A salmon fishing trip to the Kola Peninsula does not necessarily mean selling your house and car! In this great article Jan Delaporte describes his experience and gives you advice from three experts for your Russian salmon adventure.
The road to Kola
The dream is within reach with Salmon Junkies. You now might be next guy standing by the riverbank of Ponoi River fighting a wild Atlantic salmon in Russia. I did. Laid out in front of me was now one week’s fishing on the best salmon river in the world – Ponoi!
A lethal cocktail
My itinerary went through Kirkenes in north-eastern Norway and from there on via bus across the tundra to Murmansk in Russia. Tired, but tense I hit the sack in my hotel room and dreamt of salmon.
The following day I located my group for the week – all bound for the wilderness. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves in an old military airport and waited for the Soviet helicopter that was going to take us out somewhere north of the Polar circle.
The helicopter ride was quite undramatic, although I was relieved, when they let us get out and stretch our legs, while the crew filled up the chopper by a small air strip on the way.
Ponoi River rises from a marshy tundra area and flows out into the Barents Sea. Along its course the river offers 500 kilometres of prime fishing water with wild Atlantic salmon – our camp was somewhere along the riverbank. After dosing off with earplugs and dangling heads during most of the trip, we were all wide awake on the approach to landing. From above we had a perfect view of the river and camp, which consisted of beautiful, Russian log cabins spread out on a carpet of bluish green moss between white birch trees.
Salmon theories and premiere salmon
On a trip like this you live and fish in pairs, and I teamed up with Franco from Como in Italy, geologist and now living in Moscow. We settled in really quickly and lit up the small stove, which immediately filled the room with a pleasant warmth and smell of dried wood.
The entire group of 10 guys were informed about the fishing at dinner on the first night. But as soon as the flow of words slowed down Franco, a couple of other guys and I sneaked out, driven by a frantic eagerness and salmon fever.
Standing in the water shortly thereafter we immediately realised that the fishing was not going to be easy. The water was quite warm, perhaps 15 °C, the air was cold, approximately 7°C, it rained and the sky was dark grey and wet. Theories is an element a lot of people go to Kola to dismiss, but we still had a nagging feeling about theory stating that the water temperature should not be substantially higher than the air temperature could very well prove to be correct. But Ponoi is not the world’s best salmon river – measured in the amount of returning salmon – for nothing, and it did not take long before a salmon hit Franco’s fly at the end of a drift. I did not feel anything that night.
The next day – the first of the six fishing days you are bestowed on the Ponoi – we were taken upriver on a jet boat by a Russian guide. At the outlet of a small tributary I catch my first salmon on the third cast. A small silvery and handsome grilse. The guide congratulates me with my ‘premiere’ and moments later I am standing in the tea-coloured water again and putting my line out over the enticing water. Right where I can just make out the contours of a large submerged rock I have another take. This time the salmon is bigger, and it takes a couple of fast runs, dragging the intermediate line behind it. My guide has gone over the other bank to look for Franco, who hasn’t had any luck yet, so I carefully beach the salmon onto a small gravel bar. I contemplate the fish for a short moment: Seven pounds, not a big fish, but a wonderful creation – silvery, spotted and pure. A true product of nature left untamed. I carefully extract the barbless hook from the salmon’s mouth and hold the shiny fish in my hands. It’s difficult to let it go – like I want to be a part of his world, hard and cruel as it may be, but true to the core.
When you’re fishing the Ponoi River time seems be stopping and rushing by at the same time. If you like I can’t sleep during the bright polar nights and from sheer excitement, then your ‘clock’ becomes even more messed up. But it is truly magical feeling, losing your sense of time here at the end of the world. There are just long days with infinite silence, in deep concentration, where the salmon could take in the next cast, after the next mend in the line, at the next bend, behind the next rock. It is like being suspended in a time bubble, where the wild forces of nature and the quietness puts you in a kind of trance, shutting everything out and making you oblivious to the worries of the world. No doubt very healthy for modern day people.
Inspired by Scandinavians
At the night there is a good atmosphere in camp, and glasses are frequently refilled with vodka and whisky. We are very mixed bunch of Englishmen, North Americans, Scandinavians, one Italian, an Icelander and a Pole. I have a long chat with Dana Sturn from British Colombia in Canada. He is a renowned Spey casting instructor and has his own forum on the internet. Steelhead fishing in the Thompson, Dean and Babine rivers is his ‘home territory’, but he was fascinated by the modern Scandinavian influence on the Spey cast, and wanted to try Atlantic salmon fishing, which has shaped so many skilled Nordic fly fishers. His first impression of fishing for Atlantic salmon is that it resembles steelhead fishing in a lot of ways. There are moments of glory and moments of despair. But when fishing a river for the first time, he always tells himself: – One fish a day is a good result. One of the biggest differences in the two types of fishing is that you must fish the fly much faster in Atlantic salmon fishing. Also, it seems like the Atlantic salmon is much more active at high water temperatures than the steelhead. In Canada they rarely fish, when the water temperature reaches + 15 °C.
Summer fishing in a beanie
One afternoon I am fishing systematically down the edge of a current with several large rocks close to shore. The relatively short 12’6 two-hand rod is perfect for fast underhand casts, sending the line over and across the fast eddies. The current is quite strong here, so I am fishing with a large cone head on a Dee Sheep fly. The takes fall within almost identical spacing on my journey downstream. One salmon comes clear out of the water in an attempt to nail the fly, and in the following strike the hook is set securely in the lower jaw of the fish. When it is time to end the fishing I have landed four nice salmon. In the morning Franco and I each landed slightly coloured 16 pound salmon, so we are quite pleased. We should be as the fishing has become harder due to deteriorating weather. The water temperature has now dropped to 8-9 °C (down from 15°C), the air is still cold, wind is blowing and rain is slashing down. A disgraceful combination of up and down moving temperatures in air and water, and a rapidly rising river is doing what it can to remind us that even on Kola you are subject to the moods of a ruthless, arctic environment. Up here nature is both fascinating and frightening. Just to think that there are only two summer months before the deadly winter sets in again. And in what should have been the life-giving summer, we are fishing in woollen hats and thick fleece jackets. I have no doubt whatsoever that salmon possess mood – and probably a fair bit of black humour – and that the conditions we are fishing in right now are making them genuinely depressed.
Ending in style
The following day fishing is seriously tough, and every single fish is hard work. Not until night time do I succeed in landing a pretty, glistening steel blue grilse with only a few freshwater days on its small back. Both Franco and I do however lose bigger fish during the day, but clearly the salmon have begun to take in a much more carefully. A change to a sinking line does not bring me closer to redemption, and I reluctantly have to accept a 0 ticket on the second last day. Numerous places in the world a blank day is more the rule than the exception, but regardless of how pathetic it sounds, an off day on Ponoi can quickly turn into a mental disaster. In situations like these, where desperation looms over the mind like a threatening sky, it often pays off to remind yourself that you cannot pay your way to fantastic fishing. What you are paying for is the possibility for fantastic fishing. And in my case I have even been lucky enough to get the trip at low costs by buying at the last minute. Where else in the world could you end up catching 60-70 salmon in a week if you hit the right conditions? No where. Timing and luck will always be part of the game, and that goes for Kola too.
The last day the rain stops, but a bitterly cold wind is blowing from the north and heavy clouds are still masking the sky. The water temperature has dropped further, and the river has risen another half meter. Not having seen the sun now for a week a kind tantrum is setting in. But then the miracle happens. As if it was ordered on the clock, the wind suddenly drops, turns to the south and clearings between the clouds begin to spread. The sun brings life and hope. Suddenly the fish start to move; several are jumping and rolling on the surface – a sight we have missed most of the week. Now everybody is into fish, and Ponoi is really showing what it can be like. I end the trip in style with a wonderful, lightning bright salmon of 10 pounds. I send mild and good thoughts to the next group on the way to the camp. May they have a good and warm week.
Cheap Atlantic salmon fishing?
I would argue that if you go to Kola, you will in many ways have the possibility of buying the cheapest salmon fishing around. At least if you count the number of salmon caught. Try to compare price per fish with a trip to Norway, Gaula for example. The salmon of the Kola Peninsula are within reach for most, even though it will always be expensive to fish on Kola. The costs of many helicopter flying hours transporting people and provisions to the outer limit of human civilisation are simply gigantic. For example, the typical Dane or Swede, who skips one trip to Norway one year, will find it within the realm ofd the possible to go to Kola the following year. In one week on the Ponoi, where I was, you will learn as much as it might take you ten years to learn in Norway in some cases. Ponoi offers the best salmon fishing in the world, because the composition of size and numbers is unsurpassed. There are certainly rivers with larger salmon and rivers with more fish (but not many). But it is the unique combination of size and numbers that makes Ponoi very special. Over the last 5 years 45% of the salmon have been over 5 kilos, i.e. Multi Sea Winter- or MSW fish (salmon having spent multiple winters at sea), so we are not taking about sheer grilse fishing like several rivers in Iceland and in Norway, the river Aargaard for example.
5 tips for your salmon fishing trip
Steffen Juhl – President of Salmon Junkies
1. Prepare meticulously Steffen has more than 20 years experience on salmon fishing in Kola and has seen far too many, who come badly prepared. First and foremost too many lack sufficient casting abilities. That means they have to spend a large part of the trip and fishing learning proper casting skills, and that is a waste. It is too expensive to be a beginner on Kola! Enrol in a casting course through your tackle shop, a national fly fishing association or privately, if you feel uncertain about your casting abilities.
2. Listen to the guides. A lot of guys think they know everything about salmon fishing when they come to Russia. Perhaps they have a lot of experience from Norway or Scotland, but that does not equal knowledge on how to fish on Kola. Your Russian guides may not speak ‘Queens English’ and perhaps do not express themselves very strongly, but listen to what they say. They practically live by the river for the entire fishing season, and that naturally endows them with great knowledge.
3. Do not cast too far. Steffen catches 80 % of his fish within 20 meters. With a shooting head, polyleader and monofilament tip that is approximately 4-5 meters of shooting line outside the top ring in a stretched cast. More is unnecessary – even a disadvantage as it becomes more difficult to stretch the line and leader completely. And that is much more important than long casts. When the water temperature surpasses 8-9 degrees Celsius you can NEVER fish the fly too fast. Cast across the current to give the fly more speed.
4. Do not go to Kola with newly purchased equipment. You should know your fishing gear before you go up there. It is no good standing on the banks of the Ponoi with 500 kilometres to the nearest town discovering that the lines don’t match the rod etc. Lines should be prepared, adapted and tested with the rod.
5. Lower your expectations. For most people a trip to Kola is tough on the budget. Therefore a lot of people set their expectations for catch numbers proportionally high – until they become too high. Expect and appreciate 20 salmon in a week, if you are going to Ponoi for example. It is rather pointless having saved up money over a long period, finally getting there, catch 25 salmon – which is virtually impossible in other places – and then be disappointed, because you feel, you should have caught 53. In total there are perhaps 1-2 weeks per year, where catch numbers reach the incredible levels we all dream about.
5 tips for your salmon fishing trip
Kaare Lundquist – Salmon Junkies
1. Salmon fishing and weather conditions are inextricably interlinked. The number of salmon you can expect to catch is directly connected to the weather conditions during the time you are fishing. At far northern latitudes the weather changes quickly and unpredictably.
2. Use a 12’6 – 13 feet double-handed rod in normal conditions. A light single-handed 5 or 6 weight rod is worthwhile bringing along for fishing riffling hitch and dries, if conditions are warm and sunny.
3. Cast at an angle of 90° across the river. Strip the fly towards you to give it more speed. Fish the fly right in towards your side of the bank, and strip it there to. That often pays off.
4. Move a lot, 3 to 4 steps between each cast. You don’t have to cast very far – it is much more important to give the fly speed.
5. The weather conditions dictate the choice of fly. Kaare fishes a lot with size 6 weighted Beis flies (Mörrum pattern). Flies with black and blue seem to work well, when the weather is dark and gloomy. Otherwise yellow and orange is a good choice for tea-coloured water like the Ponoi. Black Sheep is also a good all-round fly that works well. Generally most people use flies that are too big. Try smaller sizes. A floating or intermediate line is normally adequate – however a sinking line is always good to have nearby.
5 tips for your salmon fishing trip
Dana Sturn, Speycasting instructor, www.speypages.com
1. Avoid unrealistic expectations. You are dealing with sea-run fish and that kind of fishing can never be 100 % sure. I have learnt this the hard way as a steelhead fisherman.
2. Be patient on your trip in Russia. Things move slowly, sometimes very slowly. Do not expect the same pace as in Western Europe or the US, when you have to go through airports, customs, buy tickets etc. Show respect instead of getting angry.
3. Put your knowledge aside and listen. Trust what the guides tell you concerning lines, flies and so on. Ponoi is in many ways a ‘different’ river for most people. It is very wide, quite shallow, slow flowing in places, the water temperature fluctuates a lot – often, quickly and within a broad temperature range – the water level is to a very large degree subject to weather conditions far away on the tundra interior.
4. The choice of flies is also very special in many ways. The salmon do not seem very critical towards colours. The ruling opinion is: black flies for overcast weather, and light so-called fine weather flies (Green Highlander etc.) for sunny weather. Size and movement is more important, and this is dictated by the water temperature. Cold water calls for large flies and slower movement. Warm water means small flies and faster movement.
5. Use quality equipment and tackle, always bring backup gear with you. If something can go wrong with your gear, it will on a trip like this. There is no backup in the wilderness. Bring three rods and two reels with extra spools, various line types and polyleaders as well as small and large flies.
Facts on Ponoi
In July and August the fishing can be fantastic, if the arctic summer really sets in. Then fishing primarily takes place at night, for example in the form of surface fishing with bombers and riffling hitch. That means readjusting and sleeping by day.
Many guys who have seen the Ponoi, which is a very large and shallow river, use tackle that is too heavy. 12’5 – 14 feet, 7-8-9 weight is sufficient. For dry fly fishing 6-7 weight single-hand rods are used. Good and solid reels are a necessity. The lines must be adjusted to the rods. Bring a selection of lines, floating, intermediate, sinking + different polyleaders with various sink rates. Black flies always work, but bring some bright weather flies as well such as Green Highlander and Silver Doctor. They should be tied on double hooks in size 6-10 ot tubes. The ability to use the underhand cast (or Spey, Switch, Scandinavian style, Skagit or whatever it is called) with double-handed rods when fishing for salmon is a plus – especially if you can cast from both riverbanks. On the Ponoi it is not absolutely necessary, as you can use overhand casts on 90 % of the fishing spots.
Remember that the climate can be extreme, and clothing must made to tackle these challenges. Poor clothing can ruin the trip. Spend some money on decent clothing; good quality jacket, waders and wading boots.
Ponoi is fly only and 100 % catch-and-release. Only fish for camp consumption are taken by the guides. This is the same for all fishing by foreigners on the Kola rivers.
Article by Fishing journalist and photographer Jan Delaporte