The Magnificent Mahseer by Dr. Amin ur Rahman

The Jhelum river bends below the high cliffs of Baral Colony and an old Officers’ Mess. Water cascades down the Mangla Dam spillways. On a crisp April morning, before the sun starts to wreak havoc, we climb out of a bus on the bridge under the spillway. Mr Siddiqui, my father’s friend and a teacher by profession, whom I refer to as Master sahib, is teaching us the intricacies of angling.

As we make our way down to the water’s edge, Master sahib gives me a rod and a reel with what he says is a spoon on a 15-pound line. He begins to explain the details of how to cast the spoon just as the rapids stop and the water starts to flow smoothly. 

In 1856, a British officer went fishing down the Poonch river – a Jhelum tributary that empties into the Mangla Dam – with the Maharaja of Poonch. The officer hooked onto a monster. Struggling with the line, he asked the Maharaja what fish this was, to which the latter replied: “The tiger of the waters.”

Fast forward to my first encounter. I was a 12-year-old lad in 1968, when Master sahib handed me a rod. Sometime that morning, there was a massive tug on my line and the awesome feeling of some monster pulling it. All I could do was hang on for dear life. Master sahib, encouraged me to let the fish run. It was a Mahseer he said and wouldn’t come easily. I followed his instructions and let the fish play and reel. After 20 minutes of struggle, I got a glimpse of what I was dealing with. The fish was dark on the top and of a golden hue on the sides. This was the Golden Mahseer of the Himalayas. Finally, after a good 30 minutes, I was able to slowly, but surely, land the fish. It was my first Mahseer and I was hooked on to fishing for life.

That night, all I could do was dream of the massive tug that came with the first bite. The next morning, rod and reel in hand, I was at the swimming pool of a tobacco company – where we lived – practicing casting spoons and spinners. School was spent dreaming of my next Mahseer catch, which was not a long time coming. We were back on the river at Mangla, casting away, loosing our spoons and spinners on the rocks, but catching the mighty Mahseer nonetheless.

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

Tor putitora, or Himalayan Golden Mahseer, was first acknowledged, scientifically, in 1822, by Francis Buchanan Hamilton. It was first mentioned as an angling challenge by the Oriental Sporting Magazine in 1833. The fish was highly sought after by the British administrators in India. Rudyard Kipling wrote of the Mahseer: “Beside whom the Tarpon is a herring.” By 1906, one Murray-Aynsley had caught the first Mahseer, which weighed over a hundred pounds. This was followed by a 119-pounder in 1919, caught by Lieutenant Colonel J. S. Rivett-Carnac. It held the record in India until 1946. The British and the Maharaja had kept the rivers as preserves for sport fishing. 

In 1947, however, the concept of conservation took a nosedive with the dawn of Independence.

Nobody in British India had heard of dynamite being used to fish. In India and Pakistan, however, this became the preferred method of getting a meal. As the human population grew, so did the pressure to construct dams to provide electricity. No thought was given to fish conservation, or preservation of animals, forests and the environment. Deforestation, the timber mafia, illegal hunting and fishing, the loss of habitat and wanton killing by illegal means – be it dynamite, electrical shocks or netting – reduced the population of game animals and fish all over India and Pakistan.

The last Mahseer I caught was in 1972. We regularly fished in the waters of Mangla Dam and the rivers leading up to it, but as hard as we tried, no Mahseer was found. The massive tug of the Mahseer, the emotional roller-coaster of not breaking the line, the sheer joy of seeing the fish for the first time and the fish equally shocked at seeing us, slowly became a distant memory.

An ad from 1897, for Mahseer fishing tackle

The beauty of the past, described by an Englishman, became the stuff of history books.

Despite being pressed for time, owing to my many commitments, I always managed to find my way to Mangla dam for a fishing weekend in the summer and for a duck shoot in the winter. We would catch catfish, Singaras and Malis on our rods and reels, but the thought of the Mahseer vanished from memory.

Forty years passed and one day I got a phone call from Dr. Anis ur Rahman, who knew of my interest in angling. He asked if I could come with him for a day, to see how the Mahseer was doing. Dr. Rahman, Mr Zakria and their team formed the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) in an attempt to preserve what was 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 and was on the verge of extinction. With sheer guts and grit, they dealt with the government’s wildlife and fisheries departments and overcame hurdles, 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 habitat of the animals living there. 

The brown bears in this region, which had numbered in the hundreds, had been reduced to about 10 owing to hunting. Slowly but surely, with help from the Kruger National Park in South Africa and specialists from the US wildlife department and through sheer will, the HWF managed to control the population of bears, which almost quadrupled in a decade and is currently on the rise.

The phone call made me rethink my fishing priorities. Although I had caught a Mahseer decades earlier, the sheer joy of hooking a powerful fish made me want to go. Kotli is one of the bigger cities of Azad Kashmir and lies on the left bank of the Poonch river. The river was a regular fishing spot for the Mahseer in the days of the Raj. 

The drive to the Poonch river from Islamabad takes one through fields and rolling hills of green and through Sihala and the famous Kahuta area. After a good three-hour drive, we reached Kotli city and then drove up to Tinda rest house, located on a mountain-top. It offers breathtaking panoramic views.

During dinner, local fishermen told us tales of Mahseer fishing that 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 recuperating. We were back at the river in the evening, casting our lines 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, reciting the call to prayers, told us that fishing was coming to an end for the day.

It was almost dark, with clouds on the horizon and a slight breeze blowing. Everyone had packed their rods except for myself when I felt the massive tug and rush of a fish. I instinctively knew by the sheer force that I had hooked on to a Golden Himalayan Mahseer. An indescribable mix of fear and joy overcame me. I did not want to lose the fish and held on for dear life, letting the creature tire itself out. Finally, I landed a beautiful 12-pound Mahseer and could not believe my eyes when I saw such a beauty after almost 40 years.

How did this happen?

With the success of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) in saving the Brown Bear, Dr Rafique, Pakistan’s eminent fish expert encouraged Dr Anis and Mr Zakri to look into saving the endangered Mahseer fish, which happens to be Pakistan’s national fish – just like Pakistan’s national animal is the Markhor.

Dr Rafique informed the duo that the Mahseer was almost extinct in Pakistan, and that there were only a few pockets of the fish on the Poonch River. The water temperature and breeding grounds there were conducive to the survival of the species. But the indiscriminate killing of the fish, destruction of the small streams where they lay their eggs in the gravel beds and population pressures, were destroying what was left. Yet if immediate action was taken the national fish could be saved.

After immense efforts that spanned over three years and after the usual turf wars and bureaucratic hurdles, the entire length of the Poonch River was declared as the first-ever aquatic protected area for a globally threatened species of fish, on December 15, 2010. The Poonch River National Park spans approximately 100 kilometres in length, starting from the Palak Bridge just as the river enters the Mangla Dam and extending to the Tetri Note crossing on the border between Occupied and Azad Kashmir. Five different nullahs, or waterways, are located within this area.

The park is divided into two zones – North and South. The South Zone extends from Palak Bridge to Thalir Bridge, while the North Zone, from Thalir Bridge to the border. It was expected that educating the locals of the area about conservation was going to be an uphill task, especially since they considered the Poonch River to be their personal property where they could do as they pleased. 

Convincing the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir to declare the Poonch River a national park for only one species of fish proved a challenge, as did efforts to find sustainable funding for the project. Commercial activities such as fishing, or the dredging of stones and sand was not going to be allowed in the area once it was declared a national park. This meant there would be a lot of ruffling of feathers of big businesses and local politicians who had ties in the construction industry.

The perseverance and tenacity of Mr Zakria and Dr Anis and their team ultimately bore fruit owing partly to unexpected developments. In Gulpur, a small village along the Poonch River, the Mira Power Company of South Korea was to construct a 100 megawatt dam, referred to as the Gulpur Hydroelectric Dam. During its construction, the donors insisted on an environmental assessment of the river and its surrounding areas. The contract was given to the HWF, which convinced the donor agencies that unless funds were provided for the preservation of the Mahseer, it would become extinct.

Under the agreement, the dam construction would only proceed if it was proven that the project would lead to a ‘net gain’ for the river ecology and fauna. Hats off to the management of the Mira Power Company that they agreed to fund the project to help the preservation of the Mahseer. The funding helped provide for the resources needed to patrol the entire length of the river and contain the illegal activities prevalent in the area. No commercial activity was to be allowed, while sports fishing – under licenses provided by the wildlife department – would be permitted.

Patience, observation, perseverance and, most of all, an insatiable ambition to learn are the major attributes required in order to be a successful Mahseer fisherman.

A successful Mahseer fisherman must understand the fish’s characteristics. It likes clear water and rough water. Thunder or rain are not a deterrent for the fish to feed – they do so in winter, summer, spring and autumn. The size of the fish does not dictate the size of the lure. A huge fish weighing over 20 pounds can take a small fly while a smaller one can take a four-inch spoon. Its chief characteristic is the first rush; when it strikes, its first instinct is to get the lure out of its mouth, so expect a huge splash as it jumps out of the water and takes up 50 to 100 yards of your line, especially if it is a strong fish in strong currents.

The fish spawn more than once a year. They travel upstream and then go into small streams to lay their eggs, which are in the thousands. The fingerlings grow up in the small streams and as adolescents, enter the main river. As they grow bigger, they develop tremendous power in their jaws, so hooks have to be extremely strong to bear the crushing force when they strike. The three artificial baits are the spoons, spinners and plugs. The Mahseer will take any of the three, along with frogs and insects.

The Mahseer love to feed in fast-flowing rivers and streams. Boulders near rapids are a particular favourite. Once hooked, expect a massive rush towards the rapids and hold on for dear life! Do not ever attempt to hurry your fish. Let him play. Withstand your temptation to drag it out of the water.

It is important to know a few facts about the Mahseer and other game fish.  While humans have the senses of feeling, sight, sound and taste, the fish’s sight is secondary to its feeling. Water does not have any compressibility, therefore any displacement sets up a pressure wave and these waves are detected by fish. Thus, any movement in the water – be it walking or dropping a lure – will attract the fish by its detection of the compressed wave. Fish also have a sense of smell.

The Poonch River National Park has developed plans for sports fishing and recreational activities. Families can now book rest-houses, or tents with exceptional facilities pitched on the river and spend the day fishing or just enjoying nature. The drive from Islamabad takes about three hours to reach Kotli, while from Mangla Dam it takes roughly two hours. All along the river there are now certain designated spots for family outings and an enjoyable weekend.

In March 2018, we spent a good three weekends just below the Gulpur Dam and were able to hook, land and release almost 30 Mahseers. The biggest of them was almost 45 pounds. The population of the fish has taken an unprecedented jump. Thanks to the untiring efforts and persistence of Dr Anis and Mr Zakria and their whole team at the HWF, Pakistan’s national fish has returned with a roar from near extinction.

Anglers and fishermen from all over Pakistan must avail this fantastic opportunity. The fishing season starts from September 1 and continues till April. This area of Azad Jammu and Kashmir is beautiful, the people are extremely hospitable and in travelling to this beautiful part of Pakistan, we help in a small way in preserving our national heritage for future generations.

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