Home Fishing Bottom LIFE OF A KELAH FISHERMAN – siri 3


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By: Aznir Malik


If you are a keen Kelah fisherman, sooner or later you will be driven to learn more about this wily sportfish, but also the group of fishes called the Mahseer. The more you learn about the targeted fish, the more you understand its habits, and hopefully the more successful you will be at catching it.

A typical Kelah of Malaysian mountain river.

The term “mahseer” actually comes from India. Some say it is an amalgamation of “Maha” (big) and “Seer” (head). In any case, it is the common name used for the genera like Tor, Neolissochilus and Nazritor in the family of Cyprinidae (carps). 

Our Kelah is from the Tor genus whilst the Tengas or Kejor is from Neolissochilus. The main difference between the two genera lies in the design of the lower lip. In the Kelah, you will see a median lobe – a fleshy “janggut” below the lower lip – whilst in the Kejor, the lower lip is continuous. So, next time you catch a Mahseer from our rivers and you’re not sure whether it’s a Kelah or Tengas, just turn it upside down and check that lower lip!

Fishes of the Tor genus are considered the “True Mahseer” whilst the those of say Neolissochilus are “False Mahseer.


By the way, the terms “Kelah” and “Kejor” may actually have originated from India. You must remember that the Hindu civilisation arrived at our shores a very long time ago, and we may have picked these names from those visitors.

Among my reference books about Mahseer.

My readings of old fishing books about Indian Mahseer have also shown that Northern Indian Mahseer have local names like kurriah, kukhiah and kulliah, whilst the copper mahseer (like our kejor) in Northern India and Pakistan are called kajra. I believe this is more than just mere coincidence!

Mahseer can be found from China to South-East Asia to South India. In fact, there are reports of mahseer-like fishes in the islands of Nusantara, and even our islands off the East Coast of Peninsula Malaysia. This is not surprising. In prehistoric days, the sea level was about 120 to 200 metres lower than what it is today. The Sunda Shelf, covering Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra and Java, was actually dry land.

Thus, many rivers in South-East Asia were inter-connected. Great rivers like the Mekong, Chao Phraya, Kelantan, Pahang, Endau, Rajang, and the Sumatran rivers like Musi and Kampar, were all tributaries of even bigger rivers! That is why there are so many similar fishes scattered throughout the region.

A Kejor from Sungai Kejar Royal Belum Perak

Here’s another thought, many of the major rivers of India and China come from roughly the same source: the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. Even the Mekong and Myanmar’s Salween and Ayerawaddy originate from this awesome mountain range. No wonder again, that mahseer are distributed in these rivers.  

One interesting fact I can tell you: The Brahmaputra River of India actually has four different names. It starts in the Kailash region in the India-China border and flows through the Tibetan Plateau where it is called Tsangpo. Then it drops a few thousand feet into this mega gorge, enters Northern India where it is called the Siang, and later it becomes Brahmaputra. Finally, it enters Bangladesh to become the Jumna. And yes, it has Mahseer!


There are many species of mahseer. Research is not yet conclusive, so there are new species yet to be identified. Many of them are of interest to us anglers. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, they will include:

Tor putitora (Golden Mahseer; Himalayan Mahseer):  Himalayan rivers.

Tor tor (Tor Mahseer):  Himalayan rivers

Tor Mosal (Copper Mahseer): Himalayan rivers

Tor Khudree (Deccan Mahseer): Rivers flowing though the Deccan Plateau, Periyar River, Mahanadi River

Tor musullah or Tor ramadevii (Humpbacked Mahseer): Cauvery River system

In East Asia (which includes the upper of Brahmaputra, Mekong, Ayerawaddy and Salween), some 11 species of Tor can be found. They include familiar fishes like Tor Tambra (Indonesian Mahseer; Kelah), Tor douronensis (Large Scaled Mahseer), Tor putitora, Tor tambroides (Thai Mahseer; Kelah Merah). Tor species have been reported in most river systems in China, south of the Huang He (Hwang Ho). The Yuanjiang River (Yangtze Kiang) has Mahseer!

In our region of South-east Asia, we have Tor tambra, Tor tambroides, Tor duoronensis. Among the False Mahseer (Noelissocheilus genus), we have N. hexagonolepsis (Tengas, Kejor) and N. stracheyi (formerly Tor soro).

As you can see, the Mahseer family is varied and well distributed! It is good for you to familiarise with the various species and where they are found, if you are a traveling angler, for you may get opportunities to fish for them.

As varied as the Mahseer species are, so are their habits. Some are prime predators (T. putitor, N. stracheyi, T. tambroides of Kalimantan), feeding on prey like small fishes and crabs. Others are mainly bottom feeders (T. tambroides, T. tor) feeding on fruits and even algae, whilst others still are omnivorous (N. hexagonolepsis, T. musullah). 

But one fairly common trait is that Tor fishes prefer deep, fast rivers where they can find prime lies (security, food, comfort) and well-oxygenated water.

A proud angler with his hard catch Kelah!

This writing can only serve as an introduction to the family of Mahseer. To know more, you need to google the Net and read books on the subject. What I can assure you, if you are a river angler, knowledge about the Mahseer family of fishes can be very interesting and intriguing! Among the world’s river fishes, the kelah and Mahseer can be considered as the Rolls Royce of sportfishes for their strength, stamina, and the challenges of landing them on rod and line!

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