Giant Rainbows of Kamchatka's Zhupanova River
January 14, 2020
(This story first appeared in the 2019 Fly-Fisherman Destinations Issue. It was originally titled The Raven’s Feather: Giant rainbows of Kamchatka’s Zhupanova River.)
From space, the Kamchatka Peninsula looks like a feather hanging off the end of Asia. That’s exactly what the first people of Kamchatka, the Itelmens, believed. Kutkh, the creator who embodies a raven, dropped a feather from his wing, and Kamchatka was created where it touched Earth. How they could have possibly known that’s how the peninsula is shaped baffles me.
The Itelmens commonly had two homes to combat the extreme climate: a winter home buried in the ground and insulated with hay from the long winter cold, and a summer home up on stilts to escape the wet muddy tundra of summer. The Itelmens somehow survived in this land, but the inhospitable climate has prevented almost all modern development. As a result Kamchatka has remained wild and pristine.
Except for fly fishers and Risk players, most of the world has never heard of Kamchatka. It was long closed to the world, and there still is no overland access joining Kamchatka to the rest of Russia. There might not be a wilder place to chase native trout than the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The Soviet Union fell in December of 1991, and it didn’t take long for intrepid fly fishers to find their way in. That very first summer (1992) after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a handful of fly-fishing adventurers made the trek from Alaska. Tony Sarp, at that time owner of Katmai Lodge, probably deserves credit for being the original outfitter arranging Kamchatka trips for Americans. The first-ever published article on fly fishing in Kamchatka appeared in Fly Fisherman in May 1994, and by 1995 Mike Michalak of The Fly Shop had firmly planted his flag on the peninsula. For 25 years The Fly Shop has been the biggest booking agent in Kamchatka. The Fly Shop runs programs on about a dozen different rivers, but the Zhupanova is probably the best known, and it may be the crown jewel of the peninsula.
The average trout on this river is an honest two-footer. This size class is so commonplace you will stop taking pictures of them. The Zhupanova is one of the few rivers in the world that offers a legitimate opportunity to pierce the veil of a 30-inch wild rainbow. We aren’t talking lake-run fish or steelhead, but true wild, native trout that spend their entire lives in the river.
These fish are voracious predators, and often throw a wake as they chase down mice patterns skating on the surface. I’ve rolled a streamer out just to reposition the line, and before I can even pick it up for a proper cast, a fish has elevated in the pool and moved 20 feet to come and eat it. Don’t get the false impression that these fish are starving, they aren’t. They are healthy and well-fed, but the summer growing season is short, and they must capitalize on any chances they get.
These rainbows are some of the largest and most powerful on the planet. They are a native strain with dense, beautiful spots and heavy red barring. They push the genetic limits of what a rainbow trout can be—in both size and lifespan. A big part of why the fish in the Zhupanova in particular are so large is their long and healthy lives.
The fish are spectacular, but more important, so is the fishing. For me, that is the biggest part of it. I’m a process-driven angler. For me, how it happens is far more important than what ends up in the net, and this is the most exciting trout fishing in the world. These trout move great distances to eat your fly. Some trout you hook and lose, and then you watch them eat it again on the very next cast. Sometimes you don’t even need to make another cast—they often remain on the hunt for whatever fell out of their mouths.
It’s a mistake to think the fishing is too easy to be interesting. That just isn’t the case on the Zhupanova. Good anglers are rewarded with bigger fish and more fish at the end of the day. Nothing beats good fly placement and moving the fly well through the best holding water. The fishing requires a healthy mix of mousing and streamer fishing best suited for 6- or 7-weight rods.
I always travel with sinking lines in case the water is high and turbid, but over three trips to Kamchatka, the majority of my fishing has been with a floating line. For streamer fishing, I use a heavy fly and a piece of split-shot 12 to 18 inches in front of the fly. I’ve had great success twitching a Dolly Llama or King Smolt pattern above a hole, and then letting it sink down into the gut of a pool. That drop of the fly seems to really trigger some savage eats from big fish.
I’m partial to white streamers mainly because I can see them, and it makes the fishing so much more fun when you can track your fly through the drift and then watch it disappear. The Dolly Llama reigns supreme in olive and white, and also black and white, but throw a few solid white ones in there too.
The mouse fishing is best swinging flies over riffles and slower pools. I was consistently stunned by the size of fish that would come out of nothing water. Riffles that look like they would barely cover a fish often produce some of the largest trout. My largest on a mouse came out of tiny pocket at the head of run, a spot that would be very easy to skip over. Fish everything!
You really only need two mouse patterns for any river on Kamchatka—the Mr. Hankey is my go-to, followed by the Morrish Mouse. I always attach my trailing hook to make sure the hook rides point up. The old school hook-down patterns work fine, but they wreak havoc on the fish. The up-riding trailing hook helps to solve that problem.
The fish aren’t leader shy, and with both mice and streamer patterns you can use 12- or 15-pound Maxima. It’s nice to be able to fight them hard and land them quickly.
Quality Over Quantity
The Zhupanova isn’t a numbers river. If you are looking for 50-fish days, there are other rivers better suited for you. What the Zhupanova does have is unmatched quality and size. You can expect around half a dozen to a dozen fish a day, with all of them running 22 to 30+ inches.
If that doesn’t do it for you, there is one more wild card on this river. The Zhupanova is one of only a handful of rivers in the world that have super kundzha—the sea-run version of the East Asian white-spotted char. These fish often surpass 30 inches and are stunning to behold. They are an incredible bonus to the already spectacular rainbow fishing.
You have three options to experience the Zhupanova: a float trip on the upper river, recently reopened Cedar Lodge in the middle, and Zendzur Lodge on the lower river. Each location takes six anglers a week, that’s a maximum of 18 fly fishers spread out over 100 miles of river. That’s about 5 river miles per person on the busiest days of the season. All of them use one Western guide in conjunction with two seasoned Russian guides.
The upper Zhupanova River float trip was my first introduction to Kamchatka, and it spoiled trout fishing in North America for me. This is a wilderness trip with a few creature comforts, but spectacular fishing. You float more than 50 miles of river over six days. Each night you arrive at a fixed camp with a hot shower, flush toilets, and a mattress. You enjoy all the benefits of a multi-day float trip, plus reasonably comfortable accommodations in the evenings.
At the start of the week, the river is barely wide enough for the raft, but it quickly doubles in size and continues to grow from there. You fish from the raft as you move downriver, stopping at all of the sweet-looking runs and bends, and leapfrogging the other boats. The river grows in size, and some days you are zigzagging through boulder fields and hitting little pockets, and the next day you find yourself skating mice next to the bank. I found the fishing diverse, and the changing river engaging, and this trip ranks as one of my top five all-time fishing adventures in the world.
The other two options are fixed lodges, a rarity in this part of the world, and this means you get incredibly plush accommodations in comparison to the float trip. Each lodge covers their own 20- to 25-mile stretch of river using Alaska-style jet boats. If you are really hunting for those 30-inchers, the lodges are your best bets. The river is much larger here, and the average fish is 26 to 28 inches. More 30-inch fish are caught on the lower river than on the upper, but they can turn up anywhere.
Cedar Lodge was the original structure on the river. It was built by Anatoly Kovalenkov as a camp for his wealthy Russian friends inside the Iron Curtain. Afterward, it became the very first fly-fishing lodge in Kamchatka. It has been closed for many years, and just reopened last season. It is the closest to the fabled Right Fork of the Zhupanova, which is home to the greatest density of trophy fish, and is only accessible via Russian tank or other tracked vehicles.
Zendzur Lodge is typically the one that comes to mind when you mention a lodge in Kamchatka. It is the farthest downstream and continually puts up the biggest fish of the season. For those willing to commit two weeks in Kamchatka, a float/lodge combo trip is perhaps the greatest trout trip imaginable. Zendzur Lodge is also located on a beautiful natural hot spring.
The logistics of getting to such a remote river are surprisingly easy. The Russians have been doing this for a couple of decades, and in most cases it runs like a well-oiled machine. There is a weekly flight from Alaska to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka. It’s a four-hour flight that crosses the international date line, meaning you leave and arrive at almost the same time, but on different days. Once you arrive in “PK” as it’s affectionately called, clearing customs is a painless process, and you take a short bus ride to the helicopter.
If the weather is clear you jump right in the chopper, and it’s only a one-hour flight to the Zhupanova. The first evening is mainly gearing up and orientation, but then you jump into long days and big fish.
There are few places left in the world that feel as wild as they did when they were first discovered, but I imagine those who fished the Zhupanova in the early 1990s had a similar fishing experience to those who fished the river just last summer. The more recent trips were merely a lot more comfortable. A river that has remained so perfect—and offers the opportunity to find the genetic limits of rainbow trout—is a crown jewel in my mind, and I certainly hope it remains for another generation . . . or three.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.