Why I like to fly fish for Trout
As a kid in Delhi with the fishing bug we fished for goddamn anything we could. I remember cycling daily past a dirty jheel in the Cantonment behind 240 S.U.A.F.in Delhi , I was convinced there would be some catfish in there! (they almost always are ) and so one day I took the time off from pedaling past and stopped to put a piece of raw mutton onto a hook with a hand held line and let it drop. In a while I felt a tug and sure enough there it was..I pulled out an 8 inch catfish, whiskers and all. And the amazing part was he wasn't even on the hook! He'd just jammed his jaws onto the mutton and refused to let go! Even out of the water it was easier to release the hook from the meat than the meat from the fish. I did that and threw him back with the meat still in his jaws. Let him have it. Who wants to keep a catfish? They keep alive for hours outside water and are still thrashing in your bag when you get home, making you feel terribly sorry for them. They're also slimy slimy ( different from trout slimy!) and eat all kinds of shit anyway.
It's not as though I only pulled out catfish with mutton. Oh no sir, back in the 70's we cycled across Delhi on a Sunday morning to under ITO bridge and fished for carp and even Mahseer! Can you even imagine that! I know you can't do that now. Though you can still spend a day down at the Barrage at Noida hunting carp, but certainly not maheseer , I wouldn't recommend you take anything back from there. There have been bad reports for some time and some really scary stuff happening there lately.
And then there were the summer holidays, following my Scottish grandmother, Jean , on her cycle with her dogs behind her, around Bhimtal where she lived, we would spend the best part of many days casting for the mahseer in the lake. We always put them back. `They taste like rubber and more so the larger they grow",she would say. Over the years we got to recognise some of these fish and even had names for them.
And later as we grew older and could wander further from home and met other fishing nuts like ourselves , we formed a fishing club and set up camps in a variety of locations-Tajewala on the Yamuna, Phoolchatti under the Thapar's estate on the Ganga, Kumharia on the Kosi, Marchula on the Ram Ganga, Loharghat on the Kali , Bhakra on the Satluj and the stretch from Mandi to Pong on the Beas.
We named our attempts `Camp Misery' on account of something going drastically wrong most of the time. There was this one trip to Phoolchatti where we forgot the bag with the kitchen utensils, (characteristically we never ever forgot the booze or cigarettes) and had only a pressure cooker that was hand held through the journey. Have you ever tried your morning cup of tea from a Bisleri bottle sawed in half? It's only slightly better than sipping it directly from a pressure cooker.
And another time a big old storm came up one night on the Kosi and we were camped on the riverbed at Kumharia. A tearing wind lifted the tents with us in it. We put stones into the tents to weigh them down but that just ripped out the bottom and we watched the uppers of two tents and our gear fly into the river. We spend the rest of the night, six of us in the third tent behind a big rock, shivering, bailing out the rain with our shoes. The next morning the mahseer were biting like crazy and we had a ball.
Angling for mahseer is gungho stuff. It's macho. It's wild. It's big. The rods, the reels, the lines .The mosquitoes molesting you at Loharghat or Bhakra are like helicopters but this more than compensated by the testosterone rush of hooking and landing a big one. This is really big boy stuff and if you're in it you got to play it seriously. In the winter when the water is cold and the fish lie deep the only way to get to them is to drop weighted deadlines baited with ragi or atta balls. Most fishermen have their own `secret' concoction of what goes into a ball and some of these can let off quite a pong. `Master Bait ( that was Ramsey, a hard headed ragi ball fanatic)..Tie your balls on the roof ', was a common refrain when settling into the van on a fishing trip. Once at the river the way to do it was to bait out the area by chucking in the balls little upstream from where you intended to fish. Bags full of them. Then set up the rods with heavily weighted 30 pound line , put a ragi ball onto your hook, cast it so that it sinks to the bottom to lie among the other ragi balls in the river. And wait. The first day might go a little slow but by the second morning the little ghungroo bell strike indicators can set up quite a jangle. With the ragi balls you set the stage, the fish start the play. You have to be ready at any time to battle what may be a 40 pounder and ask anyone who's done that, it's no mean feat. Even with your reel set to a strong drag the fish can take 50 metres or even more of your line in the first run and leave your reel smoking with the friction of the drag. I've heard of real hardassed anglers actually jumping into the river to follow their fish making a run downstream.
Myself I was never too fond of using bait. I found the balls too smelly and the worms downright nasty. I prefer the lures. They're clean and pretty and shiny. My own favourites were the Mepps no.3 Extra deep Aglia spinners, spoons like the Toby in a variety of sizes and as I discovered, to my dismay, by default the Blue Fox sonic plug, a pretty little blue fish with some kind of balls rattling around inside it sending sonic waves through the water as it passes. It was quite early one morning at Marchula. I was sipping on my first cup of tea , head tousled and groggy from camp sleep and the partying of the previous night, dressed just in shorts and rubber chappals, dragging on my first cigarette and contemplating the beauty of the morning river flowing past me. And there in the middle of the river I watched a fish rise and it gleamed golden against the silver of the water reflecting the sunlight. I shouldn't have but I did. I reached out beside me for a 14 foot Shakespeare lying there and loaded on it was the said Blue Fox sonic plug. Not mine but conveniently nearby. And I cast. Once. Twice. Thrice. And he took it! Fish! I screamed as my tea went for a toss and I chucked my cigarette dangerously close to a nearby tent. And the fish ran. It took some thirty to forty metres out my reel before I was able to rein in his first run. Now one began the task of putting that line back in which meant slowly inching my way towards where he'd stopped. My rubber chappals weren't helping any, and at one point the river bank was not negotiable and I had to move inland some 10 metres or so gingerly holding a taut line high over my head to avoid the bramble as I stumbled and tumbled over the rocks. At another place I had to cross a small stream where the rocks were slippery with slime. I slipped and splashed and banged my elbows and back and head through that but the rod was held high and the line remained tight. And then as I got closer he made a second run and then a third when he actually saw me at the end of the line. It was some forty minutes before I had him in some control and by the side. I was maybe 50 metres downstream from where I started. But there he was. A beauty. Scales gleaming golden. Over three feet long. 20 pounds at least. The guys came down to look at him. "Maybe we should eat him," suggested someone. "Tastes like rubber," I replied echoing my grandmother as we watched him slowly recover in a small side pool. And then in a flash and a flick of the tail fin he was gone, disappeared into the main river. And I stumbled my way back to camp. The bruises and scratches were beginning to hurt bad. It was hard to tell who won the bout. And from then on whenever I cast for Mahseer deep beneath lay a dread that an even bigger one might get on and then I'd be sorry. And playing the game just to beat up a small guy didn't gel. Gradually I cast less and less until I stopped casting altogether.
By this time my trekking interests had led me fairly deep into Himachal and there I discovered the sheer joy of walking or resting by the crystal clear glacial streams that the state is full of. And to my delight I found many of the streams teeming with trout that the British had seeded into these Indian rivers as early as 1860. And the Trout cooked easy and tasted wonderful. And so I got myself some appropriate gear, a telescopic 9 foot rod with a tiny reel with hair thin 8 pound line, and some of the tiniest little size 0 and 1 spinners and from then on a trip to Himachal was never complete without a brace of trout for dinner. It would take less than an hour to get four pan sized trout and then we'd spend the rest of the evening sitting by the stream watching the trout rise for flies off the surface. It intrigued me that these rising trout never took the spinners I cast, but feeding they were and I knew if I could match what they were feeding on, they could be caught. At first having little knowledge, I tied whatever flies onto my spinner lines but the `presentation' wasn't quite upto the mark and the trout would hardly look at them. The next step was obvious and I got myself a fly rod and line. Little did I suspect that this one act would open up a world of learning and research on fish and angling, an entirely new approach to something I thought I already knew a lot about.
Angling for trout with a fly is more than just about catching fish. In this regard it's somewhat like golf, putting that small ball into that small hole 200 yards away. It's not about why. It's not the easiest and most efficient way to catch trout either in the same way as there are easier ways to drop a ball into a hole. But it definitely is one of the most interesting. Some anglers would even regard it as a religion. And it is no new fad. The science of it has intrigued man since time began. About the earliest record is a description by Aelian, the Roman historian from the 2nd Century who wrote
"I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between Berœa and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astræus, and in it there are fish with speckled skins;(trout are speckled) what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians. These fish feed on a fly peculiar to the country, which hovers on the river."
He then goes on for a short while on the history of the insect and how inappropriate it is to use the fragile thing as bait and how this problem was solved by tying an artificial fly. He continued with
"They fasten red (crimson red) wool round a hook, and fix on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to get a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive."
So there we have the earliest records of fly tying and fishing. The Trout and the insects they feed on have remained much the same over the years but the equipment has undergone a sea change in quality and functionality. The graphite rods of today are light and have a superb action and the lines are varied to handle all kinds of wind and river conditions. Modern fly tiers have access to hackle feathers from cockbirds genetically engineered to perfection for this purpose, and to a range of exotica such as seal's fur, hare's ears , squirrel tails, cul de canard(ask a frenchman what that is) and what not from the chain of fly shops all over. Research in Entomology ( I have my friend Angelica from Heidelberg Univ. to thank for her thesis on the river fauna of the streams of our area) ,a range of literature and informed instruction on the web are available fairly easily and widely. All this has led to a growing widespread interest in the sport and these days I meet more fly anglers from India and the rest of the world than ever before.
Traditionally the best known and classic form of fly fishing is with the dry fly. To do this an angler ties an imitation of what he sees the trout feed on and the fly floats on the surface, passing over the fish that will hopefully rise to bite it. Many anglers prefer this method because everything can be seen. He casts to a fish he sees rising, watches the fly float down the drift and can take in the moment the fish takes the fly. From then on it is upto him and how well he handles the situation. Expertise is everything. Fly fishing allows the fish a good chance to escape because as soon as a fish bites on a fly it realizes it is not food but a combination of fur and hair and foam and stuff and will spit it out. This ensures that a fish caught on a fly is almost invariable hooked just by the mouth and therefore can be released with the least damage back into the river. Many fly anglers also use barbless hooks as we mostly return fish to the river.
This is one of the specialities of a fly angler. Like a photographers he rarely takes away from nature. The demands of the sport take him deep into the micro nature of the streams environment, the food cycles in action and the participation of the surrounding wildlife in this life drama and therefore he is also the first to spot any symptoms of early environmental problems when he sees any link in the chain broken and so becomes an important part in the preservation of nature's special places.
The author, Christopher Mitra lives in Nagini, a village on the Tirthan stream in the Kullu of HImachal. He runs the Himalayan Trout House which offers accommodation and extensive courses on fly fishing from March to June and then again in September and October.He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org