“The only reason I ever played golf in the first place was so that I could afford to hunt and fish”. Sam Snead.
Shikar in Chashma barrage: Mid Eighties
It had become an annual ritual. Every year, us Shikari friends, officers from bureaucracy, businessmen and few of us from the Armed services made it to Chashma every first week of November. All of us would start from Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar on a given day and Rendez Vous at the Wapda rest house.
Objective: To plan our next move as to where to set up the camp on the river bank. Strategic intelligence would be gathered from the local Shikaris(Hunters) and from the local authority about the movement of the illusive ducks particularly the Mallards. The first day in the rest house was consumed by excited discussions and theories about duck movements. Guides would trickle to give their own version of things- In short, an evening of bonhomie, the glow and warmth of friendship. I always find it difficult to sleep before a Shikar.
Next day we would hire boats and go upstream to find us a suitable sand barge in the middle of the river from where one could walk a short distance to a pond or a designated site on the river. So the second day’s morning would be consumed by this activity. We would set up camp and wait fro the evening movement and if lucky get a few ducks.
This was an inefficient way of doing things –too much prospective “Blind Time” in a boat looking for the perfect place. So that particular year I, lala Asif and his younger brother Arif decided to take off earlier than the rest of the gang to set up camp after a thorough investigation and be ready for the rest of party from day One.
Setting up camp for one full week for a contingent of about 10 Shikaries and a dozen or so helpers is not an easy job. We packed Lala Asif’s jeep with tents, camp cots, chairs, dry rations and Shikar gear and headed for Chashma through Kohat, the Shakrdara pass, Kalbagh ,Mianwali and finally the Chashma rest house. Lala Asif is a sort of gourmet, Shikar or no Shikar; he wants the table full with exotic food for which we are the guinea pigs. He wants to have fresh salad with each meal. So he picks ups Mooli,Gajjar,Onions, Dhania ,Podina , green oranges(Yes sweet),cabbage and whatever else was available at that time in the market -Choosing them with their roots if possible. Intrigued, I ask him why the roots and with a smile he says “Wait till we reach the river bank”.
On arriving at Chashma around1430 hrs, we quickly organized to load our stuff in a boat and headed North in River Indus toward a spot we had camped the year before. It seemed like a good place but since we had time on our hands we decided to push further up and voila a perfect picture spot on the inside bend of the river. The water was running deep, something that I secretly liked. I knew that ducks or no ducks, this spot was going to produce fish of decent size.
Before we could turn the boat towards the landing spot, I saw a man taking bath from the river water. I asked my local guide as to who he was, he replied” Sirjee ai Mafroor ai”( Sir, He is a fugitive from the law). Apparently he knew about the guy. Oblivious to this exchange between me and the guide, the boatman was going full speed and as soon as the boat changed direction towards the bank, the guy ran into the bushes and came out with a Kalashnikov, cocked it and pointed it towards us. O my God, this guy thinks we are police. I ask my guide to shout that we are PEE EF. He shouted ‘ Oye Khyal karien ai PEE EF dey banday hun. Ai Shikoroo hun”( These are PAF guys and are hunters). Now let me explain this PEE EF business.
I had served in PAF Base Mianwali as the Flight Commander and as squadron commander of NO 1 Fighter conversion Unit- a total for four years. In the local lingo PAF was PEE EF. So when my guide shouted PEE EF, the gun totting desperado must have weighed in his options. These guys were not the Police after him but then it could be a ruse so he continued to point his gun towards us. So I told my guide to give him another shout and tell him that “Aye helicaptran walley hun..PEE Ef dai banday hun”( these are the helicopter guys,They are the PAF ). That must have started a chain of thoughts i.e. If these guys are helicopter wallas so where the hell am I going to hide if I take a “Panga”( Confront) with them. This seemed to create more doubt in his mind and his resolve seemed to be waning. Our boatman, by this time was idling his engine so practically we were not moving forward due to the river flow.
Now I had to move, if I turn back, this guy might change his mind and fire at us thinking we were bluffing earlier so I asked my boatman to stay a hundred yards or so short and bank the boat. I calmly got out of the boat and lit a cigarette and started walking towards him unarmed. I was wearing an old flying coverall and a base ball cap-certainly not a police uniform. I realized that he was barely out of his teens and shivering. I started to talk to him as I walked towards him. “ Bachai, Badooq thalay kar dey ,koi zakhmi ho waisee”( Kid, lower your barrel as someone might get hurt) . After some hesitation he lowered the gun. Relieved, I exhaled but ban…bang…bang three shots flew over our heads. I looked across the river and saw three more of his comrades in the tall grass. He yelled in his typical Siraikee’ Oye..Bhain…Ch… Aye apnay banday hun. PEE EF dey Shikaroo hun( Oye you SFs ,these are our own guys,hunters from the PAF) .PEE EF again came to our rescue .
I asked him as to why he was running from the law, “qatul ho giya ai jee mere konlon”was his reply. Now this is a difficult translation. If I translate it as “I have killed someone”,it would be wrong . What he actually meant was that he did kill but never intended to do so.
A young man, who got into a gunfight over a minor issue with his friends and one of them got killed- now a fugitive. I told him we were going to stay for a few days, would he mind if we camped close to him. Now he warmed up saying “stay as long as you want and I will be your guard and nobody dare disturb you”. From enemy to friend, the poor fellow must have been very lonely in those boondocks.
Assured, I walked back to my party to tell me that we were safe and started to unload our boat. He quickly changed and came over to help. Lala Asif would look at him suspiciously but managed to hide his disdain but kept reinforcing the impression of the omnipresence of the PEE EF by his incessant chat. The desperado, turned into a docile puppy, that done back to the business of setting camp.
“The only reason I ever played golf in the first place was so that I could afford to hunt and fish”. Sam Snead.
Shikar in Chashma barrage: Mid Eighties
The danger over, now Lala Asif came into his old self and form and took over the command. The sleeping tents here, the kitchen tent there, the awning open to the river side bla… bla… bla. All the while I was looking at the river flowing by so I quickly pulled out my rods to set one up with earth worms and at the same time listening to a long tirade from Lala Asif about the virtue of patience and clichés about first things first. He is handful.
I had planned to set up three rods but, harangued by Lala, I quit after setting up only one and reluctantly joined the activity of organizing the camp under the meticulous instructions of Camp Commander Asif Khan. Every once in while I would sneak a peek at the rod tip to see any action but none for about three minutes and then I saw the rod bend and jerk… Fish on. I ran to get hold of the rod that was about to slip into the river. A small fight and a three KG Mully( Catfish) in the ready net. I quickly rigged another worm and cast it in the same place before returning to the chores of setting up camp. It took us another hour or so to be operational and in the interludes three more fish of about the same size. One more hour before sunset to explore the surroundings for an evening duck shoot. Lala Asif told the cook to replant all the Moolis amd Gajjars etc into the river bank sand to keep them fresh. It really worked for the entire five days we were there.
With the help and local knowledge of the Desperado, we walked for about 10 minutes from the camp to find a water hole in the middle of the small island. Looked good for three guns and 30 minutes after sunset we were back in the camp with six ducks in our bag. All the hassle was paying off. It was going to be a perfect Shikar; the only thing was the missing friends. Back at the camp, the cook was readying the dinner, the aroma of fried fish was appetizing and we were famished as we had skipped lunch. But Lala must go through the pre-dinner ritual of a drink, like the good old Angrez so he opens up his mobile bar to make the appropriate beverage for the occasion-Cheers and chin chin. On the table was an assortment of salads, chutneys, freshly backed full wheat rotis, roast beef and off course the fried fish. Nothing could be grander than this on a cool star lit night on a river bank. Simply Perfect.
After dinner, over a cup of coffee, it was decided that no duck shooting in the morning- only an exploratory ride in the small boat to locate other spots. Time to go to sleep and as soon as we switched off the small generator the night sky brightened up even further and peace and quite descended on us. We realized how foolish we were in polluting the environment with noise. All night we could hear the rustle of the wings of the migratory ducks, the whistle of the Wigeons, the quacks of the Mallards and the splash of the playful fish. Eventually sleep caught up with us, we slept like logs.
In the morning, as usual, the last to get up was Lala Asif; Arif was already on the bank with an assortment of rods and a few fish on his stringer. The call of nature attended to in the nearby bushes and we were ready for our cuppa tea. That done we got in the boat, but Arif refused to leave his rods; he was having the time of his life hooking into Mullies So the four of us went round scouting for duck shoot spots for our incoming friends. We located a few good ones and were heading back silently along the river bank in the rush boat when I observed the phenomenon. We had tall reed all along the river bank; a perfect place for predator fish to lurk in. As we were moving forward, every 30 to 40 feet I would see a circle in the water as if a sunbathing fish had just dived. I theorized that it was the snakehead Murrel (Sole –In local language or the Channa Striata). Lala straightaway debunked and rejected my theory, reminding me that he is a third generation angler. According to him, the Sole did not live in fast river waters and preferred ponds and slow streams. In fact in praise of Sole as table fish, he would often remind me of a Peshawari proverb ‘machchi siruf Sole ai, tai baqi sub makhol ai”( There is only one fish and that is Sole -the rest is a joke). I always suspected that he himself manufactured this one. Whatever, it is a very good fish to eat, no doubt about it.
So here I am claiming that were camped right over a goldmine of Sole fish and he rejecting my theory. He sort of threw in a challenge which was readily accepted. The trick was to find bait fish or frogs to put on my hooks. In about half an hour we were able to catch silvery minnows from the shallow waters. Instead of the normal rod and reel business, I just cut off 25 feet of some 20LB test line, tied one end to the bunched up stems of the reed and the other end to a hook. Baited the six lines and threw them 30 to 40 feet from each all along the river but slightly downstream and away from the camp.
Now I had read somewhere in the “Field and Stream Magazine” that the Red Indians would employ this tactics with overhanging trees on the river bank to catch the American catfish. Since I didn’t have the luxury of a tree so I used the flexibility of the bunched up reed stems. The only difference was that they would hang the minnow just so that it touched the surface and remain alive. I just threw it in the river hoping that the free floating minnow would attract the Murrel.
After Lunch and a siesta, the time of reckoning had arrived. We checked the first line- nothing, the second line broken and the reads flat on the ground. Excited, we ran for the third line and as we saw the reed going shaking crazily. Easy rider, pull it in gently and a 3 Kg Sole. Another line broken but the other three had fish from 4-6 kgs. 4/6 in hand, and what was it that got away, we could only guess.
The good thing about the Mully is that one can string and it can keep alive for days, but the Murrel is not that sturdy nonetheless we strung them individually so that they could move around freely and stay alive for as long as was possible.
Now we were getting worried, we had only one ice box so what the hell are we going to do with all the ducks and fish once we got down to the real business .we hoped some of our colleagues would be mindful of that.
A little later we saw a Sindhi fisherman pass by us carrying his catch towards the barrage. Lala Asif couldn’t hold himself; he called him in to show us what he had caught that day. He had a few Carps and loads of small fish called the “Sarya”. While tasty, this fish is full of fine bones so it sells relatively cheap in the market. Asif gave him Rs 200 hundred and he unloaded some 50 of them. He got a good bargain as the ‘Thaikedar ‘(Contractor) would have given him pittance for it. I was a little pissed as to why buy when we were catching our own. To that Asif says, I want to do an experiment. He asks the cook to prepare Atta, like for Rotis, gets the fish cleaned and spiced up and encloses them in the Atta. Lights a big bon fire and throws the whole lot in it. Bemused, I say all you are doing is wasting Atta and some fish that a poor man could have eaten. “Wait till the bonfire simmers down”, he replies.
Just before dinner the bonfires simmers down and he starts fishing in it for the remains of his contraption. He pulls one out, it is burnt black and rock hard. He cracks open one and it opens up like a coconut. The skin of the fish remains sticking to the almost burnt Atta but inside is a sight to hold. White steaming whole fish and despite the open area the aroma fills our nostrils. Tentatively we tuck in and despite the bones, it is juicy soft and flakey. A fish considered lowly, turned into an Hors-d’oeuvre.
We ate some at dinner time, the rest remaining in the still warm pit. We let it be there. In the middle of the night we hear a commotion outside out tents. We see a jackal pull out a fish from the pit and runaway. We laugh and go back to sleep.
We ate some at dinner time, the rest remaining in the still warm pit. We let it be there. In the middle of the night we hear a commotion outside out tents. We see a jackal pull a fish out from the pit and takeoff. He too had the right to partake from the bounty of the river. We laugh and go back to sleep. It happened the next night too but this time three jackals came visiting. Apparently they had some sort of an internet connection. So we would eat from the ample supply during daytime and the jackals at night, living harmoniously with our distant cousins.
Second night was approaching and yet no sign of our friends from Lahore and Islamabad. That evening a boat arrived to announce that the Lahore party had cancelled the trip due to some unknown reasons and the Islamabad party’s chief was stuck in Tashkent.
Now we had the whole field open, we could unleash and fish & shoot to our hearts content. There, however, was one restriction, we could not take from the river more than we could carry in our ice box.
Quickly, we established a bag limit by promising to train our guns only at male Mallards and retaining fish above 3Kgs . Catch and release for fish and stopping our itchy fingers from shooting anything in range.
We were relaxed and we enjoyed every shot that we made or every fish that we hooked. For the first time, we would let the ducks sit amongst our decoys and enjoy their playful behaviour. We would laugh aloud when they would rise in panic as we moved or made a noise.
Four nights in the wilderness, close to nature and full of excitement is an ultimate for a hunter. we floated back to Peshawar. We have done many a Shikars since then but we often relive this experience. It was wonderful.