Fishing Among Freedom Fighters

By Kevin Ashness

After the problems I had last time fished the rivers of far western Nepal, this time I chose to return for a five-week expedition starting 23 February. Leaving early Friday morning for Heathrow lucky to avoid the lorries been blown over due to 60/70 M.P.H. winds. My mind now was on what disruptions Nepal can throw at me, even though one week before I was due to leave there were reports of Maoist freedom fighters attacking a army base and killing 140 government personnel only 80 km’s from my camp. Still who would want to hurt a fisherman?

I arrived at Kathmandu airport with all my gear intact, thanks to Gulf Airlines, only to find there was a strike on instigated by the Maoists. So what would have been a £2 taxi to the hotel escalated to £8! Fortunately, it was the last day of the strike. First day in Kathmandu was spent stocking up on basic essentials – good to see the street vendor bless their goods before the onslaught of the tourists. Sunday morning I was all set for the mid-day flight to Nepalgunj, normally only taking 1.5hrs, but because of freak storms the flight was held up till 4pm. Still it was good to see the tops of the mountains again a sight one that never seizes to amaze me. Thankfully, my contact was still waiting for me on arrival because the check points close at 4.30 we had to spend the night in Nepalgunj a basic hotel with lilac covered walls and a shower that leaked all night. Thank Good for the BBC World Service on the telly!

My stomach was not ready for the local food, so biscuits and black tea had to suffice. Tuesday morning, we set of for the lodge I normally use as a base. Again problems, being held up at army checkpoints – they took a keen interest in the plastic tubes I had with my rods in! One road block we passed had just been attacked 3 days earlier killing 47 personnel. At the last one, we were advised to get permission from the army before taking the raft down the River Bheri, so I met up with the army major who spoke very good English and after a 1 hour discussion in which I was told that that it would not be advisable to go down this route and there was a possibility I may be kidnapped, but no harm would come to me. But they could not stop me from going, that is all I wanted to hear. The next problem was convincing my guide that it would be all right and that I had been through similar circumstances before when I was in South Africa, so there was nothing to worry about. That took a long time, but I got there. All we had to do was get all the food ready for what was going to be a 7-day trip down the river.

The roar of a tiger woke me up that Wednesday morning; with an average temp of 70f most of the day spent gathering frogs and grasshoppers while my guide sorted out what food would be required. Due to the recent troubles there were few tourists in Bardia – so few it would have been easier to spot a tiger!

Thursday we set of for our start point, taking 4.5 hours by road crossing the river Babia which is very low at this time of the year, so taking a raft down could prove very difficult. By midday, shortly after Surket road bridge, we put the raft in with help from the locals who helped carry some of our gear. It was not long before we found a suitable site to camp for the first night. Although it was close to a local school, it was ideal for sorting the gear out and for getingt everything organised for what could prove to be a eventful expedition. only a few small fish rising in the late evening sun – great to be here again.

Friday morning 10am we were of looking for a suitable sight with Mahseer in mind, after passing over what would have been a class four rapid with a greater volume of water. it still gave us a challenge, one that we got through unscathed. After that it was not long before we located a pool in between two rapids which looked promising. After numerous attempts with lures, I set up with frog as bait. A partial success in as far as small Mahseer were caught, but not the size I was looking for. With average weight of 6-7lbs, they still put up a decent fight, so we left early the next day as from here on I was familiar with this area from my last trip. We reached Ranighat in 2hrs as, like last time, we were met by a chorus of bye bye from all the local kids standing on the bank side. Ranighat is a reasonable size village. It was a further 3hrs of rafting passing boulders as high as a Double Decker bus in the middle of the river – I certainly would not want to be here during the monsoon period! We found a place just on a bend in the river with a long straight following. There was also evidence that local fishermen had been here not too long ago. After seeing a few good fish rising I thought I would try natural baits again. Although it was slightly over cast with a bit of rain the weather did not seem too threatening. I was soon to be proven wrong, as just after we got the tents up the heavens opened! The rest of the evening was spent sheltering from the hail storm then the thunder kept up till the early hours of the morning. Needless to say, I did not catch anything that evening,

Sunday morning after a short spell fly fishing we set of again after 3-4 hours passing some long shallow parts of the river and three picturesque villages (Taranga, Chapang and Guit) all set amongst some wonderful scenery. We then stopped at one for supplies where the locals were celebrating after one of them had caught a 70lb Mahseer that day. So now my hopes are getting up! It was not long before we found the place I was looking for – a pool just before a rapid. Although a few better fish were spotted rising, we did have a take that evening which pulled the rod in. Fortunately, I had learnt from past experience that should you leave the rod unattended then at least using some rope tie the rod handle to a rock would help retrieve your tackle. On this occasion, the fish shed the hook.

Early next morning we had a visit from a local fisherman. He explained it would be better to use live fish as bait and offered to get some for us by means of netting just below the rapid, so we decided to stay here for a bit longer as the fisherman was extremely helpful. As a gift for his help, I passed on a few hooks. When I explained they were British he was highly delighted. Then he showed me a hook he had made from the thin steel you see supporting the cloth on the end of umbrellas. Going by the size of the hook it was plain to see that his intended pray was not small fish! That evening, we picked up just one small mahseer, although there was plenty of other fish rising. Not mahseer, possibly snow trout, as there are over 70 species of fish in this river I could be easily mistaken.

Tuesday morning we made up a anchor from some boulders and rope then took the raft out to the edge of the pool along with the local fisherman. We had just got started when there was a shout from what to me was another local (as it turned out he was a Maoist). On his person he had two pistols and a kukri knife, not that he was threatening us. All the same, we had to pull up the anchor and see what he wanted (to all those interested in fishing in Nepal the Maoists are of no threat to the tourists). After a 2-3 hour discussion with my guide, he asked for a donation to his party which was the equivalent of ten pounds. In Nepal that would be quite a lot of money. At no point in him being there did I feel threatened. Also, he did keep his pistols hidden. By the time he had gone, the fishing was over. After 11am the bites stopped coming and although we stayed that night, no large mahseer were forthcoming so we bid farewell to our fishing companion and moved on. With the Karnali only 2-3hrs away, we spent most of the day picking up small fish from the locals. On reaching the Karnali Gorge, we looked for a suitable camp site. Fishing in the gorge can be difficult as the river is very flat and difficult to find a productive place. Still, as we were setting up camp, we had the visit from another fisherman who explained to us that we should move further up river to a place he knows and also to beware of the tigers as they come down to this spot to drink! Well, we did not sleep too well that night and, needless to say, I did not do much fishing that night! I think I can safely say it was the sound of the jackals that kept me up that night. The next morning we set about the arduous task of rowing up river in what is a very powerful current. We were met by the fisherman and he told us about a mahseer of 50kg that had come out of this place two days ago. I must admit, though, thatI was a bit sceptical at the time.

Our campsite was next to where one of the Mountain Rivers flows into the Karnali, but was just a stream at this time of the year; going by the size of the boulders it must have been a very powerful river during the monsoon. That evening I had two takes but failed to connect. At 6am on the following Thursday morning the local fisherman advised me of the best way to set up on this particular stretch. At 9am I had a take so the local fishermen followed me out, removing any weed as they went along until they were close to the fish. Then they held the line till they felt the tug of the fish just to make sure it was not snagged and then let the line go and came back to me where upon I had to get in the canoe and follow the fish. It was then I was told then they estimated this fish to be between 50-60kg, and almost certain to be a mahseer. What followed then was 3hrs of chasing the fish up and down the river in a canoe that is carved out of a tree (locallly known as a dunga). When we finally got to the some slack water, the fisherman took hold of the line and started to guide the fish to the bank when, suddenly, the fish bolted under some underwater rock and the line snapped. Over the following three days I had a number of takes which resulted in either the hook been shed or the 25lb line breaking. I was offered some local hooks which were much larger than mine. On the Sunday morning at 5am I had a fish on and there was only the local fisherman and myself up, so off we went out in the canoe. He could not speak English, so communication was difficult. As we were taking up the line and getting close to the fish, I had to start removing the weed off my line. Then I felt the fish tugging and turned around to let the man know we had one on. I could see he was struggling  to keep up in the fast current, so we had to let some line out and to my horror the line got tangled around my wrist! I tried to explain to him what was happening, but it was too late. He could not keep up and the fish was going in the opposite direction with 25lb line around my wrist. Consequently, the line broke.

On the Monday evening I decided to fish the slacker water for catfish and went through the night till I got a run in the early hours of Tuesday morning. After a 1-2 hour struggle following the fish in the canoe I finally got one in to everyone’s relief, including myself – a catfish estimated at around 20kg, ( to my cost I found out later the Nepalese are not good at taking photos and recommend taking a tripod and a camera with a timer). On the Wednesday morning my fishing was interrupted by the army accusing the fishermen of fishing within the national park border. So they, along with their canoes, were taken away. There was nothing I could do to help them. I did manage to explain to the Colonel that I needed a boat to get across the river because we had sent the raft back earlier as it was no longer required, so at least I managed to help one of the fisherman. I stayed a further two nights, but it was not the same now everybody was demoralised. It was decided best we leave. I was lucky to have a guide who was a keen bird watcher and he spotted the  following birds while I was in the far west: yellow billed magpie, plumbs redstart, wall crepar, Himalayan crested kingfisher, osprey, scarlet minivet, dark kite, crested serpent eagle, great slety woodpecker, large parakit, jungle bablar,

I arranged to catch the local night bus to Pokhara on the Saturday evening, and after a gruelling 16hr journey I arrived in Pokhara and met up with a friend of mine who runs a travel agency. Normally I would stay on the lake side of this busy town – Phewa Tal is the name of the lake I stayed by – in a cheap £3/night lodge on the opposite side to lake side, bit quieter, but at night time the sound of the bars and clubs echoed across the lake. I fished one evening catching only small carp on bread, then all the time I had spent on the Bheri and Karnali caught up with me. Consequently, I was laid up for a few days, so not much fishing was done. I did meet up with local fisherman, and after exchanging a few hooks and line we talked about the fishing qualities of this lake. Although there are mahseer here they only go to 7kg. The big head carp which go to 40kg are best caught in June just before the monsoon. Common carp can be caught almost any time. One of the favoured baits here is potato. There are two other lakes close by – Begnas Tal and Rupa Tal. Both have fish in them but Begnas has the biggest fish in. Apart from carp, there are many other species to be caught. On one occasion I was got caught in a thunder storm while I was in the middle of the lake – thunderstorms around 4pm are a common occurrence at this time of the year, but they only last a very short time. It is due to the changing of the seasons.

I stayed on in Pokhara until Saturday morning (23 March). A previous arrangement had been made to fish the Trisuli near Kathmandu. To get to the start point I had to catch a bus to Charodi, taking only 4 hours at a cost of £1.50. Not such a gruelling journey, as this was on a more comfortable tourist bus.

After spending one night on the bank I felt a bit vulnerable being so close to the road, so I suggested we pack the gear and hitch a lift so as to put in below Mugling. Not many rafting companies go down here at this time of the year due to low levels and, also, we were further away from the road. My reason for going down here was just to survey it for anyone who does not have the time to go to the far west. The Trisuli is a wide river, but the scenic side of it is a bit of a let down. In the 4 days I spent on this river from Mugling to Narayanghat, I spotted a few leaping Mahseer, but 3 out of 4 nights were spent sheltering inside the tents due to the thunder storms. Spectacular as they were, it did not help the fishing. Once you get to the Kali Gandaki confluence the river is extremely wide and not really worth fishing from there on. Note the Kali Gandaki and Trisuli are highly regarded as holy rivers in Nepal. I did spend one night just below the Kali Gandaki confluence, with me on one side of the river and the constant burning of bodies on the other side.

On the Wednesday morning I was out of the river and heading back for Kathmandu, leaving me one day to catch on some much needed sleep before heading back to the UK on the Thursday evening flight.

I am now planning my next expedition to Karnali starting in April 2005; interested participants can contact me through my web site www.angling-adventures.co.uk

K.Ashness