December issue 2018

By | Environment | Published 11 months ago

Part I of this article was published in Newsline’s October 2018 edition.

An official of the HWF helps release the Mahseer back into its habitat.

It was almost dark, with clouds on the horizon and a slight breeze blowing. Everyone had packed their rods except for myself when I felt the massive tug and rush of a fish. I instinctively knew by the sheer force that I had hooked on to a Golden Himalayan Mahseer. An indescribable mix of fear and joy overcame me. I did not want to lose the fish and held on for dear life, letting the creature tire itself out. Finally, I landed a beautiful 12-pound Mahseer and could not believe my eyes when I saw such a beauty after almost 40 years.

How did this happen?

With the success of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) in saving the Brown Bear, Dr Rafique, Pakistan’s eminent fish expert encouraged Dr Anis and Mr Zakri to look into saving the endangered Mahseer fish, which happens to be Pakistan’s national fish – just like Pakistan’s national animal is the Markhor.

Dr Rafique informed the duo that the Mahseer was almost extinct in Pakistan, and that there were only a few pockets of the fish on the Poonch River. The water temperature and breeding grounds there were conducive to the survival of the species. But the indiscriminate killing of the fish, destruction of the small streams where they lay their eggs in the gravel beds and population pressures, were destroying what was left. Yet if immediate action was taken the national fish could be saved.

After immense efforts that spanned over three years and after the usual turf wars and bureaucratic hurdles, the entire length of the Poonch River was declared as the first-ever aquatic protected area for a globally threatened species of fish, on December 15, 2010. The Poonch River National Park spans approximately 100 kilometres in length, starting from the Palak Bridge just as the river enters the Mangla Dam and extending to the Tetri Note crossing on the border between Occupied and Azad Kashmir. Five different nullahs, or waterways, are located within this area.

The park is divided into two zones – North and South. The South Zone extends from Palak Bridge to Thalir Bridge, while the North Zone, from Thalir Bridge to the border. It was expected that educating the locals of the area about conservation was going to be an uphill task, especially since they considered the Poonch River to be their personal property where they could do as they pleased. 

Convincing the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir to declare the Poonch River a national park for only one species of fish proved a challenge, as did efforts to find sustainable funding for the project. Commercial activities such as fishing, or the dredging of stones and sand was not going to be allowed in the area once it was declared a national park. This meant there would be a lot of ruffling of feathers of big businesses and local politicians who had ties in the construction industry.

The perseverance and tenacity of Mr Zakria and Dr Anis and their team ultimately bore fruit owing partly to unexpected developments. In Gulpur, a small village along the Poonch River, the Mira Power Company of South Korea was to construct a 100 megawatt dam, referred to as the Gulpur Hydroelectric Dam. During its construction, the donors insisted on an environmental assessment of the river and its surrounding areas. The contract was given to the HWF, which convinced the donor agencies that unless funds were provided for the preservation of the Mahseer, it would become extinct.

Under the agreement, the dam construction would only proceed if it was proven that the project would lead to a ‘net gain’ for the river ecology and fauna. Hats off to the management of the Mira Power Company that they agreed to fund the project to help the preservation of the Mahseer. The funding helped provide for the resources needed to patrol the entire length of the river and contain the illegal activities prevalent in the area. No commercial activity was to be allowed, while sports fishing – under licenses provided by the wildlife department – would be permitted.

Patience, observation, perseverance and, most of all, an insatiable ambition to learn are the major attributes required in order to be a successful Mahseer fisherman.

A successful Mahseer fisherman must understand the fish’s characteristics. It likes clear water and rough water. Thunder or rain are not a deterrent for the fish to feed – they do so in winter, summer, spring and autumn. The size of the fish does not dictate the size of the lure. A huge fish weighing over 20 pounds can take a small fly while a smaller one can take a four-inch spoon. Its chief characteristic is the first rush; when it strikes, its first instinct is to get the lure out of its mouth, so expect a huge splash as it jumps out of the water and takes up 50 to 100 yards of your line, especially if it is a strong fish in strong currents.

The fish spawn more than once a year. They travel upstream and then go into small streams to lay their eggs, which are in the thousands. The fingerlings grow up in the small streams and as adolescents, enter the main river. As they grow bigger, they develop tremendous power in their jaws, so hooks have to be extremely strong to bear the crushing force when they strike. The three artificial baits are the spoons, spinners and plugs. The Mahseer will take any of the three, along with frogs and insects.

The Mahseer love to feed in fast-flowing rivers and streams. Boulders near rapids are a particular favourite. Once hooked, expect a massive rush towards the rapids and hold on for dear life! Do not ever attempt to hurry your fish. Let him play. Withstand your temptation to drag it out of the water.

It is important to know a few facts about the Mahseer and other game fish.  While humans have the senses of feeling, sight, sound and taste, the fish’s sight is secondary to its feeling. Water does not have any compressibility, therefore any displacement sets up a pressure wave and these waves are detected by fish. Thus, any movement in the water – be it walking or dropping a lure – will attract the fish by its detection of the compressed wave. Fish also have a sense of smell.

The Poonch River National Park has developed plans for sports fishing and recreational activities. Families can now book rest-houses, or tents with exceptional facilities pitched on the river and spend the day fishing or just enjoying nature. The drive from Islamabad takes about three hours to reach Kotli, while from Mangla Dam it takes roughly two hours. All along the river there are now certain designated spots for family outings and an enjoyable weekend.

In March 2018, we spent a good three weekends just below the Gulpur Dam and were able to hook, land and release almost 30 Mahseers. The biggest of them was almost 45 pounds. The population of the fish has taken an unprecedented jump. Thanks to the untiring efforts and persistence of Dr Anis and Mr Zakria and their whole team at the HWF, Pakistan’s national fish has returned with a roar from near extinction.

Anglers and fishermen from all over Pakistan must avail this fantastic opportunity. The fishing season starts from September 1 and continues till April. This area of Azad Jammu and Kashmir is beautiful, the people are extremely hospitable and in travelling to this beautiful part of Pakistan, we help in a small way in preserving our national heritage for future generations.

 

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