The Bungling Angler: Assiganga Visited
Like all recent trips, this one was borne out in the spur of a moment. The spur that hangs in our head so long that you forget it’s even there. With IG heading to Rishikesh with a bunch, I knew it in my bones that the Assiganga was calling. I’ve always wanted to fish the Assiganga, but wasn’t sure my car would make the trip. Anyway, bags were packed, rods were loaded and I was off to an early start at 4:30am. Route is Delhi-Meerut-Muzzafarnagar-Rishikesh-Narender Nagar-Chamba-Uttarkashi. Delhi to Muzzafarnagar is a breeze with the bypasses and 4 to 6 lanes in place. Only catch is to get out of Delhi on time. The roads are pretty good till Chamba. Further on, they’re still good, but it gets dusty, slow with smaller roads and some bad patches. All in all it’s do-able in 10 hours, if you’re prepared to not stop for anything but P-breaks!
After Chamba you follow the Bhagirathi all the way to Uttarkashi. The hills are all green and dry at the same time. It’s a strange combination, but it still is beautiful. The trees are all the same species in any one range, at about the same height. Someone went into a great afforestation drive, 30 maybe 40 years back, and it’s paid off. I felt like I was travelling in the Shivalik belt throughout with very few granite mountains visible. Daytime temperatures were in the range of 35-40 degrees depending on the altitude of the drive. And you really couldn’t drive with your windows rolled down. I’ve often wondered but never conclusively digested why all the trucks and buses are designed to let the exhaust fumes out, right into your (the driver’s) face. Is this some kind of an industry insider joke, where they all congregate in large parties and laugh at the black sooted faces of us lowly car drivers, over a few whiskies and kebabs?!
Uttarkashi, the town, was a bit of a let-down. My mind’s eye picture was clicked in some high altitude valley surrounded by the middle and the great Himalayas. Snow-capped peaks all around and that inevitable delicious nip in the air. What actually greeted me was a wide valley drained by a muddy grey river in spate. Surrounded by low-ish looking green hills, at an altitude of 1200 metres above sea level (give or take), 40 dusty degrees in the hills definitely pokes your well-being where it hurts! Uttarkashi town is a backup plan. It’s apparently the only other place where the river turns north and has flats so placid it looks like a lake for a good 300-400 meters running. The town is a concrete assortment of homes, shops and hotels, catering specifically to the Gangotri-Gaumukh travellers. I’m told there are Mahaseer in the Bhagirathi by the local netters, but with the color of the river as good as concrete, I wasn’t about to try to get one.
A little further up you come to the confluence of the Assiganga with the Bhagirathi at Gangori. Assiganga is a spring fed river, emanating from the legendary Dodi-taal, where the trout reportedly crawl out to the banks to feed on the frogs!! The road following the river upstream from Gangori climbs altitude rather quickly. The setting also changes from Shivaliks to the Middle Himalayas, almost instantaneously. Granite peaks, still completed wooded, start cropping around, and the river valley becomes small, tight and fast. The water, being spring-fed, is crystal clear and sweet as milk. The river runs low, except for the monsoons, and wading is a pleasurable necessity. Right now the water temperature was cool but not freezing, so wet wading was even more fun!! My basecamp was a village called Kuflon , roughly halfway from Gangori to Sangam Chatti , where the road ends. Dodi-taal is a 22km trek further up, and it would take me 2 days to get up there.
I don’t know how else to put it, the fishing was phenomenal. I drove 10 hours, parked my car, rigged up a 5 weight flyrod and hit the river at about 3:30pm. The first hour on a new river is always nerve-wracking for me. I gingerly scan the pools for any surface activity. I’ll proceed to lifting rocks, first from the bank and then from the center of the river; to check for aquatic insects. I found a lot of stonefly nymphs, in browns, olives and browns. They were rather small but they were there. I also found caddis casings, which means there would be a hatch here at some point in the year. Now, only if someone maps and records the hatch timings!! Decisions in the first hour are tough. What leader and tippet to tie, whether to dry-fly or nymph, which fly to choose, in case of nymphing, how deep do I want the leader to sink, what size of the fly, what color and the list of complicated yet inter-related decisions keeps gnawing at my mind. Finally, I tied a two-fly nymph rig with a beadhead and a regular prince nymph. Starting to walk downstream and casting in each and every pool along the bank, I always realize how easy it is to access the pools with the flyline and hit bottom.
Nymph fishing has one rule and it’s the toughest one to follow. If you’re nymphing, “you’ve got to hit the bottom; coz that’s where them wily trout lie”. Its true everytime I nymph, to hit the bottom means you’re going to lose flies in snags. And there’s just no way around this. Choosing and adjusting the weight is a constant chore, allowing for the fly to hit bottom in the fastest possible time. Using a regular or beadhead is also an important factor to consider. Fast and colored water almost always work well for beadheads, while slower cleaner water works well for the regulars. Top of the list, for me, still is the size of the fly. I will change flies every 5-10 casts, till the time I hit a fish. I read somewhere that if you’re not catching fish; you need to change your tact. This notion has stuck deep in my head, so much so, in that first hour or so, till the time I catch the first fish, I’m always changing tact. Most of the time when you hit the bottom, you’ll feel tugs and nicks that feel fishy but most likely are rocks. I have a sneaky suspicion that the real fishy bites aren’t even felt, what with the lead shot dragging on the bottom, combining with the fast current. Then, sometimes, you just feel like you’ve connected to a fish and before you set the hook with that all familiar flick-of-a- wrist, you feel the line go nuts and the tip starts bending all over the place. My First fish on the Assiganga was no different, apart from being 14-15” in length, vividly yellow colored with beautiful red and brown spots.
Sure enough there were fish in the river, and they were eating flies. Time to get to serious work, and work I did. I fished from 3:30pm to 07:30pm, after the sun left the valley. I caught about 8-9 fish. Lost about 4-5 BIG ones. One thing about this river, it’s got B-I-G fish. I personally think it’s the best trout stream in the country, and I think I’ve seen some. There was this one fish that I hooked in this really deep pool. I maxed out with my leadshot at about 9’ of line, and I still hadn’t hit bottom. I got into a good spot upstream and chucked a heavy streamer/nymph pattern into the pool downstream. Working my fly up though the current, I had a strike, a solid take, about 5-6’ away from me. Looking back, I think the fish followed the fly all the way upstream, only to strike when it started ascending through the water column. The strike was solid, and to be double sure I tugged on the rod a couple of times to set the hook. The fish took off, I was on the reel in no time and he went downstream, fast. I tried to put pressure on him and fought him patiently. But in that moment when I know I have a big fish on, I always wonder about my drag. Since the reel gear ratio is 1:1, you really have no play, so to speak. I inched the guy to the top and had a good look at him. Sure enough, he tugged hard on the tight line a couple of times and off he went with my leader, tippet and 2 fly rig.
Y’know what the worst thing is, about the one that got away. You almost always know why he got away, yet you couldn’t have fixed it. In my mind I had decided that the river will not have big fish, so I used a 4x leader/tippet. The river will surely, never, let you off that easily . To top it all, the bunglings of the Flyfisher started emerging at this point. I reached out to get my camera out of the bag to start clicking these beauties. I knew I had charged the batteries the previous night so there was nothing to worry about. Smile, Aim and CLICK…..”No Memory Card”. The card was still in my computer back home, backing up the Kashmir photos!!!
After an excellent first day, next morning I hit the water relaxed, but not too early. I fished all day, from about 08:30 to 07:30, taking a lunch break for about an hour. The first half of the day was tough. I was trekking through forests uphill, right along the banks. After Sangam-Chatti the river almost becomes vertical, through a series on step waterfalls leading up to an impassable big waterfall. This is the route to Dodi-taal and the path follows the river from a considerable height. Agoda is the next village on the path, and it’s a steep 50 degree or more, 5 km trek uphill before the next descent.
The river runs through a gorge at this point so you’re either negotiating sheer rock faces with tom-cruise style rock climbing moves OR you’re walking on fallen tree trunks balancing with your rod, hoping not to fall 10’ below into the torrent. There were times when you could imagine yourself swinging on the branches like a fat Tarzan, and sure enough you‘d find yourself following your imagination. From the base of the climb you can’t tell there will be any pools of fishable water upstream, but at the base of every waterfall you find these deep blue-green pools, with promises of monsters lurking at the depths. I would recommend fishing these waters in a pair, especially if you’re new into Himalayan river fishing at the higher reaches. They call it “high water”, and it sure does give you a definitive high. The river was kinder to me the first day; perhaps it relented to nod at my dedication to fish. The next day, she wanted me to sweat, so sweat I did. No bites till lunch, my friends, can drive an angler mad. The “change-till-you-catch” tact can start working backwards and you start doubting all your combined skills. Maybe yesterday WAS a fluke. Or maybe they’re off the feed. Trout are sensitive to sunlight and since they face upstream, super shiny summer days, it can get tricky…or so I told myself. After lunch, the enormity of the disaster was sinking in....No bites since morning. Still, I don’t know at what point to quit. I’ll look at the next pool and wonder if I’ll get a strike there. Then there’s always another pool on the other bank that looks so fishy you can bet your car on it! At what time do you stop fishing, definitely not at home, when I’m reconnecting to the fish with words, here on IA. Definitely not on the drive, when I wonder about the water, and anticipate what strategy to deploy. So, to stop fishing, when you’re on the river itself, is unimaginable in that moment.
The fish started biting around 04:00pm, more or less the same time I had started getting strikes the previous day. I caught a few more, not too big but in the 12-13” range, still respectable trout. I become one with the river, once I started connecting with the fish. The tension of the “change” decisions melt away and I’m casting into pools and bouncing casually downstream, on instinct. I believe this is my Zen, the fish-trance! The trance of casting and moving. Where your immediate concentrations align to focus on presentation and finding water, thoughtlessly. It’s a common fallacy that you find fish only in pools. Actually, you find fish EASILY in pools. Once I start catching, I’ll starting probing the runs and the riffles. The faster shallower white water, where it’s tough to get a good presentation, but I know there’s fish in there. Why wouldn’t they be, hiding under the rocks getting fast oxygenated water right above them, grabbing food from the endless conveyor belt.
I headed back up the hill when it started to get dark. The car was parked on a “pass”, overlooking the river. The campsite was atleast a 300 meter uphill walk from the car, so I decided to leave the gear in the car. I opened the trunk and dumped all the gear in it. Looked up to talk and BAM, habit slammed the Diggi door down, locking the car key in. It’s almost as if my arm wasn’t connected to my brain at that time, coz I’m sure the second I slammed the trunk, my mind went “uh-Oh”!! So, with the spare key some 450kms and a full day away, I had no option, but to break into my car. I’ll tell you this, these Jap designers have thought of everything, and it’s not that easy to break into a car without physically damaging it. So I had to drive back with a taped up rear quarter glass panel. The bunglings of the Flyfisher didn’t end there either. At some point on my way up and down the river in the car, the trunk was left open. When I got back home, I realized I was a spin-rod lighter. I just hope it finds its way into some kid’s happy hands, who gets the angling bug with the rod. By the end of this trip, I’m sure I’ve got a free enrollment into the Space Cadet academy!!
So there’s a catch here, and it’s pretty serious. The state government has already initiated a series on tunnel hydroelectric power plants (dams), where they divert the river water into tunnels to move the turbines and flow back into the stream bed. They’ve got similar projects already running on the Sutlej. The damned problem with these systems is that they kill the fish in the middle zone and effectively cut off migration routes. This river’s got a couple of years fishing left, tops, and without any effective awareness at the local level, it’s pretty much a done deal. I’m sure the fishery above Sangam Chatti will remain unaffected, but a big chunk of the river will run trout less. So, in case you feel like some big browns, head to the hills before its curtains…..
PS: All fish were released, with minimum handling and utmost care.
Last edited by bobbychyma on Sun Jun 12, 2011 11:38 pm, edited 2 times in total.