John Bailey: No time for complacency in angling

John Bailey shows off his 100lbs mahseer in India. John Bailey shows off his 100lbs mahseer in India.

by John Bailey
Friday, November 23, 2012
3:46 PM

I hope that you don’t all think for a moment that the majority of this article, based on mahseer fishing in India, is totally irrelevant to us here in East Anglia.

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I believe that what is happening on the sub-continent is something of a possible heads-up for all of us. Another reason for writing about India and its famous River Cauvery is, of course, because of its links with Norfolk. Several Norfolk guys like John Wilson, Dave Plummer, Steve Harper and myself were amongst the veterans who helped re-invent mahseer fishing getting on for a quarter of a century ago. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked about mahseer fishing on Norfolk banksides. It seems that this magnificent fish is somewhat under our skin.

When anglers like Wilson first appeared on the Cauvery back in the 1980s, the river was in a sorry state and the mahseer, the so-called Asian salmon, was on its knees. The river then was largely unprotected and the mahseer stocks were subjected to a continual barrage of dynamite, netting and poisoning. Some big fish remained but the vast majority of the smaller fish, the mahseer for the future, had been removed to local markets.

I think those of us lucky enough to visit the Cauvery in those long gone days, realised the river and the mahseer were both just too special to let go.

I think it’s fair to say that English anglers have worked in total co-operation with the authorities over in India for the past 20 years to the greater good of the river, the fish and the surrounding forest as well.

Sport fishing can be a force for the good. The hard currency of foreign anglers has helped establish proper camps along the River Cauvery. These camps are manned around the year, often by former poachers who now have a proper, professional job. They, personally, have benefited hugely from what mahseer fishing has brought to the region. And, now, because mahseer have been protected vigorously, stocks have not been higher for decades. Surely, this has to be one of the most profound win-win situations I have been involved with as an angler. I’ve been proud of the fact that I have personally led a score of fishing expeditions over there, knowing that the money involved has done a great amount of good in so many areas.

Of course, taking a fishing group to the River Cauvery isn’t all about altruism!

The jungle is a wondrous place and the river is probably the most enticing I have ever seen. Days pass by seamlessly, full of warmth, colour and the frequent explosions of adrenaline-fuelled mahseer battles. Of course, these massive, golden-scaled fish are returned whilst the anglers and the guides have smiles as broad as the equatorial sun!

Now it seems that these golden days are all in the past. In a nutshell, anti-angling bodies in India have temporarily had their way and much of angling in core wildlife areas is now banned.

The currency that I and Dave Plummer, for example, have been taking to India for years will not now be arriving. I tremble to think what will happen to the 30-odd souls who work at the fishing camp. I hate to think what will happen to the river now not as jealously defended. I worry, too, that the jungle itself will be more vulnerable to poaching, woodcutting and general degradation.

Without us giving financial protection, those mahseer will no longer be seen in India as cash cows. Their only value without us, the Norfolk anglers, will be dead, on a local market store. Our dear guides might just be forced to turn poacher again, their incomes no longer being paid.

What has been built up so painstakingly over 20 years could be demolished within two.

I can look deep into my own heart and say with utter conviction that I do not think I, Plummer, Wilson, Harper or any of the people who have fished there have done any harm whatsoever. I’m not aware we’ve been responsible for the death of a single mahseer and our presence has immeasurably improved the life of the riverside population. This, surely, is just one of many, many examples of how angling can benefit the wide aquatic environment.

It worries me that such a development can take place in modern-day India. You tend to think that the authorities have quite enough problems over there without chasing out us anglers.

It makes you wonder just how fragile angling could be within the UK. Let’s just look at the list of the problems that we face. Think of all the illegal fishing that goes on even on our own East Anglian rivers and lakes when our backs are turned. How about the problems of canoe navigation and even our very right to go fishing? What about our fish stocks? Think about the need to improve fish habitat all over East Anglia. Never think that pollution and over-abstraction are far away.

What about all the invasive species, the signal crayfish top of the list, that could spell disaster? Controlling all manner of predators is a major issue. We have to think about angling’s PR, too. How do we combat the antis? How do we get the positive messages across to the wider public? How do we get more kids into fishing, realizing the benefits that our sport can bring? How do we convince the public that bankside litter is certainly not always the result of angling?

In short, there are so many potential pitfalls out there for our sport that we can never be complacent.

We’ve got to monitor our own behaviour constantly. I’m sure that you’re like me: I not only take my own litter home but if I see anyone else’s, that goes in a bag as well. I’m sure many of you are like me, too, card-carrying members of the Angling Trust (www.anglingtrust.net).

I’m sure that’s why we all endorse the Environment Agency and realise our licence fees are fundamental to the health of our fisheries. These considerations are simply essential to any angler in a small, overcrowded, over-governed country like ours.

Fishing for something as vast and as challenging as the mahseer also makes you realize perhaps you’re not quite the master angler that you once thought you were...Subhan was possibly the greatest of all modern Indian guides. Twenty years ago, we sat together on a rock mid-stream as the light began to fade. In the deep, green, swirling waters, a massive fish came up to my bait, nosed it and then hammered it. The rod wrenched round and clod-like, I missed the bite. Subhan had steam coming from his ears. We recast and ten minutes later another monster from the deep seized my bait. The bite this time was so savage it virtually pulled me from my rocky perch. Again, I missed it.

The image of Subhan hopping with fury will stay with me until my dying day. “Bad, sir, very, very bad sir. John Wilson never misses bites. He’s a good angler, sir.”

The walk Subhan and I took back to the camp that need seemed a very long and a very silent one.

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