A Tale of Two Rivers
Following the mad rush of Summer fishing,here in our country, us trout anglers hit the wall of rains, which wash out all hopes of casting a fly for atleast 3 months. It's not only the trout fisheries that get effected, Mahaseer fisheries bear the brunt of the trans-Himalayan watershed floods, as well. By the end of this three month cycle, I was desperate to fish again. All those hours of fish-surfing the net, had burned a hole in my bank balance ; without managing to offer any consolation for being stuck indoors!
By the time we hit mid September,the rains had shown no signs of letting up. If anything, they had picked up pace here in Delhi and the surrounding shivalik hills. Roads were devastated and the rains un-relenting. The ONLY option left for me to wet my rods, was to hit Kashmir again. The Pir Panjals not only cut the Valley off from the Mainland, they also get the monsoons to drain out before hitting the valley. Kashmir has its own micro climate and they get their precipitation more from the winter snow than the monsoon rains. A road trip at this time would have been counter productive, with the state of the roads being what they are during the monsoons : drowned!! So online travel sites were researched and stalked for a couple of nights, to find the best flight deals. To my surprise and delight, I found some deals going out for a return ticket for about Rs 5000.You don't have to guess what happened next...before I ( or my family) knew it I was onboard an early morning flight for an extended fishing weekend!!
Kashmir in fall is even more beautiful, than the summer. The strikingly gigantic and gargantuan Chinar (Maple) trees reach out for the sky in shades of green,yellow,orange and finally red, sometimes as high as 50 feet and wider in diameter than a maruti 800, and then some. Chinar is roughly translated into fire, with the full fall foliage in place, these trees sure do light up the imagination.
A quick stop for Chai and permits, and I was ready to fish within a hour of landing at the Srinagar airport. The drive to the lodge in Pahalgam was anxious, it had been raining since last night. Beats chosen by my Kashmiri Host this time were Phryslan ( Betaab Valley) on the Lidder, Upper Hirpora in Shopian, Upper Lam in Pulwama and Upper Bringhi on the Daksum. All rivers in the valley drain either into the Sindh (Indus) or the Jhelum, which also drains into the Sindh eventually.
Betaab Valley is named after the Hindi movie that was shot there.Its a nice river side meadow surrounded by the peaks bounding the trek to Amarnath. All along the road you will find evidence of the recently concluded yatra, not in the form of leftover garbage, but abandoned camp sites. My guide took us straight to Chandanwari, the road head for the yatra. I had never imagined I'd ever do the yatra, but sure enough my guide started walking up the path, alongside the freezing water of the Sheshnag river, crossing leftover thawing ice shelves from the last winter snow and horse-dung fields leftover from the yatra. Mud,dung, rain and thawing ice sure as hell don't make for a fun walk, especially up a steep hill!! Still, I loved the novelty of it...fishing for trout along the path used by the Yatris!! The gods were surely not amused, and the fish were all sulking beneath rocks, tucked in deep pools, far away from the reach of my nymphs given the fast current and shallow depth of the river. The Sheshnag originates from the Lake with the same name. There are legends of brown trout the size of men in that lake. Being one of the top Holi Sites in our country, even dreaming of fishing in the lake would be considered a sin. Same with Doditaal, being the place of birth of Lord Ganesha, fishing is banned there as well. Pity.
Walking back downstream to the parked car in Chandanwari, we crossed a confluence. Surely if there were fish in the Sheshnag, there would be fish in this tributary as well...fish really don't adhere to the permit-beats issued by the fisheries department. The way I see it, they go where they get food and least disturbance from nosy humans with annoying hooks tied to imitate food flies. But the guides didn't really seem to think so. I think he had a wedding party to attend that evening, and he sure wasn't about to waste time chasing fish on a random stream, never fished before! Either that, or he was hiding his best spots from me.
So we got in the car and moved way downstream to the Betaab Valley. When I first saw the valley from the top of the road, my first impression was Nehru Park with a stream running through it. Carefully manicured meadows with families picnicking on the weekend. And that's exactly what it is, with the only difference being the Sheshnag. The valley floor is a very gradual gradient through the length of the meadow, which must be about a kilometer or so in length. This makes the gurgling and gushing high mountain stream pause and meander lazily through the park. If it wasn't for the high ranges surrounding you, one can easily imagine being in the high plains in some exotic trout location.
Phyrsln provides the wading angler with a lot of possibilities. Slow current, shallow banks, undercut islands, deeper channels mid stream, all combine for textbook flyfishing. You can cast dry flies upstream into feeding drift lanes and watch the trout take delicately from the top. Or in the next change you can cast your wet-fly/nymph into a small downstream riffle and feel the take with the trembling of your rod. Betaab valley offers a fishing experience , very unlike the general Kashmir experience. Here you can approach the trout with "fine line" angling, without the aid of weighted flies or sinking shots. Its a kilometer of flyfishing in the most traditional of ways, something even the most "pro-pah" British dry fly angler would approve of.
Day 2 we headed for Hirpora which was a good 110 Kms from the lodge in Pahalgam. Initially I had wanted to fish in Aharbal, which in the previous summer had afforded me with monster rainbows and majestic panoramas.However, due to over fishing the department had shut the beat down for recovery. Since people get a permit to take six fish out; they DO take all of them out. There is no conscientious release amongst the local fishing community. I am always looked upon as an Idiot, for not even taking my permitted share, or more. The more regular and influential anglers have reportedly been taking 20-30 fish back home for a family dinners. So I didn't really mind being offered a beat in the adjoining valley. After all, its only one range across to the north. So far so good. Midway towards Hirpora, the driver is asking for directions for Shopian. In our living rooms in Delhi, the name "Shopian" or "Shupiyan" conjures up some rather distressing images. The most recent ones being of some two thousand kashmiri youth graves being unearthed a couple of weeks before my trip!!
Traveling to touristy places with a few friends is one thing, realizing you're alone in Shopian, fishing with a couple of guides ; one of whose brothers is an ex-extremist; is something else. Hirpora is so remote and off the beaten track, that even locals didn't know where it was! We passed three districts to get there and all people in all three districts called it by different names, being " Hirpora", " Heerpur" or " Heerpura". Logically one would connect the dots and all three names, but no, not in Kashmir. While a helping soul would recognize one of the names and guide us, the other two places would cease to have ever existed. Hiropora is the name of the village where the Rambiara stream enters into the Kashmir valley from the Jammu side. The original Mughal Road cuts into the valley from the same village. This road is now being resuscitated by the Indian Government to connect the Bander and Poonch districts with the Kashmir Valley. Being right along the border, these regions have seen more than their fair share of the carnage and the rivers have taken a beating as well.
The fishing was mildly interesting. There were no trout to be seen, heard or felt anywhere on the river, despite a six kilometer trek upstream to a very remote confluence. The river did, however, have plenty of Indian trout and Snow trout [Schizothorax] , and being bottom feeders they love my nymphs! On our way back the district fisheries officer called me to inquire why we didn't catch any trout.What gall!! I was almost tempted to ask him the same question " Where the hell are all your trout, boss?"
Day 3 was destined to be no less exciting. The beat assigned on the stream Lam lies in a region known as Tral. Unknown to me before we started the drive, this was a hotbed of extremist activity during the peak years. My driver was very good with local lore, and decided to fill out all the gory details while we drove some 100 kms into the heartland of this region.Tral is the rice bowl of Kashmir, and the views from the road are excellent. Fields of gold spreading as far as you can see, framing into green mountains in every direction.Capped by the haze free blue sky, this region is picture perfect. There is also a sizable Sardar population within this belt.
The road got smaller and smaller,from metalled to unmetalled, from two way to one way; till we hit the end of the road: a house in the village! It had been raining all of the previous night, so the river was raging brown and swollen. We trekked some 3-4 kilometers upstream, hoping to get clear water but no such luck. I caught no fish, whatsoever, but I also didn't see a single plastic wrapper or bottle. The locals still drank from the river stream and the village was off any tourist radar. To be in a place where the consumers haven't reached enmasse, is always welcome. That being said, I quit trying to catch fish at about lunch and headed back for a session on the Lidder.
Day 4 brought in the last day of the trip and with 2 days out of 3 having gone without good fishing, I was prepared for the worst. The Bhringhi valley is in the southwest zone, being close to the Jawahar Tunnel. You can also get to Doda on the same road going via Daksum, which is a very picturesque hill station.This road is being developed by the military as an alternate to the tunnel road. The bhringhi valley is a wide high altitude grassland. The river stream meanders through it slowly and both banks are easily accessible through a bit of wading. This is the closest I've been to a Montana type trout fishery, without having to take a mortgage on the house! We parked at the fishery and the river runs right behind it. First look at the river showed promise, undercut banks on the sides and underwater plants swaying in the current.I started catching fish from the first cast, and caught fish till we stopped to rush back to Srinagar for the morning flight. I even experimented with a sinking line to catch my very first trout on a huge streamer fly.
I have always believed that you have to put in the hours to get results, good or bad. Fishing is no exception. That's it for the first part, part two to follow. In the meantime, here are the pictures :
Tral, Fields of Gold
The start of the Amarnath Yatra trek from Chandanwari
Sheshnag River at Chandanwari
Melting ice Fields
First Fish of the Trip!
Nice Brown Trout!!
Small Evening Brownie being released
Handlining....everywhere I go....
Indian Trout on Fly
Hirpora...into the 6km trek...theres a man in the middle of the picture for reference of size for the trees.
Last Catch of the Day...not bad, if I may so say myself! Caught on a Crystal Wooly Bugger.
Laam Stream in Spate
Try and Try and Try........
Fishing on the Lidder
Trout on the Bhringhi Weeds
First Trout on a Streamer!
Nice Trout 12-13"
Shrubs and Undercut Banks
Last fish of the Trip with Bashir, The excellent guide.
DISCLAIMER : All fish, save 2 schizos and 2 trout, were released!