A Day on a Kashmir Trout Stream

The following passage is an excerpt from:

Squabs ! squark ! It was the loud, unmusical voice of a startled heron ; but harsh and unmusical as it was in itself, it sent a thrill of pleasure running through me, for everything with which that sound was connected in my mind was as happy and as beautiful as the sound was ugly and melancholy. In a moment of time it wafted my spirit away many hundreds of miles, over burning, dusty plains, through forests redolent of pines damped by showers of rain and warmed by hot sun, along steep and winding mountain roads overhanging a mighty rushing river, and finally set me down in that spot to which the heron’s cry, the kingfisher’s shrill twitterings as he poises over his prey, or the plop of a lusty trout spirits me away wheresoever I may happen to be.

To live those days over again is ever a joy to me, and as a joy unshared is but half a joy, let me try at least to share the memory of it with you, and if you are the kind, sympathetic reader that I hope you are, you may, even through the medium of pen and ink wielded by my poor fingers, perhaps understand why the cry of the heron is such sweet music in my ears.

May I ask you, kind reader, to picture to yourself an old walled-in garden, bright with masses of tall cosmos, delicate tinted peaches, golden pears and rosy apples, and shady with magnificent chenar trees and stately poplars ? The whole is warmed by a brilliant September sun, and cooled by clear running water and deep still tanks. These chenars and tanks, combined with the remains of massive grey stonework, are in themselves almost sufficient to tell us that we are standing in one of the beautiful gardens laid out by the Moghuls around some favourite summer ” retreat.”

At the back is a sloping hill-side ending abruptly in dark rock cliffs, which form as it were one of the walls of the garden, and at the base of which a large volume of water comes welling up in deep cool springs. No baby trickles these, needing the assistance of tributary streams to enable them to rise from the status of a puny rivulet to that of a full-grown stream, but deep pools of ice-cold water, capable of forming at once a stream of no mean dimensions; and they come boiling up with a sound like gurgling laughter, as if rejoicing at their escape from the bowels of the mountain which imprisoned them so long. Such is the Achabal stream at its birth!

Perhaps one should say rebirth, for it is quite possible that this is nothing but the vanished Bringhi stream born again. This latter, rising in the high uplands towards Rajparan, comes rushing and roaring over rocks and boulders, a typical mountain torrent for the greater part of its length. Then it issues into a wide and open valley, having gathered to it the waters of Nowboog and other valleys on the way ; but instead of continuing to increase in size as it proceeds, like any ordinary well-behaved stream, it gradually commences to decrease in volume.

Certainly much water is at times taken for irrigation purposes, but not sufficient to account for the Bringhi dwindling as it does. Indeed, if one follows it down far enough one will find that it entirely disappears into the earth, to be rejuvenated at Achabal ! At least so say the Kashmiris, and perhaps rightly ; for this much is certain, that if heavy rain falls over the hills whence the Bringhi draws its waters, then, even though there has been no rain at Achabal and no drainage from the rice-fields, the uppermost waters of the Achabal will show a certain amount of discoloration.


Be this as it may, let us follow the infant waters of the Achabal and see what manner of river it is that we have to deal with. At first the waters of the springs are carefully fostered, being led off in several channels, some natural and some artificial or partly so. One fairly large natural branch flows away outside the actual garden, forming at a bend a big deep pool such as might hold a fish of any size. Here, too, grand old chenars spread their giant limbs out over the water, and on a semi-submerged island on the far side a weeping-willow forms a shady lurking-place for fish, and a choice perch for a couple of bright-coloured kingfishers. Sometimes they dive straight down from their willow perch, sometimes they hover over the water a while, uttering shrill little cries before the tell-tale plop informs one that there is probably one fish less in the river ; and one hopes and prays it is not a troutlet !

From the deep pool the water flows off into an inviting ” stickle,” quite deep enough at one side to hold a good trout, and then dives under a narrow bridge of no great merit or beauty ; but quite famous since a seven-pound trout was pulled out from underneath it. Other waters are led off through the garden in masonry ducts to fill the tanks and supply the fountain in whose grateful spray those old Moghuls delighted. Thence, flowing out of the tanks, the sparkling crystal water passes under a grey stone archway, through an avenue of poplars, and thus leaves its nursery and is launched forth into the world to take care of itself as the Achabal stream.

As a rule, about the middle of September there is a good fall of rain and a sprinkling of snow on the hilltops, but this particular year there had been no rain, so that the springs and rivulets on the hill-sides were dry, and the chukor, instead of being down along the edge of the cultivation and the skirts of the hills, were for lack of water still up on the hill-tops, where they might feed on grass seeds and ” bhart ” berries, and obtain drink from some little snow-fed spring that still held out against the drought.

The Achabal stream, too, was almost at winter level, running very low and as clear as gin. Day after day there had been a cloudless sky and brilliant sun, most excellent things in their way, but not altogether conducive to the catching of trout. So, after several days’ trial of small flies and fine tackle throughout the day, I had come to the conclusion that morning and evening were the only times when I might reasonably hope to catch fish. Thus I had planned overnight to fish the upper waters in the morning, leaving that grand stretch of lower water which lies between Sansuma village and the junction of the Arpat stream until evening.

So next morning, after a chota hazri of tea and fruit, I sally forth as the kali koel pipes his morning hymn in the cool dawn. The light rod in my hand seems to tremble with keen hope and expectation, and the two flies upon which I pin my faith, a medium-sized “Sir Richard,” and another of my own fancy, look as though they must invite the attention of any hungry trout that sees them. It is full early yet, and the slanting rays of the rising sun have not yet caressed the mist-veiled waters with their morning kiss ; so I make for the pool which is formed by the first bend of the river after it emerges from the garden and village into the fields beyond.

It is as likely a pool as one could wish to see, but one that always disappoints me ; and perhaps it is this very ill success in the past which induces me to give it another trial before passing on down to the lower pools where I have old friends to deal with, fish which I have seen before and maybe even hooked and lost. Once more this first pool fails to justify its appearance, and my hopes, for it yields nothing but a couple of small ” choosh,” who take the ” Sir Richard ” readily enough, but give but little sport in the landing. As I leave the place and walk on down the bank, a heron fishing in the shallows flaps lazily away with a loud squark ! squark ! indignant at being disturbed.

Now intervenes a considerable stretch of unfishable water, the river running broad and shallow, and, in its present state, affording no prospects of success ; though a quantity of doves seem to find it an admirable spot for their morning drink, and a couple of black and white pied kingfishers seem to be obtaining their breakfast of small fry without difficulty. Farther down, a single snipe goes off from a little patch of bog with a tell tale cry, that unmistakable pénch ! pénch ! which for the moment makes me wish to exchange the rod in my hand for a gun.

Now I arrive at a point where the river once more becomes interesting from a fisherman’s point of view, and two plans of campaign lay open to me. A small branch stream here joins the river from the right, and I know that “The Gutter,” as this branch is usually called, holds at least one fish ; for did I not hook and lose him a few days ago ? So I may either follow the main stream down, and take the Gutter on the way back, or make straight for the willow tree on the bank of the Gutter, under which our old friend lies. No ! let us leave him until last, for the strip of water in which he lies is cool and dark, and overshadowed by many trees, so that it will remain in the shade long after the sun’s rays begin to play upon the more open pools of the main stream.

So I wade across the stream, fishing down a nice little run under an overhanging willow before landing on the far bank, but without success. The bank upon which I now stand soon rises, forming a cliff in some places as much as ten feet high, upon which grow tufts of long grass, broad-leaved docks and sweet-scented balsams, forming a narrow fringe of shade where the water runs deep under the cliff. This run may be most conveniently fished from the top of the diff, whence the fly may be worked in under each overhanging bush and tuft of grass; but it must be approached warily, and fished lying down or kneeling low, for the flies must be kept in view, to prevent getting hung up in the bushes, and yet the fisherman must keep out of sight as much as possible; for the Achabal trout are no fools.

Crawling along the bank and using as long a line as I can from that position, I am now just able to let my cast come across with the stream, and work it in under a big dump of balsams and a small bramble which hangs right out over the water. It is ten to one I get caught in that bramble, but still-Faint heart never won fair lady, and I must reach that spot. I can see the second fly just skimming the top of the water, perilously near the longest of the bramble branches, which all but touches the water. Plop! splash! and a nice trout comes at it. I strike lightly and catch – the bramble ! The fish is not pricked, but there is my cast firmly held by that wretched branch, and nothing short of going down there and untangling it will free it!

So I clamber down, taking care not to trample down the balsams which invite fish to live in their friendly shade, and recover the flies. At the same time I think I may as well cut at least a few inches off that bramble branch, so that it may not be quite so dangerous in future. Of course this undertaking has driven away all hope of moving the fish again at present, but there is still a nice bit of water left, before the pool tails off into a stickle. So I smoke a pipe and give the fish time to settle down again, and my own ruffled feelings to calm a little ; and then set to work once more.

I try the pool right down again, but the fish under the bramble is not back yet, and indeed, could scarcely be expected to be so. Near the tail of the run is a submerged stump, behind which the water eddies in a miniature whirlpool and backwater. It is again a dangerous spot but a most likely one ; one of those places which are always tenanted by a trout of sorts, no matter how many a previous tenant has been evicted. Sure enough up comes a fish and is hooked. Twice in as many seconds he is clear out of the water, giving two regular buck jumps on the very spot where he was hooked, and then the reel gives one short scream and he is off, having wound the cast tightly round the stump ! I look somewhat ruefully at the eighteen inches of gut which is all that is left after the tug o’ war with the stump is over, but whilst replacing it with another, console myself with the thought that the fish, which was not much more than the necessary fourteen inches, will now live to grow bigger. No ! A lost fish is not always a large one !

The next pool, but a few yards lower down, is as good as any on the river, and affords to a trout almost any description of water he may fancy to lie in. At the head of the pool the water falls rapidly into it in a deep fast run between a little island and the bank, flowing on fairly deep and swift under a high cliff-like bank of earth, but forming a still deep backwater behind the island, shaded by the willows on the other bank. At the lower end the bank I am on recedes, and becomes a low grass slope ; and the water opens out into broad quiet depths with plenty of overhanging trees on the far side. It is to this place that big fish, if they do not elect to run up into the shallows in search of fry, drop down in the evening to feed; and here the dry-fly fisherman may occasionally find a fish rising persistently and get his chance.

Indeed there are many spots on this Achabal stream which remind us of a Hampshire chalk stream and offer possibilities of success with the dry fly, but it is not often that a fish is found steadily rising in one place as an Itchen trout does, lying near the surface and sucking down each nymph or dun that sails past him. At the second cast near the head of the pool a fish is risen just where the edge of the run ripples the backwater. Here there are no obstacles, and after a plucky fight he is in the net and the next moment shining silver on the bank. Full fourteen inches he measures, and is a beautifully conditioned fish; very deep and thickset with a small head and of a light silvery appearance with big red spots; but the day is yet young and one may hope for something better, so he is carefully returned to become a bigger and a wiser fish.

Down at the end of the run and right under the bank I get a tug under water at the Sir Richard, just the slightest tug in the world, as if something took a shy nibble at the feathers ; so I give that something a rest whilst eating a luscious pear which I have brought out for refreshment in such moments and then I try him again. I know the exact spot, and the fish this time more boldly takes Sir Richard at the first cast. Off he dashes, making the reel sing merrily, away into the still lower water ; and I feel sure I am into something good. Arrived at the end of his first rush he changes his tactics and jumps clear out of the water several times, making my heart jump too with apprehension.

Three pounds, if an ounce, and still on! is the thought that comes to me as he stops his antics and makes a circuit of the pool in a more dignified manner. Now he darts off up to the rapid water again, and then suddenly, apparently without reason, the fly comes back to me and he is off ! One’s feelings in such moments can scarcely be described, and may only be summed up briefly as something between a wish to swear and a desire to cry, in which perhaps the latter predominates. A pied kingfisher flying past with a little silver fish in his beak as much as to say, I can catch fish if you can’t, does not console me; but it fills me with a determination to emulate his piscatorial achievements.

The sun is now well above the eastern hills, and will be shedding his light in a delicate pattern of golden filigree work through the trees that shade the Gutter, in which there still remains that trout to be dealt with. He is not easy to get at, for the Gutter is no more than a couple of yards wide, and the trees make casting difficult. This particular fish lies in a deep hole where the stream eddies in with a quiet swirl under the roots of the willow tree round which he broke me last time almost as soon as hooked. On this occasion I determine to alter my tactics somewhat, and make up my mind that, if the fish is risen and hooked, it must be for the first minute or two a case of ” Pull devil pull baker ” and trust to luck and a sound cast.

So I cross the Gutter on to the same bank as that on which the willow tree grows, and stalk him from tree trunk to tree trunk, until I am in position behind the tree next above that under which the trout lies. Then using a short line the fly is flicked out into the stream with a low backhand cast, and worked down the current past the lurking-place. Nothing happens: either he is no longer there or he won’t come out to take Sir Richard. So the line is cautiously taken in, and another attempt made. I have now measured the distance pretty accurately, and the next backhand flick sends the fly so that it strikes the bole of the tree lightly, and drops into the water dose to where there is a small whirlpool under the roots.

There is a grab in the middle of the whirlpool and I have him fast : now begins the tug o’ war ! It is unceremonious perhaps, but the trout is dragged over the water away from his refuge in a manner that so surprises and disconcerts him, that I am now able to coax him up stream sufficiently to allow me to cross by a little ford to the other side whence I can command him better. Brave efforts on his part, which have to be met with stem determination on mine, several times take him perilously near his old haunt, but luck favours me, and the utmost strain that I dare put upon rod and gut suffices to check him in time, and before long a spotted beauty of 2 lbs. exactly is gasping on the bank; and not very much later the firm pink flesh is frizzling in the pan for the breakfast which I feel I have earned so well.

trout sketch

The early evening finds me near that pretty bit of water, where the river winds round Sansuma village with many a sinuous curve. It is here that one may attempt to lure two veritable leviathans, well known to those who have had dealings with them as the ” Boiler ” and the ” Bulger ” ; monsters who have learned caution in their youth, and, like other old birds, refuse to be caught with chaff-or anything else. “How big are they ” did you say ? That is a question I dare not answer for fear of being disbelieved! Neither the Boiler under his willow tree, nor the Bulger in the shade of the nut bushes, shows any signs of life, so I move on down to the junction pool just by the village, where a good “chiru” is landed, a fish that rises boldly and makes a better fight for freedom than his cousin the ” choosh.” Fishing on down below Sansuma, two small trout are taken and returned after a plucky fight, one being twelve inches, and the other just over fourteen ; but both in perfect condition, and weighing probably more than might be expected for their length.

As the sun dips below the distant Pir Punjal, and the doves come flocking down for their evening drink, I change my flies to a ” coachman,” and a most tempting looking silver and white Hardy’s lure. Fishing back up the stream these add another small trout, a chiru, and a couple of choosh to the total before reaching Sansuma bridge, where the narrowing waters shoot under the bridge and expand again into a broad deep pool, slow flowing, and silent at its lower end. Here there is work to be done. Yes! the fish I saw two nights ago is again quietly but steadily rising in the same place near the right bank in the smooth water. Crawling on to the bridge and crouching there, I try him with all the skill I can master ; but except for a slight ripple when he seemed to take a look at the coachman, I am no nearer catching him than I was the day before yesterday. He even seems to be suspicious and stops rising for a while, but after a short pause shows again, as he sucks down some ephemeral dainty.

There is only one thing to be done, and there is just enough light from the sunset glow to do it. Crawling off the bridge, I move cautiously down the bank to a spot below the rising fish. Here the cast I have been using is removed, and a very fine one, that I have all ready for this very occasion, is put on in its place. At the end of it is a small silver sedge, which is as like the flies seen on the water on previous evenings as anything I have got. It is nearly dark now, but the pale twinkling stars in the east, and the deep orange glow that still tints the western horizon and shows up the mountains in rugged outline, gives sufficient light to see the little white fly I am going to use as it comes floating down the stream. Measuring the distance at a glance, I cast just above where the fish last rose, but I have underestimated the distance; and the little white fly floats down wide of him and unnoticed.

Swish ! swish ! sings the line above my head, the bats flutter round the waving rod, and with a little more line out, the fly once more alights upon the water, straight above where the trout has just moved. But the line unfortunately lies just across a small bunch of floating weeds, which-bad luck to ’em!-make it drag, and sink my little voyager. Will it have put him down ? It certainly would do so in the daytime; but no, there he is again! and once more the carefully dried sedge is put over him, and- he has it ! With quite a gentle suck he took it, a gentle kiss that makes the calm face of the waters dimple at the caress ; but now when hooked there is no gentleness in his behaviour. Out he comes with a jump, looking a regular monster in the gloaming, and then goes off up the pool like a flash.

It is now my turn to be gentle, for it is the finest of fine casts that I am using ; and yet I must be firm, and see that he does not reach the bridge. In the fast deep water he sulks for a while, but a little extra pressure moves him, and he comes tearing down the stream again, almost to the place where he was hooked. Here he bores down a bit, and I can feel him shaking his head and jagging the line with savage and alarming jerks. Failing to effect his freedom in this manner, he turns his attention to a patch of reeds growing in the water just above where I stand, and gives me considerable trouble to keep him out of them. Now he seems tiring a little, for I can from time to time see his back rolling out of the water in porpoise-like fashion; so I gather him in gently towards me. But he has plenty of fight in him yet, and it is another good five minutes before the sharp-eyed Kashmiri boy passes the net under him, and hoists him ashore in the gathering darkness.

3 1/4 lbs. does he prove to be, and, although I am very wet, and it is a long walk home in the dark, the chirp of the crickets, the croaking of frogs, and even the harsh cry of a heron all sound to-night as the sweetest music in my ears ; and when a startled plover flaps off with shrill cries of “did ‘e do it ! did ‘e do it !” I can answer truthfully and joyfully, ” I have done it ! “