When I awoke to the morning call to prayer I realized that Island Park, Idaho was a long way away. It had taken us 32 hours of travel including an obligatory wide stance photo op at the stall made infamous by Idaho Senator Larry Craig. This celebration of absurdity prompted the first brush with authority for a camera check. This was to be a harbinger of the omnipresent law and order scene we would encounter throughout Kashmir.
Upon disembarking our plane in Dehli, the olfactory impact was immense. Hot, humid, and musky. As planned, our guide for the adventure, Maqsood, was waiting to lead us through the throngs of eager porters looking to make a few quick rupees. Wearing the traditional Muslim dress and cap, Maqsood briefed us as we made our way to our hotel. His statements often ended in "en Shallah” (God willing) as he assessed the weeks fishing prospects. Maqsood had everyone excited for the following morning’s flight to Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, and what lay ahead in the rivers that drained the worlds ultimate mountains, the Himalayas.
Our plane and its gorgeous staff descended out of the clouds revealing a landscape much greener than I had anticipated. The mountains below tree line were covered with forests and emerald valleys of orchards and rice paddies. The countryside’s pastoral appearance from a few thousand feet was purged upon landing. I had pulled out my camera to take a picture of the massive construction going on as the Srinagar airport was being renovated to accommodate international flights. I was quickly reprimanded by a member of the local military that photos were not allowed. While peace is returning to Kashmir, the conflict is still in the minds of the Indian military personnel of which there are over 1 million stationed in this border state with Pakistan. I observed that while this was primarily a civilian airport, there were numerous barracks and fortifications surrounding the landing strip.
We completed our compulsory paperwork and headed to the House Boat New Jacqueline on Lake Nigeen near the heart of Srinagar. Shortly after pulling out of the airport, we experienced for the first time what was to be a daily adventure, the Kashmiri Cab Ride. With horns blaring our drivers attacked the streets. There were no stop signs, street signs or speed limits, but plenty of cars, people, cows, motorcycles, dogs, rickshaws, and chickens. After observing the travel in the area, the attack mode made sense. Without being aggressive one would be lucky to get to a destination slowly. If unlucky you might not make it at all. The breakneck pace only added to the overwhelming activity, color, and noise of Srinagar. I was accompanied in the back seat of the taxi by my good friend and fishing partner for the week, Travis Smith. Our heads swung frenetically back and forth swinging attempting to take in everything we could. A bus covered in bottle caps…a cow eating from a garbage pile…a beautifully colored sari… "hey look a real burka”…"was that an entire family on a motorcycle with no helmets?”…"does everyone here have a cell phone?”
Before we knew it we had arrived at the House Boat New Jacqueline and our entourage for the week had begun to unload our bags and carry them to our new accommodations. While we struggled to refuse the service and assist with the unloading, we were quickly put in our place as guests and backed off. Maqsood had arranged a Shikara boat ride to the local Mosque named Hazratbal, famous as the last resting place for a beard hair of the prophet Mohammed. The sunset was beautiful behind the domes of the mosque and we were soon dozing off as our captain paddled us back home.
When the Mughal Emperor Jahangir was told his partying days were over and he need to dry out he decided he to leave the plains and head to Kashmir. According to the medicine of the day, the climate in Kashmir was perfect to heal an ailing liver. In the early 1600’s he built a Mughal Garden in Verinag, birthplace of the Jhelum river. Around the spring head he built a stone pavilion. Today the spring head is similar to the head waters of the Henry’s Fork at Big Springs. There are big, fat trout eating bread balls, crackers and chips, and they are off limits to fishing. This was familiar territory.
About half way to Verinag from Srinagar we picked a guy up at a military check point. Originally, I thought he was a hitchhiker, but turns out he was the first of many fishing officials we were to meet up with over our trip. The daily fishing official was always some guy we picked up off the side of a crowded road. How he knew where we would meet or when remains a mystery to me. We took a short tour of Jahangir’s oasis, after which it was time for tea.Ali was the designated camp cook and prepared tea for us about 6 times a day. He would boil the water and tea and add lots of powdered milk and
three generous handfuls of sugar. However, this tea time seemed a little more serious. A few more fishing officials had joined the scene and the banter between the officials and Maqsood appeared to be getting a little heated. Things finally died down. A few more sips of tea, and it was finally time to wader up and get down to business. Today we would be fishing the town beat.
Approximately 30 people gathered as we began the process of getting into waders and assembling rods. Some of them would talk and visit. Others would just stare.
Say Cashmere and you think ski bunnies circa 1981 and dogs in sweaters. Now say Kashmir. It sounds the same but it is 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Not only is it located on the other side of the planet from the rocky mountain ski scene, but there is nothing soft and fuzzy when you find yourself knee deep in a Kashmiri trout stream. The trout are the same and that’s where it ends.
Navigating the culture and the landscape requires the assistance of Maqsood Madari. There isn’t a fly shop, there isn’t a lodge, you can barely find a cold beer, and I still don’t know if I ever saw a reliable map, but there was Maqsood, our driver on a Kashmiri cab ride to the ultimate in fly fishing adventure. The Verinag, the Aru, the Ahar, and the Dumal. We fouind fish in them all. Rainbows and Browns left behind when the British decided that getting out of India might be a good idea. Now the trout remain with only a few local and far less travelling fly fisherman to angle against them. Bring lots of flies and lots of lead for the rivers here rage with the momentum of tumbling 20,000 feet down the mountains where they are born. Snag and you are breaking off another rig, a misstep may send you downstream for miles. But don’t forget your license or the local fishing officials will be shaking you down for baksheesh.
Jon's & Travis' Excellent Adventure in Kashmir was featured in the groundbreaking flyfishing movie DRIFT, now available on DVD.