River Two : The Beas
October is THE month to fish for freshwater , anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, where there's good fishing. There's something magical about this time of the year. Maybe the fish feel the oncoming winter and sense they need to stock up. The signs are all definitely there : the temperature drops suddenly after the summer onslaught, the water levels go down and the rivers clear up, the duration of night increases with the departure of peak sun, and even the bugs are enjoying one last dance before the winters set in.
If It were left upto me, I'd shift the Summer holidays to fall. Anyway, there were a lot of choices and not enough days to fit them all in. To start with there was the lure of monster Mahaseer in Pancheshwar. More than one set of guys were heading down there for rafting and fishing. Tempting. Then there's always closing season on the Tirthan, never to be missed. However, Diwali and Metallica , complicated things a bit for any plans towards the end of the month. But the best of the lot was a plan to do a wilderness exploratory ride/trek into an area of Himachal which is still cut off from the rest of the civilized, motorable world. Nested in a cozy valley, along the eastern border with Uttrakhand, cutoff by the Chanchal pass at about 4200 meters above sea level on one side and the greater Himalayas on the other, the valley was beckoning. Plans were made, camp equipment bought, wives were warned of the imminent dangers of accompanying us and essentially we were ready to hit the road in the first week of October for ten days of the great Himalayan outdoors, trying to locate forgotten streams which still may carry trout. Trout are migratory, and then seed whatever water is suitable. The only thing stopping their world domination of the Himalayan rivers is human intervention.
The excitement had built up considerably by the first of October but as usual, with well planned fishing trips, there is always a last minute detour, a slight twist of fate. My brother totalled my 4x4 Jeep, which was a necessity for this adventure, breaking the axle. To escalate our troubles, 5 of the 7 people dropped out at the last minute, 4 of whom were coming down from Manali in a Pajero. There went the backup plan. Norman and I were the only two left , and on a trip so far into the forest land, 70-80 kms from the nearest road head, we decided to call it quits. I still feel the disappointment, but you HAVE to be responsible while planning these trips, that's the nature of the beast. The wild is totally unforgiving, of fools.
I had to attend a friends shaadi in Shimla on the 6th of October. Bags were packed, the car loaded with a Kurta/Pyjama , fishing rods and gear, my U-tube One man float boat, a case of wine and me, my wife and the baby decided to hit the road. Options , after concluding the shaadi business, were Barot or Tirthan or both. We kept things open, just to add a bit of excitement. We decided to hit Tirthan for a few days , and Barot on the way back. The route chosen was over Jalori Pass, being the closest. However , the road to Jalori , on both sides, in notoriously missing in action. It may be a state highway connecting the Kullu Valley directly with the Satluj valley, but the winter snows of Jalori Jot never allow any attempts to tame it. I was still smarting from the cancelled trip and this drive would push the boundaries , just a tad. It's also a beautiful drive, having done it previously. Hardly anyone uses this road, except a few state buses and tourists going upto Jalori for kicks. So, we got done with the morning Shaadi by noon and drove directly from the venue towards Jalori, still dressed in our formal attire. I really wanted to get into Nagini by 7ish, just around dusk. I would have loved to make it there by 05:30pm, but even my LFA has limitations!
Needless to say, the road conditions in a 5 km radius around Jalori were as expected : someone had bombed the road. Landslides had claimed road passes, and snow melt streams were running all over the reclaimed land. My car really must hate me for putting it through all this torture, just to satisfy my cravings. Still, the car made it through, despite getting stuck a couple of times and the clutch smelling like it would burn through the pedal anytime. We got to the trout house by 07:15pm, which wasn't too far from my intended arrival time. It must've been a funny sight to see our family get out the car with fishing gear in tow, dressed in full-on Indian shaadi clothes. Someone actually thought we had dressed up for Dussehra!!:D
Next morning I started fishing at about eleven. I now connect with the Tirthan on another level, as if it was "my river". It is such a human failing of mine, this vanity of attributing a whole river as my own. Still, there are sections of this river that i now know intimately. I know the released fish under specific rocks , and deep pools which always surprise me one way or the other. Needless to say, such familiarity will breed over-confidence; and that level of confidence is always rewarded with failure, a slap of the face so tight you forget you never knew how to fish.
The water was crystal clear and we started fishing at the BSNL pool, named so after the BSNL building right in front of it. The "building" is an old wood and stone house which is used to house the equipment for the adjacent tower. The tower works on an invertor, in case of an outage. This is the only tower in the Nagini stretch of the valley and your only connection with the mobile world. The fish were seen suspended at different levels, feeding in the multiple currents across the cross section of the water. The top 5 feet or so has all the small tiddlers having fun. These guys range from 4" to 7" and you have to try hard to avoid them. They feed on anything and get hooked even if your drag your fly across the surface. As an extreme example, I was fishing with a red fly indicator, which creates a ruckus when retrieved fast across the top water. The racket it creates is not unlike a surface popper, albeit a miniaturized version. I had a fish on a nymph which i was reeling in and a small tiddler got attracted by the red indicator, attacking it furiously and repeatedly while i retrieved the slightly bigger guy. What a sight! Mid level of the water column you'll have the 8" to 11" fish hanging around and cruising. These guys are much more wary of what they put in their mouth. They didn't grow big, by being stupid for sure. Also, the Tirthan is a heavily fished and poached river, so the fish are very aware of humans and their wiles. At the bottom, some 10' and over, I'll catch a glimpse of a monster, totally inaccessible to me and my nymphs. Surely, I'll hit bottom with my weighted nymphs and tin-shot rigs( I've graduated to tin split shots : they're reusable, non toxic, and their unusual shape helps get out of rocks and snags) but there is very little control over the fly at that level through so many different levels of current. Thankfully, these big fish survive the angling and poaching as spinners and hand liners don't have a chance to get down that deep. Only sure-shot way to get these guys out is with earthworms or electricity/dynamite.
Second day into the Tirthan Valley, and the Shaadi party landed at the trout house. Hearing about our fishing adventures, the honeymooning couple decided to give Kasol a miss and came over to fish with us. Unknown to them ( and us), we were in the middle of a power outage unlike the Valley had seen since the 2005 floods. It lasted for 5 days in all, all dinners were served in candle light by the customary bonfire in the center of the gazebo. Rooms were accessed with kerosene lanterns and phones stopped working once the BSNL invertor batteries ran out of juice. In the right setting, you don't miss electricity, even for 5 days. The groom's twin brothers also escorted the couple, I got them hooked onto spinning on their first fishing trip. They spent hours flogging the water everyday, getting to learn the action and cast with the spinner. It took them a day or two to get into their first fish, maybe a 3-4 incher or so for both of them, but they were hooked for sure, and i don't mean the fish!
The primary reason for bringing my float tube had been to fish the lake created by the Largi dam. There are islands near the inlet of the lake, where you can anchor the boat in the center of the river channel. This will give you access to both banks from the center, allowing for some excellent dry fly action during the evening hatch. So we packed some sandwiches for lunch and headed downstream to the dam early. On our way we stopped midway at the "double S'es" at Bali Chowki where the river takes these consecutive "S" bends through a tight valley, almost gorge like in some places. Its a long walk from the road to the river, about 800-900 meters in elevation. When we got down , we were surprised to find other guests from the trout house spinning at the main run. The second half of the run was damaged the previous summer with bleaching powder, no use trying to fish there! So we decided to share the spot with the guys who got there first. That's the way I looked at it...those guys must've despised us for our invasion of the S'es. These other guys were spinning and they were making a killing, they took out some 7 fish the largest of them being a nice 14". I got into some fish but nothing to write home about. For me fishing is when you target a fish and get him out. To look at a piece of water and predict where the fish are....that's the thrill of flyfishing for me, among other things. Getting into fish randomly, though always welcome, is not quite that rewarding. One of the twins got his first fish at the bends, he smiled all the way to Largi.
Some-days, like i mentioned earlier, are not my days. This was one of them. Having traveled so far, carrying the boat and anticipating, the fun session in the lake, the excitement lost for the initial cancellation was ,back in full. However, the Dam management had other ideas, and they opened the flood gates in full; draining the lake!! Can you imagine that, my balloon was diffused not with a needle, but a cannon!! Still, I was determined to fish, so I suited up and walked to the far bank across a bridge, wading into knee deep water to get to the island. We had a couple of hours of good light before the last light and I started fishing. The water was not high as it was supposed to be, and it was clear. The fish were spooked and the catching was slow. All of sudden , there was a beetle hatch all around us. There were thousands of flying beetles everywhere on the island, but not on the water. I realized that the beetles were crawling from under the exposed rocks of the island, rocks which were supposed to be submerged!! An intense midge match followed the beetles, so intense it seemed like flaking dandruff falling on the rocks. Immediately afterwards we got into a caddis hatch which climaxed into a mayfly hatch. All this activity was over and done with within an hour. These types of hatches will always get a dry fly enthusiast very excited. The fish love hatches and all fish, big and small, feed on them from the top. Its sight and target fishing at its best. Unfortunately for Mr Chima, the hatch happened not on the water, but on the island where the bugs hardly fell into the water!! There was no surface "boil" so typical in a crazed hatch such as this, the fish were still sulking at the bottom. With Dusk approaching, totally dejected ( and yet somehow happy to have witnessed such a good hatch) I called it a day and headed back to the car. On the way back, my 9' rod got stuck in a tree and despite our best efforts I lost the rod tip to the tree. This was the climax of the perfect storm : They drained the lake i went to fish in, consequence of which the hatch happened over dry land, and I broke my favorite sage rod.
The next day we decided to set up a night camp on the Palachin further upstream of Bathad, near the village of Tilla. 4 tents were setup, three of our gang and one for the staff. The idea was to have a bonfire fish cookout, on a full moon night. We carried a small shop's supply of Maggie for backup. We got done with the camp setup by around three in the afternoon and immediately headed down to the river to fish. This was the first time I had committed myself to catching fish and bringing them back to the table. I didn't really feel any pressure, this was a place where I have caught plenty of fish, in the past summers. Deepak, my fly-gillie, was also my backup, ready with a spinner. We split up and took different banks. Strangely enough, there was very little insect life under the river rocks. It seemed like they had ALL hatched at the same time, which never really happens. Was the water too cold? We were in a valley at an altitude of about 2500 meters above sea level.Night time temperatures were hovering around the zero point. Two hours of fishing produced nothing, not even a bite. Deepak was looking worried and it rubbed off on me as well. Deepak made the call and said maybe the fish have moved further downstream. We quickly retraced our steps back to the starting point and started fishing downstream. At dusk, about a kilometer downstream, Deepak got into 7" brown trout on spinner. He looked at me and I told him to let it go. It was getting dark, so he decided to quit and head back, maggie to the rescue!! It was also decided that we would wake by early and have fish for breakfast. Whole potatoes wrapped in foil were thrown into the campfire, bottles of wine were opened, and we bathed in the light of a delicious full moon by 8pm.
We caught fish in the morning, ahead of the point where we stopped the previous evening. The morning fishing was way better, but the insects life was still missing. We packed up and headed back to the trout house for lunch. We divided into two groups and my group fished our way back to Nagini, getting into the occasional fish.
By this time I was beginning to feel jinxed and sorry for myself. Here's the thing, I was missing the point. The point isn't that they drained the lake OR I wasn't catching too many fish. The point was that we were in the great outdoors, experienceing life as it has been it the days past. I love to fish because it gets me outdoors into places of infinite beauty. It gets me into places where the natural cycles are still unaffected by our parasitical approach to colonizing the planet. Somewhere, in all of this commotion of a vacation, I had forgetten the point....but it came back to me, with a vengenace, that night and I was back!! The point is, there is still hope, for us and the planet, and while we may have been the cause of this imbalance, the hope ALSO lies within us.
Next morning I decided to go to Ropa. Its a long, tough walk. The drops are near vertical and there are no trails, you have to create your own. Preeti was keeping her fast for my well being, I may as well push my luck a bit, eh?!
I dont know what is was, Preeti's fast, or my self realization, or just nature taking its course, but after a 4-5 km trek I found the river brimming with big fat juicy bugs : caddis and stonefly nymphs. we got into a pool by executing some very cool bungee-jumping and zorbing moves using forest vines, grasses and branches. The way back up was near imposiible, having reached the bottom by slipping and falling off some very big and smooth rocks!! Well, what can i say....i got into some serious fish, the largest being almost 3 pounds!!
Only after concluding the second trip, did I realized the essential similarities of both the experiences. In Kashmir, no matter where I fished, it was all an extension of the Jhelum and likewise in Himachal, whichever small nallah i tried to find trout in, it was all an extension of the Beas. Both trips started with a bang, hit the doldrums in the middle and ended with a spectacular climax. Moral of the story ? Keep fishing through it all....there will be good days, followed by bad days. Eventually things will turn around and you'll be on top of your biggest catch.... just remember to be kind enough to release
Sorry for SUCH a long report, I just didn't know where to stop... pictures being resized!!