Trout Take Off In Kashmir

Introducing trout was one of the many contributions that Raj made during Kashmir’s darkest era in the nineteenth century. Offering details of how the rare fiat was achieved, fish breeder FJ Mitchell also gives many other details about the Vale of 1890s

A group of fishermen is busy in Wullar lake in the Bandipore district of north Kashmir. KL Image: Basit Jamal

When I left India in 1890, it was possible to dine in the Yacht Club at Bombay in flannels after a sail, and on a farewell visit to my brothers in Kashmir in the spring of that year, I found that it was possible to dine at the Residency there, on occasion, in pattoos, garments made of rough local cloth of which I am still fond. I had to ride from Chekoti, where the driving road then ended, along a hill track to Uri and thence, on the new road to Baramoola. From there to Srinagar I travelled in a Doonga – a thatched boat in which my sleeping room was separated from the kitchen and servants’ quarters by a wooden partition. I think only three house-boats, built by Sir Henry Lennard, Mr Martin Kenard and Mr Spedding were then in existence.

When I returned in May 1899, all was changed and dress was de rigeur everywhere. The roads into the country – constructed chiefly by my brothers – had been completed, and I was able to drive all the way to Gupkar (15 miles beyond the Residency) where my brother Willie had a house. The river and lakes were full of houseboats with parties of ladies and young men on leave, and gaieties were in full swing. To a man of 44 who has lost his money and has a family at home to support, the attractions of society are not great and I settled down to work at once. It was not very long, however, before I discovered, ten miles away, above the Srinagar waterworks, a lovely valley in which hill barbel swarmed in a stream flowing through beautiful woods and mountains. From this valley, then an open one, but closed as a game preserve in 1902, the craggy sides of Mahadeo (Great God) rose to 13,500 feet above sea level. Many a happy weekend was spent there during and after the summer of 1899. My description of it as ‘an angler’s paradise, could trout be substituted for barbel’, a transformation I believed quite possible, had probably something to do with my brother’s action in enlisting subscribers and it was a great joy to me when I met Major Godfrey for the first time and heard of the Duke of Bedford’s generous offer to send out ova if someone could be found to look after it. Very willingly I undertook the charge. Possibly, if the first letter thereafter to the Duke had contained more full instructions for shipment, a mistake might have been avoided, and had the first ova arrived safely when Capt Allen went down to meet it in the spring of 1900; the whole history of trout in Northern India might have been altered.

Trout fish is a net addition to aquatic life in Kashmir for a little over a century back. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

As it was, the failure was looked upon by the State officials as the end of the business and practically all Major Godfrey’s arrangements were cancelled. The Dilawar Khan Bagh, which had been placed at my disposal for hatchery purposes, was handed over to the Education Department for a school, for which it was excellently suited. The Arrah River in the Datchigam Valley was no longer allowed to be prospective club water, nor was any part of the Dal Lake to be netted off, or reserved in any way for trout. When I heard from Major Godfrey that ova was to come, I had to make my own arrangements and it was with considerable difficulty that I got the Srinagar Municipality to give me a connecting 4-inch pipe from our carpet factory water supply to the verandah of my dwelling house where I arranged the ova should be hatched out. The hatching box was placed within a foot of my bedhead, a thin wooden partition only intervening, and this proximity really saved the situation. Several times I was awakened by the stoppage of the flow of water and my men were promptly roused and despatched to bring cans of water, while an urgent messenger raced off to the municipal authorities. When the alevin stage was passed, a rearing pond was dug in the factory compound and the pipe connection was transferred there, but municipal failings still continued, though at longer intervals, and were less quickly detected. I well remember taking a plate with half a dozen little beauties of 3-inch to 5-inch which had perished during one of these lapses, to the Resident, to whom I poured out my indignation.

Col Deane (afterwards Sir Harold, Chief Commissioner of the NWFP) was not a man to pass over that sort of thing and it didn’t occur again. He really became interested in the work and, though he considered the State should not alienate their water, he suggested I should begin operations by stocking the Arrah River, in what was to be the Datchigam Rukh area. To this I objected on the ground that neither I nor my friends, who had joined in raising money, would be allowed to fish there, but on receiving a demi-official letter from him stating that we should always have that privilege, I gave way. A stew pond was established in the Rukh area and the Arrah was the first river stocked.

Ova Arrives

When we first heard that ova was to arrive by the Caledonia, funds were not over-plentiful and, with no club water, there was no prospect of obtaining more money from private subscribers. The Resident had given it as his opinion that the State should find funds at least equal to what had been subscribed by the club, but no response had been made to this. The Durbar no longer believed in the success of the scheme, and Colonel Deane’s tenure at the Residency was to be a short one. The greatest economy was required. Someone had to “go down to meet and bring up the ova, with an extra packing case in which it might be safely brought through the heat of Bombay, and a man must be found to attend to the ova while hatching and to have the care of the young trout up to the time they could reproduce their own species, three years at least, if no further hatchery arrangements were to be considered. Young James Sidgreaves Macdonell of Mora, who was with us at the time, undertook the first task and carried it through most successfully, arriving at the carpet factory late one evening in the Christmas week of 1900.

What an evening that was! We had gone through the misery of a fisherman’s ‘Paradise Lost’ in spring and now we had before us the prospect of ‘Paradise Regained’! After the Laird, as we called him, had his bath and some food, we started right away and spent most of the night transferring the ova from the moss packing in which it arrived to the glass grills of the hatching box sent out by the Duke, over which we soon had the water running from the 4-inch pipe. The new man was there, but of course, he knew nothing and had to be instructed. Of him, I have much to say, for the whole history of trout in Northern India bears his mark. Sodhama, a poor little red-haired pundit with a weak body but a clear steadfast mind, then doing odd jobs for Narain Dass, the boat builder, who was incidentally also the landlord of the ground on which the Carpet Factory was built, undertook the work originally on a pay of Rs 5 per mensem, on the assurance that it would lead to better things if all went well. He knew no English, though curiously he was well read in Sanskrit, to which Kashmiri is probably more closely allied than any other living language. Consumption had also attacked one of his lungs, a complaint very common among carpet weavers and other indoor workers in Srinagar – not, one would say, a very hopeful man for the job, but it was not long before he justified his selection.

From the time the ova arrived, trout culture became his life work; but, though the healthy open-air life cured his consumption, his remuneration in his native State has been a poor one. He wrote me the other day that he has nothing laid up for his old age. He is still only getting Rs 30 a month from the State and has, I fear, no hope of a pension. If the many sportsmen who now enjoy trout fishing in Kashmir and Punjab knew and appreciated all he has done for them, they might do something for him now.

More than a hundred years later, the Trout fish is now available even in running waters across Kashmir, in addition to the designated spots where they hatch. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

His care of the ova in the hatching box and of the fry when put out in the stew pond was untiring and the growth of the little fish was amazing. I measured one yearling, which with a few other very big ones was turned out in the Arrah river in October 1900, 104-inch in length. When transferred to the pond excavated near Panchgam in the Rukh area, the young fish continued to grow well under his care.

The Resident Interest

They were hungry for flies when Sir Louis Dane who succeeded Col Deane as Resident paid a visit to the pond. Sir Louis was much impressed by their condition and promptly went into the question of finance with the State Darbar, so that funds were shortly forthcoming to carry on the work (just in time as the Club funds were practically exhausted). He took a keen interest in the trout work and some years later when he became Lt Governor of the Punjab, he arranged for their introduction into the Kulu Valley where their success has been wonderful.

A cheque for Rs 2,000 was at once sent to me, and it was arranged that further sums required should be provided from the Game Preservation Department. As from the first, the accounts continued to be kept by a clerk in the Carpet office, who, as these became heavier, received a small monthly consideration for services so given. Accounts of all expenditures had to be rendered through the Game Preservation Department subject to audit by the State authorities. Estimates for the coming year also had to be prepared annually in time to be included in accounts presented to the State Council when the annual budget was under consideration with details of prospective expenditure under each head. This entailed a good deal of work for the clerk.

The Floods

The great flood of July 1903 in Kashmir swept high over the pond at Panchgaum and nearly 1,000 trout which were expected to spawn that autumn lifted their noses into it with the joy of freedom, and with its subsidence settled down in the best pools of the Arrah River. No doubt some of them might have been netted out and spawned, in November, but as the floods had ideally cleaned the Redds, it was thought advisable to leave the fish alone and see how they would get on with their domestic arrangements under natural conditions – a new supply of ova being arranged for to start new ponds, with a view to spreading trout in other rivers of Kashmir, should success under natural conditions be proved. The result was satisfactory; for when the snow water had run off in the summer of 1904, little yearlings were found in gravels far below where the spawning had taken place, and some of these had passed through what was left of the burst reservoir, thus escaping the damage from native fish which had been freely prophesied for them.

Great Flood of 1902: An areal view of Malteng, Drugjun, Chinar Bagh, Golf Grounds and vast area of the city including Dalgate seen inundated in this historic picture.

By the request of the Durbar a new site outside the rukh had to be selected for ponds, and funds were provided to make them more suitable for the work than had earlier been possible.

The ponds were begun on the line of a small irrigation channel, a branch of one from the reservoir. Two small spring rivulets joined this and proved later of great value. Beginning with three ponds of 50` x 5` x 4`6“extensions down the channel were made as required; for the bigger fish, the width being doubled. The sides were of dry masonry faced with cement and the ends fitted with screens to prevent the trout escaping. Fry were a difficulty as they could escape through minute holes in the masonry and perforated zinc traps had to be arranged to catch those so getting through – an amazing number. Side channels to each pond made it possible to clean them without stopping the whole flow. Possession of the channel was arranged with the villagers in the first instance without State assistance and after all had worked well for a year or two, everything was officially confirmed. A potter whose yard abutted on the area taken up, benefited, as visitors to see the trout were much interested in the working of his wheel and often bought some of the pretty though simple wares he produced.

Some 200 fish, reared from the 1902 importation of ova, had been kept in an artificial pond above flood level in the rukh. The water supply of this pond was from a fine spring which swarmed with gammeri, and it was chiefly on the crustacians descending from this spring that they had existed. The flood had for a time upset all other arrangements for feeding them. They were a fairly level lot, the biggest not exceeding 6 oz in weight. In their new quarters, below the rukh, to which they were removed in July 1904, they were fed on small fish brought from the Dal Lake, and so quickly did they grow on this diet, that by October 1906, when Lord Minto visited Harwan, it was possible to present him with a fish of 124 lbs, the fish in the ponds being all at this time 6 lbs, and upwards in weight. An earlier viceregal visitor, Lord Ampthill, when acting for Lord Curzon, had visited this new site shortly after this pond was made. Of the great house of Russell and kinsman of the Duke of Bedford, he naturally took an interest in the progress of the trout in Kashmir, but at the time of his visit the fish were small and few, and too many would have been required for a viceregal camp banquet. It was in this pond that the first attempt to obtain ova was made. As it was feared to damage fish by attempts to strip them by unpractised hands, an artificial spawning bed of rough gravel was arranged on rabbit wire, below which the ova coming through were trapped on perforated zinc trays. Rather over 2,000 ova were caught in this way. About 1,000 of these proving fertile were hatched out in the ordinary boxes and had reached the alevin stage and nearly to the fry stage when the lid of the box was one night left a little open and a water shrew got in. When morning came, he was found dead in the box with only one living fry as his companion. He had absorbed the 1,000 little fish and, so distended, could not get out and was drowned. The ova which arrived out that year was hatched in spring water in the open, protected by mats, as we had no hatchery till later.

From the very partial success of artificial spawning beds, it was evident that better methods must be taught and, when fishing with Capt Allan for Oreinus, an idea struck me which I at once carried out. A bucket and a basin were soon brought and one or two cock-fish, which were milting, were soon in the bucket. It was some time however before a half-spent hen-fish was caught. I at once stripped her and fertilized the ova which I told Sodhama to place in the hatching box. He took away the basin with evidently the greatest doubt of any result and it was amusing to see the surprised expression on his face when some days later he came and told me the ova had all hatched out. He very soon became expert and the work began in earnest the following autumn. Everything continued to be done in the open for two or three years, but, as more ova became available, a hatchery had to be built.

In 1905, when Mr Pears was the Resident in Kashmir, he and Mrs Pears came out one day and had lunch with me. Trout of 6“to 10“ were getting plentiful in the smaller branches of the Arrah River and I asked him to catch one himself, but he was not very skilful with the rod. I caught 8 or 9 fish of 8“ to 10“while they were with me on small barbless flies, and returned them to the water after showing them to my guests.

My brother Henry who was very keen, was off with his rod directly we arrived at Harwan, and when, after a little delay, I arrived at the Temple pool as we called it, the fish, a cock of nearly 6 lbs. was gasping on the bank, having fallen a victim to a small fly spoon. We had him cooked at once and ate most of him at lunch in the woods. The fame of this fish soon got abroad and a few permits were begged from the Maharajah resulting in some more captures, but it was not until the following year when I was in England and my brother Willie left in charge of the operations at Harwan that fishing began in earnest. When I returned shortly before Lord Minto’s visit to Kashmir, general ideas about the success of the enterprise had completely changed, fish up to 9 lbs. having been captured in the Arrah River during my absence. From a financial point of view this made matters easier and simplified arrangements for the spread of trout to other rivers, but it created other difficulties I would gladly have avoided.

The question of a hatchery came on soon after and this was erected on a site no one wanted, just across the road from the ponds. The villagers took no interest in this little plot of land which looked like a bog, but was in point of fact a gravel bed, through which bubbled up the waters of a deep spring, issuing at a temperature of about 45° F. All the land about had been taken up for willow growing, or other village purposes and I had difficulty in getting  a spot anywhere near to pitch a tent; so I thought I would put a wooden erection consisting of a couple of rooms and a bath room above this and did so. Kashmir workmen like to pick ova squatting, and the hatching boxes just raised above the floor suited them.

FJ Mitchell

The Game Preservation Department under Major Wigram rather specialized on the streams in the upper part of the Kashmir Valley with excellent results. Rearing ponds were established in the gardens at Achibal where unlimited spring water was available. Two lakhs of eyed ova went annually from Harwan to this centre from which yearlings and two-year-old trout were easily distributed to the Vaishau and Bringhi and to the other waters of that part which were more especially reserved for State guests.

After 1909, I was very little in Kashmir during the winter and Hugh Blunt who was with us in the Carpet Industry, took my place when I was away. He was very keen and made some useful additions and improvements at Harwan where spring and autumn of the years that followed were my chief times for visits.

(These excerpts are part of the long write-up that appeared in the Journal of The Bombay Natural History Society in 1930)

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