Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Mahseer (Golden)

Quick Facts

SPECIES NAME

Tor putitora

SIZE

Average fish: 15-25 pounds
All-Tackle World Record: 90 pounds, Kaveri River, India, caught in 2010

FAVORITE DESTINATIONS

Bhutan: Drangme, Mangde, and Punatsang rivers
Nepal: Seti, Karnali, Babai, Tamar, and Koshi rivers
India: Ramganga, Saryu, and Mahakali rivers

DIFFICULTY RATING

10/10

KNOWN FOR

Otherworldly sensory perception, moodiness, mysticism, size, extreme power and endurance.

 

The golden mahseer is the largest member of the cypranid family by length (reaching up to nine feet), and the second largest by weight. Only the giant barb (catlocarpio siamensis) has more overall mass. The genus Tor to which all mahseer belong has undergone taxonomical revisions over the last decade, leading to a modern scientific consensus of 19 different mahseer species. Among these, the golden mahseer—Tor putitora—is most sought-after as a sportfish.

There is considerable debate about the origins of the name mahseer. According to various etymological theories, it might mean “tiger fish” (as it shares a native range with the Bengal tiger), “large-scaled” (its scales are so big they have been used to make playing cards), “big mouthed” (obvious to anyone who has caught one) or “stone-like” (in reference to their power and solidity). Whatever the name, the golden mahseer is a strikingly beautiful fish, with gold and silver scales, a dark, pronounced lateral line, and a powerful, deeply forked tail.

Biologically speaking, the mahseer is a migratory fish, having evolved to navigate the high-water, monsoon-season conditions of the rivers of the Himalayan foothills as it seeks out suitable spawning territory. The demands of migrating through these perilous flows, which are intermixed with a storm of loose rocks and stones, have equipped the species with extrasensory perception to avoid contact with flood debris, as well as armor-like scales for protection against dangerous flotsam and jetsam when contact is unavoidable. These same faculties that allow mahseer to avoid bodily harm during the three-month game of dodgeball that is their spawning season makes them very hard to approach during the calmer conditions during which anglers pursue them. To say mahseer are spooky is a gross understatement.

In addition to being angling quarry of the most challenging order, the golden mahseer is also a fish of great spiritual significance. The mahseer is one of the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism, symbolizing salvation from the sea of earthly life and its suffering. It also appeared abundantly in the coats of arms of various princedoms of the Indian subcontinent and makes regular cameos in a variety of sacred texts. As a physical entity, the mahseer was (and to a degree, still is) an historically important foodstuff, gracing the tables of royals and ruled alike. To catch a golden mahseer, therefore, is to hold in your hand an energy that has provided both spiritual and material sustenance to human civilization since at least the dawn of recorded history, and likely well before it.

While the golden mahseer is present in fishable numbers in a variety of rivers, its inability to tolerate modified aquatic environments makes it a threatened species with an uncertain future. In 2021 the fight for the golden mahseer continues to be waged as scientists and conservationists seek to better understand the species’ ’ habitat needs—a particular urgent task given the fast-paced development and urbanization of much of the mahseer’s native range. It’s worth noting that the fishing community has been and continues to be an important partner in the study and stewardship of the mahseer. To angle is to advocate.

Chasing mahseer is perhaps the closest you can come to a real-life, modern day dragon hunt. In our modern era where nearly every angler is a scientist of sorts, keenly aware of what predator and prey species live in a given environment, pursuing the mystic mahseer engages that reptilian part of the brainstem that still believes in monsters. And this fear might not be entirely fantastic: locals of the here-mentioned watersheds tell tales of unsuspecting bathers being dragged below the surface by giant fish—though whether the responsible party is the mahseer, the goonch (a giant catfish) or the human imagination is impossible to say. But spend one day on a Himalayan River, with leopard prints on one bank and tiger tracks on the other, and you’ll understand why the area has long held allure for the most intrepid travelers, both of the angling and non-angling varieties.

Speaking of traveling, when chasing mahseer, adventure is built into the equation. Mahseer fishing will appeal to the sort of traveler that doesn’t want to be titillated so much as tested—and who will also not mind a pre-emptive typhoid vaccine. You will literally have to travel to the ends of the earth to catch this fish and pass through parts of the world that will be unfamiliar to most, laying over in Dubai, looking down out the plane window at the mountains of Pakistan, wandering through seething Delhi, and finally switch-backing by Jeep for most of a day up into the low Himalayas.

Once arrived, you’ll find yourself amidst an ancient civilization that is nonetheless still very much alive, with barefoot pilgrims traveling the terraced ridges between temples and goat herders burning old grass off the mountainsides to make room for fresh growth. You’ll behold a landscape shaped by planetary cadences you have never experienced before (unless you have spent a year in monsoon country). On top of all that, chasing mahseer is perhaps the only type of fishing where you can visit a shaman prior to the start of your fishing day.

None of this exoticism would matter, of course, if the mahseer were an easy customer to catch. But Tor putitora is among the most difficult fish in the world, and a day of mahseer hunting often means seeing plenty of fish, while not necessarily catching one. You might think of the mahseer as possessing a mix of all the most difficult traits of the most difficult fish. Finicky like a permit or muskellunge. Acutely sensitive like a brown trout or carp. Powerful like a chrome chinook. To be successful, the mahseer angler must bring to bear a complete angling game when it comes to reading water, casting, presenting, and fighting fish. But catch one of these mythical beasts and you’ll have end-of-conversation bragging rights when you and your buddies start comparing angling feats of derring-do.

The native range of the golden mahseer falls within the Indus River basin (India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan), the Ganges River basin (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar), and the Brahmaputra River basin (India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Tibet). In all instances, golden mahseer are most prevalent in the upper reaches of river systems—within migratory striking distance of the Himalaya hill country and headwater spawning grounds.

Fishing for mahseer typically occurs on either end of the monsoon season, during which mahseer spawn and are protected from angling. April-May and September-October are considered prime time in the golden mahseer’s strongholds in Himalayan India, Nepal and Bhutan. Anglers well versed in fishing the coldwater migratory fish of North America will have a sense for where mahseer like to hold. In addition to current seams and breaks within deep, fast, heavy flows, focus angling efforts on inflows of all kinds, from smaller seeps to larger tributary confluences.

Mahseer can live up to 20-25 years, reaching reproductive maturity at four years of age. Adult fish spend the year in hill country streams with gravel and stone substrate, preferring water temperatures between 40 and 78 degrees. Rising water levels of the monsoon season (where rivers may rise upwards of ten feet) trigger spawning runs to natal tributaries. During migration, mahseer can cover extreme distances in relatively short amounts of time—up to 40 miles a day, often through raging monsoon torrents. At the end of a line, this physique means a fight that is in a league of its own.

In terms of food, mahseer are omnivores and, when young, rather opportunistic (I’ve seen juvenile mahseer near a permanent base camp go into a feeding frenzy when the cook threw old bread into the water). The mahseer is well adapted to eating a variety of foodstuffs, from riparian fruit to vegetation and tiny freshwater crustaceans to larger sculpins and baitfish. That said, the adult mahseer that the traveling angler is interested in will be a flesh-eater.

As mentioned, part of what makes the mahseer a such a worthy adversary for the angler is an extraordinary awareness of its surroundings. This ability to hear and feel activity well outside of its visual purview owes from two distinct biological features. First, like many other cypranids, it possesses a bone structure that links the swim bladder and inner ear—essentially a highly sensitive sound magnification system that turns up the volume on whatever aquatic whispers are happening in the surrounding environment. On top of this, the mahseer also boasts an acutely sensitive lateral line, which allows it to feel what’s happening in the water even many body lengths away.

For the angler, all this amounts to the fact that mahseer can hear and feel you even when you are at your most stealthy. Controlled casting at distance coupled with delicate presentations are key to mahseer success. Experienced mahseer anglers do much of their fishing from the bank or from atop large boulders, which is eminently preferable to entering into the surveillance state that is the mahseer’s aquatic domain. If you must wade, do so with utmost care.

Mahseer prefer deep water with fast flows, so one or two-handed anglers should be prepared to present heavy flies with fast-sinking tips at distance, from either shore or near shore. Single hand anglers should pack 7-9 weight rods, while two handed anglers will want sticks in the 6-8 weight class. (Note: the lighter ends of both respective spectrums should be reserved for smaller fish in headwater situations only). Reels should have smooth, dependable drags, and backing should be copious: when a species of fish has evolved to swim through floods that will relocate boulders the size of your neighbor’s Volkswagen, you know you are in for a tussle. Controlling a hooked fish during its first, searing run is crucial: you will simply not catch up to a 30-pound mahseer that has cleared a set of downstream rapids.

In addition to rods and reels, visitors to the Himalayan foothills should also choose their outerwear deliberately. Though the rivers run cool to cold, any relief they may offer is nullified by the fact that daytime temps days can be hot enough to gum up the hands of your wristwatch. Wet wading boots, wool socks, and fast-drying pants are the way to go; leave those waders at home. And since you’ll be “goating” over boulders for much of the fishing day, go with footwear that strikes a balance between providing support while allowing athletic movements.

That brings us to flies. Since there is essentially no DIY fishery for the species, anglers lucky enough to target mahseer will do so through an established program in either India, Nepal, or Bhutan, and their guides will have plenty of locally effective patterns. That said, anglers looking to tie their own flies for the trip should focus on heavy, Clouser-style patterns, as well as sculpins and swimbaits, all in natural colors, and with mild flash accents at best.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is the author of Smallmouth and From Lure to Fly. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and serves as Fly Fishing International’s man on the spot when someone needs to go blindly deep into bear country and return with a great story to tell.