January 28, 2023
When targeting sea-run salmonids, timing is everything. So in July 2021, when I received a call from my buddy Justin Miller at The Fly Shop informing me that Russia would be opening visas for a limited steelhead season at the end of that year, I knew my time had arrived! Although I had fished in Russia for trout and taimen several times, this was an opportunity to take part in the Kamchatka Steelhead Project for nine days. We’d be in an intact ecosystem, hunting for dime-bright fish that arrive fresh on rising tides. Unlike most other steelhead rivers in the world, the fish returns here are comparable to their historical abundance. It’s a steelheader’s dream.
Kamchatka is roughly the size of California and has fewer than 200,000 inhabitants. More than 95 percent of the population is clustered in the southern cities of Petropavlovsk and Yelizovo. There are few roads, and helicopters are the primary form of transportation. In fly-fishing circles, the Kamchatka Peninsula is held in high regard for its rainbow trout fisheries. Giant, mouse-eating trout draw anglers from around the world. The wild steelhead program is every bit as productive, sporting river systems free of water diversions, dams, logging, and commercial fishing. While the wild steelhead populations suffered from industrial-level criminal poaching as the Soviet Union collapsed, the science and conservation operations that opened after the fall have provided eyeballs and boots on the ground for protection and funding for science.
The Kamchatka Steelhead Project, the flagship program of the nonprofit organization The Conservation Angler, blends angling and science with a team of salmonid biologists and river ecologists from the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, headquartered at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Partnering with eager anglers, these scientists have since 1994 worked to better understand the population dynamics and lifecycles of Pacific steelhead in Asia. Anglers fund the work through ecotourism and they have special permission from the government to catch the protected fish for the science team to study and release. Since 1994, no fishing of any kind has been permitted by anyone except those who are approved participants in the project.
There are only 36 rod days for the entire Kamchatka season, divided between two science camp operations. With most prime dates locked up for returning angler sponsors, it’s one of the world’s most exclusive fishing locales. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, all reservations from 2020 were delayed one year. Then in 2021, Russia didn’t issue American visas of any kind until late that year when the government reversed its visa policy, and prime dates became available for the fall.
The Kamchatka Steelhead Project
The Kamchatka Steelhead Project was founded by a group of passionate steelheaders that included founder Pete Soverel, Serge Karpovich (a Russian-American former CIA operative turned entrepreneur), and publisher Tom Pero—as well as scientists Ksenya Savvaitova and Dimitrie Pavlov from Moscow State University and the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The initial expedition in 1994 was launched with funding from the U.S. State Department and with a charter under the U.S.-Russian Agreement on the Environment. It marked the beginning of the longest-running steelhead study in the world, and a model program where anglers donate to a non-profit organization and become the collectors of biological samples through catch-and-release fly fishing. No fishing is permitted on these rivers unless it’s officially sanctioned for research purposes. For decades, Moscow State University has analyzed field samples and published its findings in international scientific journals. The program was postponed in 2020 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. An amended short season of sample collecting took place in 2021, when author John Sherman and friends were able to join. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the program was closed to all foreign sponsors. However, Kamchatka is open to travel for Russians. According to David Moskowitz, executive director of the nonprofit The Conservation Angler, there will be angler sponsors in two of the camps in 2022. These Russian fly fishers will be managed by the MSU science team and Russian guides.
The Kamchatka Steelhead Project for decades has discouraged any poaching activity in central Kamchatka. In 2020, they mounted a robust anti-poaching campaign, with several officers patrolling the rivers where the project normally operates. They also kept an eye on empty rivers when the program was operating at two thirds capacity in 2021.
“The Conservation Angler and Moscow State University are confident that in the long term, the Kamchatka Steelhead Project will continue due to the important scientific work underway, and because it was an approved project under the U.S.-Russia Agreement on the Environment since the mid-1990s,” said Moskowitz.
“Our anti-poaching campaign will continue in 2022 on the rivers where camps are not operating.”
Living in a remote camp for over a week with complete strangers terrifies me. It takes only one bad egg to ruin everyone’s trip, so I knew I had to rope in some buddies to share this amazing opportunity.
Peter Crow, my old boss from Smith Optics and lifelong steelhead addict, was the first to sign up. David Mellon, former Simms vice president and now Grundéns CEO, was next. Guide and Grundéns marketing associate Justin Waters rounded out our crew of four.
This was my sixth trip to Russia and fourth time on the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, this round of travel was by far the most demanding. With Covid-19 limitations not allowing us to enter Russia from any other countries except the U.S., our only route in and out was through Moscow. My journey took me from San Francisco to New York to Moscow to Petropavlovsk, a total of 23 hours in the air.
Upon landing in Moscow, we learned that a looming storm would necessitate an early helicopter departure from Petro. This was music to our ears, as we still had enough time on the ground for errands, and it ultimately bought us an additional day of fishing.
Unfortunately, Justin’s checked bag never arrived, so he had no wading boots, rain jacket, sleeping bag, or clothing. Fortunately, I brought an extra set of waders and boots, and our feet are the same size! We all had plenty of extra clothing, gloves, socks, and I even brought two rain jackets. I had heard stories of this happening, so it was better to overpack and be safe than sorry.
We made a quick shopping run for last-minute supplies and alcohol, then we were off to the helicopter yard. There we met the other two anglers joining us on the trip: Brad, a retired banker from Minnesota, and Jim from Chicago, who was vague about his occupation.
There’s nothing quite like your first ride in a Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter, sitting on a bench shoulder-to-shoulder with other anglers, guides and staff, gear bags, and supplies stuffed in the middle of the fuselage. When the engine starts, there’s a five-minute warm-up, and the noise is deafening, so headsets are required to protect your ears. Then things get interesting. The rumble of rotors violently shakes the entire helicopter, vibrating everything inside. The tail rotor lifts and then the nose pushes forward, and suddenly you’re airborne.
You can see the look of uncertainty and fear in every angler’s first liftoff. It was my ninth trip in a Mi-8, and these helicopters are actually very safe. There’s a pilot, copilot, and engineer in the cockpit. The engineer is the same person who maintains the craft, and they are intimately familiar with every moving part. The crew is under strict fly rules requiring good visibility and conditions, which can often lead to delays due to the erratic weather of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
In the air, the tension diminished. We were all exhausted from travel, and many in the group fell asleep to the mesmerizing drone of the rotors. It was a 90-minute flight from Petropavlovsk to Esso, where we refueled and broke up into two smaller parties, one with each of the guide operations. When splitting, it’s crucial to make sure that your gear ends up on the right helicopter. This took about 30 minutes of careful checking on the ground before we were finally en route to our final destinations.
Steelhead are native to the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula where the rivers flow into the Sea of Okhotsk. The five Kamchatka Steelhead Project rivers are along the central portion of this coastline. Our group fished the Kvachina and Snatolvayan rivers, while the other operation flew to the Utholok River to the south. Finally, after this last leg of the trip, we landed on the banks of the Kvachina River, our home for the next nine days!
The camp is simple and perfect. Two-person canvas tents have wood-burning stoves on a wood floor. A kitchen and dining area is the only permanent structure, and also the main hangout for breakfast, dinner, and evening drinks. Most importantly, a wood-burning water heater provides hot showers to welcome us back to camp after brutally cold days on the water. We had two inflatable rafts with jet outboards at camp on the Kvachina. We drove to the Snatolvayan in bumpy, muddy excursions across the tundra in a Polaris ATV.
On our first day, Peter and I drew the tundra jaunt with our guide Sasha. I had heard many stories about Sasha, a gentle giant who served in the Russian Army and has shot bears in self-defense while guiding with clients. The rodeo ride to the Snatol was an adventure in itself. The river was low and clear, and appeared to be some of the most uninteresting steelhead water imaginable. There seemed to be no signs of structure or classic holding water. I was prepared for this by friends who had fished and guided here, but I couldn’t help thinking that this was going to be a long nine days.
Swinging the fly that day was painfully slow and required a hand-over-hand stillwater retrieve to keep the fly moving. My 11-foot 7-weight switch rod felt like overkill, and I was longing for a single-handed rod, given the small trench nature of this low-gradient tundra river. To my surprise, Peter came tight on our first run (a trend throughout the week) and we got our first glimpse of an Asian steelhead—a 10-pound buck caught in tidewater and covered in sea lice. This was one of the fattest steelhead I have ever laid eyes on. After Peter landed the fish, Sasha went to work on tagging it and taking scale and fin samples for the Kamchatka Steelhead Project.
Peter has fished extensively throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, but he specializes in the desert steelhead of eastern Oregon and Idaho. This was his first experience casting a Skagit head and the bulky Intruder-style patterns that fish prefer on these Russian rivers. This was a far cry from the long-belly lines and small classic patterns favored in the large desert rivers of the Western U.S., but Peter quickly adapted his stroke to shorter heads. Peter is the most methodical anadromous angler I have fished with, picking every pocket with laser focus. He’s hard to fish behind given his slow, calculated nature. He finished the first day as the hot rod, going one for five. I didn’t stick a steelhead, although there is always plenty of action from coho salmon and kundzha, a white-spotted species of char. The rain intensified at the end of the day, bringing hope that low-water conditions would improve.
By morning, the river was on a slow rise as Peter and I headed out on the Kvachina with Dr. Kirill Kuzishchin, the head guide and fisheries biologist. These tundra rivers are unlike other steelhead rivers I have fished. The tundra acts like a giant sponge that slowly leaches rainwater into the river at a consistent, delayed rate, so it takes a ton of rain to blow the river out.
In our first run, we saw pushes and rolls, indicating that fish were on the move in the slowly rising water. Again, Peter hooked up almost immediately. My first Russian steelhead showed itself straight across the river from my position. My swinging fly was already 30 feet below the fish, so I quickly reset and cast a bright orange Pick Your Pocket, stripping in line to present the fly where the fish had rolled just seconds before. This was a long-shot presentation, and to my amazement, the dime-bright buck clobbered the fly mid-strip! I couldn’t help but laugh at what I had just experienced. A few minutes later, I held a 33.5-inch slightly colored buck in my hands. Kirill was efficient in collecting his samples, and after a few photos we were back in the game.
Peter continued his hot hand on the Hotel Run, a fitting name for a pool where fish were definitely spending some time relaxing. This was classic steelhead water with a steep bank, downed trees along the far side, and a steady current pulling along the length of the pool with about 200 feet of fishable water. Peter was on fish number five before I hooked my second. By the time we left Hotel Pool, we were up to 12 fish hooked, including two doubles.
This kind of action was beginning to feel like trout fishing, but after being blanked the day before and all the effort involved in getting here, it was fun to be getting so many grabs. At the end of the day, we had hooked 22 steelhead between both of us—one my best steelheading days ever. A couple of the studs came in over 34 inches in length, with girths over 20 inches, and there were multiple fish that chased and ate a stripped fly. Even the brutal wind and rain didn’t cool us down.
We woke to clear conditions and our first freeze on day three. The water temperature had dropped 5 degrees overnight to 39.5 degrees F. Peter and I fished with Pavel, a friendly young lad in his early 20s of Koryak descent. The Koryaks are the indigenous people of this part of Kamchatka, and although the word means “rich in reindeer” and the Koryaks are famous for their reindeer-skin clothing, they also have a proud tribal heritage for hunting marine mammals and as fishermen.
After previously serving as a camp hand, this was Pavel’s first season guiding. What he lacked in English, he made up for in enthusiasm, and we had another solid day. We fished a sweet tailout just below camp that swung well, especially with the rising water.
I was rewarded with a solid buck here, but overall we hooked a fraction of the fish compared to the silliness of the previous day. I went two for two and Peter went three for five, fishing some of the same water as the day before, a huge advantage compared to exploring new water. Our confidence was increasing as we started dialing in the exact holding lies, and spending less time in unproductive water. The river was continuing to rise and get fishier, and the water color was still very tannic.
The following day, we switched partners and I headed out with Dave Mellon. Dave and I had fished together before on the California Delta, and I always enjoyed our time on the water. Now we had the opportunity to do it again in the Russian Far East.
The rotation sent us back to the Snatolvayan with Sasha. It had rained all night and most of the morning, but both the rain and wind had stopped by the time we got to the river. We could see pushes and wakes, indicating that fish were actively moving upstream. The water that I had previously found so uninspiring on my first day had come up a good 18 inches, and the steady current was now perfect two-handed water.
Dave started the morning by sticking a solid fish on the first run, and I followed with my hottest fish of the trip, a sweet 12-pound hen that crushed a giant Paul Miller Super Prawn, nearly beached itself, and then jumped four times as it screamed out of the pool.
Later in the day, we moved up to a second spot that Sasha called The Meeting Pool. There was a high bank that we clambered down, and we found fish moving over a shallow bar and into a pool. In the main run, there was a clump of tundra, a magnet for holding fish.
It was at this magical spot that I experienced a pure calm like never before. There was absolutely zero sound. The smooth river did not make a splash as it met my waders, nor were there any riffles, rapids, or wind. I found myself in the vast emptiness of the tundra plains without even the sound of a bird chirping, just the sound of a Spey line hissing off the water with each cast; steady, low swings that often took 45 seconds.
My moment of Zen was violently interrupted by a hard yank as my fly swung behind the submerged tundra clump. The fish blew holes through the glassy pool, disturbing the quiet serenity. This was the first of five fish I eventually caught off this clump of sod. It became so predictable that I was able to catch steelhead grabs and hook-ups on my GoPro chest cam. I ended the day five for six, and Dave added another two steelhead of three hooked. It was truly a spectacular day of fishing in the most remote steelhead fishery possible.
We had to quit fishing early because we were running low on firewood at camp. Sasha was the designated wood retriever, and he had to get back to fetch fuel. While Sasha collected wood, Kirill presented us with his slideshow on the science behind the Kamchatka Steelhead Project, and the data they had collected so far.
Sasha’s wood-collecting adventure proved challenging when he got his ATV stuck in the mud and had to hike back in the dark. The next morning, he had to retrieve the ATV, which meant we were without one guide and a vehicle. We had to pile three anglers plus the guide into each raft, creating cramped quarters on the Kvachina.
The Kamchatka wind was back with a vengeance, and the fishing was off. Peter, formerly the hot rod, was blanked for a second day in a row, while Brad hooked three during the morning session. When Sasha returned at lunch, their crew ran over to the Snatolvayan for the afternoon.
After braving the piercing wind of the day, we were all ready for another warm meal from our cook, Tanya. Warm hearty porridge and meat dishes combined with scalding hot showers and some водка (Russian for vodka) capped off each night to help us drift into a steelhead dream abyss. On most nights, the bitter cold woke us around midnight, and one of us needed to crawl out of a cozy sleeping bag to feed the fire. Four hours later, it was the other person’s turn. Later in the morning, one of the camp hands would come in and make sure the fire was still going. This was all necessary to stay comfy and sleep through the night in the rustic living quarters.
Dave and I fished with Kirill on day six. We started just below camp and worked our way down to the tidewater. It was starting to feel more like traditional steelhead fishing, with each angler landing a fish or two per day. We worked a long section at the top of the tidewater, a beautiful, classic steelhead run. We got no love there, however I couldn’t help but daydream about what it would be like if fish came pouring through on an incoming tide.
The weather seemed to grow colder with each passing day, and the wind was relentless. I was thinking about what it would be like if I didn’t have bootfoot waders. Even with bootfoots, my feet were numb. Without proper gear, it would be excruciating.
Hotel Pool was again the hot run with Dave and me each hooking a fish there. With the water rising, more of the river was opening up, allowing us to fish different runs. Dave ended the day with a giant steelhead, a hen measuring 35 inches with a 22-inch girth. Without question, it was the fattest steelhead I had ever seen. Kirill was also excited to see a kundzha/Dolly Varden hybrid that I caught. He said this was one of only a handful of rivers in which they have documented this type of char crossbreed, just one of the program’s many scientific discoveries.
Beginning on day seven, Justin Waters and I were set to fish together for the final stretch. It was great getting to know Justin around the dinner table each night, and even more so being in the boat with him for three days. Justin lives in the Seattle area and is a saltwater guide specializing in sea-run cutthroats. At the time of the trip, he’d been at Grundéns for only a few months and had shifted the bulk of his guiding to weekends. He also ran All Waters Coffee Co. with a buddy, donating 3% of every bag sold to help support vulnerable fisheries.
We were with Sasha heading to the Snatolvayan, where the consistent rain had taken its toll on the trail. The bumpy ride transformed into a mud course. Even though Sasha was a master at keeping the ATV on the tracks, it was only a matter of time before we got high centered. Using a steel spike, a winch, and every Russian cuss word known to man, Sasha got us out and back on the road.
The rain was steady and drenching, winds were consistently 20 miles per hour, and air temperatures were in the upper 30s, making for extremely challenging conditions. The low-water spot I complained about on the first day was now some of the best holding water on the river with the increased flow. I stuck two of my four fish here, and Justin went one for three, with two coming from the Meeting Pool.
At the upper river pool, we had our first and only grizzly sighting of the trip. The bear was directly across the river from us, and as soon as it clocked our presence, it turned and disappeared around a bend. On the frigid drive back, we got a glimpse of the Kvachina, which appeared to be turning brown in the waning hours.
The consistent rains finally caught up to us on our second-to-last day. When we awoke, the river was blown out. The tundra couldn’t hold any more water, and the river rose three feet overnight. With terrible visibility, we tried to grind it out, working with Pavel on his Spey casting in the morning, but ultimately calling it quits at lunch.
Instead of chasing fish, we took a boat ride down to the mouth of the river for beachcombing with Kirill, Justin, Peter, and Dave. The soggy weather provided a perfect opportunity to check out the beach. It was shocking to see the amount of garbage on one of the most remote beaches in the world. Discarded commercial nets and plastic water bottles littered the beach, evidence of man’s heavy footprint. Judging by the packaging, most of the garbage was Russian.
Hidden among the trash, I found what we were searching for: a Japanese glass float polished by the sea. I could tell Justin was jealous when he told me of all the failed combing expeditions he had done in Washington to find such a treasure. We spent another hour on the beach and then loaded up to run across to the south side of the river, where Dave and Justin found a mother lode of Japanese floats. There were treasures for all!
Peter was still focused on catching a steelhead in these challenging conditions, and continued to swing the run that dumped into the ocean. After a few more hours we ran back to the camp.
By the next morning, the river had dropped four inches and the visibility had improved somewhat, but the swollen river yielded only a couple of grabs. We spent our last day on the upper river with Kirill, an enlightening experience with one of the world’s most knowledgeable steelhead biologists. Kirill works at the University of Moscow, and it was a highlight of the trip to pick his brain about steelhead lifecycles. We blanked on fish as snow began to fall steadily, but the trip was a complete success by all measurements.
Back at camp, snow was coming down heavily as we began packing up. The helicopter was on time the next day, and we flew to the Utholok River to pick up the other group. A white blanket covered the ground and made for a spectacular view. We were able to spend about 10 minutes on the ground at the Utholok camp. I got to see my old friend Nazar, whom I had met at the Zenzur Lodge in Kamchatka in 2015. He was now guiding here, so we sat together and caught up on the flight back.
Little did we know that a few months later Russia would invade Ukraine, and the entire world would change overnight. As I write this, three months into the invasion, I wonder if any of us will ever be going back to these spectacular places? Will the rivers continue to be protected, or will they be poached during these desperate times? If we are one day able to return, will the steelhead even be there?
Time will tell, but I can’t help but think of all my Russian friends who have spent a lifetime as caretakers in these places. They are fishermen also, and care nothing for war or politics. Their livelihood for 25 years has depended on American anglers, but after a Covid-19 shutdown and now a war, I worry about their financial stability, and about the future of steelhead research on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
John Sherman is a longtime contributor to Fly Fisherman. He’s a sales representative for Simms Fishing Products, St. Croix Rods, and several other brands. He lives in Discovery Bay, California with his wife Natih and their children Kalum and Kasix.