I woke at dawn to a cold morning with grey mist hugging the jungle. There was very little firewood left but we gathered what we could from among the rocks and got a small fire going to warm up.
After a cup of tea I fished my way upstream to a rapid without success and then walked above that across a huge landslide to fish the river above. I thought I had a take a one point but missed it anyway so turned round and clambered back to camp.
Phil had caught a tiny Boca that morning (his second fish of the trip) which he’d killed and was now offering us all master-classes on fishing techniques. We indulged him at first but soon got bored of his wittering and went about packing up our tents and drying clothes.
Some provisions were starting to get very low or run out which was making breakfast a little eccentric. There was almost no sugar left so honey was being used instead for tea/coffee and I think I noticed someone stirring jam into their coffee at one point. With honey now rationed for tea/coffee, pineapple jam was being added to pancakes as an ‘interesting’ alternative.
After breakfast we bathed in the warm waterfall of the side-stream and did some washing of clothes before loading the rafts and pushing off to head downstream. We covered a great deal of water and splashed/crashed through numerous rapids. We passed a few potential camp sites and much fishable water but Billy wanted us to get to the next big confluence as we only had a few days left before exiting the river.
Above one rapid where we stopped to survey, we found very clear and fresh tiger pug marks in the sand. I got some photos and was able to trace the route that the tiger had taken across the sand and along a rocky ledge to a stream where it probably paused to drink.
We arrived at the confluence of the Subansiri and Sipla in the early afternoon and tied the rafts off 200m above the confluence. There was a good sandy beach to camp on and masses of driftwood for the campfire. The sand was covered with tiger pug marks so we were minded to fish in pairs and not to venture far after dark. Tents were erected and the raft crew set about preparing lunch for us. We were all eager to fish so rods were quickly set up and anglers started casting.
Vikas and Dhiraj headed downstream towards the confluence and I followed them shortly after. When I caught up with them, they were standing on rock overlooking the river studying the water below. I offered them the confluence to fish but they wanted to fish above it so I walked on to cross the Sipla and fish below. Unbeknownst to me Vikas and Dhiraj had spotted a large mahseer near the surface and had opted to pursue this instead of the confluence which I thought looked superb.
The Sipla was beautifully warm but very powerful and I found it impossible to cross safely so walked 100m upstream to find a suitable wading point. Once across the stream I saw human footprints in the sand and hoped that no dynamiting had been going on. I walked across the boulder-strewn beach and cast a silver spate spoon into a small eddy pool right where the Sipla and Subansiri meet and fall over some submerged boulders. I had a take almost immediately and played a mahseer of about 10lbs downstream. “Good start”, I thought as I tied the fish onto a stringer and returned to the same eddy pool to fish. I cast again and hooked another mahseer which I played out and tied off. Then I caught another two mahseer of around 5lbs in quick succession. I was running out of stringers so decided to kill two of the smaller mahseer for supper and release one.
Upstream, I could see that Vikas was bent into a fish that was fighting very well. The fish was the one he and Dhiraj has seen at the surface earlier. Vikas had cast out when he saw the fish moving and it obligingly turned and engulfed his floating plug before he’d even started retrieving it. He was sitting back on the sand and leaning hard against the fish pumping the rod to tire it. It took 30 minutes to land and he was as pleased as punch. I also noticed Tazir was now fishing above the confluence with his small spinning rod and had landed a couple of mahseer of around 3lbs which he killed.
I continued fishing in the little eddy pool by myself and was thinking how much success we were having around the confluence. One or two mahseer per person per day was the norm but we seemed to be bucking the trend this afternoon. Then my line went tight and I struck into another fish which swirled powerfully at the surface and swept off downstream. I leaned hard against it but it was unstoppable and kept taking line as my clutch whined. I started to hop across the rocks in a bid to keep up with the fish which was now in the rapid and getting away from me fast. Fortunately it stopped after a short while and sulked behind a rock which gave me time to recover some line and get closer to it. I managed to get downstream from the fish and continued bending hard against it. After several more powerful lunges the fish started to tire and I caught my first glimpse of it. It was big, very big. My heart was pounding and I trembled nervously as I didn’t want to lose it through a stupid error. There was no-one around to assist and my shouts wouldn’t be heard above the noise of the confluence. I was 75m downstream from where I’d hooked the fish by now and just figured I’d continue applying pressure and slowly force it into the side. There was no beach to drag it onto so I was going to have to get into the river and grab it at an opportune moment. The fish was tiring but would swirl away from me whenever I tried to get near to it in the shallow water. After half a dozen attempts, I finally grabbed its top lip and held on as it thrashed one last time. I attached a stringer, tied it off and sat back on a rock to catch my breath.
No-one had noticed any of my commotion and people were all busy fishing above the confluence. Vikas’ fish had drawn their attention and they were helping him get pictures and take the fish back up to the rafts where it would remain until I was able to weigh it.
I let my fish recover for a bit whilst I sorted myself out and then weighed it. After much straining and jiggling, the scales settled at 42lbs. I couldn’t believe it, another stunning fish for me this year. The mahseer had beautiful markings, dark shoulders and flanks with reddish fins instead of the more common orange/yellow. I steered the fish back up to the head of the rapid and tied it off. I wanted to get pictures when somebody, anybody, finally made it across the Sipla to join me.
I cast again into the same spot at the head of the rapid and hooked yet another good fish that tore away downstream with me in hot pursuit. This was extraordinary. Chris was above the confluence now and had noticed me playing this fish. I had to land it on my own again and get into the water. From Chris’ vantage point he couldn’t quite see me as I fought with the fish and thought I fallen into the river or something. I finally emerged with a stringer attached to an 18lb mahseer that had similar dark markings to the 42lber I’d caught earlier.
Using sign language above the roar of the confluence, I indicated to Chris that the Sipla wading point was 100m upstream from him and he wandered off with Phil and Rup to find the crossing. Tazir and Arun were far more sure footed than me and managed to struggle across the Sipla right at the confluence. I showed them the two fish that I’d killed for supper and then the big one. Tazir asked if he could take the big one because he wanted to smoke it and take it home to his family. He claimed that the bigger mahseer taste better. I declined but said I’d keep another fish of around 10lbs if I caught one (thinking that surely there can’t be any more fish now). Tazir and Arun went 150m below me to fish a large eddy pool and rocks at the end of the rapid.
I continued fishing and landed two more 5lb golden mahseer from just below the small eddy pool. Then I landed a 12lb mahseer on a black and gold spoon which I tied off for Tazir and then caught another 5lber. This day was becoming surreal. A small patch of river was producing mahseer in numbers that were never taken in such quick succession.
Chris and Phil had given up trying to cross the Sipla but Rup had managed to do it and joined me. When I told him about my successes at the head of the rapid his eyes went wide and he got some pictures of the 42lber before I released it. I told Rup to start casting at the top of the rapid in the small eddy pool and, sure enough, he was soon bent into a hard fighting mahseer that raced off downstream. After a good fight I landed the fish for him. It looked remarkably like the 18lber I’d caught and released earlier. Sure enough, the weigh-scale settled at 18lbs. It couldn’t be, not the same fish caught twice in the space of 20 minutes surely? Nothing seemed impossible today.
I got pictures of Rup’s fish and then left him fishing the eddy pool whilst I fished downstream. I heard a cry and saw him bent into another fish by the confluence. I shouted for him to run after it as Rup tended to freeze rather than pursue running fish. My attitude is to keep the shortest amount of line between you and the fish where possible to avoid rocks and the inevitable bust-off. Rup came bounding over the rocks towards me with his rod was bent into the powerful fish. He was puffing and out of breath when he reached me and the fish had stopped in the river now so a stand-off ensued. Rup asked me if he should tighten the clutch or adjust anything as the wind sang through his taught fishing line. I nervously said I wasn’t going to touch anything on his reel because if the line broke, he would scream at me. The fish felt very heavy and Rup was unable to shift it for a few minutes so I got some action photos of Rup with his rod hooped over. His beloved felt cowboy hat that he’d bought in Ziro had been sat on so many times and got so wet on the rafts that it now looked like a used coffee filter paper, brown and shapeless. As I was taking pictures, Rup said the fish was moving and then his rod sprang back lifeless…
We looked at each other speechless; Rup was destroyed and sat on a rock to examine the frayed end of his line where the jelly lure used to be. He said the fish felt very big and powerful and there was nothing he could do to move it. I opined that Rup’s line probably got caught between two rocks when the fish was sulking on the riverbed and had broken when the fish decided to move off. There’s nothing you can say to an angler when they been in contact with what seems to be the mother of all fish.
“Never mind eh, at least I’ve caught a 42!” I said with a mischievous glint in my eye.
We continued fishing. Tazir and Arun had taken four or five fish downstream from us to 12lbs and I caught another small mahseer halfway down the rapid. Rup continued casting a jelly lure into the head of the rapid and hooked yet another fish which tore off downstream. Rup huffed and puffed over the rocks in pursuit and together we played and landed another big mahseer with dark markings. This weighed 30lbs and Rup was ecstatic as it was a new personal best for him in the Himalayas.
The afternoon was becoming evening as we continued to fish this extraordinary spot. Tazir and Arun came by us heading back to the camp with their booty of fish. I gave Tazir the fish that I’d killed and also the 12lber which pleased him immensely. He and Arun were carrying around 60lbs of fish back to the camp to be smoked and packed for their families back home. Even with the weight of these fish, they both still managed to ford the confluence barefoot where I had been too afraid to.
Surely there can’t be any more fish in the confluence I thought as I watched Rup cast. Bang! Another fight and more rock hopping pursuit as it surged off downstream. “This is ridiculous”, I exclaimed as the scales read 15lbs and Rup released another beautiful mahseer into the river. The light was fading now and Rup cast a broken jelly lure into the small eddy pool. Another take, but the line snapped. “Enough!” I said laughing. We had to end this surreal day. We still had to cross the Sipla and return to camp so Rup reeled in and we walked away from the river.
Rup and I returned to camp in darkness and heard much merriment. Vikas was celebrating his own large fish and the last few bottles of vodka were disappearing rapidly. He was looking forward to presenting the fish to his father. Apparently Vikas’ father claimed he never brought him anything so Vikas figured this fish would shut him up. I was stunned at his decision and quietly voiced my disappointment to some. I went with Vikas to weigh the fish and suggested he release it but he was resolute. It had not been tied off very well or handled very well and weighed 35lbs. I left it lying quietly in the water alongside the raft until morning but some of us seriously considered creeping down there in the night and letting it slip away. Vikas’ decision deeply affected my view about the ‘take-all’ mentality that prevails in the Indian sport fishing fraternity. One day, this will no longer be possible because the wild fish will be gone. It’s a hard lesson that the British have learned on our overfished island which has resulted in us having to stock many of our game fisheries to limit the impact on wild strains.
The day had been an extraordinary day:
21 golden mahseer had been caught in the space of a few hours by a handful of anglers. They weighed 42, 35, 30, 18, 18 15, 12, 12, 12, 10, 8, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 2 and 1lbs and that excluded two bust-offs. These figures conjured up days of yore when English gentlemen in pith hats stood alongside poles lined with mahseer they’d taken that day. Most of the smaller mahseer were now smoking slowly above glowing embers to ‘seal’ them and make them last for up to a year as food for Tazir and Arun’s families. Some of the fish was also being steamed in bamboo for us. I think the chef must have been at the alcohol earlier because a couple of the bamboo tubes exploded splattering fish all over the place.
Nino and the team prepared a great final supper for us. Fish was clearly on the menu and the remaining supplies were being used to produce a range of interesting dishes (bean curry, paneer curry, fresh salad, potatoes, rice, dal and chapattis). There was too much of everything but it had to be used up and we filled our bellies.
Spirits were both high and disappearing inside contented anglers. We sat around the roaring fire and goaded the tigers to ‘come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough’. Overall the trip had been a great adventure and lots of fun despite the drenchings, near drownings, bumps and scrapes. It was noted that only certain people had enjoyed catching fish on the trip. Chris, Billy and Bob (even though Bob had kind of mistakenly foul hooked a small boca of a few inches one day) were duly noted as ‘Blankers’ and as such, were offered first cast into the ‘hot spot’ tomorrow morning before we rafted.
Tomorrow we would leave the river and head back to relative luxury in the real world.