Trout fishing in the shadow of terror
4 Dec, 2018
.. by Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir
On a cold September evening I entered the main hall of a guesthouse in Teru, where I was staying the night en route to my favourite fishing spot, to have a chat with my accompanying friends and staff when I saw that everyone was in a tense mood. “There are lashkaris in the nullah!” “We can;t camp there, we will be killed or kidnapped!” “I had better call my wife and give her permission to remarry!” The topic of conversation had become morose and I had to intervene and give a speech about how we had eight men armed with automatic weapons accompanying us and that there is no direct border between the Shonj Nullah and Diamer. My kinsman Saeed also put in a few words about how we Chitralis had campaigned from Kunar to Skardu in the days of yore and now we were afraid of a bunch of criminal shepherds! A very odd way to begin a fishing trip!
In early August 2018, a group of miscreants in a coordinated overnight attack had burned several schools in the Diamer District of Gilgit-Baltistan. In response to this the GB Government decided to impose Section 144 of the CRPC in the valleys of District Ghizer, which adjoins Diamer. I heard about this and decided to call off a trip I had been intending to take to my favourite fishing destination, Handarap Lake. This greatly saddened my staff, who always look forward to trekking into that valley and merrily camping while consuming freshly slaughtered veal and playing cards while I fish away. They approached Saeed who petitioned a senior official to give us a permit to enter the closed areas and provide a police escort. I had gone on a visit to the Yarkhun Valley in Upper Chitral when I received confirmation of the permit and then cut my trip short and speedily returned to Chitral to get my fishing and camping gear ready.
The expedition went very smoothly until we crossed the Shandur and reached the first GB Police Checkpost in Barsat where our police escort was to join us. The three constables seemed very happy to see that two Levies of the Chitral Border Police and my own personal gunman would also be joining us. It was that evening that the locals, who were very edgy due to the circumstances, tried to dissuade us from going further. We Chitralis, who had witnessed the horrors of the Malakand insurgency a few years ago, found it quite amusing how a single incident had transformed the psyche of the people of Ghizer, historically among the best warriors in the region. Fear is amongst the most contagious and debilitating of diseases and everyone had doubts about going forward.
The next morning though we said “Bismillah” and drove forwards to Handarap Village where we would rendezvous with our local friends and transfer our gear onto donkeys for the four hour trek to the lake. As soon as we left the village I saw that things were not normal. Usually there is quite a bit of foot traffic in autumn as villagers bring firewood and their flocks of sheep, cattle and yaks down from the high pastures bordering Kohistan and Swat, but at that time we seemed to be the only people in the nullah! This though was a blessing in disguise as the undisturbed autumn foliage and complete silence gave a beautiful vibe to the already enchanting valley.
Upon reaching our campsite we got busy putting up the tents and setting up the langar – we were a group of eighteen so cooking had to be on an industrial scale, and I, the only angler in the group, went off to do some fishing. I put on my secret lure and started casting, within a few casts I had hooked a hefty brown trout which put up a determined fight but finally came to the landing net manned by my trusty Levies guard. The evening proved productive, but far below the standards of what I was used to in Handarap.
I have been fishing in Handarap since I was nine years old. I would accompany my late father and many of the men who would at times give me rides on their backs when I couldn’t walk any farther, still accompany me today as enthusiastic senior outdoorsmen. Back then, the lake was absolutely brimming with big wild brown trout. Now, one is lucky to get two or three a day and the only reason I was able to catch ten in three days, the limit according to the license being fifteen, was because no one had fished the lake for several weeks prior due to the prevailing security situation. Over fishing has taken its toll. The best way to preserve the Handarap Lake Fishery would be to impose a daily license rate of 15,000 rupees, and give all of the revenue to the local community to conserve this special place.
The night was bitterly cold and the hot cup of black coffee my staff brought me to wake me up at five in the morning was most welcome. The security escorts had been up all night sitting around a camp fire and scouting the perimeter. They went to bed when I left to go fishing. The morning’s fishing was again quite fun and suddenly it became extremely still and hot! By ten it was pushing thirty degrees! This meant one thing, the weather was about to turn. Surely enough as we had palao made from freshly slaughtered veal, the wind started to blow alternately from both North and South and clouds rolled in from Shandur and Swat. I caught a few more fish in the afternoon but the conditions had deteriorated severely. Gale force winds had dropped the temperature down into the single digits and I recounted the old Khowar saying that in autumn one can experience all four seasons in a single day!
Before dinner we all sat around the campfire until the rain started to turn into sleet. In the morning we were greeted by the site of new snow on all the surrounding peaks. This brought joy to our local friends as it meant that the high passes were closed and thus no miscreants would make their way into the valley.
After the change in weather it was as if someone had turned a switch and turned off the fish! I could catch nothing for the next day and a half. People also started to return to the valley and our langar was full of shepherds and woodcutters stopping by for tea or lunch on their way up the nullah.
The isolation had also meant that the local wildlife had been emboldened. While fishing I noticed the tracks of black bears and wolves along the lake shore. Handarap Lake is indeed a wonderful place where one can get a taste of the wilds of Alaska and Canada in Pakistan. Shonj Nullah is one of the few places where both the Asiatic Black Bear and the Southern Variety of the Eurasian Brown Bear are found together.
Thus after a few days of happy camping it was time to trek back down the valley and go on the long drive over the Shandur back to Chitral. On my way back a few specks of snow started to fall as we were climbing up from Langar to Shandur. The weather, and not armed trouble makers, ended up being our primary challenge and hopefully if the Government does its job properly this beautiful corner of the Hindu Raj Range can be preserved as a destination for anglers, trekkers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
The writer is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and the author of ‘Asiatic Angling Adventures’ – a recently published book about fishing and travels in seven countries across Asia. For copies kindly contact firstname.lastname@example.org .. Source