Inspired by Stephen Harper’s latest book – The Mightiest Mahseer – Martin Salter relives a period that saw some of the greatest fishing adventures of modern times.
Until Covid put pay to fishing adventures in far off foreign climes I considered myself to be an extremely lucky angler with the time and opportunity to fish a fair few of the finest waters on this fast shrinking planet of ours.
In 2010 my global fishing opportunities increased considerably when I took the decision to retire from the House of Commons ‘to spend more time with my fish’. The next nine years saw trips to Africa, South America, the Caribbean, USA, Canada, Asia and, of course, Australia where I lived for nearly 18 months catching marlin, barramundi and my favourite fighter of them all, the yellow tailed kingfish. The peacock bass of the Amazon were amazing, as were the tarpon and bonefish in Cuba, the striped bass in Cape Cod, the golden dorado in Argentina, the giant sturgeon in the Fraser River and the sailfish in Kenya. But however many species I chalk off the bucket list there has always been one that keeps calling me back – the mighty mahseer. You never forget your first love and for me it was a 76lb, armour plated, giant scaled, golden torpedo from the raging waters of India’s River Cauvery that fuelled my obsession for exotic fishing adventure.
The fish that lit the fire for Martin. 76lbs of golden mahseer from the River Cauvery on his first trip to India in 1996.
Having an understanding wife and being semi-retired has also been pretty crucial but now I and my friends find ourselves kicking our heels and wondering just when we will be able to dust down the travel rods and head off to tangle once again with the fish of our dreams.
While we wait the opportunity one way to scratch the fishing wanderlust itch is to read copiously about the adventures of others. And for those of us lucky enough to have followed in the footsteps of Jeremy Wade and Paul Boote and experienced the second golden age of mahseer fishing, that lovely man Stephen Harper has written just the book.
If you’ve got angling adventure somewhere in your soul, this is a book you should read’.
The Mightiest Mahseer is clearly a work of love and Stephen shares my obsession for this most magnificent of all our freshwater fishes. He is one of a handful people to have caught them in excess of 100lbs and his book carefully catalogues the history of fishing for the giant mahseer of the southern India rivers in both pre and post independence India. The research is thorough but Stephen’s writing style brings these historical records to life and nowhere else will you find a detailed description of every hundred pounder ever landed from the far off days of the Raj to the ‘rediscovery and renaissance’ from the late 70s onwards. It was the pioneering spirit of these early adventurers which led to some amazing captures, largely by travelling western anglers, in the 80s, 90s and early 2000’s.
Stephen Harper’s 104 pounder caught in 1991
Some of my more intrepid friends and I were privileged to visit the River Cauvery in southern India in those days and do battle with one of the most beautiful and hardest fighting fish on the planet. It was lovely to see that a few of our captures have made it onto the pages triggering a nice trip down memory lane for friends such as Steve Dunbar, Michael Cutler, Nigel Botherway, Keith Elliott and my travelling companion Mike Robinson. Sadly, there’s no happy ending as these once famous stretches of river, holding the largest mahseer in the world, are now closed to angling, depriving local people of a good income and leaving the poachers to do their worst.
That’s perhaps why this book needed to be written. Not just to chronicle two incredible periods in the history of angling but to remind us what we have lost and how fragile are the environments upon which the sport of fishing depends.
Mahseer and me
My own story starts with that famous front cover of the Angling magazine in August 1979 with a young Paul Boote crouched on that rock in the middle of a far off jungle river bent into a powerful fish that many had thought was all but extinct. It led me to read ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’ – perhaps the greatest angling adventure book ever written. The John Wilson programmes further inspired and when the opportunity presented itself for me to join one of Dave Plummer’s early trips to the Cauvery in 1996 there was only going to be one answer.
The book that launched a thousand dreams
At the time some of my contemporaries were chasing monster catfish in the Ebro or massive carp in France but these fish did very little for me and still don’t. I’m primarily a river angler at heart. I like my water on the move and my fish to look good and pull hard. A catfish can certainly pull back but it’s never going to win any prizes for looks and carp are rarely found in fast water.
The mahseer lives in fast, clear waters and is an aggressive and omnivorous apex predator. The first run of a big mahseer is truly something to behold and it’s not uncommon to be dragged half a mile down river before these ferocious and powerful fish can be subdued. Think salmon on steroids with the power of a giant barbel and the scales of the most beautiful carp you’ve ever seen.
That first visit was memorable in so many ways. Mike and I had a 20lb and a 40lb fish on the infamous ragi paste on the first evening while still jet lagged followed later in the trip by the 76 pounder on a crab. It was that fish that lit the flame for me and my desire for fishing adventure still shows no sign of abating. Two years later I had another great trip in the company of those fine West Country anglers Andy Cowley and Stuart Morgan who remain good friends to this day. We all caught huge mahseer including a 92 pounder to my rod which was one of the largest landed in the world that year.
Martin with legendary mahseer guide Bola and his 92 pounder from 1998
The mightiest of them all
It’s time to let Stephen take up the story and convey what it is that afflicts otherwise rational anglers with a form of ‘mahseer madness’ which they rarely seem to lose.
I will always enjoy my time spent fishing for barbel, carp, pike, tench, perch, and many other species, in their less demanding locations; however, mahseer fishing just seems to roll up all these pursuits together into one irresistible and mouth-watering package of the very best that angling can offer; the ultimate pursuit of the most beautiful of all freshwater species; an adversary that can grow to over 100 pounds; a totally omnivorous fish that can be caught anyway you prefer – live or dead fish, crabs, artificial lures – plugs, spoons, flies – and of course, paste baits, too, such as ragi and atta.
The total shock of a screaming mahseer take, when one does finally occur, has often been described as frightening, and I would agree with that assessment. When hooked, the mahseer has been acknowledged as one of the hardest-fighting fish to swim in freshwater, as those lucky enough to hook a big mahseer in the mighty rapids will testify, when occasionally, a mahseer will even swim upstream as it fights angler and an awesome force of water.
The environment in which this fish exists consists of crazy fast-flowing rivers that flow over and through an unimaginable multitude of rocks, which are relentlessly scoured by the inexorable power of water. This has meant that this piscine force of nature has evolved to cope with all the hardships of an everyday existence in such a demanding environment. The mahseer of southern India might not be as sleek as its northern counterpart – they are, of course, ‘hump-backed’ – but there is no flab, nor any sign of a paunch, as can be observed on many of the UK species that do not have to fight for almost every morsel of food to sustain life. The mahseer is therefore incredibly strong; its body is hard, muscular, and clad in armoured scales; the fins are vast and sail-like. Those gigantic and multi-coloured scales have evolved to complete a seamless flank that is so smooth and hard that it resembles toughened glass – an invaluable asset in reducing drag when swimming against the unending force of the rapids, or the power of a monsoon river in full flood.
And yet this apex predator has none of the aggressive and characteristic predatory looks of a pike or a shark. These ‘gentle’ and aesthetic good-looks are deceptive in the extreme, considering its renowned power (anglers have often been dragged into the water), and that its pharyngeal teeth can crush a hook with ease. This fish is definitely a scale-clad ‘river tiger’!
Nature’s evolution has created some totally fantastic creatures, and I believe that the mahseer is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring of them all; but then as a lifelong, all-round angler, with the mahseer as my favourite species, I suppose I would…
Hopefully by now you get the idea that this is no ordinary book about an everyday fish. This is an unapologetic homage to mightiest mahseer of them all and the 24 anglers that made history catching them. Starting in the far off days of the Raj with C.E. Murray-Aynsley’s All- India rod caught record of 104lbs in 1906 through to the incredible catches made by the famous Van Ingen family, known also for their world class taxidermy business in Mysore, culminating in a magnificent 120 pounder in 1946 which holds the record to this day.
The Days of the Raj – appearances were everything it seems!
We learn more about the origins of the influential Wildlife Association of South India (WASI) which has done so much to protect and preserve the threatened wildlife of their region including to endangered hump back mahseer of the Cauvery and its tributaries. It was WASI who rented the fishing rights of 14 miles of the Cauvery from the Karnataka Fisheries Department in 1972 and it was here that angling history was made with the ‘rediscovery’ of the mahseer. Whilst Paul Boote rightly gets much of the credit for his early adventures in both north and south India, including on the WASI stretches, the first ‘western’ pioneers actually arrived two years earlier. After a gruelling overland journey by landrover of some 5537 miles the Trans World Fishing Team of Andrew and Martin Clark and Robert Howitt found themselves on the banks of the river and were rewarded with the capture of a 92lb mahseer. The team recorded their adventures in their sponsor’s publication – the Abu Tight Lines catalogue of 1979 and in more detail in their book, Quest for a Legendary Fish in 1984. Mahseer maniacs like myself have read all this stuff, and more, a long time ago but Mr Harper saves the reader the time and trouble by quoting extensively from the diaries that Martin Clark wrote at the time. Trust me this is gripping stuff – a Boys Own chronicle of angling dreams.
He takes us through the stories of the monsters that came out in the nineties and the following decade starting with his own 104 pounder in 1991 and ending with Ken Loughran’s fish of (at least) 120lbs – a beast that would have smashed the world record had suitable scales been available.
Mahseer fishing might be the ‘blokiest’ of all angling experiences with tales of danger, hardship and derring-do, but by way of an antidote to these testosterone filled adventures we are told of the exploits of Christine Andrews who, we learn, is the holder of the Ladies All-Indian Mahseer Record with a fish of 99lbs. Other giant mahseer are granted an honourable place in the picture gallery including my own 92 pounder and similarly sized specimens from the likes of Andy Davidson, Richard Pitts, Joe Taylor, Nigel Botherway, Dave Plummer, Andy Cowley, Steve Dunbar and others. And ever present in the photographs are the legendary mahseer guides Bola and Suban who will always command a special place in the history of this amazing fishery.
Angling Adventurers in search of a ‘mahseer as big as a man’
As Big as a Man
It really was an incredible time and just writing these words brings back memories of the sights and sounds of India, the scent of the tamarind trees, elephants coming down to drink at the rivers edge in the evening and the rush of the water at Kengal Rapids as I sat on a rock wanting my rod to lurch over but also terrified of what might follow and trying to remember not skin my thumb on the blistering reel drum as the mahseer makes that first unstoppable bid for freedom. Stephen sums that unique and exhilarating feeling of ‘enjoyable terror’ in his poem – Imagine a Mahseer the last verse of which goes like this:
With frightening power; to destroy rods and melt thumbs.
On the first rush of overwhelming, enjoyable terror.
An awesome fish to make anglers – and break their hearts.
Imagine a mahseer as big as a man…
Sadly, these stretches of the Cauvery are now closed to angling, depriving local people of a good income and leaving the poachers to do their worst. I suspect these magnificent fish are once again being poached and bombed to Hell now there’s no tourism income coming into the valley and no fishing guides incentivised to keep them safe. In fact, I doubt if there are a more than a handful rivers left outside of the Himalayas that hold stocks of true mahseer anymore. And even in these remote mountain areas their habitat is constantly threatened by dams and hydropower projects to feed the insatiable demand for electricity from a growing population.
When we can travel safely again I will still fish for the smaller mahseer in the north and my friends and I are awaiting the chance to visit Bhutan – a country difficult to access but where the species enjoys protection. But I know it is unlikely that I’ll ever see those giant fish of Cauvery again in my lifetime. Whether you were lucky enough to be there or not, if you’ve got angling adventure somewhere in your soul, this is a book you should read.
“The Mightiest Mahseer” is available at www.harperanglingbooks.co.uk