Golden Mahseer: The Tigers of the River

My first encounter with a Golden Mahseer taught me that they are not just elusive and strikingly beautiful but are also highly intelligent species. There are only a few thousand Golden Mahseer left in the world today, making them an endangered species found only in the wild rivers of South Asia.

Golden fish by Azha Karma
A painting of Sernya (golden fish) by Artist Azha Karma, VAST Bhutan

Bhutan is admired worldwide for its conservation policies and abundance of biodiversity in land and river ecosystems. Most of Bhutan’s rivers still remain undammed, meandering into the pristine national parks of the country. Bhutan’s rich aquatic biodiversity has enabled the survival of one of the largest fish species, Mahseer, to live free and wild in these freshwaters. 

There are two Mahseer species found in Bhutan’s major rivers: Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), which is listed as ‘Endangered’ in the IUCN Red list, and the near-threatened Chocolate Mahseer (Neolissochilus hexagonolepsis). Especially, Golden Mahseer is considered as one of the majestic of all fish species found in the freshwaters of South Asia. 

Releasing Golden Mahseer back into the river during a survey by DoFPS

The Tigers of the River

There are over 16,000 diverse fish fauna species in the freshwater systems in the world, and among them, 47 species of Mahseers. Tor putitora commonly known as Golden Mahseer is an endangered fish species also known by various common names such as the tigers of the water, king Mahseer, mighty Mahseer, Putitor mahseer and Himalayan mahseer. In Bhutan, Golden Mahseers are found in rivers of southern and eastern regions of the country. The native range of Golden Mahseer includes Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

According to experts, Mahseer can move over 60 kilometers in 24 hours and migrate upstream over 1,000 meters above the sea level. The Golden Mahseers are found in rapid flowing rivers and its tributaries. They migrate upstream for spawning during monsoon and downstream during winter season.

The Auspicious Golden Fish

In Bhutan, locals informally identify the pair of golden fish from the traditional Buddhist Tashi Tagye (Eight Auspicious Signs) paintings with Golden Mahseer.

The Auspicious Golden Fish (བཀྲ་ཤིས་སེར་ཉ་) is one of the eight auspicious signs and they represent the Buddha’s compassionate and clairvoyant eyes, and the agility and swiftness of the Buddha’s enlightened spirit. The two fishes symbolize the two types of penetrating and transcendental wisdom of the Buddha. They are also said to symbolize the two great rivers Ganga and Yamuna, solar and lunar powers, fertility and abundance, wisdom and compassion.

My first encounter with a Golden Mahseer taught me that they are not just elusive and strikingly beautiful but are also highly intelligent species. There are only a few thousand Golden Mahseer left in the world today, making them an endangered species found only in the wild rivers of South Asia.

Threats to Golden Mahseer in Bhutan

According to a report by the Department of Forest and Parks Services (DoFPS), illegal fishing is the key threat to Golden Mahseer followed by hydropower dams, weak protection of spawning areas, climate change, pollution, dredging of river bed materials and introduction of exotic fish species, all of which are ranked in the high-risk category. Other threats include river training, unauthorized feeding, and sedimentation falls, irrigation weirs and disturbance from recreational activities.

Bhutan has identified several strategies to conserve the fish and its ecosystem. Some of these are securing the habitats and ensuring viable wild populations of Golden Mahseer, increasing science-based information on its ecology, enhancing community livelihoods through the promotion of high-end mahseer recreational fishing, and strengthening education on the conservation of the fish.

The GEF-UNDP Ecotourism Project ‘Mainstreaming Biodiversity Conservation into the Tourism Sector in Bhutan’ under the Department of Tourism is promoting high-end fly-fishing (catch and release) sport for guests visiting Bhutan as one of the exclusive eco-tourism products. The catch-and-release fishing is now permitted in Bhutan, though under strict regulations.

Mahseer anglers will now get the special experience of fishing the rare Golden Mahseer in the crystal clear, glacier-fed freshwaters of Bhutan. This would diversify eco-tourism products, generate employment opportunities for communities living along the rivers, and earn revenue for the government. The hope is also to reduce illegal recreational fishing currently rampant in Bhutan.

The subtle art of fly-fishing

Among anglers, Golden Mahseer is one of the world’s most prized catches. Up to nine feet long, golden-hued with big scales, and exotically beautiful, Golden Mahseer has a reputation as one of the world’s hardest fighting fish.

Deo Kumar Gurung, a forester and certified angler, who is passionate about fly-fishing, says both fly-fishing and spin fishing have the same ultimate goal – catching fish through a combination of angling skills. However, a few fundamental differences distinguish one from the other. “The art of fly-fishing is concerned with fooling a fish with an artificial fly crafted to resemble an insect.”

In the world of anglers, fly-fishermen pride themselves on the look and presentation of their flies. Trouts are finicky and are easily spooked, so catching them can be extremely difficult. 

Forester and trained angler Deo Kumar Gurung practicing fly-fishing

“To a fly angler, the challenge is in seeking out elusive fish and targeting them with the perfectly crafted and selected fly to trigger a strike. For fly fishermen, the volume of fish caught is often secondary to finding the perfect challenge to tempt the unlikeliest of fish into biting,” says Deo Kumar Gurung. “And this is what makes fishing more of an art than a sport.”

According to Kinley Dorji, another angler who is a certified fly-fisherman, fly-fishing is special because of the fascinating process involved in it. From reading the waters, to casting and to presenting the fly to the fish instinctively or by sighting is in itself an art. He says the fly is basically an imitation of the organisms in the watershed that are the staple diet for the fishes. So, the typical process is to mimic nature, by enticing a fish with an artificial fly that is made with feathers and hair. This allows the anglers to learn more about the ecosystem and ultimately, to care about it.

“To me fly-fishing is an art that not everyone can master. I tell my friends that my rod and reel is my paint brush, my fly line and my fly is my paint and my painting is when I cast and land a fish. It requires skill, patience, determination and knowledge of the ecosystem,” says Kinley Dorji.

He further adds, “As I cast a fly, engrossed in the present and embraced by the pristine environment, I feel happy. It is meditative and when I make a perfect cast, it gives me a sense of fulfillment.”

Fishing Rules & Regulations in Bhutan

Once strictly prohibited, fishing for Golden Mahseer has now been legalized in Bhutan through the amendment of forestry regulations. All major rivers of Bhutan that sustains the Golden Mahseer has been delineated as high-end recreational fishing sites, and rivers should be accessed using rafts, unless stated otherwise. Use of single-barbless hook with artificial lures is allowed and it is exclusively “catch-and-immediate-release”. Possessing Golden Mahseer dead or alive is an offense.

International anglers must be guided by a nationally certified fishing guide. Considering

the strong taboo of catching fish by the Buddhist, fishing is prohibited on auspicious days of the Buddhist calendar.

On the major high-end mahseer waters such as Mangde chhu, Drangme chhu, Punatshang chhu and Manas, no more than two launches is allowed in a week during the prime fishing seasons, and groups which book the launch dates by paying non-refundable weeklong permits on first come first basis shall remain valid. 

Fishing permits are issued online through an Online Forestry Services. Fishing is strictly prohibited on sites prohibited fishing sites as qualified under the regulations.

(For more information visit: www.dofps.gov.bt)

Sonam Dema

Sonam Dema

She is freelance travel writer, former television anchor and producer. She is currently working for biodiversity conservation for GEF7 ecotourism project in Bhutan. During her free time, she likes to paint, read and write about arts and films from Bhutan. You can contact her at sonamdema123@gmail.com