“There he met the mahseer of the Poonch, beside whom the tarpon is as a herring, and he who lands him can say that he is a fisherman.”
– Rudyard Kipling (The Brushwood Boy, December 1895.)
In March 2023 another box in my unrealistically long bucket list got checked.
Pancheshwar is a tiny remote village in the Champawat district of the State of Uttarakhand in the North East of India. The nearest town is Lohaghat 40km away. More pertinently, it is situated at the confluence of the Saryu and Kali rivers whose monster-sized masheer fish are part of angling folklore.
Our main focus was fishing but it turned out that the 10-day trip threw up several other high points that contributed significantly to the overall experience.
The word ‘mahseer’ is derived from the words mahi (fish), and sher (tiger), a befitting name for one of the toughest freshwater sport fish on the planet.
Tor putitora or Golden Masheer is one 47 species of mahseer that exist in the world, 15 of which can be found in India. It exists predominantly in the rivers of the Himalayan foothills and have been known to exceed 2.5 metres in length and 50kg in weight. Habitat loss, climate change and overfishing has now forced it into the endangered species list and angling here is by permit only and is strictly ‘catch and release’.
After hearing accounts of the ferocious fight put up by these monsters I must admit that I did go a bit overboard in preparing for this trip! Lures, rods, reels, line, leaders, terminal tackle and accessories… I was taking no chances and went for the works!! I must thank Santosh Kolwankar, Arun and the people at the Hills to Ocean fishing store in Chembur, Mumbai. Apart from having a great selection of tackle, the hours spent there in helping us to set up for the trip was invaluable.
It was around this time that I learnt about the FG knot to connect braid to fluorocarbon leader and was determined to master it even if it meant losing a fish… but more on that later…
There are several options to travel from Mumbai to Pancheshwar. The most arduous would be a 1713Km, 2-day drive. We opted to take the relatively easy way out which was to fly to Bareilly and cover the remaining 251Km, 6 hour drive by car. It was well after sunset when we arrived and were fortunate to get wonderfully close sightings of a leopard, a deer (goral/barking deer?), and a number of grey hare on the last 10km stretch leading upto the camp.
The camp is situated on the banks of the Kali River, its location being slightly elevated at about 10-15 metres above water level. (The image above was taken in the evening from the confluence of the Saryu and the Kali. The lights in the distance are from the camp.) There are about 4-5 similar camps in the area, all offering tented accommodation but this one, the Pancheshwar Fishing, in my opinion, has the best view. The shot below, offering a panoramic view of the Saryu and Kali confluence, Pancheshwar temple and the surrounding hills was taken with my iPhone from the bed in my tent!
If you are reading this prior to planning a trip in the near future and, like me, are fantasising of jauntily walking Don Martin style up to the water’s edge with your fancy tackle expecting to pick up a fish every few casts you are in for a huge disappointment.
It’s not that there are no fish here. If you sit quietly on the rocks over the river’s edge you will see monster fish swimming up and down the river on a fairly regular basis. More likely, the fish are lure-shy due to all the angling that takes place and hence to increase the chance of a catch, especially the ‘big one’, one has to resort to bait fishing as well.
The best time we were told to catch a masheer on a lure was at first light. This involved getting up early, a quick coffee and then out of the camp by 5.15am. It’s about a 200-300 metre walk down to the confluence.
The river bed was strewn with rocks that had been ground and shaped over the centuries by the flow of water. No two rocks were the same and they came in breathtakingly beautiful colours and patterns that had me pausing every once in a while to stop and admire. Having said that, negotiating the area on foot was an ankle sprain just waiting to happen!
This place is held sacred and bathing in the waters around the confluence is considered spiritually cleansing. This is also a holy spot for administering the last rites. Amongst the naturally sculpted and exquisitely patterned rocks can be found remnants of funeral pyres, small monuments and even personal belongings of those who have passed on to the next world. Heart-wrenching evidence of loved ones who have left no stone unturned to ensure that their dearly departed attain eternal peace.
Standing at the confluence, surrounded by the sounds of running water as the Saryu gushes into the Kali and the wind as it blows through the valley funnelled between the high mountains that rise steeply from the river banks one gets a distinct sense of peace and tranquility. Between sessions of casting I have often simply sat on one of the rocks to soak in the hallowed ambience of this incredible location. For me it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and I have absolutely no argument with those who consider it sacred.
There are a number of spots along the Saryu and Kali to cast our lures from but the most productive one was at the very junction of the confluence and to reach it one has to wade in ankle deep flowing water and negotiate a 15-20 metre stretch of very slippery rocks, that, even in bright daylight, took some doing!
The daily temperature swings are mind-boggling, tending to get cold at night often dropping to single figures (degrees Celsius) and then gets uncomfortably warm from around 11am onwards. And it was this that dictated the fishing. Morning sessions stretched from 5.45am to around 11am after which we’d broke for lunch before returning at around 3.30pm for the evening session.
We cast our hearts out for the the first three days with absolutely no result. The 2 additional rods with live trout bait also went untouched. Needless to say we were extremely disheartened.
Then on the fourth day the (6.5Kg) 14lb Golden Masheer (below) took my bait rod on the Saryu.
With its beautifully streamlined body, large gold scales and a reddish tinge to its fins and tail the golden masheer is an aesthetically beautiful fish. I was grateful for finally getting my moment with this spectacular creature before releasing it unharmed back into the Saryu.
Life was looking rosy again!
The next day Glenn hooked one at the confluence at first light but after that we drew blanks for the next couple of days.
Before we knew it we were halfway through the trip. Although it did have its moments, from a purely angling perspective the action was not at all what we were hoping for. The bites were few and far between and the quest for a ‘monster’ was till now only a pipe dream.
For me there was another unexpected attraction that really helped compensate for the angling. Birds!
Just outside the camp wall was a large silk cotton tree and and being mid March it was flowering profusely attracting a humongous number of birds that came to gorge on its nectar.
Over the 10-day period I can recall close to 30 species that came in droves to feed on the clusters of large red flowers. In fact at any given time there were at least 50 birds some of which were lifers for me. Fortunately, I had carried my 70-200mm lens and a 2x TC. After each morning session I’d sit at the dining tent (as it was nearest to the tree) and click away to my heart’s content, the disappointment of the sluggish fishing quickly being replaced by the adrenaline rush of getting a nice bird sighting / image! Below is a selection of birds I took on the tree. (Click for full screen)
Each evening and before sunrise a brown hawk owl would call. The image below was taken, again, on the silk cotton tree!
At times I’d walk to the far end of the property beyond which there were a few bushes that also attracted a number of birds and butterflies. In this remote part of the world the birds were not very shy and the 70-200mm + 2x TC was more than adequate to get very satisfactory images.
While we were fishing we often observed a lot of wildlife passing by. Flocks of great cormorants, crested kingfishers, plumbeous redstarts, white-capped redstarts, grey wagtails I could definitely identify. I am also reasonably sure I also spotted forktails (not sure which one though). While sitting outside my tent one afternoon I also got this highly cropped image of a Himalayan goral (below) that was foraging on the mountain slope across the river.
Lest we forget, we were here for the famed ‘river monsters’ and all we had to show for it more than halfway through our trip were a couple of mid-sized masheer.
It was obvious that the fish here were lure-smart. It was time we tried another location. There was a spot about 5km up the Saryu that was productive in earlier seasons and we decided to try it out. Our chariot for the excursion was an old Mahindra jeep (very similar to the old army Willey’s).
The location was spectacular with terraced fields of wheat across the river and a heavily pebbled, sandy river bed that merged into a dense forest on the bank we were on. As we walked along the water’s edge Babloo our gilly pointed out fresh leopard tracks in the sandy soil. The pugmarks indicated that at least two of the spotted cats had recently walked the length of the river bed.
We did luck out here as I latched on to a fairly large fish that I had under my control for a couple of runs before it shook off my lure straightening my hooks in the process!
Glenn landed this mid-sized golden masheer (below) a little further down river.
On our way back we stopped to pose for pictures on the suspension bridge that spans the Saryu river about a kilometre before it enters the confluence.
From here one gets a beautiful view down the Saryu river and one can even just about see the Pancheshwar temple at the confluence in the distance in the image below.
Definite improvement in terms of angling action… but the really ‘big ones’ eluded us and time was running out.
It was time to invoke the Gods.
The Pancheshwar Mahadev Temple is dedicated to the Lord Shiva. No one really knows how old it is but judging from the talk amongst the local people it is well over a hundred years old. It is situated at the junction of the Saryu and Kali rivers and across the Saryu from our camp site. The conventional way of approaching it would be to travel upto the suspension bridge to cross to the other side of the Saryu and then make ones way to the temple.
We decided to take the unconventional route by rafting across the Saryu just before it enters the Kali which literally took us to the temple’s doorstep! The image below is a screenshot from a video taken on my newly acquired DJI Osmo Action 3 and I must say I was extremely happy with its performance.
On reaching the opposite bank we secured the raft and after leaving our life vests behind took the short walk up the river bank to the temple.
The main bell of the temple (above) was intricately inscribed and looked really ancient.
We spent a few minutes looking around before shaking hands with the priest who graciously consented to pose for an image. He was a man of few words but from his piercing gaze I got the distinct impression that he had fathomed what we were yearning for and was reassuring us that we would not go away unrewarded.
(At least that was what I hoped was the case!)
After making a small donation we made our way back to the raft. This time Raj, our host and fishing guide, (who incidentally was a certified rafting instructor), decided to give us a rafting ride down the Saryu along the rapids as it enters the Kali and then down another rapid that led us literally to the doorstep of our camp. It was my first time in a raft and I must say I quite enjoyed it!
The next couple of days were unproductive again. What’s more, the weather took a turn for the worse with intermittent showers and high winds. So much so that on one evening the wind was so strong that we were afraid that our tents would be blown away.
With two days to go and with increasingly inclement weather it was becomming more and more evident that we were not destined to hook a monster. Thanks to the rain and overcast conditions even the afternoons were chilly.
Immediately post lunch of the penultimate day I was strongly considering going back to the confluence as we had less than 48 hours to try for our trophy fish. A plan that had to be scrapped as the wind began to pick up and it began to rain.
It was then that Rupesh very casually told me that I had a strike on my bait rod. It took a few moments for it to sink it.
I was wearing rubber flip flops and a thin cotton shirt that were no match for the rocky path that led to the bait rod let alone the chilly rain and wind. None of this mattered when the adrenaline hit! Without a second thought I flew to the spot and finally landed my monster fish.
We weighed it with the camps fancy Rubenheaton scale on a fish mat which read 51lbs. After deducting the weight of the fish mat (4lbs) my fish weighed an impressive 47lbs.
Soaking wet and teeth-chatteringly frozen I was one happy trooper!
With a little over a day to go Dr. Glenn Mascarenhas was still hoping to latch on to his monster fish and we redoubled our efforts. Early on the final day we continuously cast our lures and the bait rods were placed in strategic locations with fresh live trout bait. The weather continued to be iffy. The rain had subsided with the occasion light drizzle but the sky remained heavily overcast resulting in a further drop in temperature.
Morning turned to afternoon and with each passing hour we were getting more and more disheartened that Glenn would go home without a big catch. Mind you, he had landed a couple of mid-sized golden masheer on a lure.
What happened from now on I swear is the absolute truth…
That afternoon it began to drizzle and became heavily overcast. The two bait rods had been placed at different locations and the high winds made it impossible to manage both and we were forced to bring one in. Out of sheer disappointment and for want of nothing better to do in the crappy weather, at around 3pm I decided to take a nap. When I emerged from my tent an hour later the weather had improved considerably and the second rod was put out, a last and finally all out attempt to get Glenn his prize fish.
We were due to leave early next morning to catch the 2pm flight from Bareilly. A cut off time of 9pm was decided upon after which the rods would be brought in to be packed.
At 8.44pm Glenn glances at the time on his phone. 16 minutes to go till the pre-decided limit. It looks like a lost cause and we debate on whether we should call it a day but decide what the heck, let’s wait.
Time drags on. Once again Glenn looks at the time on his iPhone. It read 8.58pm. He actually uttered the words: “There is no point waiting… Let’s bring the rods in” when our gilly Babloo yelled that the bait rod at the far end had got a hit! By now it was dark as we rush to the rod and after quite a fight Glenn landed the beauty below. A whopping 35lbs on the Rubenheaton weighing scale.
Cutting it this fine and the near miraculous timing only happened in movies! It was incredible!!
Early the next morning there was not one but two extremely happy troopers that departed for Mumbai. It was an amazing trip that had many highlights…
-Sighting of the majestic leopard barely 10-15 yards from the car as we drove into camp. It gave us a full broadside view for several moments before slowly turning away and melting into the night.
-Being able to soak in the untouched natural beauty of this sacred landscape for 9 whole days.
-The fishing though initially disappointing (a little more action by way of more bites on the casting lures would have been nice) but all in all we can have no complaints!
-The camp was ideally located and our tents were very comfortable for single occupancy. They were spotlessly clean as were the spacious, well equipped en suite washrooms.
-For me personally the sessions of birding that slotted in perfectly between sessions of angling was more than I could have asked for.
And finally, this blog would not be complete without mention of the team at Pancheshwar Fishing.
From right to left:
Dr. Glenn Mascarenhas my co-angler whose last minute action was nothing short of miraculous.
Rupesh who is one of the partners managing the camp. The fact that he is a certified ornithologist was a huge plus.
Vinod the chef is third from the right and a vital cog in this group. His culinary skills were superb thanks to which I decide to ditch my intermittent fasting protocol of skipping breakfast. Below is a example on what was what was on offer at one breakfast: The most delicious keema (mince) I have ever eaten served with a mind-blowing mint sauce. It’s no wonder that I put on 2kg despite the heavy physical activity!
Pramod is next. He was the general man-about-camp who was ever-willing and constantly at our beck and call be it serving meals, fetching a chilled beer or arranging for hot water for a bath.
Anand and Babloo were our gillys who were always by our side when we were fishing. Anand’s claim to fame is he figures in several photographs along with the legendary Jeremy Wade.
Babloo was amazing. The way this guy skips along the rocky mountainside would put a goral in the shade. He was always with his tube that was used not only to accurately place the bait but also to rescue our lures when they got snagged. That’s him in the image above negotiating one of the rapids on his tube.
And finally Raj, on my left. Raj is the local owner of the property. He has been fishing these waters for over two decades and his knowledge was invaluable in our quest for the golden masheer. He is also a certified rafting instructor.
And, ah yes… there is the little matter about the FG knot that I had learnt to tie just before the trip from YouTube videos. My knots were tested in the extreme, (all the large fish, yanking at snagged lures and even a fish that straightened my hook) and I’m thrilled to say they always held.
Looking back it was a fabulous trip with several highlights that contributed substantial amounts of icing on the proverbial cake. If however, I were to select a cherry to sit on top of all those layers of yummy icing then it most definitely would be provided by my FG knot!