Indian Kashmir casts net to lure fishermen

Fisheries inspector Muntasir Rah beams proudly as he struggles to hold steady a net full of thrashing trout at a hatchery in insurgency-racked Indian Kashmir.

The fish—brown trout—are Rah’s babies.

He has watched them grow since their eggs were squeezed into a plastic basin, became little translucent blobs with black spots for eyes and finally turned into fully grown, table-sized fish.

And when peace finally returns to the revolt-hit Himalayan region, he hopes anglers from around the world will take the bait and come back to fish for what he calls his “brown beauties” in Kashmir’s snow-fed rivers.

“These brown trout are real fighters—the best sport for fishermen,” says Rah at the hatchery at Dachigam National Park—just outside Indian Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar—as one fish leaps into the air, almost clearing the top of the net.

“You almost have to battle with the fish when you’re catching it,” he says. “They give you a natural thrill.”

It has been 16 years since Islamic rebels took up arms against New Delhi’s rule, driving tourists from this region of verdant valleys and snowcapped peaks.

Fear of rebel attacks has meant that braving the wilds of Kashmir with just a fishing rod for protection has become a “minority sport”, says British angler Andrew Davis, who has fished in the state’s waters.

Kashmir, however, has a long history as an “angler’s paradise” and state fisheries officials say it will be one again.

They are pinning their hopes on talks between India and Pakistan to end their decades-old feud over the region that both claim.

“When this is all over, we will become a premier destination for fishermen from everywhere,” says NA Quareshi, Indian Kashmir’s director of fisheries. “We were once and we will be again.”

“We have crystal clear waters,” he says.
“The air is clear, it’s a great place to fish.”

Right now, though, Kashmir’s appeal is that “you will not be falling over fellow fishermen, which for me is a major plus”, says Davis, who has made two fishing trips to Kashmir from his home base in New Delhi where he works as a newspaper executive.

“It’s basically ‘frontier fishing’. It’s quite off the beaten track. You can be out there fishing for hours and you won’t see anyone,” he says.

He says he has never felt scared while fishing.

“Sure Kashmir may not be the safest place in the world,” he says. “But you never live life if you worry all the time.”


Colonial legacy

Rebels are believed to have only targeted foreign tourists once, in 1995, when six were kidnapped in the Himalayan foothills. One escaped, another was beheaded and the fate of the other four was never known.

The biggest rebel group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, said last year it favoured the tourist trade to “better the economic position of our brothers”.

But the randomness of guerrilla attacks means no one can take safety for granted, say diplomats of foreign embassies such as Britain and the United States that have posted travel warnings against visiting the region.

Davis says the fishing in Kashmir’s powerful fast-moving rivers that throw up white spray as they crest over huge boulders is “quite fantastic”.

He, like the other few foreigners who now come to fish in Kashmir’s waters, are in pursuit of its brown trout, identifiable by their red dappling and luminescent silver and gold streaks.

Introduced by India’s former British colonial rulers, they are prized by anglers for their combative spirit and can be found in abundance in Kashmir’s rivers.

“For someone who is British, the fish have a certain kind of resonance. They were brought by functionaries of the [British] Empire. You feel like you are following in the footsteps of adventurers of previous generations,” Davis says.

Davis, however, says the fish and the solitude are only part of the pleasure of fishing in Kashmir, known as the Switzerland of the East for its valleys carpeted with wild flowers, mountains and lush forests.

“The scenery is spectacular,” he says.

Trout were first introduced in Kashmir at the beginning of the last century.

A carefully preserved history of fishing supplied by the state fisheries department says the first batch of 10 000 trout eggs were sent from Britain by the Duke of Bedford in 1899 but perished during the voyage.

However, on December 19 1900, a second batch sent from Scotland by a JS Macdonall managed to survive and “arrived in excellent condition”.

Places like the hatchery at Dachigam National Park—there are more than 22 throughout Kashmir—aim to ensure that their numbers grow.

“We are undertaking intensive stocking,” says Quareshi.

Right now, there are no organised tours but houseboat owners and tourism officials can organise fishing trips.

It costs 1 000 rupees a day for a fishing licence for foreigners, 500 rupees for Indians. An experienced gillie can cost about $5 a day.

There is a well-stocked tackle shop in Srinagar where people can rent a rod, reels, nylon casts, flies and other tackle suitable for fishing in rushing torrents of water.

At the end of their day, fishermen in Kashmir also have a chance “to experience the incomparable taste of a fresh, wild fish, caught with your own hand from a river that most anglers can only dream of”, Davis says.—AFP

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