I woke at 05:00 as usual and felt surprisingly good. Everyone else was either stirring or up and about too so the local beer was voted a resounding success.
As we were clearing our heads with an early morning brew, some local men and women from the Adi tribe wandered by the camp and stopped to talk. They were shy but inquisitive and looked wide eyed at us and our paraphernalia. They found the fishing rods, reels and lures particularly strange and held them gingerly, unsure of what to do with them.
Sanjay wanted to release his fish early so we all gathered on the rocks by the river. The morning light was perfect and the golden mahseer’s colours were stunning as we took pictures of him holding the fish. The locals watched as Sanjay removed the stringer and then gently let the fish swim away. On cue, one of the local men shook his head and muttered something about us being crazy to release such a fish. We got some pictures of the local men with their machetes and then the women with their head baskets and bright sarongs. Then they wandered off in a line heading upstream to a village somewhere.
We would be rafting later on in the morning so we split up to fish for a few hours. Rup and I went upstream to fish a rapid we had rafted down yesterday. We walked across beaches strewn with driftwood and eddy pools with post-monsoon trees stuck in the mud like rotting boat hulls. The slower river here meant there were more snags in the water to watch out for. I hooked and lost a fish on a black and gold spoon in one of these eddy pools. Rup headed off upstream from me to fish above the rapid that we had reached and hooked but lost a fish. I hooked and landed a 3lb Boca from the rapid itself which I killed and kept for the pot.
Rup and I returned to camp for breakfast to find that Phil had managed to catch his first golden mahseer of 7lbs on a small jointed plug. He was justifiably delighted and we all congratulated him. He had landed the fish just down from the camp and a local man had been watching him. The local asked if he could have the fish for supper and Phil had politely declined. Chris was taking pictures of Phil as he was releasing the fish but it squirmed and fell from his hands into the shallow water. Before Phil or Chris knew what was happening, the local man had jumped into the water, whacked the mahseer on the head with his machete and was walking off with it smiling broadly.
We had breakfast and then rafted a short distance to the next camp spot. En route we stopped on a pebble island in the river to fish a long stretch of good looking water. Chris had made his first cast at one spot and a savage take had nearly wrenched the rod from his hands. He cursed at missing the fish and carried on casting a few times before noticing something strange about his jelly lure. He swung the lure into his hands and was stunned to see that the bend on the single hook had been straightened out, almost certainly by that earlier violent take.
I had walked downstream to a spot where the river hit a sheer cliff on the far side of the river and then turned at right angles and flowed to my right. A great looking eddy pool was formed by this and I hooked but lost two Boca here. Billy and Alka joined me shortly after so I offered them the pool and fished around them. Alka cast first but soon got hooked up on the riverbed. She and Billy tried to get the lure back but eventually gave in and broke the line. Alka resigned herself to losing her favourite plug to the river gods. Billy continued fishing and hooked but lost a fish from the same spot where I had lost my two fish.
Meanwhile Sanjay was fishing with a Toby spoon and had hooked into another good golden mahseer that had fought well in the fast water. He was upstream from us with Chris who had landed it for him. We all gathered back at the rafts to move on and Sanjay produced his fish on a stringer tied to Arun’s raft. It weighed 18lbs and he said he wanted to kill it. Dhiraj and Vikas had also wanted to kill the fish as they said it would feed us all well.
I protested as diplomatically as I could. Vikas, Dhiraj, Sanjay and Billy come from a culture where there has always been a ready supply of both large and small fish so killing them was considered normal. Dynamiting, netting, poisoning, and line wallahs aside, there is a relatively small amount of angling pressure on the mahseer in the mountains. ‘Sport’ fishing with rod and line is rare and the reserve of the wealthy in India so killing fish is perfectly acceptable in such circles. It reminded me of the pictures I’d seen in angling books from the Raj with lines of fish hanging from poles held up by shikaris. The mentality of the time by the British was the same as it was in Britain, one killed what one caught (except for fish under a certain size). Angling pressure on U.K. wild stocks has forced a re-evaluation of such policies and a more conservationist mentality now prevails where stocking of rivers doesn’t occur.
Anyway, it seems my gentle protests didn’t go unheard and Sanjay agreed to release the fish. I thanked him and we watched the mahseer swim gently away into the river.
Back in the rafts we shot two more big sets of rapids and all got very wet again. The waves were big and we whooped and hollered as we crashed through them. Just before another rapid we pulled into the side and decided to camp for the night. This campsite sat on a raised sand covered plateau of rocks right by the river. Large boulders surrounded the plateau where our tents where pitched and made our camp look like a fortified village with battlements around it.
Shortly after setting tents up, Rup started fishing and immediately caught a small Boca right in front of the camp. I wandered off downstream and fished to the next rapid a few hundred metres away. I found a really nice stream tumbling in from the side that formed a perfect shower/waterfall as it fell from a flat rock above me. It was too late to bathe today so I reserved my place for tomorrow. On a small sandy beach I saw some animal tracks and paused to examine them. They weren’t feline but looked more like a sloth bear as they had short fingers and a longer palm print.
I fished without success until I reached the pool at the side of the rapid. After a few casts with a spate spoon I was soon hooked into a hard fighting fish that ran me all over the pool before I could drag it onto a pebble beach. It was a fine 5lb Boca which I killed for supper. I continued casting and then hooked another fish which fought well. It was a golden mahseer of about 6lbs. I was going to return it and then thought about Sanjay returning his large fish earlier in the day. Sanjay and his friends considered golden mahseer taste better than Boca and I felt a bit guilty that we’d not kept a golden mahseer for them to eat yet. I decided to kill this fish as a return gesture for them letting the larger mahseer go.
Up until this trip, I’d not killed as many fish to eat before and it felt a little odd doing it. I didn’t feel so much about the Boca strangely as I didn’t feel such a connection with them. I have the same dilemma when killing brown trout versus rainbow trout. For some reason, I have fewer qualms about killing rainbows as I do about browns. It made me ponder how subjective we all are about what’s important in terms of preservation. One man’s sacred stock is another man’s food. The size of the fish plays the greatest part for me in terms of releasing it or killing it. I view a larger fish a rare and special and therefore I want to release it so it can grow even bigger. The smaller fish are often in greater abundance so I surmise (rightly or wrongly) that killing one of these has a lesser impact on the stocks.
The light was starting to fade and I had no more success so I collected the two fish and made my way back to camp. Carrying 11lbs of wobbling fish in one hand, a fishing rod in the other and then trying to scramble over boulders proved to be an interesting challenge. Suddenly a crashing of trees in the jungle above startled me and I froze. Those bear tracks I’d found in the sand earlier came flooding back into my mind as I stared intensely into the jungle. I still had a few hundred metres to reach the camp and some difficult rocks to negotiate. The light was fading and I had my hands full with fish and rod. I waited and continued to scan the trees for a bit but there was no further noise or movement in the jungle apart from the odd bird call or buzzing insect. I figured whatever it was had possibly been coming down for its usual drink at the river but had been disturbed by this foreign oik (me) and had skulked off to choose another time to quench its thirst.
I got back to camp and presented the mahseer to Sanjay, Vikas and Dhiraj hoping it would make up for the fish I’d persuaded them let go earlier. They were magnanimous and we thanked each other. Tazir took both the fish and said he’d cook the mahseer using a traditional method tonight. This method involved using bamboo and a broad green leaf (similar to a banana leaf) to effectively steam the fish over a log fire.
Whilst we all drank tea or alcohol and chatted around the fire, I watched Tazir prepare the fish and bamboo tubes for cooking. Tazir descaled and cleaned the mahseer and then cut the white flesh into rough cubes which he mixed with bamboo shoots, ginger, garlic and some chilies. He cut foot long sections of green bamboo stems that were naturally sealed at one end and open at the other. He inserted a rolled up leaf into each bamboo tube so that it lined the inside of the tube with a few inches protruding from the top. The leaf would prevent the fish from sticking to the bamboo as it cooked. He then dropped the marinated fish pieces into each tube and tamped it gently to pack the fish tightly together. When each tube was full he folded the exposed part of the leaf over to seal the fish in the tube. The tubes were placed directly onto a log fire to steam the fish for around 20 minutes. The fish was cooked when the bamboo tubes turned black and started to break up. They were removed from the fire and cut open and then the fish was removed from the leaves and served immediately. It smelled and tasted utterly divine and was one of the best meals I’d eaten so far on the trip. Nino also made the usual accompaniments which were washed down with a little bit of now-rationed whisky.
Locals only carry their machete and perhaps a little rice with them when they go hunting. All of their cooking utensils, containers and cutlery were made with bamboo or other natural things around them. Throughout the trip I’d noticed how bamboo played such an important part of the raft crew’s life around the camp. It was cut into very thin strips and used as rope to bind. It was sliced lengthways and used to made drainpipe material for channeling water. They made makeshift furniture from it and many other things. The other crucial item was the machete. This was used in a variety of ways to cut, slice, scrape, dig and gouge.
After such a fine supper more wood was gathered to replenish the fire and we sat around it for a while talking before retiring to our tents and to sleep.