fishing lines: Naga saga needs big heads

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The Independent Online
A CHARACTER reference from a 12-year-old girl I've never met could be the most valuable thing I possess during the next couple of weeks.

On Thursday, I'm flying out to India and heading for Arunachal Pradesh, to an area in the north-east almost untouched for more than 50 years. Formerly part of Assam, it nestles in the shadow of the Himalayas on the borders of Tibet and Myanmar. It has been the subject of diplomatic wrangling between India and China for decades.

Few people have been allowed in, so the wildlife has flourished. Only the natives, the Nagas, have disturbed the idylls of cobra and civet, mongoose and monkey. An explorer who has just visited the area saw several big cats, including snow and clouded leopard. And there are fish.

Our main target on tributaries of the Brahmaputra will be mahseer, a carp-like fish that lives in rivers too fast for even the most daredevil canoeist. Mahseer became legendary in the days of the Raj, when irascible colonels, stuck with the memsahib on an Indian posting, got out their salmon rods to while away the hours. To their chagrin, they were comprehensively banjoed by a fish that made salmon seem as lively as a dead herring. Hardy's, then the pre-eminent tackle-maker, was forced to design special rods and reels to cope with mahseer, which can grow to more than 100lb.

Times change. The colonels went home or died there, and the fish was pretty well forgotten until an Englishman called Paul Boote "rediscovered" it. Mahseer fishing is now rated as one of angling's greatest thrills, and some of India's most popular rivers are booked two years ahead. Though tackle is far better now, they are still devils to catch. We will be be taking extra-strong hooks because, expedition organiser John Bailey warns: "They crunch ordinary hooks as if they're made of wood."

The trip should also prove a wildlife enthusiast's dream. Predators like tigers, free from the threat of Chinese bone-crushers, roam relatively undisturbed. (My mind keeps wandering back to books like The Man-eaters of Kumaon and The Man-eating Leopard of Sivanipali).

However, wild animals may not be our only problem. The Nagas (rhyming with sagas) were banned from head-hunting in 1880, but don't seem to have taken much notice. Usually reliable sources say that they only really gave up in 1991, which is altogether too recent for comfort. The sole reassuring factor is that our guide, the explorer John Edwards, is married to a Naga woman.

I'm taking precautions. My wife is going to cut my hair just before I leave, which should put off potential head-collectors if it's anything like my last short back and sides. Someone I met this week knows a Naga child, who for reasons too complicated to explain now lives in Camden Town, north London. I've been promised a letter of introduction, which I hope will say that the bearer is closely related to the Queen of England and has a misshapen cranium.

Still, if something does go wrong, there could be consolation. Even though space for Fishing Lines is always limited, there should be room to fit a life-sized head and shoulders picture on my posthumous column.

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