Peter Baxendale reports on a bear encounter on the Kola Peninsula where the fishing is not just about landing loads of Atlantic salmon

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“Dave” I hissed in my best stage whisper “there’s a bear behind you!”

“Stop taking the rip Pete” Dave replied in his deep Black Country brogue.

“No seriously Dave, there is one about 200 yards upstream.”

“Really” he retorted“ you must be joking again, Pete.” He then turned around, leaving his fly in the water, and sure enough he too spotted the rather large somewhat scruffy bear rootling around in the rocks and lichen upstream of us. Sadly I didn’t have the big lens on my camera but I managed to get a poor shot of the fellow before he quickly scarpered into the taiga. It was almost midnight and the sun was disappearing behind the trees and the automatic flash of the camera had frightened him.

Dave had already caught plenty of fish that day and wanted to try his luck after dinner on the smaller Acha tributary. He gave up his rod on the prolific Home pool on the Ponoi to a member of the party who had not fared so well, to come on a trek two plus miles up river. We were based at the Acha camp which is situated at the confluence of the Ponoi and Acha rivers. The camp is in the middle of the 260,000 square miles of remote wilderness, mainly north of the Arctic Circle, which is known as the Kola Peninsula. The peninsula is essentially an extension of Scandinavia which protrudes in an easterly direction into the White and Barents seas. Apart from Murmansk the population is sparse but there is no shortage of Atlantic salmon running the myriad rivers. There is also no dearth of wildlife to see and, to me, that is half the attraction of the annual pilgrimage north to the land of the midnight sun.

On our 40 minute yomp up the river, Dave and I nattered away talking about his coarse fishery in the West Midlands and he said he loved getting away to a proper wilderness each year and how he enjoyed seeing the bird life. As we left camp and passed the lowest pool on the Acha a red throated diver popped up unannounced out of nowhere curiously looking at us as we negotiated the bankside track. Progressing through the birch and pine woodland a particularly dark, slate grey cuckoo kept its distance by flying hawk-like from tree to tree keeping a regulation 30 yards ahead of us. When we broke cover and started along the riverside proper a charming ringed plover scuttled across the pebbles and then darted upstream.

On arrival at the pool I had earmarked where Dave should start, we sat on a flat rock to select a suitable fly. A year earlier I had perched in the same spot with Steffen Juhl, the camp manager, when a large bull moose had slowly and nonchalantly plodded across the river barely 20 yards from us. The pool proved unproductive this evening although I had caught a 12 pounder from it two days previously. During my tussle with the lively cockfish I had observed an osprey being mobbed by a couple of hoodies downstream. Anyway Dave and I continued to the next pool some 150 yards downstream where his green highlander tube was violently attacked for a split second before the line slackened again. Despite his rather old fashioned sideways glance I indicated that he should carry on. Six or seven casts later he was into a fish that, with the aid of the fast water, took him well into the backing. After a few moments he was in control and he quietly extricated himself. With a little help from his acting guide we released a fresh looking five pounder that rocketed back into the hurly-burly from whence it had been caught. Having inspected his fly it was back into the pool as Dave was beginning to have a little confidence in his part-time ghillie! The tail of the run produced a second fish and it was some ten minutes later when we spotted the bear. In ten years of fishing on the Kola it was the first time we had both seen one. It seemed like a perfect moment to return to camp. Off we set and we heard the ‘chucc-chucc-chucc’ of a brambling flying somewhere in the distance. As we arrived triumphantly back a Bewick swan gracefully passed overhead. It was well past midnight and there were a few late night revellers in the mess hut but they were unimpressed by our sighting….. till I showed them the picture!

It was the same disbelievers who thought I meant something else when I said I had spotted some ruff earlier in the week! There were three of them in a splash, slap in the middle of the camp. They were comically darting about occasionally puffing themselves up like Elizabethan courtiers. They were observed by a dainty blue headed wagtail that seemed particularly indifferent to all their gallivanting.

The following morning I emerged from the shower block at 7 am to see a brick red crossbill quizzically staring parrot fashion at me in my towel and flip flops. It was to be the last day of fishing and I was off to Beat 1 on the main river. It turned out to be an eventful day with 14 fish landed to my fishing partner and me. We were not the only fishing folk on the beat – a pair of white tailed eagles soared high over the river showing off their two metre plus wing spans.

It was a cold week with a biting northerly wind but the fishing had been good. The water level was higher than usual but the party had bettered the previous season’s average of 40 fish per rod. There were four fish of 25 pounds caught and one of approaching 30 the following week. Dave was to be both the top rod for the week and the season, so he flew home a happy fisherman. But he went back to the West Midlands even more exhilarated for having seen the bear and the plethora of bird life the Kola Peninsula has to offer.

Peter Baxendale will host three of the prime weeks in Ponoi June 2010

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