In this piece I will be discussing my obsession with this fish, from my childhood memories to a journey along the length of the Himalayan range.
I clearly remember the day I caught my first mahseer. It was on the last day of May and I had just concluded a ceremony marking the end of elementary school. Right afterwards, on that hot and sunny day, I joined my father at his favourite fishing spot, a small island in the middle of Rawal Dam. Back in the 1990s, Rawal Dam was full of mahseer: it was the main fish targeted by anglers and the technique my father used to prefer was baitfishing for them with atta dough and chilwas (a type of small fish used as live bait). My father used to employ heavy spinning tackle and would cast a great distance.
That day, instead of doing my usual thing and bobber-fishing for small tengra catfish and tilapia, I decided that I, too, would do some grown up fishing! Thus I tied on a ledger weight to the line and attached a live chilwa and casted it as far as I could – which wasn’t very far. Within minutes, I got a strong pull and I could feel the rod being jerked out of my grip! I tried to pull the fish in but it kept running and suddenly stopped. There was tension on the line but no movement. My father realized what was going on and took the rod from me and waded into the lake. The fish had entangled the line on some rocks but he expertly got it loose and brought it close to shore before handing the rod back to me so I could bring it in. It was a small mahseer of under a kilo in weight but even that was too strong for a ten-year-old! After safely releasing the fish to fight another day, my father told me, “Remember this day, the Thirty First of May, when you caught your first mahseer.”
Within a few years, the mahseer was gone from Rawal Dam. Incessant commercial netting combined with water pollution in the catchment area due to a housing influx in Bhara Kahu and Bani Gala spelled the end of this legendary fish from Islamabad. The mahseer still hangs on Simli Dam just Northeast of the city. Both the lake itself and the Soan river below it still provides some decent fishing. Lures – spoons and spinners being most successful – can be used to catch small to medium sized mahseer. The months of April and May are best with the fish becoming less active as the waters drop and the heat rises before the monsoon, following which the high muddy waters make lure fishing difficult.
It was a small mahseer of under a kilo in weight but even that was too strong for a ten-year-old! After safely releasing the fish to fight another day, my father told me, “Remember this day, the Thirty First of May, when you caught your first mahseer”
The other place where one can go to catch mahseer is Tarbela Dam on the Indus. Pakistan’s biggest reservoir is home to some massive mahseer and despite the non-stop commercial netting, dynamiting and even poisoning and electro-fishing, the enchanting waters of the Shimmering Sindhu are still home to this favoured fish. The season for Tarbela begins in July when the Indus starts to flood as the Karakoram and Himalayan glaciers melt, which makes the water level in the reservoir rise. The fishing in Tarbela is mostly baitfishing with chilwas as for some reason the mahseer in Tarbela don’t often take lures. I have personally never had much luck in Tarbela. The Poonch river in Azad Kashmir is the third mahseer angling hotspot and has recently been gazetted as a National Park dedicated to the protection of the Himalayan Mahseer, but thankfully sport fishing with rod and line is allowed.
Mahseer fishing is a technical, scientific pursuit. If you are to expect success you have to take the weather and water conditions (temperature, clarity) into consideration and you have to use the right bait/lures. The mahseer is not an easy fish to catch as it can be very finicky and will often ignore whatever you throw at it. I personally prefer lure fishing for mahseer, with spoons being my favourite type of hardware, although I do use live bait when the conditions aren’t favourable for spinning/lure fishing. Mahseer fishing isn’t for everyone. You will meet failure far more often than success and while hooking a mahseer is one thing landing it is entirely another! The powerful run of a mahseer will strip the line off your reel and test your nerves. If you tighten the drag and try to force a big fish in it will either break your line or straighten the hooks. That is why your tackle must also be of top notch quality.
I do not kill mahseer:
I revive and return every mahseer I catch so that it may live and breed. As an angler that is how I play my part to protect this most valuable species
As the tensions between our countries make travelling freely in India difficult for Pakistanis I have not been able to fish the best mahseer rivers which are all located in that country but I have fished in Nepal several times. Nepali mahseer expeditions are often rafting based, shooting the Himalayan rapids and camping on the riverside for extended amounts of time. The best mahseer river located within Nepal is the Seti in the far west of the country. The Babai Valley within the Bardia National Park also provides some good fishing for small to medium mahseer in a wilderness location where you will be surrounded by elephants, tigers and rhinos. The fish in the Babai are not huge but fishing in the pristine Terai jungles is quite an experience, something straight out of the pages of Jim Corbett. In 2017 I was lucky enough to journey to Bhutan to fish for mahseer in what is now the most pristine mahseer habitat left in the world. The strict regulations combined with the pacifistic nature of the people has ensured that the mahseer thrives in Bhutan. I caught my personal best mahseer, a respectable fish just under the 10 kg mark, on the Phunatsang-Chhu river in Southern Bhutan. The Bhutanese mahseer were the strongest mahseer I have ever tackled, with far more stamina than their cousins to the West.
Mahseer fishing was not always this difficult. As I mentioned earlier, it was once the most common fish in the Himalayan foothills. Habitat destruction combined with over harvesting has brought this noble fish to the brink. Sand mining, dams inhibiting their migration routes and water pollution have taken a drastic toll. I am not much of an activist but one thing I have always done has been to practice catch and release for mahseer. I do not kill mahseer: I revive and return every mahseer I catch so that it may live and breed. As an angler that is how I play my part to protect this most valuable species. A good move would be to ban all commercial fishing for mahseer and to ban all commercial netting in the Tarbela and Mangla reservoirs. As many smaller streams fall into these lakes it would have a positive effect on the mahseer population over a vast region. Furthermore, I have often argued that trophy hunting for markhor should be banned as it is our national animal, using the same logic commercial fishing for mahseer should be prohibited given that it is the national fish and even mahseer caught on rod and line must be released, killing mahseer should be a felony.
From that childhood day in May to the banks of a Bhutanese River, I have been lucky enough to experience some wonderful mahseer fishing. I have not been mahseer fishing for the past few years but I plan on doing some this year. Mahseer fishing can be a melancholy endeavor, It is the act of partaking in a ritual in its dying days. All is not lost, the mahseer can still be saved but it will take a great effort. For the time being, anglers can take solace in the fact that the king of the Asiatic rivers is still around and if you have time, passion and drive, you can still experience the thrill of fighting the mighty mahseer!
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk