It feels like a dream already, yet it's only been a couple of weeks since we returned to the urban jungle from the Babai Valley in Bardia National Park. This is perhaps the most pristine wilderness remaining in Nepal. Regular sightings of wild elephants are guaranteed, as are the chances of seeing a Royal Bengal Tiger. But we were on another quest altogether: we were seeking the Golden Mahseer, the legendary gamefish of the Himalayan waters.
PICS: ARUN RANA
The Golden Mahseer was immortalised by Jim Corbett, the hunter-turned-conservationatist, in his classicwork 'Maneaters of Kumaon'. In the chapter titled 'The fish of my dreams', Corbett describes watching a shoal of Mahseer in a deep pool and casting his lure in front of the biggest fish. The specimen he landed weighed a whopping 22 kg – probably around five feet long. Sadly, those days are gone. Thanks to overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution, such mammoth Mahseer are only to be seen behind the dusty frames of black and white prints from decades ago.
But absence makes the heart fonder, at least for anglers. There is always the dream of landing the big one. Our group was doubly unusual in being composed of anglers from Kathmandu and Dharan – myself, Viplava, Denis, Upen and Bharat – dedicated to the philosophy of catch-and-release that views fishing as a sport rather than a means to dinner. Each of us has been fishing the waters of Nepal for years on end in pursuit of this magnificent fish. Trekking over rugged hills for days at a time and camping on the banks of rivers that only ghosts are thought to frequent, we harboured the dream of one day breaking the record catch for a Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), currently set at 12.25 kg.
But much bigger fish once swam in our waters. Today, the odds are stacked against the Golden Mahseer. These fish are long-distance migrants that swim from the lower stretches of our large rivers to their spawning grounds upriver, every monsoon. It's a minor miracle that they survive the mass harvesting with gill nets and hooked lines stretched across rivers in the lowlands, but even more so if they find shallow, gravel-rich streams to spawn in upriver. Destructive excavation across Nepal means any river with road access has been stripped of spawning grounds. The lucky few that manage to spawn will lay around 20,000 eggs at a time, repeating this several times over the monsoon.
In earlier times, the hatched fry would live in these smaller streams for at least a year. These days, throngs of locals wade into the post-monsoon streams with battery packs, poking their wire-laden bamboo poles into every crevice, or using diluted pesticides. They bag all the fish there is on offer, but the harvest is indiscriminate, often wiping out all life for kilometres downstream. According to a three-year study we conducted on the Rosi Khola and Tadi Khola, each winter less than one per cent of fish sampled have been juvenile Mahseer. This is the story across Nepal and India but the gravity of the situation is hardly discussed amongst conservationists, thanks to a focus on terrestrial ecosystems.
No wonder we were elated to be camping on the banks of the Babai. It offers prime spawning ground for Mahseer and 40 km of the river flows through the national park. The conservation efforts of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation is more than evident. Over two and a half days of angling, we caught and released 38 Golden Mahseer (the biggest was 6.5 kilos, see pic), 3 Raiamas bola (a rare game fish) and a 3-kilo Giant Snakehead. This was more than we had collectively caught in the last half decade! Hats off to Chief Warden Tika Ram Adhikary, Lt Col Sudip KC, and their teams, who have ensured that this slice of wilderness is still off limits. What's more, we spent over Rs 80,000 on permits, guide services and accommodation and food over three days. There is big money in angling tourism and it is commendable to see that finally, the park authorities of Nepal have started to recognise this.
The best thing about the trip is that all the fish we caught are back in the water for another angler to enjoy some other day. I have no doubt we'll be back ourselves, and that the Babai River will be where one of us will break the current world record catch for the Golden Mahseer, the 'tiger of the waters'.
The author is a member of Save Himalayan Aquatic Resources (SAHAR), an NGO dedicated to protecting Nepal's fish.