Veteran Indian angler Ali H. Hussaini, lovingly called ‘Ali Bhai’ by the angling community, had the sophisticated diction of a Sufi poet. His words would ooze joy, wonder, and mirth while expressing anything about fishing and angling. Hussaini’s life-story arc can in effect be considered the story arc of Indian angling itself. This was a man who was born in a small town near Lucknow, cut his teeth using rudimentary bamboo fishing rods called ‘katiya’, and would go on to become one of the most inspiring anglers and water conservation activists that India has ever seen. Sandeep Shetty, Co-Founder and CEO of Livingit had taken his interview just a few weeks before his unfortunate death. The angling community of India has lost its finest and greatest angler for sure, but his legacy will live on, as legends live forever!
“Ali Bhai” you will be missed!
The First Catch
The story began when Ali H. Hussaini was all of 8 years old. His father, a hunter, had been invited to a fishing trip one afternoon and Hussaini had tagged along. “There used to be this Nawab in Lucknow at the time,” Hussaini recalled. “I do not want to name him, but he was this big fellow, a corpulent piece of work, and people would often mock him for it. He would ride in this special ‘tanga’ (cart) and getting him on and off it used to be tough work! But this Nawab owned a good fishing rod, a basic equipment with no drag to it, but still good for the time.” The Nawab and the group, inclusive of a hunting party from Lucknow which had killed a rambunctious Blue Bull (Nilgai) earlier in the day, had set out to fish in a nearby pond.
“We had gone to the edge of the pond and a chair had been laid out for the Nawab as he couldn’t sit down,” Hussaini continued. “I was naïve then. I had thought, well, we have put the rod in and the fish will get caught any moment now. But of course, that’s not what happened!” All the waiting lulled the young boy to sleep, which was later disrupted by a big commotion. “I noticed the Nawab fighting a fish, so I ran and sat by his chair. Out of the blue, he handed me the shaking rod! I was dumbfounded and there were protests all around, but the Nawab kept guiding me and encouraging me with many chants of “shabaash” (well done). The catch was a Rohu, pulling a good 4 or 5 kilos of weight, and I managed to land it.”
This anecdote in part informs the first couple of chapters in Ali H. Hussaini’s unfinished book (one of his many unfulfilled dreams cut short by the twist of fate). It not just highlights his humble beginnings but also points to the Nawab’s enduring influence on his life. “To this day people ask me why I hand over the rod to someone else when a fish has just been caught. I do it to anyone standing beside me at that moment, especially so if it is a kid. The people who wonder do not know that I too, as a child, had once received a similarly generous offer from someone. The Nawab was ridiculed by people in his absence, but at heart, he was a gem of a person.”
The Early Years
Once the fishing bug had been planted, the young Hussaini was hooked. His early explorations were at a clear nallah near his home. “It would flow into the River Gomti,” he recalled. “This water was full of ‘Channa/Maral’ (snakehead), and Catfish.”
The katiya gave way to relatively more sophisticated equipment when Hussaini shifted to Himachal Pradesh in 1995 after completing his Mechanical Engineering studies. He had a job to set up a factory in Ponta Sahib, located in the Doon Valley, but when an acquaintance of his sourced a modern spinning reel rod from an Army Canteen for him, he decided to wade in deep in search of the legendary Mahseer.
At the banks of an erstwhile-pristine Yamuna River, he would whet his appetite for that most prized of freshwater game fish of India – Mahseer, with an unintended by-catch. “We would set out for Mahseer and often catch Goonch, which would cause much frustration! Nowadays, everyone is keen on catching the Goonch, but it used to be considered a nuisance fish back then. Even Corbett makes a mention of this in one of his books – The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, Fishing interlude chapter.” he recalled.
Hussaini’s pragmatic approach to angling was also shaped by his largely mentor-less journey through the angling landscape. He acknowledges that his father and a person named Baba were at some levels his mentors, but mostly, it was a satisfyingly solo voyage. “I learnt everything by doing it myself,” he said. And also by being constantly open-minded. The expert technique of an angler he had once met, who was used to catching big Mahseer weighing up to 25 kilos, inspired Hussaini to dig into bait fishing. “This person would use dead bait, a bamboo pole, a thick line, and big hooks in a flooding zone. He would bury his rod among the rocks, and tie a rope woven out of the grass on to a big rock before throwing it into the water. This would be in the evening. He would return the following morning to find a superb catch of Mahseer. I observed this and was converted! I experimented with the technique and then started Carp fishing when I shifted to Mumbai around the year 2005.”
Ali H. Hussaini – ‘The Father of Carp Fishing in India’
Catching Catla fish (Major Indian Carp) had traditionally meant using the ‘jhappi’, a multiple hook set-up that would facilitate snagging. A single hook catch of the fish was understood to be impossible. Hussaini begged to differ. “Some 8 years back, I took it up as a challenge to counter this idea. It took me more than two-and-a-half years of experimenting to succeed. I caught only Rohu and some hybrid fish initially, and I was laughed at, with people commenting that I had gone insane. With some fine-tuning and innumerable trial and error, I finally managed to catch big sized Catla and that is when people sat up and noticed. Today, this technique is very popular in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as in the UK, Sri Lanka, and other countries. Not only Catla, I have caught hundreds of Silver Carp using this method,” he explained.
Hussaini’s pioneering technique was a combination of techniques. It doesn’t use any boilie but only a foam ball with a single size 8 hook, that half floats in the water and sneaks into the mouth of the fish when it is sucking on the cloud created by the bait deposited on the spring feeder and hooks it in the corner of the mouth. Catching a 20+ kilo Catla on a tiny size 8 hook was unheard of. Not only was this method very successful, it also brought down the damage to the fish significantly from the ‘jhappi’ method. “Making Catla a sport fish is the biggest achievement of my angling life,” Hussaini had declared.
What he didn’t learn through people around him, he learnt through single-minded pursuit. “I am probably the only specimen angler in India. Whether it took me 2 years or 4, I would not go after any other fish but the chosen specimen,” he said. This determination not only helped seal his pioneer status among Indian anglers but also gifted them a unique technique that had for years been considered an impossibility.
Angling Emotions, Preferences and the ‘Process’
One of the most remarkable aspects of speaking with Ali H. Hussaini was being a witness to his unabashed humanity. He would not mince words, and he would not rely on euphemisms. He would readily admit that he became aware of his capacity for jealousy when his friend caught a bigger fish than him. This is an emotion every Angler feels but never admits. He would call the ill-informed fishing equipment market in India as being a game of shooting in the dark. At any moment, his utterly human emotions would be on full display, as would be his humility. “I am never comfortable in groups,” he admitted about his fishing style. He would be fine with a couple of people around, but he had some stern conditions for them. “They should either be proficient and fully self-sufficient or have never had fished before!” The latter meant that the angler would have no set opinions about the process and thus was willing to learn. The middle ground held no appeal for him.
Speaking about the process, for this veteran, angling was beyond the prize at the end. “For me, it was never about just the fish. What mattered was the whole process; thinking about the spot, the technique, making one’s own rigs, admiring the beauty of a spot, assessing the quality of the water, and more!”
This wholesome enjoyment of the process shone through in the personal narratives of his most memorable angling moments. “Watching a Mahseer coming up from a Grade-III or Grade-IV rapid while the sun is climbing up in the sky is like watching a thing that has been carved out of gold peeping out of the foamy water. Really, there is no better sight in the universe!”
MSAA, AIGFA, and Conservation
Hussaini’s passion for angling extended to association-building work in favour of environmental sustainability as well. He was a member of the MSAA (Maharashtra State Angling Association), whose objectives include the upkeep of the Powai Lake. “The amount of information and knowledge that the anglers at MAHSA possess, which is passed on from angler to angler, is unparalleled,” Hussaini said.
He felt that the urban setting is disconnected with what is happening in the Ganges or other rivers and he strongly feels that without a direct connection it will remain so. He says, “If people start to love the sport of angling then they will start caring about the waters too. As dirty and polluted water will kill the fish or reduce their numbers drastically. As a sport, only Wildlife Photography, Bird watching, and Angling makes you interact with true nature and appreciate the value of god’s creatures in their natural habitat. The beauty of angling is that you get to appreciate water bodies and realize the importance of conserving them.” The example is Powai Lake where MSAA took the onus of clearing the green algae from the lake. We cleared 2 tons of green algae and converted it into compost and used it to fertilize the natural surroundings of the lake.” He gives more examples of water analysis and other laboratory work done by MSAA to preserve Powai lake which is in the middle of a city like Mumbai where most water bodies are turned into dumping grounds.
The AIGFA (All India Game Fishing Association) was established by Ali H. Hussaini and Santosh Kolwankar. It boasts of more than 5,000 members and many critical tie-ups with angling associations from across the country. “Some of these associations, like the Angler Association of Nagaland, are doing excellent work,” Hussaini revealed.
At its core, AIGFA, with its motto of ‘The League of Gentlemen Anglers’, is an effort at bringing the angling community to the fore in terms of the environment. “Our sport depends on the health of the water bodies. As anglers, we are the eyes and ears of the water bodies – we see and can feel the changes,” Hussaini stated. The organization’s flagship activity is involving the scientific community as a stakeholder in the protection of water bodies. “Our aim was to give direction and provide a framework of rules to the sport of angling,” Hussaini revealed. “There is hope only if we all join hands.”
As any environmental activist would attest, the greatest impediment to the cause is the widespread belief that our natural resources will never run out. “Angling is also perceived to cause harm to the environment, but studies have in fact shown that angling has always helped the environment, the fish population, and the effort for conservation,” Hussaini said. Which is why both MSAA and AIGFA continue to be platforms where Indian anglers can make a difference through maximum inclusion.
His Legacy and Final Message
Ali H. Hussaini lived every moment to the fullest. He had no interest in bucket lists or brand loyalty. “Don’t ask me about my gear, I don’t even know what equipment I have!” he would admit. However he insisted on spending on good gear even if they are expensive,”In the long run they are cheap” he exclaims. His next goal was always hinged on learning a new or upgrading an old skill. “You know who is a good angler? The one who is self-sufficient in every condition. With every kind of fish, and with every technique. Who doesn’t need to ask questions,” he said. “Believe me it is not you who is catching the fish; you can only present the bait in the best way possible. It is the fish that takes the bait, and if it decides not to, then there is nothing you can do about it.”
Hussaini’s greatest trait was his fluidity. Through every phase of his life, he learnt newer techniques and adopted newer equipment. And, he never stopped experimenting. When asked what was his a message to anglers, he replied “Love the sport and have fun. Don’t get too technical. Never be rigid about ideas on where to fish and what technique to use. An angler is not defined by how many fish he caught or how big the fish was. He is defined by the constant learning.” That’s a #livingit tenet for anyone, angler or not.
Ali H. Hussaini, a gentleman angler, a mentor, an angling expert, a conservationist, an innovator, a perpetual learner is an inspiration to thousands of anglers and has passed on to the place where only legends can live forever!
‘Ali Bhai – May you rest in peace!’
Fish ethically! Read: Study, Fish, and Conserve – Steve Lockett