On Leopards & Mahseer at Pancheshwar, Eastern Kumaon, Uttaranchal, One of North India’s finest fishing spots.
There are probably one or two tigers still around in these parts of the Kumaon that I frequent but the area is infested with leopards. The river sands - especially at the confluences – always show very visible signs of leopard by tracks & pugmarks.
One early morning while on a fishing trip, I tracked the movement of a leopard to a rock overlooking our campsite of 6 tents. He, a big male, had at first crouched behind the rock & sort of spied on us. He eventually gathered up the courage to climb onto the rock & watch us as we ate dinner around the campfire.
Dropping off the lock & creeping closer when things got quiet as we got into our tents, he ambled through the camp and down to the outside of the kitchen tent where he sniffed around before going down to the river for a drink of water.
Finally, he took the track alongside the river and made his way back into the forest.
Then there was this cow/buffalo-herd who was set up on the opposite bank to where we were once camped. We would boat over to his bank for
a chat & to share a 'Bidi' or a cigarette, but primarily to buy a supply
of fresh milk for the camp.
One morning, I went across to his bank with my camp boy and while the camp boy went up to get some milk, I began fishing.
However, some 20 minutes later, the camp boy & the cowherd were down on the river besides me. The cowherd wanted me to come up & take a look at one of his cows. Now I'm no doctor, but I am a self-taught paramedic & first-aider so I asked him what the problem was. "One of my cows was attacked by a leopard last evening” said the cowherd.
Apparently, the previous evening at dusk, when calling in his cows & buffalos he noticed that one cow was missing. He went into the forest to look for the animal thinking that it may have got its horns stuck in a bush or slipped into a hole or something.
As went around a bend on the forest track, he almost walked onto the leopard.
The leopard, with the cows face in its mouth, was hanging on & trying to bring the cow down with its weight before going for the neck and the windpipe to make the kill.
The cowherd yelled at the top of his voice – probably in terror & shock - and hit the leopard a couple of times with the big stick he was carrying.
The leopard ran away.
This cow, when I saw it, was all swollen-faced & quiet. I could see the deep puncture marks that the leopard’s canines had made on her face & where the claws had raked the neck.
Our hill cows are probably the size of big sheep, a big sheep that one could see in day-to-day life & this little cow was in quite a bad shape.
I sent my camp boy back across the river to camp to bring me the first-aid box as I had a large bottle of iodine in it.
I poured the iodine onto the wounds of the unflinching cow & dabbed the neck scrapes down with an iodine-soaked wad of cotton wool. I left the bottle with the cowherd & told him to keep dabbing on iodine twice a day over the course of the next week.
I visited the spot again two years later and went across the river and asked about the cow. That particular cowherd was not there and no one else remembered the incident - it was probably too much of an everyday thing to remember.
Now hear this: I've personally never seen a leopard or a tiger in the wild in India - ever - in my whole life. I've seen plenty of tracks, pugmarks, kills, and victims, heard a tiger roar from very close up, yes, but I've never ever seen one with my own two eyes.
This stretch of the river Maha Kali – from Pancheshwar to Boom near Tanakpur, has what is probably North India’s finest Mahseer fishing. There have been occasions when 6 anglers have been fishing at the Pancheshwar confluence and every single rod had a fish on at the same time.
The ‘big ones’ I know of include a couple 64 pounders and the ‘biggest of them all’ a 75 pounder caught & released by David Hilton of Dehradun. My personnel best has also been downstream of Pancheshwar – a village named Ghat – a lovely 29 pounder.
Unfortunately, we still have the fish poachers around here from both India & Nepal and addition to using small gauge nets stretched across the river, it’s quite common to come across poachers who use dynamite & destroy the complete eco-system in that stretch of the river. But, the Mahseer being the wily fish that it is, has learnt – again, this is my theory – to recognise the ‘hiss & splutter’ of a burning fuse on a stick of dynamite for what it is. The big fish hear this ‘hiss & splutter’ and get out of the way – as fast as a streak of lightning – a glitter of silver & a flash of gold and they're gone!
Another gruesome operation is when these poachers go into partnership with the local Pujari (priests).
Here, picture this… You have a poor family coming down to a confluence to perform the last rites & cremate the body of a deceased family member.
The priest rushes thru the whole process & announces the ritual is over & done & has the half-burnt corpse put into the river. Now the Mahseer, being on the top of the food chain of a healthy river, moves in for the feast.
The dynamiter & his gang are waiting around the next bend in the river when down floats the ‘bait’ with maybe a couple of dozen or more Mahaseer, big & small feasting...
Belly-Up go the whole school of feasting fish…
Read A St J Macdonald’s book titled "Circumventing the Mahseer and ther Sporting Fish in India & Burma". A book first published in 1948.
As a tip to anglers in the Kumaon Hills, at a beautiful confluence named Pancheshwar where the Sarju & the Maha Kali meet, Macdonald suggests lighting a huge bonfire on the banks of the river if the fishing action is slow.
This lighting of a huge bonfire signals 'cremation' to the fish & they get worked up! You then start getting into some action.
Now I've fished Pancheshwar – at this very spot that Macdonald mentions –
It was on a very slow day, one of those days when you've resigned yourself to going through the mechanical movements of tossing out a plug & reeling it back in, over & over again & again, knowing that you're not going to get a bite but you're still enjoying being out of the city, on the river, listening to the sound of the water, watching the sky, the clouds & the birds, soaking in the jungle...
& then it happened...
A group of villagers came down to the confluence on the side of the river where I was fishing - I was about 200 yards upstream from them - and started the Hindu ritual of a cremation.
As I fished, another group came down to the river on the far bank opposite me & it was another funeral.
Now you'll never believe this, but out of the jungle on the third bank, (a confluence has three banks, I'll try to illustrate this with a 'Y', if you put a dot at each section of the Y & you'll see what I mean) down came another funeral procession & I witnessed three simultaneous cremations, spaced out by about 10 minutes between each other…
I reeled in my plug.
I checked the hooks.
I inspected the last 20 feet of line for frays & nicks.
I snipped my knot & re-tied it with a couple of extra turns.
I re-set the 'drag' on my reel.
Satisfied with the run-through, I took a deep breath and I was finally ready to catch the 'fish of my dreams!’
I mean, Macdonald said 'build a fire if the action is slow'.
And here today the action was definitely very slow. But now I had not one, not two but THREE huge fires going - "The fish must be going crazy down there!" I said to myself, as I started casting.
I fished continuously for three hours from that moment onwards.
I cast at every angle available to my position, I changed my plug four times, I retrieved at a fast pace, I slowed down my retrieve, I walked downstream of the funeral pyres & tried again – I tried every trick in my book but I didn't get even a nibble!
"It must have been one of those very bad days", I muttered to myself as I trudged up the steep path on the way back to camp.
Pat Kerr/Big Mahseer