The Mahseer was first described as a species by Hamilton in 1822. It belongs to the genus Tor, of which there are several subspecies to be found in India. Apart from the Indian sub-continent, Mahseer are found in other range countries in South Asia as well. There are issues regarding the taxonomy of the Mahseer and despite advances in molecular biology and tools for DNA analysis, scientists are not entirely in agreement as to how many sub species exist.
The Mahseer is a large cyprinid (belonging to the carp family) and is recognized by its large scales numbering 25 to 28 along the lateral line with two pairs of barbels. Males are identified by their long pectoral fins and have been known to reach a length of 2.7 m and weigh well over 100 lbs (though these sizes are rarely seen nowadays). The species is migratory; moving upstream during rains. It prefers clean, fast flowing and well oxygenated waters and has a much lower fecundity rate (lays less eggs per kg of body weight) than most carps. It requires gravel /sandy stream beds to breed and can migrate considerable distances in search of suitable breeding grounds. Females mature when they are 30cm in length while the males mature at 25cm. Courtship is a long process where males get attracted to a spawning female, whom they pursue vigorously. When the female finds a suitable place to lay her eggs, the males swim around her and fertilize the orange colored eggs. April to September is normally the spawning period but younger fish are known to spawn earlier. Mahseer are omnivorous. They have voracious appetites and their diet includes a wide range of algae, crustaceans, insects, frogs, other fish and also fruits that fall from trees etc. They also readily take a wide range of natural and artificial lures.
Apart from its cultural and religious significance (Mahseer are protected in ‘temple sanctuaries’ across India) these fish are a sportsman’s delight. They are very agile and strong, making them among the hardest fighting fresh water sport fish in the sub-continent. Hence recreational angling can generate considerable revenue for Mahseer conservation. The presence of Mahseer is an indicator of a healthy riverine eco- system and hence important as a flagship species. In Karnataka the locals refer to the Mahseer as ‘Bili Meenu’.