The stars, they never stop conspiring. After some loose planning over an excitable phone call, IG and I had decided to hit Kashmir, by road, for a week or so around the 18th of May. As the weekend came close, IG was out [new urgent plans]. Knowing this may well be the end of the trip, I decided to drive all the way alone. I mean how bad could it be, a week of fly-fishing in Kashmir. So the car was packed and loaded : 7 bottles of wine, 2 bottles of Whiskey, case of beer, case of redbull, 2 bags full of flies, 5 fly rods, a float tube, and some clothes. Departure set was Sunday, 15th of March [ides of March, anyone?].
Come Saturday night, a friend who randomly asked about my weekend plans, confirmed that he would love to come to Kashmir, as well. Him being, a Bass player/Musician/Non Angler, i was a bit wary, but I agreed. 1000 Kms one way is a long drive, to be going alone!!
Sunday morning 5:30am we hit the road. The excitement was palpable, so much so that I hadn't even slept the previous night till about 2:30 am!! The roads were devoid of the rush hour madness and we reached Ambala in 3.5 hours. Ambala to Jalandhar was torturous, with morning rush hour traffic and millions of diversions. It took us a good 4 hours to get to the Jalandhar KFC for a well-deserved Zinger Burger. An Hour and a half to Pathankot and the road becomes a driver's delight: 4-Big-Empty-Lanes all the way upto Jammu bypass. We were in Patnitop by 06:30pm. A quick dinner at 07:00 and back on the road by 05:30am. We hit the Kashmir Valley at 9ish in the morning. Beyond that, God Bless you…..
Srinagar is one of those places in the world, where apparently every single man and all his sons own a car. The entire highway from Anantnag to Srinagar can be like rush hour to Gurgaon on MG Road. It’s slow, polluted, dusty and LOUD!! It took us 1 hour to cover 13 Kms, just to get inside Srinagar. The beauty of the Valley is surely not seen on this road, especially if you’re driving with a purpose!!
Srinagar was not how I expected it to be. I’d been to the Valley once earlier in 1989, my father took us fly-fishing. The images ingrained in my mind were in for a rude shock. Srinagar, is a modern city, with modern problems, let’s just leave it at that. However, you need to hit the city to get supplies and more importantly Fishing Licences, The Department of Fisheries. The licencing authority is located in a residential colony, off Lal Chowk Market, in a hidden lane in a rented residence, with no signboards or directions. Best of luck, finding that!! Oh, and network GPS systems don’t work as there’s a blanket ban on internet mobility of security reasons. Anyway, the Valley fishing follows an antiquated and inherited (British) beat system where the river is divided into a number of “beats” , on which a maximum of 2 rods are permitted everyday. The distribution of rods is monitored in Srinagar so you are not allowed any changes, while fishing on the beats, once you plan them out. There are about 50-70 beats to choose from, across a selection of Lakes, Streams and Springs. It took me 1.5 hours to plan out 7 days’ worth of permits and this being a Sarkari standard issue; everything is in quadruplicate, which is painfully handwritten in excruciating slowness!!
What follows next is customary- a visit to a local fly shop. Yes, they DO have fly shops in Srinagar which sell, yes, you guessed it: Fly Fishing Tackle [Kashmir is Fly-fishing ONLY]. These shops are generational businesses with the store runners being proud owners of a long drawn heritage. Needless to say, they’re anglers themselves!! The beat system isn’t the only antiquity. The flies are truly, from the early Twentieth Century, Royal Coachman ET all. Trying ordering one of these from a Cabelas and you’ll understand my bewilderment. Anyway, despite carrying a million flies, I just HAD to pick up some local flies. Such a fly-fishing thing to do: Carry all the flies you own to a new fishing spot, only to buy a boxful of local goodies. Sigh, crazy, these anglers are….
So we found a lodge, catering to local anglers, in Pahalgam. Since most of my fishing was on the Lidder, which is the River draining the Pahalgam valley [it’s called the Lidder Valley]; we were more than happy to get out of Srinagar. Pahalgam is the diametric opposite of Srinagar, Pahalgam is the quintessential Kashmir. It’s on a hill, surrounded by snow-covered peaks, set amongst unending forests. The minute you get away from the main road and into the Lodge, you’re transported to a different time. The pace of life is slower; the urgency is generated only by your own anxiety to start fishing. We found the Lodge by 6:00pm. I had bought a licence for the same day, so I got into the car again and headed straight for the river. Another curiosity of the beat system is that you have to report to the local fishery office of your assigned beat, before you get to the river. The beat “guard” will then assign a gillie to you, who will escort you to the river. This entire process can take anything from 15 minutes to three fourths of an hour.
My first impression of the Lidder was depressing!! The water was BIG, fast and brown. Not the best fly-fishing conditions, at all. IF anything, I already believed that I would go back empty handed after driving a 1000kms. Not a great feeling after 2 days of non-stop driving. To top it all, the gillie refused to try my flies!!
“Nahi Saab, yeh sab nahi chalega Kashmir mein”
“Have you ever tried any of these flies?”
“Nahi, Saab, par yeh sab nahi chalega. Apke pass Coachman ya Muddler nahi hain?”
Time was running out and so was my patience. 07:30pm is cut-off time for fishing, sunup to sundown. So I did what most anglers would do in this position. I sheepishly handed over my newly acquired Kashmir fly box to the gillie, who then proceeded to string up my rod with, surprise-surprize, a double hook coachman and a coachman dropper. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problems with these flies. They were among the very first, ever tied, and they still work their magic. It’s just that when I need to hit bottom, in such a furious river, I’d rather use nymphs than wet flies. Nymphs would get all the way to the bottom and their profiles are more closely matched to the larvae/nymph stages of stoneflies/caddisflies/mayflies. Also, by using weighted flies you needn’t weigh down the line too much. Casting with too much weight is a pain. You end up with wind knots that take hours to unravel, forcing you to retie the leader. As a last resort you end up throwing wide open loops or you “lob”. Essentially you start using the flyrod like a spinrod, where you use the weight of the lure/lead to cast. Not the best fly-casting, but it works. Forget the mind’s eye visuals of perfect closed loops leaping forward and back. On these rivers, you’re better off lobbing!!
Anyway, so I took the 2 fly setup, along with the lead weights and lobbed myself to glory in the first pool I saw, or rather, was pointed to. B-I-N-G-O, first cast, and a nice 12” brown trout at the end of my line of the double hook coachman. The lord works in mysterious ways, that he does. Sweet is the tension on the end of your line, especially after a 2 day drive. The curse was lifted in my mind: I could catch fish in this turbid, fast water!! Being rid of the anxiety, I started fishing, and fish I did. Lifting a few rocks, I saw some really big brown-black stonefly nymphs crawling under. A quick change to a prince beadhead and I landed a couple of more brownies. Not bad, if I may say so myself!! The gillie still wouldn’t believe my flies would work, but who cares…the Fishing was ON!!
The next four days were spent waking early, leaving early, fishing all day and partying all night. “All night”, used to wrap up by 10:30-11:00. I caught a lot of fish the very next day. I stopped counting after 12. Yet again, the Gillie was sure my flies wouldn’t work. So I tried the same formula all over again. Start with the coachman/muddler combo and work my way back to my nymphs. Hell, I even managed to catch one on a dry fly pistol Pete!!
Food became a function of nutrients required for delivering energy throughout the day. Kashmiri food is heavy duty stuff. Its a high fat/carbohydrate diet where they essential eat oil with some stuff thrown in for flavor. Eggs and Kashmiri bread for breakfast will last you till lunch( say noon or so). A redbull at this point will definitely lift your spirits, coz the fishing sure will head south. Biscuits or chocolate at about 2pm, alongwith a booster redbull dose at 3:00pm will have you fully tuned into the "Fish On" timezone of early to late evening. Dinner is best described as swimming in oil, which thankfully helps you with taking a dump at 4:30-05:00 in the morning. A bottle of wine at night ,surely, keeps the doctor away, a couple of Whiskies wont harm as well!!
All in all I Caught over 30-35 fish, most of them were released. A couple of days I stopped counting, to concentrate more on the fishing. I got comfortable with fishing the small pools and big ,fast water. In most of the streams, at this time of the year, the center portion of the river is throwing rapids bigger than 6' to 10' in height. Also, on the glacial streams, the muddy runoff snow melt starts hitting the river after noon, transforming their colors from grey to chocolate brown by evening. I also got comfortable with getting stuck in the rocks every third cast. We lost a lot of flies, but if you’re not getting to the bottom, you’re not getting to the fish. The fast water is a layer on top. Slow water is still there at the bottom, where the fish wait it out. This type of water demands wet fly/nymph fishing. The fish are there, but they're hiding under the rocks in slower currents. I pulled out multiple fish from some of the bigger pools. It’s not easy going though. You have to work hard, all day, to get into the time zone when they feed. You also need to walk a lot to get away from easily accessible parts. Then there are the deep gorges where you’re simultaneously hiking, rock climbing, canyoning and cliff jumping. Not for the faint hearted, but definitely worth the risks. Heck, even the bass player caught a fish!! His first fish ever: an 18” FAT rainbow clocking in at over a kilo!! Beginners Luck, what a blast.
The Valley is safe right now. The peace is tentative; tense and sensitive at the least. The people are sick of the violence. Warm, friendly and inquisitive, we got help everywhere we went. Mind you, going by the inevitable street directions, a Kilometre can stretch anywhere from 500 metres to 20 Kms, but that’s not out of any intentional malice. I've come to realize that despite being a defined measure, a Kilometer is more of a perception, of people's imagination and character. We travelled nearly 500Kms within the valley. We covered east/west/south, as much as we could in the time we were there. We were travelling off the main roads and into the hinterland, where 2 lanes would merge into 1 and suddenly there is just about enough space on the road to fit the car. Numerous occasions we had to get out of the car to clear the road of debris, to allow passage!! Through all of these comic relief moments, we never felt fear. The people were kind and offered help relentlessly. They want normalcy, they want a better living.
All in all it was one hell of a fishing trip. I’m not divulging any spots here, but pm me if you need any help, while planning a trip. They say you bring a piece of the place back. I’m afraid I’ve left a piece back there, and may need to repeatedly connect with it.
Picture Preview Follows :
Entering the 2.5Km Jawahar Tunnel. B.R.o is the Border Roads Organization which is doing a great job of maintaining these roads.
Sheshnag, A tributary of the Lidder. The Lodge was just above this stream. This stream originated from Sheshnag Lake, enroute to the Amarnath Cave.
Pir Panjal Panorama from Pahalgam
First Browntrout in Kashmir, 12" caught on a double hook coachman
First Brown Trout on Prince Beadhead Nymph
Our caretaker, Abdul Razzak, was amazed that i was releasing all the fish. So he clutched this one and said he wouldn't let me release him. He thought I was mad!! There is no concept of catch and release within the locals here, including the gillies. I had to educate them how to handle and release the fish. Their first reaction is to "gill" the fish and then snap off the neck.They could not fathom why I was spending so much money on the license and the Gillie, only to let the fish go.....
Another Nice Brownie, the next Day...caught on a nymph, thank you!
Lost, trying to find the Fisheries Depart?! Follow the sign, Dude!
The long walk down, straight down, mind you!!
Fishing on a Vertical Rock Face, thats Mr Mangla, the first time angler!
Now that's what I'm talking about, A Nice Kilo+ Rainbow Trout!
Okiedokie, time to hit the next pool. Oh wait, we have to climb all the way up, and then straight down again. Fun.......not!!
Worth the walk, wouldn't you agree??
Mr Mangla getting adventurous and hopped onto a rock in the middle of the river, which looks like its in a flood!!
A nice fish for a first timer, eh?! Kilo++ in weight,18"+ in length, 11"+ in girth!!Bloody beginners!!! Rainbow Trout.
Oh Darn, Time to move to a nice spot again....
A local fish caught on a fly, they called it "Kashmiri"(d-uh!!), ID, anyone please?!
It ain't Niagara, it's still Tremendous!!
So I managed to get my car stuck in between a Chinar (Maple) tree, a bridge under construction, a river and a road roller. I thought i could attempt a 60 degree turn to get onto a makeshift bridge.
The bridge Jack's car refused to climb.....
So this is an official beat. I looked at it and again,despair set it. Its a stream used a a nallah: washing, bathing, sewage,garbage; everything gets dumped in this stream. So why the hell would i catch fish in it, trout on top of it all. I'd been swindled of a day, grrrrr..................it even stinks like a sewer!!!
Turns out, the trout aren't just in there, they're BIG!!
Not just Browns, but Rainbows as well....
This is, what hitting the ball out of the park, must feel like!
The mystery unravels, the plot unfolds. A Humongous Spring feeds fresh water into the village stream, providing more nutrients and good water to the the trout. Enough to keep them in the god-awful-smelly-water downstream through the village.
Icing on the cake, there are monster trout in the spring. No catching allowed but you get to see fish in excess of 4' swimming around without fear!! I was told there were monsters in the spring over 5' in length who come out at night!!!!
Fishing under a waterfall that Jahangir made, in a deep pool surrounded by Garbage. Not my idea of Flyfishing !!
View of Lidder Valley from the Lodge at Night
View of Lidder Valley from the Lodge
The Fishing Lodge!!
Nice 18" Brownie in the evening session, this one's for the plate...YUMMY!!
Chilling with a friend, who flew down especially [for a day] to see what the ruckus was all about!!
Last view of the Lidder Valley
So the Trip ended and we headed back. Both of us had a lump in our throats, all the way back. Silence filled the cabin, like someone had died. This was one of those places you just don't want to leave. Its bittersweet, the parting. You feel like your heart is broken, like the first time you fell in love!! Yet there's hope that you'll be back, and that helps to ease the total despair you feel. Kashmir,hold on to your trout...... I'll be back!!!