Down The Memory Lane-Powai- Anglers Paradise
Down The Memory Lane-Powai- Anglers Paradise
Photo courtesy M.A. Ghani and MSAA
If you happen to drive past the Powai Lake today and you are not one of those unfortunates, who do not even take a cursory peek at the now weed choked but still beautifully landscaped water of this lake, you will find a different world altogether. Hidden from the mad rush of honking vehicles and ever running Mumbaikars, you will witness a tranquil atmosphere and big fish breaking the surface at regular intervals. If you are lucky enough you will also spot a pre-historical monster of a crocodile basking not very far from children catching small Talapia from the shore! You will also witness few forlorn looking anglers, sitting beside their rods waiting patiently for a bite which now a days is hard to come by. It is not for nothing that this water, holding many record Indian Carps, is affectionately referred to as “Graveyard of Anglers”. If you also happen to meet an old timer and are patient enough to hear his never ending rambling about the old times, the lake surrounded by Jungle, clear waters, amazing fishing, you will wonder how things can change in such a short span of time.
I too am an old timer, the oldest active member of this club and I have seen with my own eyes the astonishing story of the degradation and survival of this amazing lake, which I consider as my second home. I am afraid that this Lake is fighting a battle which it is bound to lose unless some sense prevails amongst all of us.
I was still a kid when I started visiting the lake with my Dad in the early sixties. I still remember that I used to look forward to visit the lake every weekend in my school days when my Dad religiously fished in the lake from Friday evening till Sunday afternoon.
It was like a pilgrimage in those days, travelling the only narrow and deserted road, connecting Sakinaka to Powai. There were no buildings, very few factories and even fewer vehicles on the road. The hills surrounding the lake, what is now a concrete jungle, used to be lush green and densely wooded. Hiking the last kilometer of the dirt road, surrounded by heavy foliage, vibrant with sweet songs of various birds and harsh call of wild animals is a memory which I miss most today.
The lake was not what it is today. It was huge then, with crystal clear water, lot of lotus plants and underwater weeds. My Dad always carried a rake and used it to clear the bottom of weeds and underwater plants before starting fishing so as to avoid our hooks and hooked fish snagging.
Those days there were no modern tackle available and Cane Rods and simple Reels from Kanto Bros Calcutta was the only option. These reels, called Bolar Reels had no drag except a humble clicker and to stop a mad rush of a determined carp, the drag was applied by the Palm!
My dad’s favorite spot, the Lobo bay, which is situated on the left hand side of the club house, adjoining what is now called Pathar Tekdi, was far away from the club house. There used to be an old Mango Tree and we used to sit in its shade by anchoring our boat using bamboo poles. This Pathar Tekri (Outcrop of Rocks) is a favorite area of Crocodiles and one could always spot a few basking in the sun there. It was a secluded and serene place and we had caught our maximum fish from there. Sitting there was like being cut off from everything else except big fish rolling on the surface and our handmade Peacock quill floats.
My Dad with a 74Lbs Catla.
Along with many other fish, the lake was also filled up with Chilwa (Esomus danricus). This flying barb used to be an indicator of a big fish approaching below. I rue that we did not had such devices like a handy cam or a mobile to record the amazing sight of hundred of Chilwa breaking surface near your float, indicating a big fish approaching your bait. Invariably within few minutes of frenzied jumping of a Chilwa shoal near your float you would hook on to a big fish!
It was easy to collect Chilwa to be used as live or cut bait for fish ranging from Mahseer to Olive Carp including fresh water eels which were numerous in those days.
In actuality, few members used to fish the bay area adjoining the dam and club house and the favorite spots used to be Sunken Road, Pipeline and Crocodile Island. In monsoon, when the water rises a small lake used to come up where the Hotel Renaissance is built now.
The famous Catch of the great Naushad Saheb
There was no electricity and night fishing was done using petromax lights. The bright and warm light was a magnet to hoard of mosquitoes and insects. As lot of mosquitoes use to fall in the water, the Catla (Catla catla) use to come in front of us to feed on the falling insects. A sight to behold, which I have not witnessed since the last 40 years at Powai!
It was often that the stillness of the night was shattered by a Hyena scurrying below the dam, sounding like a group of people laughing and crying at the same time. These sudden sounds were very scary and used to give us goose bumps.
An elephant taking a dip in the Lake.
My favorite fish when I was a Kid was Giant Goramy (Osphronemus goramy). The Dam wall was the best place to catch it and I had caught many, including my biggest, a 7Kg. one with a big lump on its head. The rig used to catch them was simple, a small hook covered with cut banana as bait on a depth of two to three feet on a float setup was enough to catch loads of this hard fighting fish. The trick was to cover the hook completely with the cut piece of banana and drop the bait near the wall of the Dam while standing away from the edge. Goramies are very shy fish and the moment they see your shadow on the water, they move away. This fish will not suck the bait in one go and it is not advisable to strike till the fish takes the complete slack of the line. This fish is also notorious for moving into a snag immediately after hook up and keeping it away from snag is a difficult job. Even today, one can catch them from under the Machan or a moored boat, where there is some shade. This fish was brought from Rangoon (Burma) but presently this fish, like many other species is on the verge of extinction in Powai Lake. Surprisingly, it is still breeding in the polluted water of Powai and presently is regarded as protected species there.
Like today, in the past also, Catla was the most coveted fish and I was fortunate enough to land my first specimen, weighing 18Kg at the age of 11 only. Rohu (Labeo rohita) was considered a by-catch by senior anglers and it was easy to catch 5~6 good sized fish in an hour or so. Rohu were so numerous that it was hazardous moving a boat at night with petromax light on. The movement of the boat and the light use to disorient them and many of them used to jump inside the boat and there was always a risk of someone getting injured. Beside Catla, Mahseer was also considered good game and many were caught using live bait or spinning handmade spoons.
I am one of the lucky few who had many opportunities of witnessing Indian Major Carps spawning at Powai Lake. During the first heavy shower, when the mountains, which are now a cluster of housing complex, were green, covered with trees and bushes, crystal clear water used to rush down to the lake. Fish of all size would go into frenzy where lakhs of them would collect in just two feet of water. The eggs released would turn the water white and a sticky layer would form on the surface. It’s a sight I would never forget. The site of this breeding frenzy was usually near what is now called Ram Baug near Hiranandani and where Hotel Renaissance is build now. Unfortunately the last spawning took place some 20 years back. Now if we observe, we would see the fish rushing towards the Dam as soon as the dam starts overflowing in the monsoon. Previously, when the fish were spawning naturally in the lake, it never used to happen. May be the strong current created by the overflowing water brings the fish to spawn there but the depth there is not conducive for this to happen!
It is not that everything changed in a jiffy. The start of quarries in the catchment area of Powai was the beginning. The trees were cut, the bushes were burned and the once lush green mountains were scarred by dynamiting and bulldozers. The once clear monsoon water, the life line of this lake had turned into its biggest enemy, bringing in lot of silt and mud, depositing it on the bottom of lake. The underwater weeds disappeared first, choked by the ever increasing silt on the bottom. The starting of urbanization on once lush green catchment area of the Powai was the last nail in the coffin. Construction started all around the Lake. Five star hotels, malls, corporate offices, residential colonies sprang around the lake and all the waste generated was dumped in the lake with impunity. Sewer, garbage and plastic made the once crystal clear water of this lake into a dirty pond. No one bothered until the great tragedy happened in 1999. The fish and other dwellers of the lake started dying. The devastation was so visual and graphic that many people started to take notice. NGOs, groups and individuals along with MSAA (Maharashtra State Angling Association) created such a clamor that authorities had to take a remedial action. Lot of effort was put up by all concerned but it was already too late, the damage was done by then.
A dead Crocodile, the victim of 1999 Tragedy
Dead Fish littered on the bank in 1999
My heart bleeds when I see the lake in its present condition. Surrounded by the mass of buildings, its catchment area almost gone, the Hyacinth choked, oxygen deprived water fighting a losing battle. We could do nothing but watch the Lake, once described as an angler’s Paradise, dying a slow death.
A Crocodile basking on the Pathar Tekdi
I don’t deny that there are no fish now. Thanks to the incessant efforts of MSAA, BMC, CIFE, different NGOs and individuals, you can still see a crocodile basking on the Pathar tekdi, you can still catch a world record Indian carp and you still find the surrounding pleasing but it is no longer what I had known it to be. The DO (dissolved oxygen) is maintained by aerating the water. The Hyacinths and plastic garbage are removed annually so that they do not cover the complete lake and many a species are lost or are on the verge of extinction from this water. You can no longer witness the frenzy of spawning nor will you see the Chilwa flying out of water to indicate a big fish approaching under.
I despair but I have not lost all hope. When I see person like Dr. Salasker, a scientist with a PhD on Powai Lake, working to monitor the water for remedial action, when I see persons like Ali, who have taught all of us to catch a good fish even in these adverse conditions so as the interest of all members remain high and most of all when I see the premier institution of India, IIT Mumbai on the bank of this lake and knowing that the best pool of brain from India is daily watching this lake. I am sure some day, someone from these best brains will take notice of the predicament of this lake and putting their mind together, will come up with a solution to make right what we find impossible to correct. One day clear water will once again flow into this lake and we all will assemble on the bank of this lake, watching with abated breath, hoard of fish spawning in shallow waters with the first heavy shower. What would I give to once again witness a kid accompanying his father to spend a night on a boat, moored under a huge mango tree, watching a Catla feeding on insects falling in the light of Petromax and hoard of Chilwa jumping out of water to escape a feeding Mahseer.
One of my recent Catch
The mahseer once extinct from the lake has been re-introduced, courtesy breeding effort of Tata Power and released to this lake by MSAA is once again growing up in this water.
To maintain the food base of Mahseer Chilwa was once again introduced in the Powai Lake by MSAA but the results on the success are awaited.