Call of the wild water

fishing lines
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IT WAS a very moving occasion. Young girls, dressed in their Sunday best and wearing necklaces made of 100-year-old silver rupees, had danced and sung as we entered their remote village. We had manfully struggled through a welcoming dish of what tasted like semolina chewing gum, wrapped in banana leaves. (Thank goodness for copious doses of chung, the quick-brew Tibetan wine, which washed down the sticky mass.)

Then the head man, resplendently garbed in a knee-length red flannel jacket and loincloth, made a speech which our guide translated. This, roughly, is what he said: "We had heard that there were people who were not like us in this world, and now that we see you, we realise that this is true. It is obvious to us that you are very developed people. We hope that you will tell us how to lead our lives."

What do you say to that? All we wanted from him were the good places to fish. In exchange, they wanted satellite dishes, inflatable women and underarm deodorant. It was patently an unfair swap. We agreed that it was better to find our own hotspots than to pollute their traditions with the trappings of civilisation.

We provoked an even more startling reaction when we visited another village. As we walked through the fields, children screamed and ran away. It's quite a while since I provoked such a strong reaction. As we walked into the village, a woman walked out of her hut and, in true comic sketch fashion, dropped the pot she was holding.

This village, Ponging (pronounced Pong-ging), could only be reached by crossing the Bridge from Hell, a rickety bamboo construction 200ft above the river gorge. In the middle, it swayed alarmingly and the bamboo handrail dropped to below knee height. The slats broke as we gingerly stepped on them and even one of our guides admitted that he found it terrifying. One of our party, the author John Bailey, planned to take photographs of the crossing but found his hands shaking too much. But the villagers carry cows across by tying the animals' legs and stringing them on a pole.

They weren't much help on the fishing either. Though dynamiting does not take place in Arunachal Pradesh, as it does on many Indian rivers, the locals' primitive funnel-shaped bamboo traps catch them plenty of mahseer. The traps are anchored to a pole and placed in the fast water - a mahseer swimming in cannot turn and is trapped, though villagers told us that the bigger fish smashed the traps.

"How large?" we asked. "About so big," they replied, holding their hands about a foot apart. That didn't seem impressive until we realised that they measure fish by their girth.

We soon discovered that big mahseer were in the river. John Edwards, the man who had caught piles of "Asian salmon" after fishing Indian rivers for 25 years, was whipped by a mahseer estimated at 50lb. It was last seen heading for Calcutta, leaving Edwards with a busted line and us with a problem. After two days, we had caught six mahseer but they were all small. Another big one had been lost. The trouble is that mahseer live in the wildest, fastest water - we could hook them but trying to pull them against the torrent was like trying to swim up a waterfall.

What could we do if we hooked one of the real monsters? In Thirteen Years among the Wild Beasts of India, G P Sanderson writes: "I have no doubt in my own mind that they run over 200lb or 250lb, as I have seen bones and teeth of them larger than my 150-pounder; they are often caught by the natives."

It demanded a stroke of genius. Fortified by several mugs of chung, we mulled over the problem. In the final episode of Five Go Wild in Arunachal Pradesh next week, I'll tell you how we made history. Sort of.