I will most certainly take the word “maybe” out of that quote. Never have I believed in a quote about fishing more than this one. Partly because I had read it over and over again while researching my newest fishing adventure, a 6,500 mile journey to Umba River, in arctic Russia, northeast of Finland. In the end it felt like a last minute journey even though it was 7-years in the planning. I can’t even really recall how it all started, except that Josh Linn mentioned two months before we left Oregon for Murmansk how he was thinking of hosting a trip to Russia, and that he had been eye-balling the Kola, peninsula as the destination. We had talked about Atlantic Salmon fishing for years, tossing the idea around, almost believing that we may never have the money to do it—and even eastern Canada seemed out of our range. This time it was different. This time the idea had legs. We were going to Russia. I am always up for travel. “A rolling stone gathers no moss!”,another sage quotation.
Did we speak any Russian? Of course –we knew three words by the time we touched down in St. Petersburg:“Spasiba” (Thank you), “Da” (Yes), and “Nyet” (No). By the end of our trip, we added one more word to the line-up: “Nostrovia!” (Cheers!)
The actual travel time to get to our destination made the Umba River feel, quite literally, “a world away”, and the experiences there made us realize just how different our worlds are. It is one thing to travel to Mexico or Singapore, two English speaking locations that I have personally spent many weeks in, and an entirely other experience when the country you are now traveling to has, almost literally, been born again just 20 years ago and the language is nothing like your native tongue.
It was time to put our American ego in our back pocket and I was comforted to know that I was not traveling alone…
I have traveled in Central America, and Mexico. On this journey we traveled 32 hours one way! Josh and I toughed out boring customs lines, the Cyrillic alphabet, bacon flavored potato chips (okay, that wasn’t so tough), instant coffee (no Starbucks?), waiting for shuttles that drove 30 feet to drop you off from the terminal to the next plane (still don’t understand that one), baggage weight overage fees, hours of layovers, 3 currency exchanges (due to a layover in Frankfurt), lots of cigarette smoke, and a five hour bus ride from Murmansk to the Umba River Lodge!
A month earlier, Josh and I had begun to research the gear required for such an excursion. It was cool to find that we needed exactly the kind of gear that we already local rivers, such as the Deschutes and Sandy Rivers: floating Scandinavian lines, Skagit heads, Polyleaders, sink tips and small to medium sized flies. However, for expected salmon up to 30-pounds, we took our Deschutes gear to another level. 20# Maxima for tippet instead of the usual 10-12#, 13’0 8/9 weight rods for our 11’0 and 12’6” 5 weights, and our Nautilus and Hardy reels made the cut. The rods that we fished the most were the G. Loomis NRX 13’0 8/9 and the G. Loomis Stinger, 13’0 8/9, both were easily able to handle the assortment of sink tips, Polyleaders, and Skagit heads that we stashed in our kits. I chose Rio’s Steelhead Scandi for my go to Scandinavian line. We had never fished this type of water or specie before and thought we’d better to be ready for all possible fishing situations.
As far as flies, we tied our own. The company that Josh had contacted for the trip, Salmon Junkies, and it’s owner Steffen Juhl, helped us out immensely, as far as what to bring and what type of flies were most often used on the Umba. Names like ‘Billy Butt” and “Red Butt” became as familiar as “Green Butt Skunk” and “Intruder”. We tied our flies on size 6 Loop double hooks, and found that we already had most of the tying materials in our possession from tying our local steelhead flies. Steffen assured us as far as rods, lines, and reels and it ended up that he had a lot of the same gear that we use for steelhead. It was almost as if we were “fishing brothers” and we hadn’t even met…
The weather was expected to be similar to early winter season climate here in Oregon…chance of rain, 40-50 degrees F, grey days, high pressure, windy at times. Josh and I packed our dependable Simms G3 waders –mine were bootfoots–and lots of layers, including our Merino Wool Buff headwear, new Simms Merino wool top and bottoms, and Coldweather Pant. Josh brought his Korkers Metalhead boots (link), with studded felt inserts. By far my favorite piece became the Simms Coldweather pant—they were the first thing on out of bed for breakfast as well as the first thing I put on after a cold day on the river. I nicknamed them my “blanket pants”, and they, as well as my waders and Buff, proved to be invaluable tools during the long, windy, chilly days.
The Umba River, and its tributary, the Krivetz, are located on the south coast of the Kola Peninsula, in the Murmansk province of Russia. Our trip was during the last week of the runs of Atlantic Salmon they call “Osenka” salmon. The allure of these fish at this time in this region is the fact that they come in pristine and ready to winter over, not spawning until the following season before the freeze. Therefore, these salmon are big and fat, making the chance of hooking up a 15-30# salmon much more likely!
Exhausted, yet awake with excitement, we arrived to the lodge at around 5am. As it was completely dark at that time, we could not see much of the lay of the land or our home for the next 7 days. It was all still a mystery. There were altogether 8 of us fishermen traveling together, yet Josh and I were the only two that had flown out of St. Petersburg–all of the others had flown out of Moscow and had already met for the most part. I have to say that everyone in our group was someone with whom I would have the honor of fishing with on any river in any part of the world. The group ended up seeming like a fishing “Olympics”—there were 2 Germans, 2 French, 2 Danes, and 2 Americans—and at the end of the day or during our hour lunch break, we would compare fish numbers, the lucky flies that worked and gear set-ups that were successful. We all had so much in common as fishermen and as people.
Our camp manager, Jan Delaporte, provided us with a democratic organization of how we were to rotate runs each day, assigned us our guide, gave us hints and tips, drew us maps of how to wade the more difficult banks, and made sure that all of our daily needs were met. That first day he explained to us the “20# club”; hook and land a salmon of 20# or more and the lucky angler would not only get the glory of hooking a big fish, but would receive a special Salmon Junkies cap with “20# Club” stitched onto the bill, sign their name on a wooden salmon cut-out that hung on the lodge wall, and toast to their catch with a big shot of vodka at dinner that evening! That definitely led me to feel more of a competitive edge to my fishing—something I normally try to stay away from. But, hell, I was on vacation–a time to abandon all normal behavior!
Josh and I had a little extra help in the party department on this trip, thanks to our new found friends from Germany, Thorsten Struben and Jan Blumentritt. Thorsten is a renowned fly tyer and his patterns have been published in books and on numerous websites and blogs. Here are some of his flies, including those like the ones fished on the Umba River: http://www.troutandsalmonfishingforum.com/showthread.php?p=31228
Jan is a Creative Director in Germany and was the other photojournalist in our group. He and Josh had fun documenting the beauty and fun of our week together. After dinner, the four of us ended up being the last ones to bed, often sharing some distilled beverage while discussing fly tying, marketing, or photography. There was always a lot of laughter those evenings! French angler, Pierre Martini, brought his father, also named Pierre, to the Umba. Those two were as crazy for fishing as we were and had a great sense of humor as well. They were great salmon anglers and have traveled all over the world in fishy pursuits.
I believe that is was Peter Rask, however, who was the winner on the Umba as far as numbers were concerned. We were entertained by his stories and singing and charmed by his unique laughter. I can honestly say that our group that week was the most fun I have ever had with people whom I had never met before and, at the risk of sounding trite, it was magical!
That first morning on the Umba was gorgeous! Now in the early morning light we got a perfect glimpse of the river and the tundra that surrounded us. Aspen and birch trees wearing their fall colors, crisp, cold air, clearing skies, and a sun that never rose much higher than the horizon the entire week of fishing. It was all new yet so familiar to steelhead fishing in Oregon. I remember wondering when that moment would come where it really felt different to us….
We wandered around the lodge and admired its construction and layout. One wing held the guest rooms and the other, the kitchen and service people/guides’ quarters.
Built in 2000 on the banks of the productive Home Pool, the lodge is made entirely from local timber. My most favorite spot within the lodge was, besides my bed, the dining area and the tree that “grew” out from the middle of the dining table—I looked up at it at every meal. My eyes would automatically be drawn up to its branches that reached out high above our new family of friends as we ate and drank, and to the red and green 20# Club hat that hung up high out of anyone’s reach. That hat called to me every day, reminding me of the chance that any one of us had to catch a big one! It was a minute distraction…
Breakfast was the best meal of the day, if only for its consistent variety of flavors. Fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, cheese, crisp breads, bread for toast, freshly made crepes with assorted jams, crèmes, and syrups, ham, bacon (not smoked, as that is not a common method in Russia, even for salmon!), muesli, cereal, milk, strong coffee, orange juice, omelette, and fruit awaited us every morning without fail. Midday, lunch would be served hot in the lodge or river-side, depending on where we were fishing that day. Usually a hot soup to start, followed by a full plate of beef, chicken or fish, potato or rice, and a small dessert. Oftentimes, Josh and I would enjoy a bottle of wine or a beer with lunch. Refreshed, we’d then continue to fish until dusk—dinner was prompt at 7pm, after a small cocktail hour to warm up by the fire. A different appetizer was served each evening, a main course–similar to lunch, and then a dessert followed. As was expected, our plates were heavy on protein and starch—perfect food for hungry, hard working fishermen. We never went to bed hungry!
Josh and I were paired up for the week with our guide, Farit. He was to be our guide for the entire week, and he was as reliable as the sunrise! Of course, there was a language barrier at first, and a little shyness, but I think the three of us bonded quickly over an infinite number of cups of instant coffee, sweetened with milk and sugar, accompanied by coffee biscuit cookies. Somehow, Farit always sensed the need for a coffee break just when I needed it most! We learned that he was from Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, which seemed both ironic and yet expected that he would love his job of guiding this huge river. Farit entertained us with guide stories, names for local animals, and some things about the area as far as fishing conservation is concerned. They are very much into the success of the fish that inhabit the Umba and its tributaries, and all of the fishing that we did was catch and release.
The Umba is quite large in many areas, and narrow in others .A lot of it reminded me of the Clearwater as the current meanders over such a wide berth at many points. The other river that we fished, the Krivetz, is a fast and hard to wade river, similar to the Deschutes. Lots of round, smooth, slippery rocks here, or as Farit called them, “stones”. I have to admit, for the week, nearly 80% of our fishing was done out of the boat in the middle of the Umba. Our guide would throw out a grappling hook with 20 yards of rope and would gradually let out a few feet at a time until we were done with the run. Josh and I would rotate casting positions at every beat, casting simultaneously from either the bow or from the stern. I got really good at my snake roll cast on this trip, while avoiding our boat’s 60hp Mercury motor. About the third day in, I wished that I had been counting my casts—we had never made so many casts in one day as we had here in Russia. It was a test of endurance and patience. On our first day out, Josh landed the first salmon of the trip, fresh with lots sea lice (still with their tails on!), about 12#. It was awe inspiring, and I hit him hard with questions like, “How’d it take? Did it take like a steelhead? How did it feel? Where in the swing did it grab?”.
Josh gets the “Skunk” off the boat.
The way we were instructed from our guide was, after a mend towards the bank, to strip the fly if there was no current, or to not strip if the fly came across on its own at a slow and steady pace. Salmon like to take a fly that is moving quicker than a typical steelhead swing. Now we all know there are exceptions in either specie, but this is generally the rule. The trick is to make the fly move at a smooth, consistent speed, and this is where your skill is involved. Having neither fished this way nor for this type of fish, Josh and I experimented amidst our hundreds of daily casts for the perfect swing that we thought would work. Farit would give us tips on fishing a run—“Good cast” meant a long, far cast. That was easy…the difficulty was in trying to figure out at what speed was right for getting the salmon to grab. It was cold, so we had to slow it down and keep it low, but not too slow, or the salmon wouldn’t be interested. This required a lot of careful, deliberate mending. By the second day, and with only the one fish landed for “The Americans”, Josh and I were perplexed. We had one, while the Germans and the French had already landed a few fish, two of them getting into the 20# club. Being the low rod for the day definitely made for more self-analyzation! We were fishing a rising river—it had been below average upon our arrival, but slowly the water rose, until we could no longer see the sandy beach where our boat pulled in every evening. That evening, we were told that this week was very unseasonable as far as the river level and catch rate. “So…it wasn’t just us then”, we thought. Whew! The pressure was lessened…
On our the third day I finally hooked up three times in one pool and lost all three! Farit looked puzzled and even made me pull my fly in so that he could check the hook’s sharpness; it passed the test. Will I ever land a salmon? I actually had one pull line off of my Hardy Bougle before it popped off. It wasn’t until the fourth day that I finally landed one bright, 3# fresh Atlantic Salmon just in front of the lodge at Home Pool. I was finally on the board! Farit’s reaction was to net the fish and then prompt a firm handshake for the capture. I was so excited that I felt like hugging him, but restrained myself .
Every day began and ended roughly the same: breakfast at 8am, then meet at the boats, ready to fish by 9am. Fish until lunch at one o’clock. Get back out there at 2pm and fish until dusk, be back and ready for dinner at 7pm. That translates into roughly 9 hours of fishing, and what felt like thousands of casts. It was as if I had started over in my fishing career. Josh and I became more determined every day to keep our spirits up (and in our glass!). Even on days that we hadn’t hooked up, we would still take out the flask of Whiskey and share a toast with Farit—to celebrate our camaraderie and the hope of future salmon hookups.
That evening of my first salmon, Jan our camp manager made a special announcement for my first salmon ever and I was awarded a shot of vodka at dinner! One shot apparently wasn’t enough and Pierre ended up buying a bottle for the table. I graciously accepted the refills and Josh and I stayed up late that night with Peter and the Germans…there were rumors of a second bottle of vodka that evening.
In our post vodka haze the following morning, Josh and I were slated to fish the Krivetz River. We had done this once before, but the wind blew so hard that day and the rains came in so fiercely that it was impossible to make any productive casts and we were fishless that day. A day of fishing this Umba tributary has a different schedule than fishing below. We motor up to where the rivers meet and tie up the boat. Then, we hike for about 45 minutes to the highest pool and fish our way back down to the boat. Lunch is done riverside under a sturdy shelter, and fishing is done from the bank.
The sun was shining right into our eyes that afternoon as we fished some juicy looking lies up in Golden Pool. It had a lot of structure and currents that, to these two steelhead fishermen, looked very familiar, and, therefore, promising. Without any luck, Farit waved me over while Josh continued fishing downstream. I had no idea what he had planned—maybe another coffee break?
He told me that we were going to “troll for salmon”. Did he say what I thought he said? Troll? With a fly? I hesitated for a bit as he motioned me to a tiny rowboat that is forever parked at this run. I was seriously confused—I had only ever fly fished, and, although I knew what trolling was by definition, I associated it with conventional fishing and didn’t want any part of it. I am a fly fisherman and I swing flies! Putting all judgments aside, I thought, What the hell, I’m on vacation in Russia! and got into the front of the boat—I could tell that Josh thought we were simply headed to the other side of the river at that point and I didn’t want to yell out to him that I was about to go trolling for salmon!
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that all I did was pull about 20 feet of running line off of my reel and made a single spey cast to straighten it out and immediately the fly came to a halt! GRAB! I set the hook on him, lifting my rod tip up (something I had little faith in as a steelhead fisherman, but I obeyed my guide). Farit was beside himself and kept asking me if I was stuck on the rock out below us and I kept telling him that I had a fish on. He absolutely didn’t believe me and it took two more times of him asking and my rod bending deeper and deeper before he ferociously started rowing the boat back to the bank to which we had just taken off from only 20 feet earlier. It was unbelievable, to say the least. ONE cast. Sitting on my ass in a boat!
I stood up, stepped out of the tiny vessel, and began walking downriver–this fish was BIG, and it was leaving the pool. I was at its mercy as he took me lower and lower, through rocks, in a motion I can only describe as “submarining”: staying deep and moving slowly, hard, heavy, in one direction—away from me!
Josh got the camera out and was taking lots of pictures and some video. Farit readied the net as he helped me over rocks and through slippery river algae, reminding to keep my ”tip up”. I trusted my gear and knot tying abilities as I stood my ground against this heavy beast. He wasn’t giving up easily, and as Farit looked at me and said, “Big fish!”, adrenaline and 7 years of steelhead fighting skills took over as I held on. As soon as the net was under my prize I ran over to see what had given me the most exciting 24 minutes of my life—a bright, beautiful 26# Atlantic Salmon! Assured that it was in the net, I began literally jumping up and down, yelling “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” ! Ask Josh—he saw it all. Farit reached out to me for his classic handshake and I shook it as vigorously as I could—then gave him a big hug!
I was shaking so much it was hard for me to hold this big buck up and I could tell that Farit was as excited as I was–he didn’t want to let go of it either! Josh was able to take only a few pictures of us before we released him back into the dark, silvery water. I could only stand there, trying to absorb what had just happened. I felt my face smiling so hard I though that I was going to be disfigured—I think I smiled a new wrinkle into my face that day! I couldn’t even eat lunch, I was so emotional! As I sat there, another wave of excitement came over me as I realized that I had caught that fish on a fly that I tied just for the trip—an Irish salmon pattern called “Peaty Man”.
It was a pattern that I had randomly picked out of hundreds of patterns in a book by Chris Mann called, “The Complete Illustrated Directory of Salmon and Steelhead Flies”.
I had tied only ONE of them, and had nearly forgotten to fish it until a text came through from my friend and work/fishing buddy, Travis Johnson, that morning: “Did you fish the Peaty Man yet?”: a message from thousands of miles away in a text to the Russian tundra that somehow reached me. As we were the last boat into the dock that evening, all of the other sports and guides were on the wooden walkway that leads up to the lodge. Farit had already spoken to the other guides via cell phone with the great news so I was greeted with hugs and handshakes from everyone right away. It was an amazing feeling—everyone was truly happy for me. I felt like I had caught that fish for all of us that day!
I dressed for that evening’s dinner a little differently than dinners prior. I dressed like a girl—short skirt, nice sweater, and heeled boots! I was anticipating the festivities and they did not disappoint. I received my 20# club red and green cap, signed my name on the wooden fish, and took a big shot of Russian vodka! Jan Delaporte had announced that my fish was only one of three salmon of that size the entire season, and, not only that, as there are not many females who fished the rivers there, it was a special occasion in more ways than one.
I fished differently those last two days on the Umba. I made just as many casts as I had before, and never gave up the chance at hooking another salmon. I was still riding the high and basking in the warmth of the afternoon in Golden Pool. I felt very lucky to have had that fish take my fly. The other experienced salmon anglers told me that it was quite unique for my second salmon to be that large. Sometimes it takes others with more experience to actually have to tell you how special things are. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find it out all on your own.
One thing I know for certain: One cast can change your day…and definitely your life!
After we fished the final day, we were to be ready for our long journey back to Murmansk airport by 11pm that evening, bags packed. It was difficult to stay awake, and I had to wake Josh up from his nap when the bus arrived. We loaded up into the bus, cold and tired. As we pulled away, all of the guides ran up to our bus, pounding on the windows, saying their goodbyes. The last thing I heard and saw was Farit, in the darkness outside my bus window, jumping up and down, yelling, “Marcy! Marcy!” I waved furiously back at him, smiling.
I have, since our trip, made it a point to find some instant coffee granules at the grocery store, but it just isn’t the same as when Farit makes it.
I have been asked by my friends if I would go again—of course! I look at it as not a trip to have crossed off of my bucket list, but rather, a trip to keep on my list to do over and over again!
Who says you have to do something only once?