Craig travels to the edge of the world’s highest mountains in search of a half-forgotten trout fishery.
As a boy growing up in Ballarat and being the only member of my family interested in fishing, I was mainly restricted to water I could reach by bike, such as Lake Wendouree. To compensate, I would avidly read anything I could lay my hands on to do with flyfishing further afield, and I was especially drawn to writings about exotic locations. In particular, I remember John Sautelle’s book ‘Fishing for the Educated Trout’. In it, John described fishing in many locations around the world.
Move forward 50 years and I’d been fortunate to have fished all the locations John wrote about, except for one: Kashmir. I mentioned to long-time friend Malcolm Crosse that I was looking for interesting destinations for some hosted trips, and Malcolm suggested Kashmir – he’d visited several times and had good contacts there. My non-fishing wife Vicki was also keen to come, which I can’t say for many of the places I fish! So, 6 weeks later Vicki and I were headed to the mythical Shangrila on an Air India flight.
Kashmir has a rich angling history. During the years of British control in the early 1900s, both brown and rainbow trout were stocked into Kashmir’s rivers. They thrived in the cool, highly-oxygenated water running out of the Himalayas. Anglers from around the world travelled to Kashmir to experience the region’s excellent fishing, explore its fascinating culture and history, and to be surrounded by exquisite scenery. As well as trout, the rivers hold indigenous fish which take a fly and fight strongly. And I am advised that mahseer are available only a short 30-minute flight away from Srinagar.
Recent Geopolitical History
With the departure of the British, Kashmir was divided up three ways, with the sections being controlled by China, Pakistan and India respectively. Needless to say, this arrangement wasn’t completely successful, with ongoing and complex disputes around sovereignty and borders. Despite regular skirmishes between Pakistan and India in particular, the region had until recently experienced some semblance of stability, with Indian-controlled Kashmir operating under a special autonomous status, overseen by the presence of Indian troops. (This special status was revoked by the Indian government on the 4th August, the day we departed, and at the time of writing, communications with my new Kashmiri friends are still limited.)
As a result of ongoing territorial disputes over recent decades, Kashmir’s prosperous international tourist trade has greatly declined since the time of John Sautelle’s visit. In fact, in the 16 days we spent in Kashmir, we only saw two other Westerners.
A little slice of old England
From a flyfishing perspective, angling in Kashmir is a bit like traveling back to mid-20th century England. As is the English way, the rivers are divided into beats, which you book and pay to fish. Each beat is looked after by a beat guard and a ghillie called a Shikari, who assists the angler whilst they are fishing. Most beats have a bag limit of 6 fish. (Regrettably, catch and release is not the norm in Kashmir.)
The gear and techniques being used by the small number of local flyfishers is the same as what would have been used 50 years previously. British fishing tackle and traditional wet flies are still very popular.
The first river I fished was the Drang, which flows through Feroz Pora close to the Pakistan border. At 5000m, the area boast the world’s highest ski-lift and I’m told on a clear day you can see K2 from the top. The Drang runs fast and clear, making it physically demanding to fish; something exacerbated by the thin air at such a high altitude. We fished up the river for approximately 6km until it split and we had to pass an Indian Army camp.
As we approached the camp, I could see that one of the soldiers had a pair of binoculars trained on me and was talking excitedly to other soldiers, who by now had their guns pointed in my direction. They called out to my ghillie to stop, as they suspected I was carrying a bomb! Earlier, I’d been caught short, and afterwards I’d put the roll of toilet paper in the front pocket of my waders. It was this bulge that had alarmed the Indian soldiers, so very gingerly I removed the offending item. Everyone then had a good laugh and I enjoyed some Chia tea with them, agreeing that New Zealand had been robbed in the cricket World Cup. (An important lesson: talking cricket is a great icebreaker in this part of the world!)
Freestone vs Spring Creeks
Without detailing every river we fished, there were two main types: freestone rivers feed by rain and snowmelt, and those fed by springs. The freestone rivers were classic pocket waters, flowing steep and fast. These streams responded well to Euro nymphing techniques during the day. This was a revelation to the local anglers, who had heard of this style of fishing but had not seen it in action. The evenings produced some excellent dry fly fishing; in particular on the Bringhi River, where in a two-hour session, I caught over 20 trout on a size 14 Championship Caddis.
Meanwhile, the spring creeks were full of fish. I have never seen so many resident trout literally crammed into a stream. Needless to say, the fishing was excellent, with all techniques including dry fly producing many quality fish.
The downside to fishing the spring creeks was the pressure of urbanisation. Because these streams flow through the flatter, easy-to-live-in valleys, the surroundings are densely populated. With few planning controls and poor sanitisation, there is a lot of rubbish and pollution.
As a visiting angler, I was a novelty and I was normally accompanied by a gaggle of spectators. Once I got used to it, it all added to the experience. Engaging with the local villagers, many of whom still wear traditional dress, was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
The average size of the trout we caught in the rivers and streams was a respectable 0.5 to 1.5kg. We did catch a rainbow of 3kg, and I lost some bigger browns.
Unfortunately, the weather (as with just about anywhere in the world!) is beyond an angler’s control. Each afternoon, the thunderheads would develop, rising ominously over the foothills of the Himalayas. We experienced some ferocious downpours, which resulted in several of the rivers we had arranged to fish being blown out. On the plus side, most streams cleared enough to fish within 24 hours and the downtime gave us opportunities to do some sightseeing.
Speaking of which, the Kashmir countryside is breathtaking, figuratively and literally! – I started to run out of oxygen at 3500m above sea level. The mountains are still wild, with sightings of bears and snow leopards being quite common. We saw troops of wild monkeys and Himalayan elk during our stay. We enjoyed taking the time to soaking up a different culture and engage with the local people, who were extremely generous with their friendship and hospitality. The food is excellent, full of spice and life yet not being too hot for our western pallet. (Vicki did wonder if they may have been taming it down a bit for us!)
For most of our stay, we lived on a Wangoo Heritage houseboat in Srinagar. It has long been illegal for foreigners to own land in Kashmir and during the days of British rule, foreigners would get around this by building large and elaborate houseboats to live on. Hundreds of them are moored along the shores of the local lakes. They are extremely opulent, being exquisitely carved and furnished. Sitting on the boat’s veranda, taking in the serenity with majestic views of the mountains that surround Lake Dal (The Lake of Flowers) and watching large number of birds like kites and kingfishers was the perfect finish to the day. The tranquillity of a houseboat is also the perfect foil to the confronting chaos of the traffic in Srinagar which is even worse than Delhi.
Kashmir is an Islamic region and we found the people to be devout, yet moderate and friendly. We always felt safe and welcomed, both in the countryside and Srinagar. When visiting a mosque, you should cover your legs and shoulders. Women should wear a shawl over their head. Vicki wore a shawl around her shoulders most of the time. All the women in the streets wear a shawl with many wear a full burka.
There is very little Western food available; however as touched on earlier, the local restaurant and street food is excellent. Unlike India, the Kashmiris eat a lot of meat, mainly Lamb. They don’t eat beef out of respect for their Hindu neighbours, who revere cattle. Alcohol is not commonly consumed; however, it is not illegal and the locally-made Kingfisher beer is very good – most enjoyable on the back of the houseboat in the evening! On the other hand, the 4am call to prayer does take a little getting used to. I don’t see it catching on in Miena where I do a lot of my guiding!
Hopefully, the political situation will stabilise in Kashmir. The people are a delight and deserve to live in a safe, stable democracy. Selfishly, I want to get back and experience more of what Kashmir has to offer an angler. Perhaps next time, I’ll add a few days on the high altitude lakes, only accessible by packhorse or helicopter. Or perhaps a session or two chasing mahseer?
Vicki agrees that Kashmir is one of the most culturally interesting and beautiful places we have visited, well suited to anglers and non-anglers alike. All you need is an open mind and a sense of adventure.
FLYSTREAM FACTS – Recommended gear and flies
- A 4 and 5 weight, and a dedicated 3 weight nymphing rod, all with floating lines.
- Fast-sinking poly leader.
- 6lb to 10lb tippet.
- Bushy caddis patterns, large streamers and heavy nymphs.
- Pink Squirmy Worms https://flystream.com/video/flystream-16-the-squirmy-worm/ worked well when the rivers discoloured due to rain.
Bring a day pack, breathable waders, wading boots with good grip, and a wading staff – the freestone rivers are fast and slippery.
Also bring a warm jacket and a decent raincoat. At the high altitudes, the weather can change extremely quickly. On one day which started clear and warm, we had a thunderstorm dump on us. I wasn’t prepared and got wet and cold and as a result, suffered mild hypothermia.