover and fish that are difficult and challenging on a good day far more impressed than I have been with operations that have all the bells and whistles you could want.
If you have made it this far through my epic report, I thank you for taking the time to read it and I hope that, like me, you will be inspired to try something different. To push your boundaries as an angler. To travel somewhere new with an open mind. I loved every second of my journey – even climbing the Saryu Eiger – and would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
If you would like to read the Part I of the journey, from New Delhi, Ramganga and Corbett NP, click HERE
Please contact Charlotte Chilcott or call +44 (0)1980 847389+44 (0)1980 847389 for details and availability.
Adding this paragraph in post trip; it was so great to hear that Kevin (with a very nice double figure fish below) and Derrick landed nice mahseer after we had left – I’m delighted that it all came good for them on the mahseer front. The gooch were a little more reticent but they have them to go back for along with the snow trout. My thanks to them both for the photographs and for letting me use them.
About the author: Charlotte Chilcott