The sun was setting when Jim Corbett put down his camera and picked up his fishing rod. His objective was a clear photo of a tigress and her cubs, but when the light grew dim and no tigers appeared, he passed the time performing what he called a sport fit for kings – fishing for Mahseer.
It was among his most pleasant pastime activities, as the Mahseer was considered the best sportfish in the world. For Corbett, it had to be hunted in pleasant surroundings in order to be the most fascinating of field sports. Calling it the ‘fish of my dreams,’ he wrote:
Fishing for mahseer in a well-stocked submontane river is, in my opinion, the most fascinating of all field sports. Our environments, even though we may not be continuously conscious of them, nevertheless play a very important part in the sum total of our enjoyment of any form of outdoor sport. I am convinced that the killing of the fish of one’s dreams in uncongenial surroundings would afford an angler as little pleasure 140 Man-eaters of Kumaon as the winning of the Davis Cup would to a tennis player if the contest were staged in the Sahara.
Maharajahs and viceroys hunted the mighty Mahseer. The reason fishermen like the Mahseer so much is the fight it gives back – it’s one of the most energetic fish that can be snagged on a line. H.S. Thomas’ 1873 “A Rod in India” highlights just how fun and energetic it is to catch such a fish, which can weigh up to 120 pounds (54 kgs). In Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Brushwood Boy“, the protagonist says of the fish “besides whom the tarpon is a herring” that “he who lands him can say that he is a fisherman.”
Across the rivers of India, species of Mahseer thrive under varying conditions; from 4°C waters in the Himalayas to 35°C waters nears sea level. In the South, a particular species of Mahseer – the Humpback Mahseer – is exclusive to the river Kaveri. It’s a famous local delicacy, as well as being a favourite for fishermen the world over. In 2013, a world-record catch was achieved in the upper region of the Kaveri, where a 130-pound Mahseer was caught.
But the fish, famous for fighting back, may soon be out of the arena altogether. The Humpback Mahseer is declining in number, weight and reach. It even suffers from an ageing population, and by current estimates, may be extinct within a generation.
The terrible irony is that it was not entirely fishing that led to the Mahseer’s decline – but conservation. From 1976, the Maharashtra fisheries department in coordination with Tata power sought to introduce Mahseer fingerlings in locations across the country. Nearly 10 million fingerlings have been introduced so far – in what some called a successful conservation effort. But recent studies of the species endemic to the Kaveri suggest that the species introduced there, the blue-finned Mahseer, were detrimental to the local population of humpbacked Mahseer (AKA the hunchback). The addition of a non-native and artificially-bred species had large consequences for the indigenous Mahseer, whose numbers have declined like never before. S.N. Ogale, who spearheaded the Tata project, refutes the claim that the introduction of the wrong species led to the hunchback’s decline.
One factor that may have caused the confusion is that, despite the fish’s popularity, it still lacks a consensus over its scientific name. The taxonomy of the humpback mahseer or Hypselobarbus Mussullah is disputed, with suggestions that its species be renamed to Tor Mussullah. The blue-finned Mahseer similarly lacks a name. For now, the two species are named after their phenotypes – ‘humpbacked’ and ‘blue-finned’ respectively.
Fishing seems to bring out the naturalist in its practitioners. The advent of British and foreign anglers to India in the 1980s revealed an ecosystem that was struggling against the tide of dynamite poaching. Through the setup of professional fishing camps and a licensing system, the stress on the species was reduced – whilst allowing enthusiasts their share at the sport. This was the situation until angling was banned altogether.
One legend of the angler community is a local named Subhan – who passed away in 2007. You can see the well-known television angler, John Wilson, fishing with Subhan in this clip. Any angler who visited the Kaveri river with the intention of hunting Mahseer would consider themselves lucky to have had him as a guide. One enthusiast, Saad Bin Jung, even wrote a book, “Subhan and I: My Adventures with Angling Legend of India“. The experience of these anglers – who work closely with locals for their catch – adds another dimension to the perspective of conservation here. Sweeping bans on development within sensitive regions affect local, tribal populations who live off the land. As Saad suggests, it’s not as much a case of man-animal conflict as of man-official conflict. Does the example of the introduction of the blue-finned mahseer serve as ample warning for misguided conservation?
Ultimately, the humpbacked Mahseer faces more than the threat of just its hunters, but also those of eroding rivers (from sand and gravel extraction, water pollution, dynamite fishing, and hydroelectric dam projects that restrict its ability to swim upstream.
In Karnataka’s Sivasamudram falls, where the Kaveri breaks away into two mighty waterfalls, the Mahseer has traditionally been fished for. But since 2010, when a ban was imposed on fishing along the Kaveri, fishing camps were set up where people could adopt a ‘catch-photograph-and-release’ method of angle-fishing, which does as the title suggests. This, along with other touristy activities, helped raise revenues to fund a team of 60 volunteers, who check illegal poaching in the area.
Elsewhere, in Lonavala, the Mahseer breeding programme continues for the Golden and Deccan Mahseers (Tor Putitora and T. Khudree), in lakes owned by Tata Power. Every year, 200,000-300,000 fry fish (juveniles capable of feeding themselves) are released into the Lonavala Lake.
Nationwide, the Mahseer is much-respected. The stuff of legends, old and new, as well as the emblem of some princely states like the Kurwai State, it’s a fish that has earned man’s respect. Will those who hunt it, those who conserve it and those who admire it be able to work together to ensure it does not go extinct in the Kaveri?
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