Sundar Raj saw the gang of poachers first, flashes of white garments among the trees upstream on the far side of the river. He had the glasses on them before the first dynamite explosion rocked the valley, and his shirt and sandals were off before the second dull "crump!" came echoing back. "I must be after them, sah!" he said. I tried to hold him back. There were at least six of them over there, and they would have cudgels and knives.
But Sundar was wild with rage. The previous night he had spoken with sweet reason of how the local poachers should be handled. "These people are purely uneducated, sah," he had said. "We must talk to them politely. We must say 'This is government river, so please don't poach.' If we say, 'Get out from here!' they will say 'This is our country. Why now come people using bad words to us?' So politeness most important!"
Now he was furious. He broke free of me, jumped into the bottle-green water of the Cauvery River and struck out for the far bank. There was no way that he could call for assistance. The Indian government allowed him no radio equipment even though he was the river's chief warden.
And that was a shame, for the fish he was trying to protect from poachers' dynamite was Tor mussullah. It is the biggest of the six mahseer species found in India and it reaches more than 150 pounds—a fish "beside whom," Rudyard Kipling wrote, "the tarpon is as a herring."
December 9, 1985
I had no means of telling if Kipling was right or wrong. For a week in India's deep south, in Sundar's company, I had been after a big one without success. This is not unusual in mahseer fishing, and the experience had not eroded my obsession with the fish. It is, as you shall see, a creature that has obsessed fishermen in India for a long time. In the century before this one, in the upper echelons of the Raj, catching one's mahseer was a rite of passage like killing one's tiger. Hardy Brothers, the prestigious British tacklemakers, advertised uncrushable hooks for the great beasts, and shipped out steel-cored, split-cane rods by the dozen to maharajas who might need them should a viceroy come calling. The social apogee of the mahseer was reached in January 1922, when the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, fished as the guest of the Maharaja of Mysore, now the state of Karnataka, on the Kabini, a large tributary of the Cauvery. Unfortunately, HRH had to be content with an 18-pounder while, somewhat undiplomatically, his companion, Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey, landed one of 68 pounds.
A fine fish, but not exceptional. As early as 1906, Mr. C.E. Murray-Aynsley had taken the first mahseer weighing more than 100 pounds, and in 1919 came a 119-pounder, which would stand as an all-India record until 1946. This fish was taken by Lieut.-Col. J.S. Rivett-Carnac, who wrote in a contemporary magazine of a difficult fight which ended when his host, a Mr. P.F. Bowring "gaffed him beautifully in the throat." The colonel, as an accompanying illustration reveals, wore a Custer-style mustache, while Mr. Bowring was rather plump.
That is the kind of story on which obsessions feed. I had come across it in a dusty file I was examining early in 1984, when, through the network of contacts one builds in a lifetime of fishing, I had begun to hear whispers of a river in India where this great crimson-finned, golden-scaled maharaja of a fish still thrived in numbers. My chief contact at that time was an Englishman named Bob Howitt, who, until he was hit by mahseer fever, had been a diamond buyer for De Beers. He had first picked up the bug in 1972 in an antique bookshop in Salisbury, England, where, browsing, he had come upon Henry Sullivan Thomas's 1877 classic, The Rod in India. He promptly fell under the spell of this long-ago-and-far-away fishing. He headed to India and there found a most depressing state of affairs. "Rightly or wrongly, the rivers had been looked after as preserves for sport fishing by the British and the maharajas," he told me. "Nobody ever used dynamite then. It would have been worse than jail if the Maharaja's men caught you. But, unhappily, after Indian independence nobody had a plan for fisheries conservation or development in the rivers. You can't explain to a villager about conservation. Hunger is hunger." The Indians routinely bombed or netted the fish they needed, greatly depleting the population. Then, in 1953, the Indian government began a much-needed damming program, but again there was no thought of fish conservation or protection.
Despite such negative prospects, Howitt persisted in his quest, and everything began to come together at last when he met a young angler in Sivasamudram, a town near the Cauvery's prime fishing stretch. This fellow was the hero of the local fishermen, a native superman who habitually fished with 300 yards of 60-pound test line wound around a cotton bobbin, who clambered down sheer rock faces into the most difficult gorges, and who, more than once, had been pulled into the river by a great mahseer and had swum with it until it was exhausted. This paragon was, of course, my own courageous companion and guide, Sundar Raj. From him Howitt learned of a barely accessible stretch of the Cauvery River where there were still giant fish. "What made it special was that, at the top of the stretch, the Cauvery runs right off the Deccan Plateau, at the Gaganachucki and Barachucki Falls, a straight drop of 400 feet," Howitt told me later. "Then, 25 miles downstream at Meke-datu, there's another set of falls, so that between the two is a perfect fish trap. And, until very recently, the jungle was close to impenetrable here, and a lot of the bank is still tough to reach, with high cliffs and huge, tumbled boulders."
Howitt spent six months learning all that Sundar Raj could teach him, and in that time caught fish of 92 and 88 pounds and 15 more of at least 50 pounds. Then, in 1981, the diamond market crashed, and Howitt soon decided to go back to India. This time he was on a much grander mission than mere personal fishing. "I had decided," he said, "to make the mahseer famous again."
He began by appealing to the Indian government. "I told the officials, 'This river is still rife with big fish. It can be protected. Don't knock your national treasure, the tiger of the fishes, on the head. Protect it as you did the tiger!' " This was the thrust of a campaign which ended triumphantly in 1982 when the state of Karnataka granted the travel company Howitt represents a 10-year lease on 16 magical mystery miles along the Cauvery and let Howitt cut in jeep trails and construct two fishing camps.
Early this year I headed there myself. The journey started in earnest at Bangalore when I climbed into an old made-in-India British Morris Oxford, a classic family car of the 1950s, called an Ambassador on the subcontinent. Progress was ambassadorial, slow and stately for 120 miles until we hit the exuberant explosion of temples and palaces in pink, blue and gold that is Mysore City, the ancient capital. It is now one long jam of motorized rickshaws and carts drawn by the amrat mahal, cattle with sweeping, lovingly gilded horns. The Ambassador bulled through, horn blaring. The landscape changed, becoming hillier with fewer villages. The road became a red dirt track and narrowed, climbing for 10 miles and then diving into a series of corniche bends until the Cauvery gleamed silver below us. On its banks were the tents of Bimishvirri, one of two fishing camps. Sundar Raj himself was waiting to welcome me with his crew of river guards-guides, immaculately khaki clad, standing at attention alongside the camp jeep.
Believe it or not, the Cauvery is a river to make a Scottish salmon fisherman homesick. You would imagine that a river in the south of India would be like Kipling's African "great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees." But the Cauvery was a wild, clear torrent, now crashing through the jungle, now crammed into gorges, now opening into broad pools. It looked fine for the gear I unpacked, big bait-casting reels loaded with 20-pound monofilament, heavy metal spoons and saltwater plugs. And I'd also brought, a touch hopefully, a No. 11 fly outfit, bought originally for tarpon in the Florida Keys.
Sundar looked over my plugs and lures skeptically. He said, "Sah, no sah. Here we are using only ragi. Come, sah, and I will show you." He vanished into the dark recesses of the cooking tent and emerged with what looked like two large, rusty cannonballs left over from the Indian mutiny. "Ragi paste, sah," Sundar said cajolingly. "Very good. Made with millet flour, aniseed, cardamom and rice powder." I was aghast. Had I come all this way to dunk dough-balls? In all the eulogies to the fish I had read, nobody had ever mentioned doughballs. I said as much to Sundar.
"Oh, sah, up in north, in Nepal, plug and spoon very good killers," he replied. "But small fish there. Here big fish want the natural bait. Best is ragi." He went on anxiously, "Don't worry, sah. This way I get you one fish, at least 25-to 30-pounder. Then after, we try plugs and spoons."
It was the only game in town. In this river, whose rapids looked perfect for plug or spoon, it was ragi or nothing. Sundar's watchful corps of guides wanted it that way and were reluctant to let me stray too far from the deep pools. And not entirely without reason. The very first evening, we set out to fish a pool called Hati Mudu, or Elephant Pool. There was a beach of white sand which looked to be a comfortable place to sit and dunk ragi. I said so to Sundar. "Oh, no, sah, this is home of marsh mugger," he said. A marsh mugger, it turned out, was a 14-foot, flesh-eating crocodile. I got Sundar's point.
We would fish from the "island" instead, he said, pointing out to a big flat rock in the middle of the river. I looked around for a boat but saw none until Sundar turned over what I had taken to be a smooth brown rock.
I saw that it was—of all things—a coracle. There are only two places in the world where you find coracles, and the other is close to my birthplace in Wales, where they have been used for netting Atlantic salmon since the time of the pre-Roman Britons. Riding one is like sitting in a giant sugar bowl. But it's the perfect craft in a fast, turbulent river; you float on the water, not in it, and you bounce off or slide over rocks with ease.
But the old Welsh salmon fishers I knew, whose coracles are constructed of tarred canvas over wood frames, would have tut-tutted over Sundar's craft. Made of bamboo and buffalo hide, the crude needlework left gaping holes. Sundar was surprised at my concern. "We will get across easy, sah," he said. "The water comes in not very fast." He was close to being right. We crouched in the bottom of the coracle while the Cauvery flowed into it. Maniacally Sundar paddled, maniacally I bailed with a pink plastic bowl. As we reached the rock, the water was only up to our knees.
All this took a long time, and it was 5 p.m., before our balls of ragi, the size of kiwifruit, hit the water. The time didn't matter, Sundar said. "These fish have migrating habits, sah. They go up and down the river, and here they start feeding at 5:30. You having nibblings yet, sah?"
Yes, I told him, I was having nibblings, but I didn't think they came from a 50-pound mahseer. Sundar told me that first, small fish made nibblings, then nibblings stopped, then along came monster fish and your rod went chock chock bang!
An hour went by. At intervals the bait was changed. Once, after a stronger-than-usual nibbling, I hauled in an X-rated creature, a foot and a half long with enormous, gristly lips and bright red eyes. "A pink carp, sah! Very, very big one, sah!" said Sundar dutifully, but he had the grace to grin. In the Cauvery, I would soon learn, there were all manner of carp, red, black and gray carp as well as pink, all of them with a distressing appetite for ragi. But as dusk fell, all small-fish activity ceased for a minute. Then came chock chock bang! I hauled back the rod. For a moment there was the feeling of having hooked a brick wall that pulsated. Then, nothing.
"Oh, sah," Sundar said reproachfully, "you are too soon." I reeled up. There on one barb of the big treble hook hung a giant, translucent scale, a good two inches across. "Forty-pound, 50-pound fish, sah," said Sundar. "But now we must go home before dark." He looked over his shoulder with some care for a moment; then we were in the coracle again, taking a wet ride home.
In camp it was time for warm Indian vodka and an inspirational tale from Sundar: "You know, actually, sah, my age is seven when I start fishing, and in my short life, for I am 29 years old, I hate to catch any other fish but mahseer, the big monster fish. In my hometown, Sivasamudram, people will fish for anything, carp, eels, anything. But I hate that. I like crash! So one day, I am trying from morning until night with no bite. At a quarter to five, ker-lang ker-lang!, the thunder starts, then big rain. I find a beautiful cave and I sit in it until the rain stops in half an hour. Now there is mud smell and sticks floating and suddenly I see a huge fish rolling in the rapids. Very small head but a huge monster body, a female. I change my hook to a very big one and I put on some bait. It goes to the bottom and sticks, as if a huge snag had it. But it is the monster! My line goes jag, slack, jag, slack, then zee-zee-zee. Then chirk chirk! The line is burning in my fingers, thick line, and the fish is a hundred yards up the river. Chirk chirk! I am not worried. I have 300 yards of thick line. The fish changes her mood, comes downstream into a full, deep channel. I am standing on a rock, but now, chah, chah, chah! the line is going 150 yards, 170 yards, 200 yards. I am jumping from rock to rock, but soon my 300 yards is finished. Now I have covered more than half a mile. I cannot control! I am losing skin! One mile more, I am chasing the fish and jumping rocks. Suddenly there comes a big pool! I try to cross by the rocks, but I am dragged into the water. Now I am 97.5 percent tired, and I am worried I will lose my life. I decide to stop chasing fish. My line goes stretch, stretch, stretch. Then, pa chuff! It is broken.
"I sit for a long time, just thinking. I think she is easy a 170-pound, 180-pound fish, because I could feel. Some people come to pull me out of the river. They had watched. 'Excuse me, please, sah!' one says. He is much my elder. 'I am fishing for 30 years, I am experienced person. I tell you that this is not a fish. This is a ghost.' I tell him it is a monster mahseer. 'No, a ghost,' he say. 'It try to pull you under a rock.'
"Then my mother comes. She tells me I must not go more than two miles from home in future. She tells me I must be home by 5:30 p.m. I tell her, 'I am a big fisherman. And this is my first big fish.' But I am at that time only 11 years old so I obey what she says to do." Every evening thereafter, to accompany Indian vodka at tent temperature, Sundar told stories of great fish hooked on ragi.
My own first mahseer was considerably more modest, a 14-pounder that still made me work for 10 minutes on an outfit that would be adjudged heavy for big Atlantic salmon. But it was a first. I looked at it for a long time as it hung in the water at my feet before I released it. Its sides were a magnificent brassy gold, cross-hatched with proportionately enormous scales, and the fins were a vivid scarlet. The lips, though, were extraordinary, protrusible like a sturgeon's, and leather-hard, but toothless. Instead, like some fish of the drum family, the mahseer is equipped with formidable pharyngeal (throat) teeth, grinders that could crush an incautious hand. The power of that smallish fish made me more eager than ever to go after them in a more sporting, less static way. I wanted to range about on the river, to begin casting flies or spoons instead of merely dunking doughballs. Why not?
It was siesta time, the afternoon of my second day, when I learned why that sort of thing was discouraged. It had been a less than peaceful siesta anyway. First there had sounded the jackhammer persistence of the song of what early representatives of the Raj called the brain-fever bird. "You're ill, you're ill, you're ill," it whistled. Then troops of langurs arrived to raid the tamarind trees and had become engaged in a noisy running battle with the camp dogs. Then a new note—human voices raised in grievance—had been added. A half-dozen khaki-clad guides whom I hadn't seen before had arrived in camp. I asked Sundar what the trouble was.
"These people, sah, are worried about elephants," he said. They were an anti-poaching squad encamped 10 miles up-river. With little rain in three months, the elephants migrate to Cauvery River. "Sah, the elephant is a danger creature. Sometimes he use front legs to stomp you, sometimes kick. These guards have big tusker problem, sah. One big male up there gone musth crazy [a rutting-season frenzy]. Last night, when they sleeping, tusker came right behind their tents, trumpeting. They throw three, four, thunder flashes [firecrackers] at them. Elephants ran into the valley, but one hour later they are back among the tents. So these people, sah, they have run here to ask for protection."
By coincidence or not, that evening, as we walked up the jungle path to fish, Sundar grabbed at my shirt, pulled me down and pointed. "Little bit dangerous, sah, they have babies," he hissed. Ahead of us, maybe 50 yards away, 12 wild elephants, very dark, were moving down to the river. There were two calves and at least two big tuskers. Sundar did the time-honored wind check with a pinch of dust. "O.K. for the moment," he said, "but if they come, what you must do is throw your hat away, run zig-zag, then jump in the water." On that cue, the lead male turned and looked straight at us. His trunk went up. "Little bit dangerous," Sundar repeated unnecessarily. The tusker shook his head, then moved ponderously into the water. The rest followed. There would be no fishing there that evening, and now I understood the insistence on static fishing with ragi. This was no place to go roving, after all. "In olden days, this was a tiger area," Sundar said one day. "Very thick forest. There were no villages, only forest, and an adult male tiger must have 25 square miles...."
In the valley of the Cauvery, it was possible to see, almost before one's eyes, the shrinking of this jungle. Along the banks, bands of itinerant illegal woodcutters were common, sometimes 40 or 50 strong. One saw their campfires at night on hillsides that were almost bare. The wild elephant herds were smaller, too. "Local people made too much poaching for ivory, but they only got a little bit of money for a pair of tusks from the city dealer," Sundar said. "But when dealers sold them, it was for much more."
There were still enough spectacular sights in the Cauvery valley, though, to enliven my continuing siege of the mahseer. Once, in a single frame, so to speak, rounding a river bend in the coracle, I came upon a peacock, a sambur stag that must have weighed more than 400 pounds and the black bulk of a wild boar. Before my time was over, there would also be sloth bears, jackals and three leopard sightings.
None of this was bringing me any closer to my big fish, although Sundar remained unflaggingly optimistic and there were small mahseer aplenty. Every time I suggested that it might be a good idea if I walked up the river a way and tossed a plug into the white water, I had the same response: "Too many elephants, sah! Too many very bad, wicked cobras!"
I came close to mutiny when, out of sheer honesty, Sundar revealed one possible reason for our non-success. Six miles upriver, a Swiss TV crew had been fishing earlier in the month. "Swiss people catch two 90-pounders, two 70-pounders, two 64s, a 62, a 56, a 51," Sundar said. "Also lose seven or eight monsters. These fish will not hit again till next season. We handle them tying ropes around them, tagging them. They are really disturbed. And we have been fishing these same pools for two or three weeks now."
Disgusted, I decided to give the fish a break. There was a small pilgrimage I wanted to make anyway. "Tell me," I asked Sundar, "where would I find Mr. J. de Wet Van Ingen?"
"Oh, sah," said Sundar, "anybody in Mysore will tell you."
Yes, indeed. Once, in the heyday of the Raj and big-game hunting, the Van Ingens' Mysore taxidermy business was one of the largest and most famous on earth: 130 men were employed there in 1922 when Eugene Van Ingen, the firm's founder, was deputed to accompany the Prince of Wales when he fished the Kabini River. Eugene was then the acknowledged mahseer king of all India.
Two years before HRH's visit, Eugene's elder son, J. de Wet, who was then 18, had already served notice that he would be following the family tradition. He took a fish from the Cauvery that weighed 107 pounds. In 1946, that same "young" Van Ingen, by then middle-aged and elegant, black-mustached in the military "toothbrush" style, caught a 120-pounder, an all-India rod-and-line record that still stands.
The elegance was still there when I visited J. de Wet in Mysore this spring. It was accented by a perfectly knotted yellow silk ascot, and a notable and humorous spryness, although he is now 83 years old. "Dear me. Not much to show you, I'm afraid," he said as I looked about his great taxidermy emporium. He looked me straight in the eye. "There's no hunting now, but there seem to be a hell of a lot of bears and panthers knocked down by buses or found drowned after, seemingly, taking a bullet in the head...." We walked through long rooms filled with reconstructed skeletons of beasts. Finally, in the last room, was what I had come to see. High on a wall, flanked by the heads of tigers and tuskers, the sun flashing on its great golden scales, was that 120-pound mahseer.
Even now, almost 40 years on, there was the modest reluctance of his generation to talk about an achievement. He had already printed an account of the fight, in the Bombay Natural History Journal. It told how he had driven to the upper Kabini, fearful that it might be in flood, and how that evening there was thunder. To change his luck after a fish-less day, he assembled a light rod equipped with a four-inch Silex reel and tied on a spoon. When the big fish hit, he had to clamber into a coracle to stay with it. The fight was long and brutal, and in the end, he had to beach the huge fish. "It was an old hen fish," he wrote, "and I had a great feeling of remorse in killing such a fine [one]."
Next morning, Van Ingen and I drove 80 miles up-country to the place where the old angler had taken his record fish. There was nothing to be seen but a gleaming plain of water; the Kabini was dammed in the 1950s. J. de Wet stood beside me, trying to puzzle out where the river had flowed. He found a clue. "You see where the big tree sticks out of the water?" he asked. "I remember a 77-pounder being taken just there where the tree is. By a Captain Fremlin." The old eyes stared into the distance. "Oh, they don't give a damn about sport in India today, you know," he said.
Later, back at camp, I found that Howitt had arrived from Nepal and was urging Sundar, now that I had but two days left, to pull out every stop.
Ashore, we worked out a plan for my last day that would take us hiking a couple of miles up to Sambur Pool. Next morning came the drama of the dynamiting and Sundar's wild plunge in pursuit of the gang. As he swam away I sat on the rock, reflecting. Many carp, catfish and small mahseer floated belly up past me. The massacre was quite terrible. This, I could see, was a problem that would not be solved easily or soon. "Sah," Sundar had told me earlier, "these people do what work they can, like carrying stones and firewood-selling. They get only seven or eight rupees a day, like 60 of American cents. For fish you can get 40 rupees a pound. You can buy some dynamite, very easily, for 10 rupees from contractors. We cannot control them."
Sundar was out of sight now across the river. I suddenly realized that I was no longer under guard. I looked down the jungle trail. It seemed elephant-and cobra-free. I took off the ragi doughball and tackle. I clipped on a four-inch Swedish spoon and set off.
A hundred yards down the bank I came upon one of those medium-deep, medium-fast runs that would hold salmon if this were a salmon river. I started to fish it down methodically. About 20 paces on, my lure jammed hard in a rock. Then the rock started to move into midstream, chirk chirk!, slowly at first, then gathering momentum. I was calm. This, I knew, was monster fish. "Sundar! Sundar!" I yelled shrilly. There was no response, of course, and now the big fish was more than 70 yards away from me, on the far side of the river, trying to crash the rocks. I crammed down the drag, the line hummed in the light breeze and the rod doubled over.
I managed to stop him short of the rocks. He surged downstream, keeping up a steady pressure. Then, suddenly, there was no weight. I reeled in. The spoon was still there. The hook had never set properly. I worked my way up the river back to camp. I kept casting. I didn't have another hit.
That evening, my last at camp, I heard Sundar's saga about the poachers. The gang had sat on the hillside laughing at him as he toiled up to them. They had rolled rocks down at him when he drew too close. He retreated, swam the river again and headed back to camp to call up reinforcements from the visiting guards who had fled from the elephants. Together, they had brought some of the poachers into custody. Sundar shouted, and from temporary imprisonment in the cookhouse, under escort, came three of them. They did not look especially villainous. In spite of the hot night their thin bodies shivered. "There is no excuse!" Sundar shouted at them severely. "You should be in jail, three, four years!" He gazed at them fiercely, but his anger had already ebbed, and realism had replaced it. "Next time, six years of jail!" he yelled, but he was already gesturing to the guards to release them. They slipped off into the night.
I told him about my fish, how it had gone chirk chirk! against a heavy drag.
"Oh, sah!" he said. "A monster fish! Only monster go chirk chirk."
"Well, there you are," I said. At least, I consoled myself, I'd felt the power of a big mahseer. Maybe I could try again, lest the best river in India be wrecked, like the others. It didn't seem likely, but if I did, I thought I would travel viceroy class. It seemed to me that the sprightly J. de Wet could still guide the way to a big one.
And I'll bet he wouldn't use ragi dough.