Meeting the Mahseer - I

Dr. Amin ur Rahman tells the story of how Pakistan's national fish, the Golden Himalayan Mahseer, was resurrected from the verge of extinction

Meeting the Mahseer - I
It was morning time and we were getting off the bus on the bridge under the Mangla Dam spillway and walking down to the water’s edge in the crisp air of an April morning before the daytime sun starts warming and then heating the air up. Master sahib (Mr. Siddiqui), a teacher by profession, my father’s friend, was asked to take us young excited, budding fishermen to show us how to cast and use spoons and spinners to learn the intricacies of angling.

The bend in the river, just below the high cliffs of Baral colony, below the old officers’ mess is where the spillways of the Mangla Dam open and clear water cascades down the river over rocks making huge eddies and rapids. Master sahib gives me a rod and a reel with what he says is a spoon on the 15-pound line and starts to explain the minutiae of trying to cast the spoon just as the rapids stop and the water starts to flow smoothly, then starting a slow retrieve, taking the spoon out and recasting again and again.

15-pound Himalayan Golden Mahseer - Pakistan's national fish


The year 1856, in the Raj. A British officer, an avid angler, decides to take an expedition on a river called the Poonch and goes to Poonch City where the Maharaja of Poonch welcomes him. The weather is much more pleasant than in the Punjab plains. They go down to the river for some fishing, and the British officer hooks on to a monster fish which gives him a really tough time landing it. He was hooked. And he asked the Maharaja what this monster was. He is told that it is the Mahseer, “tiger of the waters”. The Poonch River in modern-day times empties into the Mangla Dam.

Fast forward to my first encounter. The year was 1968 and I was but a 12-year-old lad when Master Sahib handed me his rod and I started casting. Sometime that morning there was a massive tug on my line and then the awesome feeling of some monster pulling and streaming the line of my reel. All I could do was hang on for dear life, Master Sahib constantly encouraging me to let the fish run – for it is a Mahseer and wouldn’t come easily. I followed his instructions to the letter and let the fish play and reel and run and reel. After a good twenty minutes of sheer fighting, I got a glimpse of what I was dealing with: dark on the top and a slight golden hue on the side, the Golden Mahseer of the Himalayas. The moment we saw each other, there was another massive rush by the fish, with line streaming off. Finally after a good thirty minutes, I was able to slowly but surely land the fish. My fist Mahseer and I was hooked on fishing for the rest of my life.!
Nobody in British India had heard of dynamite being used to fish. In independent Pakistan (and India) this became the easy and preferred way to get a meal, with wanton killing of fish in the rivers and streams

That night all I could do was dream of the massive tug of the first bite. Next day, rod and reel in hand, I was on the swimming pool of the Pakistan Tobacco Company where we lived, practicing casting spoons and spinners. School time was spent dreaming of my next Mahseer fight, which was not a long time coming. We were soon back on the river in Mangla, casting away, loosing our spoons and spinners on the rocks, but catching the mighty Mahseer.

Tor putitora or Himalayan Golden Mahseer was first described scientifically in 1822 by Francis Buchanan Hamilton and first mentioned as an angling challenge by the Oriental Sporting Magazine in 1833, with the resident British in the Raj enthusiastically going after the fish, and of which Rudyad Kipling wrote “beside whom the Tarpon is a herring”. By 1906 a Mr. Murray-Aynsley had caught the first Mahseer of more than 100 pounds and in 1919 came a 119-pounder taken by Lt Col J.S. Rivett-Carnac, which would stand as an All-India record until 1946. The British and the Maharajas had rightly looked after the rivers as preserves for sport fishing.

A 30-pound Mahseer - sheer power

What beauty was available in those days and described by an Englishman, the whirl of the partridge and the rush of the Mahseer, started going into history books.

Come 1947 and independence for Pakistan and India – and the concept of conservation took a nosedive.

Nobody in British India had heard of dynamite being used to fish. In independent Pakistan (and India) this became the easy and preferred way to get a meal, with wanton killing of fish in the rivers and streams. As the human population grew, so was the pressure to construct dams to provide electricity for the masses. No thought was given to fish conservation, preservation of animals, forests and the environment. Deforestation, the timber mafia, illegal hunting and fishing, loss of habitat and wanton killing by illegal means – be they dynamite, electric shocks or netting – reduced the population of game animals and fish all over independent Pakistan, as well as India.

Habitat of the Mahseer - clear cold water cascading down the Gulpur Dam

The last Mahseer that I caught was around 1972. We regularly fished the waters of Mangla Dam and the rivers leading to the dam, but as hard as we tried, no Mahseer was landed. The massive tug of the Mahseer, the emotional rollercoaster of not breaking the line, the sheer joy of seeing the fish for the first time and the fish equally shocked at seeing us and streaming of the line, slowly became a distant memory.

What beauty was available in those days and described by an Englishman, the whirl of the partridge and the rush of the Mahseer, started going into history books.

College and studies abroad, starting a family and work – all put pressure on time, yet I would take time out to go to the Mangla Dam for fishing on the weekends in the summers and for duck shooting in the winters. We would catch catfish, Singaras and Malis on our rods and reels, but the thought of the Mahseer vanished from memory.

An ad from 1897, for Mahseer fishing tackle

Forty years passed and one day I got a phone call from Dr. Anis ur Rahman who knew my interest in angling. Could I come with him for a day to see how the Mahseer were doing?

What? What did he just say? Mahseer!

Dr. Anis, Mr. Zakria and their team members formed the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation to try and preserve what is left of our wildlife. They started by going to the Deosai plains, a high altitude plateau above Skardu, where they had researched and found the Pakistani brown bear which had been hunted almost to extinction. With guts and grits dealing with government departments of wildlife and fisheries, and various other hurdles, they were able to have the Deosai plains declared a wildlife park. Once an area is declared a wildlife park or refuge, no hunting or fishing is allowed, thus preserving the natural habitats of animals living in the area.

Initially when they counted the bears, there were hardly 8-10 in total. The brown bears in this region had been in the hundreds, but the usual killing fields had almost exterminated them. Slowly but surely, with help from the Kruger National Park in South Africa and specialists from the US wildlife department and through sheer will, they managed to control the population – which almost quadrupled in a decade and is constantly rising.

The phone call made me rethink my fishing priorities. I had caught a Mahseer decades ago, yet the sheer joy of hooking and playing a powerful fish made me want to reach the area where we were supposed to go. Kotli is one of the bigger cities of Azad Kashmir and lies on the left bank of the Poonch river. It was on this river in the days of the Raj that the Maharaja of Poonch and his British guests would fish for the mighty Mahseer.

The drive from Islamabad takes one through beautiful green hills and fields, through Sihala and the famous Kahuta area with its picturesque rolling hills and then finally onto the banks of the Poonch as it rushes down the gorges on its way to the Mangla Dam. After a good three-hour drive, we reached Kotli city and then came a drive up a sheer mountain side to a most beautiful rest house called the Tinda Rest House, which is located high up the mountain with a panoramic view of the mountains all around the city of Kotli below.

Dinner and the usual small talk with local fishermen, who told us tales of the Mahseer being caught made for a very disturbed sleep. We were up early and on the river before the sun came up. Not a single bite that morning. The afternoon was spent recovering sleep time and the evening found us again casting our lures in the murky waters. It was June and the locals informed us that this was not the best time as the rains and snow melt had muddied the water. The sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayers told us that fishing was coming to an end for the day.

(To be continued)