Heiko Bleher visits India in search of new fish. His expedition takes him to Goa and Karnataka where he discovers survival against the most formidable odds.
Goa was to surprise me. I have regularly fished in shallow waters. But there is shallow and Goa shallow! I even discovered creatures in mud that was drying so quickly that it offered only the last drops of moisture of an emptying creek.
The smallest Indian state, almost in the centre of the Western Ghats, Goa has 1.5 million inhabitants and we appeared to be mingling with most of them at the famous fish market at Panji. There were baby sharks and barracudas as well as stingrays of the genus Dasyatis which enter Mormugao Bay and live in freshwater habitats.
Yet there were no noticeable freshwater fish, so I wanted to visit some local aquarium shops, hoping to see some native species. However, they only sold Koi, goldfish, angelfishes, Pangasius catfishes, guppies, swordtails, arowanas and other exotics.
En route to Ponda I wanted to research in the Khandepa river which is a tributary of the Mandovi, but it was almost completely fenced off. The only access was through a private property and a Hindu temple guardian gave us permission to go through. Along the sandy riverbank I caught for the first time Mystus oculatus, a very nice catfish which looks like a South American pimelodid.
Then came a colourful Puntius vittatus (above), which is rarely found in the hobby, and the gudgeon, Eleotris fusca, found almost throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
While my partner Natasha was taking photographs on the balcony of the temple two software engineers approached. One said he knew where we could find "some interesting fishes" and he escorted us there on his motorcycle.
At the edge of a forest we walked to a small, stagnant creek which, he explained, practically dries up at this time of the year. I doubted finding any fish, but ventured in with my hand net and sunk to my waist in mud.
I lifted the load, looked in the mess and, amazingly, there were quite a few. The engineer said he knew where to wash them and gave me a lift to a tap at a nearby village — and I realised I had some interesting specimens.
I had a beautiful dwarf snakehead showing similarity with Channa punctata, then a loach (Lepidocephalus gunthea), two killis, (Aplocheilus lineatus) and A. kirschmayeri (pictured above) living sympatric, a labyrinth fish (Pseudosphromenus cupanus) in amazing reddish colours, again Puntius vittatus and possibly Rasbora daniconius, but with a different mouth shape.
It seems all of these hardy souls can survive in the mud and without water for a month!
In the Belgaum district I wanted to follow a small road leading south and research in this remote part of Karnataka, but people were everywhere. We had reached 1,000m/3,280’ above sea level and my first destination was a lake near a village called Kaspar Nandgad. Along the shore in early morning and next to a tiny pink Hindu temple three women were already washing cloth and a tractor was out collecting some of what water was left in there.
I tried my luck among many white flowering water lilies and Nymphoides aquatica with its typical 'Banana plants'. I had collected many of these in Florida and made pocket money from them in the 1960s…
There was a striking red Parosphromenus cupanus in the net and an orange Puntius sophore, with its remarkable red gill plate spot, and Rasbora aff. wilpita with a very large mouth structure, and I had my first Puntius bimaculatus — the real one — in the net.
I found another dwarf snakehead, possibly new, with no pelvic fin and two remarkable red spots on its gill plate, and also a very strange small Danio. It looked somewhat like D. rerio, but its base colour was yellow, not blue, and it had only two golden stripes running from the gill plate into the caudal fin.
Another exciting find was a loach along the drying muddy shore. It had a remarkable pattern and could be a variant of Lepidocephalus thermalis (pictured above) found from India to Sri Lanka, and a transparent, light greenish Caridina shrimp. This lake would dry up in the next couple of weeks and the fishes will either survive in the mud or be eaten by herons.
Near the large Haligri Dam the road crossed a small creek, which seem to flow into the dam. While I walked this stony, slow flowing turbid creek two guys came along and insisted on catching fishes for me. They took a few each of Devario aequipinnatus, Nemacheilus denisonii, Rasbora aff. Daniconius.
I looked along the edges and came up with a few firsts of this trip, like Puntius melanostigma. For the first time I also had P. pookodensis — probably never seen alive before — and again a P. bimaculatus population.
Again I was amazed to find so many different species in such a small body of water. Of those that survive, do they only live one year in nature? One typical example is the Cardinal tetra, or almost every Apistogramma species.
However on our next stop at Lake Hatiri, which belongs to the Kalinadi basin, I did not find a single fish. Was it too late? Was the water already too polluted from all the rubbish dumped in it?
The Tattihalla river was our next destination. It is a clear, 10m/33’ wide slow flowing tributary of the Kalinadi and my collecting spot was near the Tatwal village in the Uttara Kannada district. There were lots of trees along the river’s edges. With my large seine and Natasha helping from along the shore I caught some Esomus barbatus and an unidentified Rasbora species living in mimicry. I also had the true Lepidocephalus thermalis and again Puntius bimaculatus.
I asked my driver to head for the Magod waterfall region and discovered how different the aquatic fauna was above the falls. Unfortunately the almost 200m/ 650’ drop had hardly any water and to reach the lower of two portions would have taken a full day’s journey.
So I researched the upper part and in a small tributary supplying very little water found a beautiful colour variant of Danio rerio and again loaches.
Along its edge grew swamp plants; a Typha species and also an Araceae which looked like the large Anubias lanceolata from Africa.
Below is the Bedti river supplied with the water from the Magod falls. The bottom and edges were of gigantic stone plates and in some cracks there was gravel. In those I was able, with one of my hand nets, to fetch some Devario malabaricus which seem to lay their eggs in the cracks.
I found another Rasbora daniconius variant and large quantities of Garra mullya (above) grazing these plates by continuously scraping algae. Then, in one hole with a sandy ground I saw my third dwarf snakehead in Karnataka which, when I finally caught it, looked like Channa orientalis but had a very soft orange coloured edge around its caudal fin.
The city of Shimoga is well known for many attractions and one is the 253m/ 830’ falls, but again this had very little water dripping down – another legacy of the dry season.
The following day we drove south-east to Panji lake near Tarikere Tuluk. We crossed the bridge over an almost completely dry Tungabhadra river which flowed from a large reservoir in the north of the same name. There was hardly any flow of water, but the riverbed was several hundred metres wide.
The lake was outside Tarikere and also drying fast. Actually we were lucky, as one to two weeks later I would not have been able to find any fishes in most of my collecting spots. The water level was hardly 10cm/4” and in most parts less. Right in the middle though were four guys with a big sack and I wondered what they were doing among millions of Potamogeton plants with floating leaves.
With their bare hands they were catching Labeo rohita up to 50cm/20in in TL with red eyes. These guys had a feast because it was so easy to catch them in these shallows. The only other living fish I was able to find was Aplocheilus kirschmayeri.
I knew of another lake a few kilometres further south and there was lucky to catch my first Devario fraseri. It was a beauty with bright yellow fins and golden stripes along its side, and does not grow as large as D. malabaricus. It also has a different head shape. It is a group fish and should never be kept in singles or twos.
I found only one loach species there — the less colourful Nemacheilus anguilla.
My third lake in this area was the Sauarenikaryl. It was larger then the previous ones, dammed and covered by species of the genera Myriophyllum, Potamogeton, Nymphaea and Lotus and there were lots of fishes.
The locals had already collected many to eat and to sell, including snakeheads, barbs, gobiids and very large Labeo rohita and Catla catla. One of the latter was more than 10 kg/27 lb.
Here I was able to catch the true Channa striata, which is bright yellow, even golden, along its belly and almost black in upper body. I also found what could be Puntius fraseri, a handsome cyprinid never before seen alive — at least in no publication or aquarium.
It has an emerald green upper body and shiny golden humeral spot in the centre of its rear body just below the end of its dorsal lobe. Immediately connected was a very large bright emerald green spot which narrows from a triangle into the caudal peduncle. I had never seen such a Puntius before.
I wanted to check as many lakes as possible and there was one more, the Arsinikare in Karnataka. It was near the village of Piriyapatna in the Mysore district. When it has enough water it drains into the Kaveri river basin, but we had arrived a few days too late.
The herons had already moved in and on, and there was hardly any water. However, millions of Certophyllum demersum, Lagarosiphon and Najas species, Lotus and Nymphaea, were everywhere, covered with a very large growing Salvinia species.
After a struggle in the mud I took a single Puntius in my net and one looking similar to P. vittatus.
My last destination was up in the Ghats at 1,400m/4,600’ near Madikeri. I knew from my research that there was a rainforest lodge ahead and higher still a small unexplored creek.
The lodge was in a secondary forest with some medium-sized trees. It was refreshing and not hot at all. However, I suddenly felt sick and thought another malaria attack was imminent. Perhaps I was exhausted, visiting 24 collecting spots in five days.
I covered myself with all the blankets available, but was determined to fish the creek I had travelled so far to reach. I took a flashlight and hand net to this crystal clear, fast flowing but shallow waterbed.
The water was intensely cold and the further I walked the colder it became. Yet it was cooling my fever and with every new discovery I thought about it less.
This was the most virgin location of my entire trip. It was a fantastic biotope full of gravel, sand and round stones, most of them covered with moss or algae. Forest vegetation covered the shore of the creek.
Where the water flowed fast I found a new Travancoria species looking from a distance like T. jonesi, but the latter is only known from Pampadampara, Peerumedu Taluq, in Kerala, and far south from here. It has a different morphology and only two species are described. The second one is T. elongata, which lives endemic in the Chalakkudy river.
In the slower running parts I found a new Devario (sp. 1). This one had never been collected, nor seen before, and the other beauty was a Nemacheilus nilgiriensis, a very red loach. Then again there was a Danio rerio population.
This unique biotope, called the Kaluarili creek, is a source of the Kaveri systems, and had the following springtime parameters: water temperature 18.5°C/65.3°F, conductivity just below 30 µS/cm and oxygen 5.95 m/l.
In most parts of this region water temperatures fall to 15°C/59°F, especially in winter in higher regions of the Western Ghats, and rise to 27-30°C/81-86°F in summer, mainly in lowland waterways.
Higher up it rarely reaches above 25°C/77°F. The pH was in most places above 7 and the conductivity everywhere I collected between 100- 300 µS/cm.
Two dozen women were washing cloth in the Kauveri river while I was looking between the rocks for fish and two came over to watch me in my search.
They then jumped in and used their dresses as hand nets, catching a beautiful loach in no time in between hundreds of large stones. They had caught the first Nemacheilus guentheri of my trip!
They also snared a magnificent Garra species and it could prove be the subspecies G. gotyla stenorhynchus. It had an orange spot below its dorsal and a large emerald green spot on the gill plate. The lips were bright blue, as was the base of its pectoral fins. The upper and lower tail lobe was orange-red.
Check out Heiko's other biotopes in this series: