Fishing the Subansiri

By Timothy Larson

Many of my fondest and most cherished memories were etched into my mind and soul on fishing trips up the Subansiri river into the foothills of the Himalayas.  The river flows out of the mountains just north of Pathalipam which is 20 miles east of North Lakhimpur. The Subansiri is the second largest river in Assam. The fishing trips took place in the 1960's and consisted of arranging with local Mising (formally refered to as Miris) people to rent two or three teak dugouts and four to six men to operate the dugouts for the trip into the mountains. Some of the fishing trips consisted of rising very early in the morning, fishing for a couple of hours and returning home by noon. We lived only seven miles from where the river broke out into the plains. Looking north from our house over the tall waving elephant grass one could see the two mountain peaks that were the gateway for the river. 

In 1950 there was a large earthquake that caused a tremendous landslide to block the river for a few days and as the hydrostatic pressure built the load became too large and there was a flood that spread all the way to North Lakhimpur and many people were killed. As the dugouts traveled upstream we could see portions of mountains that had no vegetation because of landslides from the earthquake. The local people came to call this portion of the Himalayas "nunga parbut" - naked mountains. As we entered beautiful gorges in the mountains there was a clift on the west side where there was much iron ore (red streak from oxidation) and the Mising have a myth that Krishna slayed a deer and drug it across the face of this mountain.

The most exhilarating portions of the ride were navigating the numerous rapids that lay between our starting point and the camp site in the mountains. It was in these rapids that one had the best fishing for mahseer (member of the carp family). One can image the strength of this fish that lives in such fast thunderous water. In some of the rapids it was very difficult to even talk to the person sitting right behind you in the boat. Most the time was spent not talking but praying that you would make it past the rough water safely.

There was an outcropping of sand at the confluence of a mountain stream and the river where we would camp. The tracks in the sand showed that elephants, tigers, serow, deer and wild red dogs shared this piece of land with us. The stream had a pool not far from the camp. When fishing was slow or we just wanted to do something else we lashed banana tree trunks together to make rafts and poled ourselves across the pool.

Just upstream from the camp site was a tremendously long rapids where we did most of our mahseer fishing. We would wade out into the fast current and find a spot where we had secure footing and then start casting with artificial lures. From postings on the internet it seems now that most use bait on a hook. The lures we used were of two major types. One was a silver spoon and it was important to use a good swivel in front of the lure or the line would become very twisted and cause problems. The other problem with this type of lure is that it sinks and one cannot allow a lure to drop too much as it will get tangled or caught in the rocks and boulders. The Subansiri has eaten many of my lures.

The second lure that we used and was very good was a Basso-rino. This lure is used in North America to catch largemouth bass and comes in many sizes and colors. The lure is made out of wood so that it floats when the tension in the line is released and was ideal for the rocky rapids because it floated or is a surface plug. You do not want to use a steep diving plug like this but a shallow running one. We found that all treble hooks, the above lure had three, made in the USA had to be changed to stronger treble hooks which we obtained in Calcutta. My father caught a mahseer once which straightened one hook on the first treble hook, two on the second and all three on the last treble hook. He lost the fish and from then on we replaced all US made hooks on our lures. In addition to the basserino there were floating lures that looked like mice which we also found very effective in catching mahseer.

One must know where to cast and retrieve lures in order to increase the probability of catching a mahseer. I found the best method or approach was to find a large submerged rock in the rapids, cast upstream and slightly beyond the rock, and then retrieve the lure through the still water just downstream of rock. If you do not get a strike after a few cast you should move onto the next large submerged rock.

Flowing into the upper part of the rapids we fished was a stream and it is always productive to fish the confluence of a stream and river because of the food the stream brings into the river. Once my father and I had fished the rapids all morning with no luck so we decided to play in the stream by building a small dam with rocks hoping to dislodge food that would flow from the stream into the river. After doing this for about an hour and eating our own lunch, I got a strike on my first cast into the rapids right where the stream flowed into the river. The fishing was good all afternoon.

Immediately on catching a mahseer you will realize why people travel halfway around the world to fish for mahseer. As soon as the mahseer hits the lure it takes off and there is nothing you can do to stop the fish. They are powerful and you had better have plenty of line on the reel. As soon as it stops you start working the fish back towards you. You must never allow any slack in the line as I can guarantee that you will lose the fish as it will take off and snap the line. As you work the fish in it will take off again when it gets too close to you or the shore. This will happen repeatedly until the fish is completely tired and you can finally shelve it on the shore. As you play the fish you may have to move up and down the river bank with the fish. Always keep the line between you and the fish perpendicular to the flow of the water. There are two reasons for this, one is the fish has to continually fight to keep proper position with the direction of river flow and gets tired more quickly. The second is that the angle this causes the fish to make with the river reduces the water flow through the gills and thus reduces the oxygenation and tires the fish more quickly. The rule of thumb for the total time it takes to "play" a mahseer is one minute for each pound that it weights. So if the mahseer weighs 30 lb. it will take 30 minutes to land the fish from the time it takes the lure.

I distinctly remember latching onto mahseer in the Subansiri and my reel immediately going into song as the line pealed out against the backdrop of the roaring rapids with the fish making its first mad dash. Your heart starts pounding with excitement and you immediately begin developing a strategy to play the fish in. It was always difficult to tell the size of the fish on the first run because the fish are so powerful, you cannot stop them on the first couple of runs. My father caught one which just kept on going down stream and the line on this reel was gone and there were no more river bank to run along because he had come to a gorge. One could have jumped into the river and swam down stream with the fish but there were fifteen to twenty foot crocodiles in the river which would mean putting your own life at risk. Occasionally we would round a bend in the river and come upon crocodiles basking on the sandy shores as we traveled in the dugouts.

If one ever gets the opportunity to fish mahseer I strongly recommend embracing the chance with great gusto. The best time of year to fish for mahseer varies for India but soon after the monsoons are over is good. In Assam the best time to fish for mahseer would be October, November and December. It is also good to wait two or three days after a rain to go fishing as rivers become cloudy after a rain and fishing is not good. Though I have mentioned in the article that mahseer can be caught all day it is best to fish before 9 in the morning and after 4 in the afternoon. Most rivers in India have mahseer waiting to bring excitement to anyone willing to go out with a rod and reel and enjoy the outdoors. I have also enjoyed fishing mahseer in the Song river in northern India.

Carpe Diem

Born in Jorhat, Assam and spent 16 years in India. Lived most of the time just east of North Lakhimpur in a palce called Gogamukh. Presently a faculty member in the Department of Wood and Paper Science at the University of Minnesota.