By Gerald Penkler
“GERAAAAALD”, shattered the night calm and echoed across the darkness. This was followed by a cacophony of banging and panicked shouting, before a gazillion candle power spotlight arced back and forth across the hillside as if searching for an escaped convict. In surprise, I looked down towards the camp and saw someone running full tilt down the lake and around the hill, also illuminating the mountainside…
It was about 11 pm and the moon had started rising over the mountainous horizon, throwing a deep yellow reflection across the black watery surface of the lake. With everyone settling down for bed after a tough day, I hiked up the hill behind camp to get a better view and enjoy the rugged ambience.
The activity in the camp had cut me short and feeling somewhat embarrassed at the panic I had caused, trudged back to camp to be met by big eyes and relieved looking faces. “Are you crazy? There are bears and leopards about” Sina (our guide) said with a concerned tone. “But I thought you said that the bears were small?” I replied. “No! They’re big and kill people!” Sina replied quickly.
This was a surprise…But then again, we hadn’t been sure about the wildlife in Iran’s backcountry? To be honest, bears were not the animals we expected to roam our fishing banks.
Exploration is a curious endeavour. Love it or hate it, all ventures into the unknown start within the mind, setting expectations and the bar by which the trips will later be critiqued.
Heading to Iran in search of mangar, the king barbus, was no different. Long before we arrived, our imaginations were running wild, building an ever-expanding map of expectation and anticipation. At least mine was.
Connected via Whatsapp, this expansion was fuelled with each king barbus tale, legends of 500 kg fish, grainy photos of fish so big that they dwarfed anglers, pictures of crystal clear water surrounded by harsh desert wilderness, stories of whole ducks being engulfed, and reels being spooled or hooks opened. The lack of substantial fishing information only served to amplify the anticipation as our dreams and imagination rushed to fill the void.
As Ewan and Leonard have already superbly covered some of the Iran fishing in issue 10 of The Mission Fly Mag and on Red Bull, I wanted to share some of the non-fishing experiences and do a general pic-dump.
The fishing expectation was set, with us bargaining on a few 6 to 12 lb mangar each and perhaps one or two shots at fish in the 20 to 40 lb bracket. Secretly we were all hoping to be the lucky one, but were under no illusions that finding good fish could be tough going.
Landing in Tehran brought the first surprise. Dusty, unpainted looking buildings extended as far as the eye could see in every direction. The hot air is feeling at odds with the snow-capped Alborz mountains that provide a spectacular backdrop to the city, home to over 7 million people and not much smaller than the population of New York. We were advised against taking pictures of airports, dams and any infrastructure, and as a precaution we avoided taking pictures within the cities and public areas.
Crossing the triple lane roads is reminiscent of India. This was the same level of organised chaos, but without the incessant hooting of cars and ‘beeping’ of Tuc Tucs. Lanes are guidelines, and cars, bicycles, motorcycles and trucks fluidly weave and flow around pedestrians or slower traffic. See a gap, suck it in and walk…Fast, but calculated.
Our journey took us north, the two old Peugeots racing around winding bends and tearing along seemingly never-ending straights by our very own ‘Schumacher chauffeurs’. The traditional Persian music stopped as we pulled up to an ice-cream shop, which are as common as coffee shops in Amsterdam. Friendly faces invited us in and yak ice cream was on the menu; it tasted like cow ice cream to me – delicious.
We asked, why do you like this music? The response was honest and insightful, really showcasing the great pride in and appreciation of the ancient Persian cultures and traditions. Onward we headed off into the desert searching for ice. A necessity when camping on the banks of a lake for a week. Up a dusty little street, left, then right, asking for directions before pulling up next to a building with a square hole in the wall. Odd, without a person in sight. Some shouting from our hosts, and the next moment a slab of ice the size of my leg dropped through the hole and got carried off into the trunk of the car. Six or 7 slabs later and we were off again.
Every tight corner at ‘Schumacher speed’ resulted in a shuddering thud as the slabs of ice slammed into the opposite wall of the trunk. Relief was palpable when we had our feet back on terra firma for the night.
Up early the next morning, we were eager to get on the water. Surprisingly, coffee is not a big thing where we were. Instead cups of black tea, are served together with as many sugar cubes as you like. One local technique is to drink your tea through the sugar cube. Tasty; different. A good coffee would not have gone amiss, but all thoughts of fatigue were wiped from the mind at the first glimpse of the huge turquoise expanse and plenty of small fish lightly dimpling the surface.
The terrain surrounding the lake is truly spectacular, with huge rocks littering the shoreline above and below. This did not bode well given the dirty fighting reputation of king barbus.
The water at the start of the lake was a turbid turquoise, but as soon as we passed through a narrow canyon, the clarity started improving.
We were on the slow boat. The faster boat had gone ahead to set up camp. As the little dots appeared on the far bank, the Iranian sense of humour kicked in. We headed off, appearing not to notice the guys on the bank. They were waving, jumping up and down on the bank, trying to catch our attention. Resolutely we soldiered on, nonplussed and seeming not seeing them. Eventually giving in to the laughter we circled around.
The Iranian sense of humour was really good throughout the trip, with plenty of banter, energy and fooling around. I am sure we were the butt of many a joke, but none the wiser other than that knowing feeling.
The fishing started slow, but fishing with Ewan and Leonard certainly kept the energy up. I have never fished with a group as ‘fishing crazy’ and none stop as this. The first few days we would head out to various spots, returning for lunch empty handed, after being coaxed back to the boat. Inevitably, Leonard or Ewan would be perched on a cliff edge somewhere hoping to spot a mangar. I quickly learned that a bright blue cap was a no-no. Those shirbot would spot it from far away.
Lunch for us was out of necessity – quickly stocking up on delicious chicken or lamb. The customary siesta looked good, but those fish looked better with plenty of carp sunning themselves in full view and shirbot on the fin right on the surface.
Leonard hooked the first decent shirbot during a lunch time foray. It had taken some trial and error, but the key was to fish for them like carp. Note that out here, carp ate Zonkers too. In fact, everything ate Zonkers.
The boat headed out from the camp immediately to assist in case it was a mangar. Regardless, smiles all around. It was at this point that the luck started turning.
By day 4, we stayed out fishing and lunch came out to us. This terrain is tough, with big sharp boulders everywhere and protected by equally sharp and thorny bush. Not to mention the bears and snakes.
However, the thrill of seeing a big mangar or a cruising shirbot was worth the scratches and scrapes. More than once there were some close calls on edges that were not stable enough and more suited to a mountain goat.
All too quickly the week of exploration came to an end. Was it what I expected? No. It far surpassed anything I could have dreamed of. The mix of culture, people, company, terrain and fishing were truly a unique experience. For me, this was exploration at its finest – next time we will be better prepared.