Fishing Lines: Mind the crocs as fires burn bright in India's forests of the night

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The Independent Online

Well, that's the first time I've fished in the middle of a forest fire. On the last day of our mahseer-fishing trip to India's River Cauvery, we sat under the starlight and talked about the expedition's adventures.

Everyone had a different highlight: monkeys stealing the toothpaste; chasing a hooked mahseer a mile downstream; visiting a festival dedicated to Brahma; being warned to clear off by a big bull elephant; fishing 200ft above the river at the scary Mekedatu pool, where drunken Indians fall off and drown on a weekly basis.

But mine was sitting with my feet in the river, blazing embers dropping all around me, watching the world burn. Saad, an Indian prince who runs the Bushbetta camp, said forest fires were common at this time of year, but that they rarely came into the valley. So for two nights, we watched pockets of flame dot the hills beyond. But one day, the fires moved into our domain.

They crept closer and closer on the river's far bank, until we sat fishing just 100 yards from the flames. You could feel the heat. The blue sky turned smoky grey. Hundreds of bee-eaters, rollers, fly-catchers and other birds reaped the harvest of insects fleeing the flames. Squadrons of nightjars took over as the light started to fade.

We returned to camp at dusk to be greeted with an even more spectacular sight. As far as we could see, the dry scrub was aflame on the opposite flank of the valley, lighting up trees with a golden glow. Fire sprites danced and died. It was like entering Mordor. You could imagine huge armies of orcs camped, waiting to attack, on the opposite bank.

My wife, Riva, was petrified. She had already frightened herself imagining leopards creeping round the camp at night, but this was a new worry.

"There must be some sort of contingency plan," she said.

"Well, if it got really dangerous we could go intothe river," said Saad.

"What about those big crocodiles?" Riva asked.

"That's the main problem with the river contingency plan," Saad replied. Riva did not sleep easy.

Amazingly, the jungle was not a scorched, blackened wasteland when we woke. Those fires had been so intense they had merely burned the scrub, leaving all the trees untouched. It was as if the fires had never been.

It should have been an omen for the capture of a mighty mahseer, perhaps one nudging the 120lb record caught in 1946. But it wasn't. We had a few30-pounders, lost a couple of unseen monsters, but the really big ones eluded us.

Afforestation, poaching, pollution, dynamiting, the demand for water: all have limited the mahseer's range. The only places in India where healthy populations remain of this unique fish, nicknamed the Indian salmon, are in the Himalayas and on the Cauvery.

Two other mahseer camps on the Cauvery, at Galibore and Bheemeshwari, offer easier fishing, but neither has the charm or wild beauty of Bushbetta. The other campsare modern, cosy, safe. You'll never get the chance to choose between the leopards, thecrocs and the orcs.

Visit fishmahseer.com for details of trips to Bushbetta Camp

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