Representative: A school of trout underwater. Photo: Jon Sullivan.
It is not difficult to imagine a messenger at the turn of the 20th century, running through the green hills of a golf course in Saint Andrews, Scotland, to approach four men in the middle of a match. A flight of fancy might allow the blue skies of a sunny day, even one of the Scotsmen leaning on his club, as the messenger stops F.J. Mitchell, the man mid-swing, and hands him a telegram detailing the ruin of his wealth and leaving him without “a penny in the world.”
But what is difficult to imagine is how that telegram could be fundamental to moments from Varun Bharti’s childhood – as he recalls over 120 years later, several hours spent along the banks of the Tirthan river fishing for brown trout. Sitting at a table in his cottage-cum-guest house in Gushaini, Himachal Pradesh, Bharti shows me pictures of him fishing. “I was mad about angling. I caught my first trout when I was just seven.” And without that telegram, there might have been no trout in Himalayan waters.
The destruction of Mitchell’s wealth put in motion a series of events that led to him introducing brown trout into the streams of the Himalayas. In those early years of the twentieth century, Mitchell was perhaps the first to call Kashmir “an angler’s paradise”. However, what began as the British amusement of angling has today become a matter of Pahadi prosperity.
A quiet story
After receiving news of his financial doom, Mitchell’s brother in Kashmir called for his help in running a carpet factory. Years later, in an issue of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Mitchell wrote how, during the struggle to support his family, he found himself ten miles away from Srinagar in a valley with a stream flowing through it, near Mahadev peak. He observed barbel swarming in the stream and said that the valley might be an “an angler’s paradise, could trout be substituted for barbel.”
He took it upon himself to introduce trout into the region — with adequate funding from the empire. A consignment of trout ova was arranged courtesy the Duke of Bedford. It travelled in a ship from England to Bombay, and then took a train to Rawalpindi before braving a five-day road journey to Srinagar. Of course, all the ova arrived dead. The empire declared the endeavour to be a failure and pulled all funding.
Mitchell, however, continued to work on the project, which now demanded “the greatest economy”, and arranged for yet another consignment of ova, this time with all due precaution in place. The complete story of trout’s introduction is not widely known; however, what is known even less is the vital role that two local Kashmiri men – Sodhama Miskeen and Gaffara Joo – played. Mitchell himself wrote of Miskeen that “the whole history of trout in Northern India bears his mark”.
“The topic is very close to my heart,” B.L. Kaul, Miskeen’s grandson and a fish biologist and ecologist in Jammu, told me. “Mr Sodhama used to hatch the trout eggs himself and feed the little fry with dry fish powder till they grew and were transferred to ponds with running cold water. He was a strongly religious man and never ate trout fish till he lived considering them as his babies.”
Kaul claims Miskeen pointed out to Mitchell that the large, stagnant wetland of Baba Demb he was considering was not suitable for trout, which would need flowing water. So instead they picked Harwan, near Srinagar, for the small stream running through it.
The project was carried through with the greatest economy indeed. Mitchell sourced a half-inch-wide pipe from his carpet factory and diverted running water to the hatching box placed a foot from his bed-head, separated only by a thin wooden partition. No risk was to be allowed. “We had gone through the misery of a fisherman’s Paradise Lost,” Mitchell wrote in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, “and now we had before us the prospect of a Paradise Regained!”
Mitchell would be awakened several times by the stoppage of water, after which he roused many people to bring cans of water to maintain flow while a messenger ran to the municipal authorities. Reportedly, Miskeen acquired great mastery over the art of trout culture. “From the time the ova arrived, trout culture became his life’s work,” Mitchell wrote.
There is unfortunately nothing written about Gaffara Joo. “Regarding Mr Gaffara Joo – there is nothing documented about him,” Kaul said. “However, he played a crucial role as the First Guard appointed for the establishment of trout hatchery at Harwan near Srinagar.” Here, Kaul continued, Joo was in charge of maintenance, and supervised the hatchery’s feeding and guarded it “in the early days and later in introducing the trout in the streams of Kashmir”.
On a shoestring budget, and what was an impressive feat of improvisation, F.J. Mitchell and Sodhama Miskeen, complimented by the vigil of Gaffara Joo, managed to hatch and raise the first trout in Kashmir, and eventually released them in the Arrah river. Mitchell contacted Maharaja Pratap Singh and convinced him of trout’s potential for angling and tourism, and thus established a fisheries department with himself as director, Miskeen as inspector, and Joo as First Guard.
Miskeen’s prowess with trout culture was of such quality that the Maharajas of several princely states approached him for help with trout introduction. He is credited with introducing trout and its culture in the streams of Kullu, Chamba, Shimla, Gilgit, Kishtwar, Naini Tal and even Sikkim and Shillong, to varying success.
“Clear headed and careful, he has always carried through successfully the work entrusted to him. Today Kullu rivals Kashmir as a fishing resort,” Mitchell wrote. Miskeen even became close to Maharaja Hari Singh, who “affectionately called him ‘Brown Old Man’ because of his brown hair and beard,” according to Kaul.
The present day
More than a century later, the once alien species has become in many places a mainstay in Himachali and Kashmiri lives. “Me and my friends started fishing from childhood only,” Rajiv, a guide and angler in Tirthan Valley, said. “We start by even catching fish with our hands in nallahs. Then we graduated to a spinner rod.”
In Srinagar, Goffara, of the shop H. Goffara & Sons, which sells only angling gear, proudly says his shop “is of an international level”.
Trout has come to represent a potential for economic prosperity in the Western Himalaya. The days of hatching ova by the foot of a bed have given way to seven government farms in Himachal Pradesh, and hundreds of private farms. Hatcheries are mostly limited to government farms, like the main Patlikuhal.
The potential of trout farming is in rainbow trout, a cousin of brown trout, since it grows faster. In 1988, the Himachal Pradesh government signed an agreement with the Norwegian government to transfer trout culture technology with a focus on rainbow trouts.
“The eggs are put in a bowl and fertilised with sperm,” Shakti Singh Jamwal, president of the Trout Farmers Association, Kullu, said. “Eyed ova take one month to develop. The eggs must have no movement and should be placed in continuously flowing water.”
The eggs that do not become fertile must be removed manually, with great care: they are probably infected and could spread the infection. “After this, chances are the eggs have survived and will hatch in 15 days.”
Private farm owners in Himachal or Kashmir do not grow brown trout. The fisheries department does this in marginal fashion and then stocks – or releases – these fish into the rivers.
There are several angling resorts in Kullu and trout is one of the more sought-after foods. “It is perhaps not a part of all Himachali culture,” Rajiv said. “You don’t find trout everywhere. But it is certainly a part of Tirthan’s culture.”
There are many trout farms in Kashmir as well but the practice has not taken off in a big way. “The state government is encouraging youth to start trout farming,” said Kaul. “Many have done so with some success, but not much.”
Angling, however, has become a known activity in the region. Goffara, owner of the shop H. Goffara & Sons in Srinagar that sells angling gear, says people from around the world have visited his shop over the years. But political strife meant trout could never be the great tourist-magnet it could be.
Trouble in paradise
The story of Mitchell, Miskeen and Joo is that of success in the face of tough odds – but today that success is at stake in the Western Himalaya. “Trout numbers have declined in Tirthan,” according to Rajiv. “When I was younger, you could catch two trout in maybe 20 or 30 casts of a line. Today it takes 60, 70 casts to catch one.”
He said the state fisheries department regularly stocks brown trout in the rivers but that they have many issues with the staff. “There is rampant poaching, and lower-level guards of the department don’t just shirk their duty. Poachers openly take their permission in exchange for some trout.”
Poor fishing practices, such as releasing bleach into the water to render the trout unconscious, using large nets and an uptick in the number of dams, hydroelectric power projects and sand-mining has meant the trout and its homes across Himalayan rivers has been significantly threatened.
In Himachal Pradesh today, fishing requires a permit from the fisheries department, plus a commitment to not retaining any fish smaller than six inches, not killing more than six eligible fish and abiding by a ban from November to February – the breeding season.
“But who will monitor this?” Krishan Sandhu, secretary of the Trout Conservation and Angling Association, Kullu, asked. “The department does not have good staff. At least 351 are needed to keep ward and watch. If they cannot meet this number, they must engage locals to take up the job.”
How does angling help conserve trout? “It must be done only on a catch-and-release policy,” Sandhu said. “We have asked the [fisheries] department to at least reduce the number of fish permitted to be killed to three, but they have not listened. One fisherman killing six fish, people poaching through bleach and nets… it is a massacre.” But sustainable angling, he added, “cultivates a respect for trout”.
The situation is similar in Kashmir. F.A. Bhat, who heads the division of fisheries resource management in the faculty of fisheries, Sher-e-Kashmir University, said, “Earlier, you could find trout in all of the Jhelum and its tributaries. But today because of industrial activity, water diversion for irrigation, sand-mining and climate change, trout is not found in the lower reaches.”
According to him, angling is now a thing of the past and no longer means much for Kashmir’s economy: “our conditions are not favourable for tourism anymore.”
Kaul also said trout-farming is not big in Kashmir because “trout fish is expensive. It sells at Rs 700 per kilogram, compared to Chinese carp at Rs 200 per kilogram and local fish at Rs 250-300 per kilogram.”
Trout is an adopted fish with a colonial past, and its introduction in the Western Himalayas infused the lives of people, and the stories they tell, with a bit of history. The adventures of Mitchell, Miskeen and Joo in Kashmir, the legend of the Bhuntar airstrip being built just for the Punjab governor to fish in Kullu, Varun Bharti catching his first trout in Tirthan, Goffara selling fishing gear in his international level shop, a fish biologist’s memories of his grandfather – these are all stories hued by the presence of trout.
But even though it is an introduced species, trout has found a place in the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri and Himachali people. “The youth must take up the mantle now,” Sandhu said. “If nothing is done, we will lose trout from these waters.”
This loss in turn would erase a complex web of relationships the fish shares with history, conservation and – today – even Pahadi prosperity.
Sidharth Singh is part of the faculty of critical thinking at Ashoka University and an independent journalist.