Kings of Kaveri

By Chris Woodrow

The thrill of the big Mahseer, hooked in heavy water, hurling himself down the rapid with express speed to the tune of a fast emptying reel, has an electric joy apart from any other sport. There is nothing quite like it: and once it is experienced it is imprinted forever on the tablets of memory.

A. St. J. Mac Donald, Cicumventing the Mahseer (1948) 

In early February this year I was all set to be travelling to Amsterdam for a Carp Conference and then directly on to Belgium to fish with one of the top Benelux carp men.

I was really looking forward to the trip, the thought of those whacking 70lb carp which lurk in their canals was getting me really excited. However, with the freezing weather conditions and snow throughout Europe at that time, I was absolutely gutted when the trip had to be cancelled …… unless, of course, I fancied fishing for Penguins!!!

This put me in a bit of a dilema, what the hell was I going to do now??

I was desperate for a break from work and had thought of nothing else but to get behind the rods again for decent session for several months. I couldn’t really go to France, even deep into Southern France, for the same freak weather conditions were obviously prevailing there too. I flicked through the most recent Carpworlds I had handy in my desk drawer, being the January and February editions, looking for a glimmer of hope. And there it was, an article by Ian Jones on the mighty Mahseer of Southern India entitled "A Passage To India".

An excellent piece, with stunning photos’ and you got the feeling it was written from the bottom of his heart. To say my appetite was wetted is a major understatement, I was positively soaking!!! I immediately phoned Alan Parberry of Mistral Bait fame, who acts as an agent for Dave Plummer's World Wide Angling trips. World Wide Angling run a limited number of trips to Southern India from early to late March every year in pursuit of the mighty Mahseer which inhabit the River Kaveri. They have been running trips to India since 1991 and are at the forefront of fishing in pursuit of Mahseer. I’ve known Alan through the Carp scene for several years and indeed used Mistral Baits with great success in France many times, so it was good to talk to him again and chewing the fat. Alan described a trip beyond my wildest dreams, I was now determined I wanted some of this magic for myself.

"Do you have any spaces available?" I said with baited breath.

"Well, most people book at least a year in advance so all the trips this year are full…..but, it just so happens that a couple of guys have recently cancelled their places on the March trip. These are the only places available this year."

Am I a lucky guy or what?!!!

I confirmed my booking there and then, and a cheque was winging its’ way through the post to them. I was booked for the trip of a lifetime! Believe you me, it really is an al in package and you are nursed with kid gloves personally by Dave Plummer and his staff from start to finish.

March 14th arrived and I headed towards Heathrow Airport on a cold, wet morning.

I had been reliably informed by Dave Plummers lovely wife Linda (who incidently could talk The Scatman out of a job!) that I was due to meet up with 5 others at the Air India check in and that 6th person was due to meet up with us in India after a couple of days due to work commitments. I didn’t know what type of people to expect, in my own mind, for some strange reason, I thought they would all be carp anglers. How wrong could I be!

When I arrived at the Air India check in there was only one person with a rod tube and rucksack, so I headed for him. It turned out to be Phil Degens, a landscape gardener from East Sussex and a formidable pike fisherman in his own right, with several 30lb plus fish to his credit and a nice guy as well. Now, some of these details may appear irrelevant but, what I’m trying to do, is get across to you what type of person will travel over 6000 miles, at significant expense, in pursuit of fish. 

After introducing ourselves, the talk quickly turned to "What do you reckon the grub will be like?" "Where do you wash?", "How do you keep the beer cold?", and important things like that. Soon we were joined by other members of the party, Richard Faithful was the first on his third trip with World Wide Angling to India, having had fish to 81lb previously. Richard was able to answer our questions and he must have felt like being in Magnus Magnusons Mastermind chair as a relentless barrage of questions flew at him. Listening to Richards tales of rods being wrenched from your arms, hundreds of yards of line ripped from your spool on the fishes first run and of course, the ones which had got away, left us all spellbound and I couldn’t wait to get my baits in the water. Richard is a heating and ventilating engineer for the record and a great guy. He’s a bit of a ‘split cane and centre pin’ fisherman as I call them, obviously disgusted that Echo sounders, trios of 4lb test curve matching rods, loud bite alarms and high-tech boilies flung to the horizon is the type of fishing I enjoy. I’m sorry, but crawling about in the undergrowth with a split cane float rod and sweetcorn on a size 12 hook is not for me, still all to their own.

Next along was Gary Upstone, a plasterer from Bicester and a mate of Joe Taylor. Gary had been the other lucky person who’d heard of a cancellation and immediately jumped on the band wagon. He had so much gear with him it was unbelievable, his jacket alone stuffed with reels, leads and packets of army rations weighing in at over 20 kilos!! His rod tube, along with a couple of rods was stuffed with hundreds of crisps and his rucksack was positively ‘A La Carte!!’ As you might have gathered Gary is not a lover of Indian food and hence, had brought all his own grub ranging from ‘sausages & beans’ to ‘chicken pasta’ to ‘creamed rice’! We hit it off straight away, not that that his stocks of goodies had anything to do with it of course….

A married couple from Norwich were the last to arrive, George and Sheena Robson. George looked like your typical ‘white hunter’ from the days of the Raj, decked out in full safari gear and with hip flask at the ready! Sheena wasn’t intending fishing, she was more interested in the wildlife and exotic birds which abound in that part of India. George is a headmaster and Sheena a retired teacher, a lovely couple and great company.

The 6th member of our party was due to meet us at the camp in India a couple of days later, a guy named Keith Julian. Keith is Administration Manager for Leceister University, a bubbly little chap with a taste for fine wines and obviously a bloody good salary looking at all his brand new top of the range tackle!

As you can see we had a fair spectrum of people, but it was evident from the onset, a good bunch and the trip was sure to be a laugh if nothing else.

I bought a couple of bottles of Moet Champagne at the duty free, one to celebrate the first 50lb + fish if our group was lucky enough to catch one and the second to celebrate Gary’s birthday which he’d informed us was later in the second week.

Air India had been on strike just prior to our departure, things were still in a mess so we had to travel to Delhi from Heathrow and then collect a connecting flight to Bombay, rather than flying direct to Bombay as is normal. From Bombay we had to connect with a further internal flight to Bangalore in Southern India where Dave Plummer was due to meet us for the overland journey to the River Kaveri.

It was an immense journey of over 6000 miles with some worrying moments, especially at Bombay Domestic Airport where the over zealous officials didn’t want to let us on the flight! Some smooth talking … yes sir, no sir, a thousand apologies sir, grovel grovel…soon got us on the flight and after a couple of hours we were shaking hands with Dave Plummer at Bangalore Airport. The heat in Bangalore was stifling in the mid-day sun and judging by the sun tan Dave was sporting it had obviously been bloody hot for a while!!

 A breathtaking sight, winding it’s way through the valleys of great rock formations and sun scorched earthWe jumped on the waiting mini bus for the lengthy journey through Bangalore and on to the River Kaveri. After a couple of hours and a full run down from Dave on what had been happening over the last few weeks we caught our first glimpse of the Kaveri River. A breathtaking sight, winding it’s way through the valleys of great rock formations and sun scorched earth. The tiredness of the long journey gave way to the adrenalin which was now pumping through me. The last stretch of the journey is quite hairy, along a pitted dirt track festooned with boulders and sheer sided drops to the river below.

We finally reached the camp, some 20 hours after leaving Heathrow Airport. What a site! Home sweet home, a very well thought out camp set amidst a clearing in the trees only 50 yards from the river at Garoboli Pool. Everyone had a private tent, there are even proper sit down toilets which are flushed utilising a nearby bucket! The camp is many miles from the nearest village civilisation, the quietness of it all was overpowering and very pleasant. Nothing, except for birds, the river and the gentle hum of nature going about its’ daily routine.

We all wandered down to the edge of the river and just stood, paddled and took in the wonderous surroundings of our new home. The heat was intense. Some shade, lunch and a cold beer were called for back at the camp.

We were introduced to our guides, Suban and Bola being the most experienced from the Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ days and Curriappu and Chikaradju more recent additions. All first class guides, with many very big Mahseer to their credit as a result of their hard work and intimate knowledge of the Kaveri River system.

After a hearty and very tasty lunch of traditional Indian cuisine, Dave proceeded to split us into pairs and allocate each pair a guide. I was paired off with Gary, and we were very fortunate to be allocated leading guide Suban. Suban is a great character, quietly confident and it wasn’t long before he was sporting his very own Essex Angling baseball cap an I could say Essex Man in Indian!!

Just for the crack and to create a bit of competition between the pairs Gary and I decided we would call our little gang ‘The A Team’, I just hoped we’d be able to live up to such a bold name!!!

By now, it was mid afternoon and time to set up the tackle. Everyone found this highly amusing and I knew I’d be in for constant stick from the rest of the guys. Being so involved with Essex Angling and writing regularly for Carp magazines, I’m sure they thought I’d be a "got all the gear" angler….. This was not to be, I’d borrowed a 6–10oz uptide boat rod 10’ long from a friend in the shop, had no reel, lead, hooks, beads or adequate spare line rig tube. Hooks, were 6/0 and 8/0 Owners borrowed initially from Gary and then purchased from Dave. These hooks are incredibly sharp, once hooked there is no danger of them coming out or bending. Beads were borrowed from Phil and Keith. Thanks guys, what are friends for!!

Mahseer RigThe rig was set up as shown in the photograph, kept simple to avoid tangles and unecessary weak points. The Mahseer will test tackle to the limits and beyond, any weak point will be found and could result in you losing the fish of your dreams.

Anyway, 5pm arrived and Suban took myself and Gary for a 15 minute walk to the rapids at Mushli Hala for our introduction to Mahseer fishing and a short evening session. It was wonderful to get the first bait, a Ragi paste, into the water. Ragi is made from Maize flour and various spices, is a dark brown colour and smells like a kind of beef extract. The paste is rolled into fist size balls and then boiled for 20 minutes or so until rubbery, this is then allowed to cool and can be easily moulded around the hook. Ragi has been a major part of the staple food source in Southern India for hundreds of years and has been apparently catching Mahseer for decades….. Who said carp fishing boilies were a recent innovation??

I sat with both hands gripping the rod firmly and drag set tight. The bait had been cast some 20 yards into the middle of the rapid and had settled behind a rock near the centre of the river. I was very apprehensive and nervous, I didn’t know what to expect. Could these things really wrench the rod from me? Could they really rip off all the line from your spool on their first run?….every knock on the rod tip had me gripping the rod tighter and jumping to my feet in anticipation.

Chat was minimal as Gary, Suban and I soaked up the atmosphere and dreamed of possible encounters with monsters from the Kaveri depths to come….We fished for about 3 hours, nothing was caught but I couldn’t wait to get out first thing the next morning for another try.

The night air was cool and it was good to sit around the table in the camp, gossip, sip a cold beer and relax. Considering the limited resources and the fact everything was cooked on an open fire, the food was great and a credit to the hard work of the chef. The local beer was also (thankfully!) very drinkable, a credit to the Kingfisher Brewery in Bangalore.

My first night was very restless, even though I was really knackered the excitement of the whole experience kept my mind racing. Every noise seemed new to me, every cracking branch, screach of a bird, distant trumpet of an elephant or just the wind rustling through the trees had me wondering. Some noises however were all too familiar, Gary in the next tent was obviously having trouble digesting his army ration meals!!! Told you mate, you should have stuck to the curry!!

Morning arrived and by 8:30am we were back at the Mushli Hala rapids, this time on the opposite side of the river from the camp.

We had crossed the river in an Indian coracle, a round fibreglass boat for four people, this was quite an experience but made to look easy by our Indian guides. This was to be ‘my’ morning and one which I will never forget as long as I live.

The river looked low and appeared to have dropped slightly from the night before, the Ragi bait was cast into deep water beside two large boulders from the Centre rock 20 yards before the start of the Mushi Hala rapids. Nothing happened for the first hour, but I just knew something would occur, you know when you get that ‘feeling’ and it’s just a matter of time. I felt incredibly confident that either myself or Gary would do the business on our first morning, Suban also was boiling over with enthusiasm and kept saying "Soon sir, soon". The rod was gripped tightly in both my hands and then, out of the blue at around 9:30am, my dream was to come true and all hell broke lose….

The rod slammed down towards the water with incredible force and the reel began to scream as the 40lb Big Game line, clutch set as tight as I dare, was ripped off the spool at an alarming rate. 

Suban, seeing the commotion, was by my side in a flash, closely followed by a very excited Gary. I was physically dragged towards the rapid as the fish powered off, I followed as best I could across the slippery rocks sometimes up to my neck in water. 50 or 60 yards nearer the rapid and the fishes back broke surface in the shallow water, an awesome sight which made me all the more nervous. I was applying as much pressure as I dare, the rod was creaking precariously under the immense strain, to try and stop the fish going into the rapid.

"Good fish sir" yelled Suban, who was now following the fish down the rapid. I smiled……

The power of the fish was unbelievable, like hooking an Intercity Train at full pelt and then trying to play it in! Bola, Phil and Georges guide who were fishing nearby, joined us further down to help out as he could see it was obviously not a bad fish.

I clambered down the rapid as best I could trying to keep as much pressure on the fish as possible, the fish was not tiring in the least with constant bursts of incredible power both up and down the rapid. Suban and Bola swam in the white water at the heart of the rapid freeing the line from boulders as the fish weaved its way around the rocks, enabling me to keep a direct line on the fish.

The water at the bottom of the rapid was deep, so I swam to a large boulder in the middle of the river and played the fish from there. By now the fish had been on for some 40 minutes and was beginning to tire. It had dragged me over 500 yards from where it had picked up the hookbait.

Chris WoodrowWith Suban and Bola coaxing me on, the fish finally showed its full glory in the gin clear water. I was gobsmacked, it looked as long as I am tall…5’7" by the way!! A couple of minutes later and Suban expertly did the business with the stringer, the prize was mine.

Everyone was grinning like Cheshire cats and shaking hands, I punched the air with delight and ‘The A Team’ cry went out! A Golden Mahseer, Barbus Tor, is the most fantastic looking fish. Perfectly proportioned, glistening silvery gold in the sunlight with bright orange fins. The fish was left under Gary’s watchful eye on a stranger in deep water to regain some strength, whilst myself and Suban headed upstream to see Dave Plummer, tell him the good news and borrow his weighing gear. Dave was at Kengal Pool fishing with Richard Faithful, a few hundred yards upstream from where I’d originally hooked my fish.

When we arrived, we couldn’t believe it! There was Dave, rod bent double, into what was obviously a whacker and Richard smiling away, with a 611lb fish on a stringer ready to be photographed!! What a morning!, we watched Dave safely land his prize, a 75lb Golden Mahseer in prestine condition and then borrowed his weighing gear and scampered back towards my waiting fish. After seeing the size and weight of Daves fish, I guessed mine looked a very similar size. I was shaking, had I really caught a fish over 70lbs on my first day!!? At 5’3" long and weighing in at 75lb, I was elated. My biggest freshwater fish to date, what a great start to the holiday. With 3 monstrous fish caught the first morning, everyone’s confidence was sky high.

After a big lunch, the afternoon was spent re-living the capture to anyone interested, swimming in the cool water and napping in the shade of the camp. No fish were caught during the evening session that day, but it was certainly not uneventful………..

After the mornings action Suban had decided that we should go back to Mushli Hala and try our luck again. Dave and Richard were fishing opposite us, to our left, in an area known as The Wall. After only half an hour or so, Dave and Richard both began jumping up and down making very strange hand signals. Christ, I thought, they’ve either had too much sun or too much beer!!! At that point, for some reason, Suban turned round an let out a cry…the colour had drained from his face. Now, I realised that Dave and Richards strange actions had been to warn us of danger behind us at the edge of the treeline. 

And, there it was, well over 3 tonnes of Indian Elephant with enormous tusks in all his glory.

This thing was big, real big and less than a hundred yards away from us!! I can normally talk my way out of most situations, but this was gonna be difficult! Suban was absolutely terrified, having been chased by an angry male elephant before on his bike. Apparently it chased him until he fell off his bike, Suban climbed the nearest tree to relative safety and was forced to watch while the elephant trampled his bike to death!! So, as you can see, he had every reason to be worried!

We decided the best option would be to swim across the river, easier said than done with expensive camera equipment and all our tackle, not to mention a river strewn with boulders and fast currents. However, with Bolas’ help from the other bank and some more of that luck I keep getting, we were soon out of danger and on the other side of the river. The elephant we had seen soon emerged from the bushes trailed by 6 others for a leisurely drink from the river, a pretty impressive sight to say the least. Safely back at camp, we were able to cork the first bottle of Moet Champagne and glasses were raised to the ‘Kings of the Kaveri’ and, of course, the A Team!!

The next few days were fairly uneventful, with 8 fish caught to 33lb between the whole group. My fishing partner Gary was getting a little downhearted by now and was desperate for a good fish, I kept reassuring him that his turn would come. Of course, this was easy for me to say, as I’d luckily done the business on the first day and by now was getting so laid back I was almost in reverse!! On the 6th day however, Gary’s luck changed…

We were back at Mushli Hala rapids, Gary was fishing from a rock a third of the way into the river casting towards the rapid and allowing the bait to settle behind a large rock 15 yards from the start of the rapid. Garys’ bait was Chilwa, a small dead fish. I was fishing alongside him and we were chatting about life in general, with heavy emphasis on the opposite sex, when Garys rod was suddenly wrenched forward and line began pouring off the spool. The A Team cry went out as we headed off after the fish down the rapid.

Gary held on for dear life as, what was obviously a lump, powered off downstream. Suban was, as always, guiding us through the operation and after a 20 minute battle Gary safely landed a lovely 51lb Golden Mahseer. He was over the moon, grins and handshakes all round. We took some great photo’s with his head and the fish at the same level in the water, the fish was, of course, the better looking one!!

I managed to sneak out a fish of 27lb that same morning and Richard Faithful, again at Kengal Pool, a good fish of 56lb. The next day a few smaller ones were landed, the biggest being a 32lb fish to our resident gardener Phil Degens.

The 8th day arrived, The A Team were fishing at Kengal Rapids, casting freshwater crab bait into the fast flowing white water and allowing baits to anchor up in the middle of the river. Virtually immediately my second cast hit the water, the rod was yanked sharply downwards and a fierce battle began. The fish steamed off the rapid and I could virtually see the bare metal at the bottom of my spool before I finally managed to stop the fish and gain some line.

Half an hour later, after an awesome scrap and with Subans expert assistance, I was 300 yards downstream with a tired fish ready to come ashore. Suban did the honours and I jumped for joy when another massive fish was mine. At 62lb and in prestine condition, I was in heaven!

By now, our very own ‘white hunter’ George Robson now sporting a rugged safari beard and his ever faithful hip flask had caught nothing, in fact he hadn’t had so much as a sniff. Being mean sods, The A Team had been giving this poor guy a very had time but, this was to be the day when tables turned….

That evening, George was fishing with Dave Plummer and Phil Degens at the top end of Mushi Hala. Dave had been trying his upmost to get George a fish, Georges bait this evening was Ragi paste cast very close to the bank in deep water and allowed to settle behind some large rocks. The Ragi as soon munched down by a hungry Mahseer and a short while later an exhausted George was cradling a 68lb beauty!!

That night was very enjoyable, I awoke the next morning with a very sore head, as did most others!!

It was now March 23rd and Kieth Julians’ turn for some magic…..

The A Team were again fishing at Kengal, I’d just returned a terrific little 22lb Silver Mahseer, when we heard cries of joy from further upstream at Kengal Pool. The cries became louder as Keith, closely followed by Dave and Bola headed towards us with Keiths rod bent at an alarming angle. I grabbed my camera and managed to get some great shots of Keith playing the fish down the rapid to the point where Bola lifted Keith 82lb prize ashore. A tremendous fish and a slightly happy Keith!!

The A Team kept rather quiet as they’d now been knocked off ‘top rod’ position by a comfortable 7lb margin! Dave Plummer then added the final nail to The A Team coffin by knocking out the biggest fish of the trip on March 24th weighing 88lb and equaling Daves’ personal best Mahseer, well be done mate.

Mahseer!The last day of fishing all too soon arrived but, not wanting to be out done, the group managed to catch 6 fish to 32lb. That night we had a great feast and plenty more toasts to the ‘Kings of the Kaveri’, we had managed to catch 30 Mahseer over 10lb and 9 Mahseer over 50lb between us – what a result!!! We had been very lucky and The Kaveri River kind enough to give us some of its’ secrets.

Truly awesome fishing.

We said our farewells to the guides and camp staff and headed back towards Bangalore for a night in the luxury St.Marks Hotel. The air conditioning and five star treatment was a welcome end after two weeks under canvass and a great way to prepare for a long journey back to the UK the next day. Our last day was spent shopping for souvenirs amidst the bustle and constant noise of Bangalore. 

Back now in the UK, it’s all but memory but, if I may be permitted to quote again A. St. J. MacDonald, author of ‘Circumventing The Mahseer’ published in 1948, "Once it is experienced it is imprinted forever on the tablets of memory".

My thanks to Dave Plummer of World Wide Angling, our excellent guides and camp staff and my companions on such a truly magical experience.

Footnote…… cannot just turn up to fish at the River Kaveri in India, it has to be through an authorised party.

Chris 'Essex Man' Woodrow

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