Uday Mahajan began his love for fishing during his childhood in Himachal Pradesh, and then found expression across the world. Today he is one of India’s few fly fishing experts, as well as a passionate proponent of ethical fishing. His eventful fishing journey can be hallmarked by the types of baits he has used over the decades. So the initial years, admittedly humble, were marked by balls of atta (flour) mixed with haldi (turmeric). This bait was put to use in the verdant climes of Himachal Pradesh in North India, where Uday often followed his father to hunting and shooting trips in the pre-ban years.
As it happened, his father owned a telescopic fishing rod which his friends had brought in from abroad during the 1960s. “This became my introduction to fishing,” recalls Uday today. He was about 10 years old then, but the passion for fishing that found its life spark in the cold air of Himachal has since then spanned the globe, with Uday having indulged in the hobby in France, Mexico, the USA, the UK, and other places. Over the years, his skill-set and interest have also graduated from simple spinner-rod fishing to the highly strategic art of fly fishing.
But for now, let’s go back to the beginning, which is at the foothills of the beauteous Dhauladhar Mountains in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Here is where Uday Mahajan, around 10 years of age, tested the chilly waters with a bait of a different kind. “This place was in the foothills of the Dhauladhar hills, which is a majestic Himalayan mountain range. Many glacial streams come down to Dharamsala from the range; every couple of kilometres, you could find a big stream gushing past the road,” he recalls. “As a child, I used to go by these streams with bedcovers or bed sheets in hand, would put them in the water with stones, and lift them to catch a fish.”
This streak then found its way to Shimla, where Uday’s parents had shifted their home, while he was enrolled into the prestigious Lawrence School in Sanawar. He would head to the nearby dams with friends and fish for mahseer, trout, and catfish, though he is honest about not having aimed really high then. “At that time, I was not what one would call a seasoned angler, so whatever we could get our hands on was a fish for us!” he chuckles. This was during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period when the possibility of catching larger fish was greater in comparison to today. But Uday and friends revelled in the experience of fishing more than anything else, perfectly happy with catches that ranged from 700 grams to a kilo in weight.
Uday, needless to say, isn’t a professional angler! An INSEAD Alumnus, he studied Mechanical Engineering in Jaipur, Rajasthan, before heading to Kolkata to train for Marine Engineering at the Mercantile Marine Department. This was 1992, the start of Uday’s merchant navy career, and of incremental growth in his fishing abilities and experiences.
But before he reached foreign shores, Mahajan honed his skills at Garden Reach, the legendary shipping zone in Kolkata. “We were getting trained at the banks of the Hooghly, and Garden Reach is where they repair these large boats. It was all pretty laid back. The motormen would fish for prawns in the Hooghly and I would join them. They would make these rigs and fish when the high tide would come in,” says Mahajan.
The sailing life took Uday to the myriad shores in Iran, Mexico, Argentina, Japan, Australia, and other countries, where he always used his anchorage time to his benefits. “Waiting for a place to discharge cargo, that is when you have the maximum time, and we were fortunate to have had some really good anglers in the crew. I especially remember some Filipino crew members who were great anglers,” he says. “There was a guy who caught a big shark once. I still remember that.”
These experienced folk would make equipment on the ship and head out to fish for sea bass. In the company of these fishing aficionados, Uday thrived – he refers to his period as his “graduation” to the serious fishing club. “In fact, I became so good at it that once in Mexico, when I was the only angler on the ship, I was catching the fish while the chef was cooking them for us almost every day!”
During this phase of the fishing journey, the bait was leftover fish from the galley. Nights on the ship were fun, with the fishing enthusiasts gathering at the rear of the vessels. Here was where the chef would typically throw out the food leftovers and the fish would gather to feed. “We would point the big light towards the water instead of the sky, and this would attract a lot of fish. We would put in 4 hooks together sometimes, and pull out 4 red snappers.”
Over the years, the fishing rods too changed make, length, and most importantly, weight. Basic lines dominated initially, with Uday’s first personal buy being a 2-piece rod of 12-ft. from Singapore. “I didn’t realize then that you could get the same good results using a smaller rod as well!” he laughs. “It was a mental thing, that if you use a long rod, you catch more fish. But it was a big fishing rod, it could handle big fish, had it ever come!”
Normandy, Paris, Yorkshire, and Scotland (“the Mecca of fishing”) fed Uday’s interest in fishing further. “It is a pleasure to just watch these people fish in Scotland. Two men on a boat, casting in opposite directions, it is amazing how much control they have. There the fish come like they are your friends because they know they are going to get released as well,” he says.
After an eventful run, Uday left sailing in 2000, but continued fishing with his wife in the Tirthan valley in Himachal, and took fishing trips with school friends to the Jim Corbett National Park. In 2005 came the transfer to Paris, and Uday Mahajan’s interest found a new bank, and thus a new, extra-light bait – fly fishing.
“Fly fishing as a concept is like a subject one can study for seven lifetimes and still not know enough,” Uday says. He summarizes fly fishing as nothing but an understanding of what the fish is feeding on at what time of the year, or even at what time of the day. It is also about knowing where the fish would be found, how the ecosystem of a stream works in a geographical area and understanding the flora and fauna of the area.
“In France, there is a private lake in a place called Dampierre that is owned by a friend. This is about 20 kms from Versailles, where I used to live in Paris. There are actually two lakes there, one was dedicated to trout, and the other one for carp and catfish.” Carp and catfish asked for regular equipment, but trout demanded fly fishing expertise. “It was like a one-way initiation. After that, I never looked back to the spinner rod,” he recalls.
While regular fishing relies on the weight of the bait and the sinker to get to the fish, fly fishing works in reverse, depending on the weight of the line to reach the fish. For Uday though, fly fishing is akin to meditation. Being close to nature, observing its wondrous movements, is what makes this interest of his special. “The art is in presenting it in a way that it doesn’t look like it is floating on the water,” he says of dry flies while trout-fishing. “It should look like it is just lying on the water. It is the most pleasurable thing because it is that one fly which you can put in the water and wait for the fish to come to it. Below the water, you don’t know when the fish is coming to the bait; here you can see it rising from the bottom.”
The years and years of fishing have also strengthened his determination to protect the ecosystem and encourage responsible fishing, especially amongst the young anglers in India. “I often spend time teaching kids. Learning the right way to fish is very important.” Uday understands the man-and-fish food relationship, so his catch-and-release motto is practical – fish for food, but don’t overdo it! “I want to propagate the love for fish more than the love for fishing. I would like to promote more respect for the fish and the ecosystem, especially among the kids.”
He is part of an environmentally-responsible angling community that insists on returning the catch back to the water source, non-use of live or dead bait and barbed hooks, non-use of dynamite/electrocution for fishing, and encouraging fishing competitions to respect the changing spawning patterns of fish so as to not end up depleting precious populations. This community also opposes rampant dam-building.
Uday Mahajan is Vice President and National Head (Process Excellence) at Gurugram-based mobile towers company, so clearly time is a luxury for him. He admits that balancing a flourishing corporate career and fishing has been an “80-20” arrangement for him so far, translating into 4-5 fishing trips a year. He owns 3 spinner rods, 2 fly rods, and 4 Tenkara rods (Japanese telescopic fly rods). “One has to keep investing in equipment as one runs out of it quickly. I have 10 or 11 rods now, and I have got enough flies to last a lifetime, if not more. Having the right collection of flies is what matters, and one has to keep replenishing,” he says.
But his passion for angling remains undiminished and his bucket list is long. “I want to go to more and more fly-fishing destinations, like Montana (US), Croatia, Russia, Hokkaido in Japan, south of France. Lots of places!” Uday also wants to explore and experiment in India, scouting for places where non-trout fly-fishing is possible and unexplored. “Third, of course, is to get better at tying of flies, which is a subject in itself. It basically means making your own flies with the raw materials available to you,” he says.
To anyone looking to follow his example, his suggestion is to first get a feel of the fly rod. “Get a hang of it, go out for a day, understand how it works, and if one has an aptitude for it. Its all about casting the right way so that the presentation of the fly is appropriate. A good fly rod is not cheap, and it is better to buy it from the US to ensure the quality” he says. Also, it is important to avoid the use of hooks or flies while practising; Uday suggests a cotton swab instead. “When practising at a river, use safety gear. Never compromise on that,” he warns.
Uday Mahajan’s #livingit mantra emphasizes compassion, understanding of the ecosystem, and ethical behaviour. “Catch and release!” he reiterates. “Respect the fish; never touch them with your dry hands as it affects their fungal infection-preventing slime cover. Most importantly, do it for the sport, don’t do it for the kill.”
(Cover Photo credit: Arvind Hoon )