Russian Fly Fishing
January 10, 2015
Rainbow trout are rapacious, predatory hunters. They are not by way of genetics reclusive, wary of inanimate objects floating overhead, or "selective" —a term coined by fly fishers to describe a trout behavior ingrained by fly fishers.
If a criminal psychologist were to look at the mind of a "real" wilderness rainbow it may be described as a psychopathic killer hell-bent on hunting and consuming (whole) anything smaller than itself. You have to get your head around this concept before you can really understand how good the rainbow trout fishing is in Kamchatka. You don't go there to match wits with trout that have been caught before, and are trying damn hard to make sure it doesn't happen again. You go there with a box of flies, and confidence that the trout will destroy them for you.
Back in the USSR
In the May 1994 issue, Fly Fisherman editor John Randolph wrote about visiting Kamchatka shortly after the end of the Cold War. He flew from Anchorage, and arrived on one of the first ever foreign planes to land in Petropavlosk. His group fished the Zhupanova River, where they endured a high muddy river swollen with early June snowmelt, but they still caught dozens of trout over 25 inches.
In the decade after the first few stories from Kamchatka got out, American outfitters and booking agencies learned the seasons and vagaries of Kamchatka's best rivers. They found giant spring creeks unaffected by rain or snowmelt. They found the best times to fish the freestone rivers like the Zhupanova. They trained Russians as professional guides, built fishing camps, and created a small industry in a vast wilderness that can only be described as the best fishing for native rainbow trout in the world.
In 2007 however, Kamchatka effectively became (again) closed to foreign fly fishers when the only Anchorage-to-Petro direct flight was canceled. The Fly Shop (flyshop.com) continued its operations on the Sedanka and Zhupanova, but visitation diminished greatly as U.S. fly fishers had to fly the long way around the globe, east through Moscow to get to Kamchatka. The Best of Kamchatka (thebestofkamchatka.com)—the exclusive outfitter on the Ozernaya and the Two Yurt rivers—stopped operations completely, anticipating that the expense and duration of a trip through Moscow would be too high a hurdle.
For five years, many fly fishers crossed Kamchatka off their lists. Then, in early 2012 Yakutia Airlines announced a new weekly direct service from Anchorage to Petro, and the rush toward paradise resumed.
On July 12, 2012, I was on the inaugural Yakutia flight from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk, and you could tell it was a big deal. Anchorage airport officials literally rolled out the red carpet for the big event that was attended by dignitaries from both Alaska and Russia. Even costumed characters were there, dressed as the American Eagle and Russian Bear to help usher in a new era of fly-fishing glasnost.
Many North Americans have preconceived ideas about what a Russian airline would be like—notions spawned by the Cold War and fueled by Hollywood. The truth is, our domestic airlines are no shining example of modern equipment and good service. You are more likely to deal with poor service and encounter poor equipment domestically on your way to Anchorage than you are on the final leg to Russia.
The weekly flight to Petro is on a Boeing 737-800 NG (Next Generation)—a new plane I've not yet encountered in the U.S. The flight attendants look and act as though they were trained by Miss Manners and then culled from a beauty pageant. They seem to truly love their jobs, and they make the flight so pleasant that four hours seems too short.
Passing through customs on arrival in Russia is a brief, unsophisticated affair with uniformed agents who are eager to try their English on American visitors. Most of the paperwork is done in advance of arrival, as you must have a Russian visa completed in your passport before you arrive in Petro. With your visa in place, getting a stamp as you pass through customs is a mere formality. Your travel agent or outfitter (The Best of Kamchatka or The Fly Shop) will help you with your visa in advance of your trip.
When you fly from Anchorage to Petro you cross the International Dateline, so you'll leave on a Thursday morning at 7:30 A.M., and arrive on Friday at 8 A.M. (Actual flight time is less than four hours.) You'll gain that day back on the way home when you leave on a Friday and get back to the U.S. on Thursday.
After arrival in Petro, you'll fly by helicopter into your camp. You may have already heard stories of ancient, military surplus helicopters that service Russian fishing camps from
Kamchatka to the Ponoi. While this folklore adds a romanticized element of danger to the trip, the truth is that the MI-8 helicopters servicing Kamchatka are dependable workhorses that cover a vast roadless area. They aren't comfortable, and you'll likely be packed like sardines alongside mounds of food and fishing gear, but you'll get there safely.
In July 2012 I was with a group of five other fly fishers floating the Two Yurt River—one of two rivers outfitted exclusively by The Best of Kamchatka. The river flows from Two Yurt Lake and eventually into the muddy Kamchatka River, and then the Bering Sea. The Two Yurt is home to a run of sockeye salmon that numbers about 3 million fish annually. The Kamchatka watershed is the largest on the peninsula, and the most important on the continent in terms of producing Pacific salmon. Think of it as Russia's Bristol Bay.
The Two Yurt gets all species of Pacific salmon, but sockeye salmon account for the greatest biomass and play the most important role in the life cycle of the wild rainbows. The Two Yurt has both resident rainbows that live in the river all year, and larger lake-run rainbows that drop down from the lake in the summer to feed on salmon eggs, and later on salmon flesh.
While salmon byproducts keep the trout fat and sassy, the real reason you go to Kamchatka is to catch wild rainbows on mouse patterns. After all, if you want to catch big trout on egg patterns, you can more easily go to Alaska. Who wants to fish with an indicator and split-shot when you can skid a mouse pattern across the surface and watch trout go insane trying to crush it?
In Kamchatka, catching trout on mice is not just an exciting possibility. At a pre-flight dinner in Anchorage my five companions expressed a great interest in catching their first trout on a mouse pattern, but I sensed they thought it was a long shot—a tactic to be tried after the hunger to catch trout had already been satiated using more tried-and-true methods. Not true. You should start with a mouse.
You can bring your Alaska-type flies to the Two Yurt. Bring egg patterns, Egg-sucking leeches, flesh flies, bring it all. Part of the fun of fly fishing is all those exotic flies you can try. But you can also make it wonderfully simple with a short 71/2-foot leader ending in 0X or heavier tippet. Tie on a #8 Morrish Mouse, and you are set for the day.
You'll watch trout shark across shallow flats and T-bone your fly at a splashy intersection. They'll explode from deeper water like a missile from a submarine, seemingly going through the fly rather than merely eating it. Rarely (and these are the fun ones) they'll leap from the water and come down on the fly like a pro wrestler jumping on his unsuspecting victim from the top rope. Mouse fishing never gets old.
What's most interesting it that at least 50 percent of these violent crimes against rodents go without a hookup. The fish attack the body of the fly but often don't get hooked the first time. But they'll keep trying.
Often we'd see a trout take a fly, shake its head like a junkyard dog with a bone, or even jump clear of the water, and then come unbuttoned. A trout in pressured North American waters would immediately bolt for cover after such a narrow miss, but not in Kamchatka. When they lose a mouse, they often make frantic wide circles just under the surface looking for their lost prey. The second attack is usually even more vicious and explosive as they attempt to ensure the mouse does not escape again.
Local wisdom has it that a live mouse can bite and scratch the lining of a trout's stomach, so the trout try to kill the mouse before swallowing.
And that may be what is so thrilling about mouse fishing. With a Parachute Adams a trout only wants to consume a morsel while expending as little energy as possible. A mouse attack is like a bank robbery with a big payoff. Trout can afford to expend a lot of energy on a mouse, and they don't seem to be merely swallowing it, they are first trying to knock it into oblivion, disorient it, drown it, kill it, and then eat it. No wonder the hook doesn't always find a home on the first attempt.
The best pattern on our trip was a #6 Morrish Mouse. Forget those cute patterns with whiskers and ears. Ken Morrish's pattern looks like a swimming rodent from below, it skates on the surface flawlessly, and it's durable enough to withstand dozens of fish if you are careful during the release. (In other words, don't grab the fly with hemostats and then twist.)
The Best of Kamchatka owner Will Blair protects "his" trout like a momma grizzly protects her cubs. He requires barbless hooks, all smaller than size 4. To keep the mortality as low as possible, long-shank hooks, or bass-size stinger hooks are not permitted.
On the Two Yurt we caught on average 30 to 40 trout per day from 16 to 23 inches and up to about 5 pounds, and on our week 99 percent of the fish took mice imitations. There seemed to be more big fish upstream closer to the lake where our float trip began. The beauty of the Two Yurt is the size and shape of the river. It's too small to run a jet boat, so every day you float to a new camp, and you never see the same water twice.
The river is clear, with a weedy, gravel stream bottom that looks a lot like a spring creek you'd find in Paradise Valley, Montana, or in Pennsylvania's limestone country. You can cross almost anywhere and while there are a few places that are too swift or too deep to wade, it was common to jump out of the raft and wade down the middle of the river, casting toward one bank or the other and swimming the mouse toward the center of the river.
The trout were everywhere, but the mouse fishing seemed best near the shoreline. On our trip, Ben Adams—a dermatologist from Utah—was probably the "top rod" for the week, and he stuck close to the banks, cast at a shallow angle, and took many fish hanging his fly straight downstream near the bank. Richard Clark of Calgary often cast his mouse upstream, and caught many trout dead-drifting it, or twitching it like a bass popper.
Ozernaya. On the flight out of the Two Yurt we shared the helicopter with a group of six coming out from The Best of Kamchatka's camp on the Ozernaya. Just by looking at the photos on their cameras, it became clear that the "Oz" has rainbow trout that can truly be classed as giants. While nobody on the Two Yurt caught a trout over 24 inches, the photos testified that on the Oz, trout from 25 to 28 inches were a daily occurrence.
As both rivers have similar salmon and mice populations, the difference is likely the Oz's significant population of donkey-size sculpins, which unlike mice and salmon eggs, are a year-round proposition.
Photographer Jim Klug was one of the lucky ones to fish the Oz in early 2012 and told me "The Oz was hands down one of the most impressive rivers I have ever fished. They have a ton of big fish in there because of the mutant sculpins, which are the largest I have ever seen. They are no-joke 4- to 7-inch sculpins, and they are everywhere in the river. We landed numerous fish that regurgitated freshly eaten sculpins into the net. It is no wonder that the Oz fish get so fat and heavy."
Trout on the Oz also eat mice patterns, but because of the sculpin population, it also pays to bring some big streamers, as well as a 7- or 8-weight rod to throw them. Sculpzillas, Zonkoras, Big Gulp Sculpins, Morrish Sculpins, and Silvey's Sculpins in tan and olive are good bets. Although the actual sculpins on the Oz are much larger, use size 6 to 8 hooks to take it easy on both your arm and the fish.
The Oz is a giant spring creek (one tributary is lake-fed) that also has good populations of mayflies, caddis, and some smaller stoneflies, so bring a selection of dry-fly match-all attractors like size 8 to 12 Stimulators and size 14 to 18 Parachute Adams.
On the Oz, there's one static camp and you use Lowe johnboats with Yamaha outboard jet engines to access 15 miles of river. The fishing is done while wading, and with so many river miles, you won't see the same spot twice.
In addition to salmon and rainbow trout, the Oz also has a native char peculiar to Kamchatka called Asiatic kundzha. These white-spotted char are anadromous like salmon, and they are not as receptive to surface flies as rainbows. If you want to catch them, you'll likely need to use dead-drifted egg, or swing Egg-sucking leeches. In late July and August the river can simply be crowded with them.
Sedanka. The Sedanka is The Fly Shop's second longest-running program in Kamchatka, and over the course of 15 years of fishing, the river remains unimpacted, and filled with high numbers of quality trout from 18 to 27 inches. Because it is a spring creek (Kamchatka's largest) it is rain-proof and runs clear all year regardless of the weather conditions. The Fly Shop owner Mike Michalak says you could have rain of Biblical proportions, and the Sedanka river level would not vary one inch.
If you've seen the movie Eastern Rises (Felt Soul Media, 2009), you've seen the Sedanka. The Bigfoot in the woods is a fictional dramatic element, but the fishing scenes are quite factual. In fact, they are commonplace in Kamchatka.
Sedanka rainbows are huge by Western U.S. standards, but they are not the biggest Kamchatka has to offer. (For that, see the Zhupanova, below.)
What makes the Sedanka special is the biological diversity of the river, the amazing density of rainbows from 18 to 24 inches, and the dry-fly fishing that dependably occurs every summer.
The river has six species of Pacific salmon including cherry salmon (Oncorhynchus masou, endemic to Asia), grayling, Dolly Varden, and kundzha.
July is the warmest month of the year in Kamchatka, and on the Sedanka there are no salmon yet in the river. But because the fertile spring creek supports huge populations of mayflies and caddis, it's common in July to gaze across a flat and see classic nose-then-dorsal rises rippling the water as far as you can see. If you enjoy catching 22- and 23-inch trout (and occasionally bigger) on dead-drifted dry flies like Parachute Adams or E/C Caddis, the Sedanka is the ticket.
July brings out the mayflies and caddis, but it's also the peak of mosquito season. DEET works, as does a campfire in the evening, or smoking a cigar in the day. I used a Thermacell mosquito repellent device in Kamchatka, and it worked great as long as you're in one place and not moving. It also has the effect that everyone wants to sit beside you. If you absolutely can't stand mosquitos, plan your trip for August.
The Sedanka is a six-day float trip with three camps on the river about 10 miles apart. Most of the fishing is walk-and-wade, but if you want to get away from the camp water you'll need to hoof it, so you should be in reasonable shape and be willing to walk to take full advantage of all the river has to offer.
Zhupanova. This was the river that Jim Teeny, John Randolph, and others first wrote about in the early '90s, and the river that put Kamchatka on the map as one of the world's finest trout destinations. Two words describe it very distinctly: big trout. But you need to think of it a little like steelheading, in that you must be willing to trade quantity for quality. The trout in the Zhupanova average 24 to 26 inches, with top-end potential for 32- and 33-inch rainbows you can't hope for in any other river in Kamchatka. A typical day on the Zhupanova varies from three to six hookups per day, and on a bad day you might not land a trout. That's the price you pay to be a big-fish hunter.
Even the kundzha grow to epic proportions in the Zhupanova, with specimens up to 36 inches and 15 pounds caught every year. These "super kundzha" are sea-run char that are sized like steelhead and act and fight like them as well. If you want to specifically target these rare char (I would) time your trip for the peak of the kundzha run the last week of July, and bring a 7-weight, 13-foot Spey rod with a Skagit head and a set of tips. Let the fun begin.
Besides the obvious attraction of submarine-size trout, the Zhupanova also has the distinction of being the only river in Kamchatka with an actual fishing lodge. Accommodations on all other Kamchatka rivers are commonly described as "rustic" and range from tents to steep-roofed cabins with cots. They are fishing camps, and although you may have a roof over your head, you are still camping.
Zendzur Lodge is posh in comparison to other camps on the peninsula, with double accommodation suites, each with a private bath. If you are traveling with your wife and she requires a real bathroom, this is your only option in Kamchatka. Everywhere else you'll find a shared toilet that may or may not be to your liking, and a shared shower stall that again is "rustic," and completely acceptable when the fishing is amazing, but it may not be for everyone. Real bathrooms, real beds with sheets and blankets, and a well-staffed kitchen with excellent food set Zendzur Lodge apart from the rest.
Zendzur Lodge is on the banks of the lower Zhupanova, and the setting was chosen due to the local hot springs, which are enclosed for guests in a banya or Russian spa on the river-bank.
Fishing at Zendzur Lodge is by 18-foot johnboats with access to about 20 miles of the river's best-known pools and runs. The Fly Shop also organizes float trips on the upper Zhupanova, as well as wilderness floats on more than a dozen other smaller, unnamed rivers in Kamchatka.
Setting the Bar
Fishing anywhere is often a game of expectations. When you go permit fishing, you might reasonably hope to boat one permit. If you get two or three, it's an outstanding success.
Most serious fly fishers also have expectations derived from decades of trout fishing in the U.S. You expect it to be better in Kamchatka, but until you've actually seen it for yourself—until you've seen three trout at once catapulting after your mouse—you can't really understand how good the fishing can be.
Be careful when you decide to go to Kamchatka, as your trout-fishing expectations are likely to be ruined by the experience. On our chopper ride out from the Two Yurt, Grace Smith's shoulders sank, and she said, "I don't know how I can go back to fishing in Pennsylvania." That is the downside of Kamchatka.
—Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.