The northern Kola peninsula in Russia is perhaps best known for its world class Atlantic salmon fisheries, but they have some truly amazing trout-fishing there as well. This would be my 5th visit to the Russian tundra, and as usual hopes were high. Last year I was there in week 27 and then it was still winter conditions and very poor fishing. With the extreme hot weather and little rain this season, it would probably be a different experience this time around.
It was a high-spirited bunch of fly-fishermen that met up at the airport in Kirkenes, before crossing the border towards the city of Murmansk where we would spend a night both on the way in and out of the tundra. The group consisted of a bunch of lovely Swedes, who I had the pleasure of going on adventures with several times before. In addition, my Norwegian friend Anders, who I had met during my first visit to New Zealand. Everyone was excited and super ready to get away from everything and to just focus on fishing for a while.
The weather was extremely hot, with temperatures around 30 degrees. We were hoping things had not progressed too far out on the tundra, and that the water temperatures were still ok. We had experienced hot weather on the tundra before. Then the fishing was not that good during the day, but pretty good during the night with caddis hatching. This was the worst-case scenario we could imagine and something we could handle easily by sleeping during the day and fishing at night. Or so we thought…
After a good dinner out in Murmansk, we headed out towards the tundra the following day. The trusty old MI-8 helicopter would fly us out, first to the Rynda salmon basecamp and then onwards to the trout sections of the river Litza and the beat called “Swan”. As the MI-8 landed, the previous groups excited and we raced towards them to hear how they had fared. “20 degrees in the water…” “Not any hatches…” etc. Not exactly inspiring words, but surely it couldn’t be that bad? We hauled our luggage into the MI-8 and got on our way. Looking out of the helicopter, the wide-open tundra lay visible for miles in the clear weather.
After picking up supplies in the Rynda basecamp, we flew out towards our section of the river Litza. I had never been at the Swan-beat in Litza before, and I looked forward to exploring a new section of river. As we approached we could see the famous Swan-islands, with its various channels and pools. The section looked quite typical of the Kola trout beats, with a large lake above, followed by river sections and then a new lake and more rivers. The water level looked low, but since I had not been there before it was hard to judge.
We rigged our tents and finally got into our waders ready for fishing. Me and my buddy Anders went a bit downstream, while the rest of the group fished near the basecamp. We didn’t see much rising, so we started out fishing blindly with big attractor type dry flies and streamers. I had some contacts, but they were either small trout or perhaps pike. Then I saw a nice rise about 100 meters downstream and I carefully got into casting position. Seeing a rise from a distance is one thing, but then to remember the exact position of the fish after moving closer is a challenge. Luckily the fish rose again, and it looked to be eating caddis on the surface. I put on a streaking caddis and drifted it over the fish, which then very slowly ate my fly. It was no giant, weighing in at 1,5 kg, but a good start nonetheless. We continued further downstream, casting at the few rising fish we saw and casted some blind at interesting looking spots. Suddenly a big bow wave came after my streaking caddis. I tried again and boom, it was on! For a second, then nothing. My fly was gone, eaten by one of the many greedy pike that usually hold out in the lakes, but had now moved onto the river. We then caught some more smaller trout in typical big trout places, not a good sign. Anders and I fished all the way down to the lake downstream. There was one current left to fish and we fished it from both sides. Anders was fishing a Fat Albert foam fly, when suddenly there was a big splash, followed by screams from both the man and his reel. The fish raced down into the lake, but came in after a good fight, weighing in at 2,5 kg.
We then decided to go all the way past the lake downstream of the camp to the next neck. It looked fantastic, and since Anders had just caught a nice one it was now my turn. I gradually fished over the neck with a streamer, when I suddenly felt weight at the other end of the line. It was in the bottom of the V, a typical big fish location. Unfortunately, it was another pike and since it was getting quite late we headed back to basecamp to hear how the others had fared. They had caught some nice fish up to 3 kg at the upper neck and had also seen several fish rise near the basecamp. Although the conditions were not ideal, the results for the first night of fishing were not too bad. It was then late in the night and we decided to turn in while the sun was still low on the horizon.
The next day me and Anders decided to walk even further downstream, something that can often be highly rewarding. We walked about 6 km downstream while fishing the good-looking pools and runs. I lost a couple of fish around 1,5 kg, but otherwise the river seemed devoid of trout. We spotted what looked to be a deeper area on the other side of the river and decided to cross and fish our way up from the other side. We fished the deep spots with streamers and I quickly had a follow, but the trout turned away in the last second. I continued and after some more casts, the fish was on, weighing in at 1,8 kg. Anders then also had a fish follow his streamer, but after that nothing more happened. We finally returned to basecamp and met up with the others. They had caught even more fish at the upper neck and had lost some big ones in the pools just downstream of the basecamp. After one day we had caught 18 fish, which is not that bad considering the conditions. It was time for a classic tundra dinner with Russian soup, vodka and laughs in the big lavvo tent.
On the following day I decided to hang around the basecamp and to fish the upper neck that had produced so many nice fish for my Swedish friends. It was a windy day, but I crossed the river to get the wind behind me, making it effortless to cover almost the entire neck. There was no rising fish to be seen, so I started to fish systematically with a streamer. I had a couple of contacts in one of the faster current seams and it had to be a fish. After trying again with the streamer, I changed to a dry-dropper setup and tried again. The fish was obviously more interested in my caddis nymph, but after eating my fly the rather large trout jumped straight up into the air and broke off. The rest of the guys were watching from the basecamp and I could hear their cheers as the saw the jump. I continued further upstream and fished systematically with a big Klinkhammer dry, combined with the caddis nymph about 30 cm below. This combination proved successful and I proceeded to land some nice trout. I was satisfied for now and retraced my steps to let someone else fish the upper neck, but I just had to take a couple of more casts at the fish that jumped and broke me off. I drifted my dry-dropper combo downstream towards the same spot, and once again the dry went under and I set the hook. The fish then jumped straight up into the air and broke off once again. The trout, now named the “Jumper”, had obviously figured out how to remove hooks using special acrobatic jumps.
The scorching heat did not let up and the fishing conditions deteriorated further with water temps up to 22 degrees. As we got ready for the helicopter to pick us up on day 3, only some smaller fish were caught near the basecamp. We hoped that the water would be colder in the Kharlovka river and the famous beat called “Big Trout”. The MI-8 arrived on time and we flew to our next basecamp. After rigging our tents, we headed out together to the neck that had produced so many nice fish over the years. There was no rising fish to be seen. We checked the water temperature and sadly it was also 21 degrees. We split up and started to fish blind with streamers and big attractor flies, but there was only small pike in the best spots. We fished the river both upstream and downstream well into the night, but without success. The trout had obviously taken refuge in the deeper and slightly colder water at the bottom of the lakes. Some trout could be seen rising in the lakes during night-time, but the pike had occupied the slow moving and shallow river sections. Anders fished well into the night and had experienced a good caddis hatch a bit downstream from the basecamp, where he had landed one nice fish weighing 2,9 kg. Erik and Mikael had also caught some nice fish in the lake using one of the inflatable boats.
There were not so many mosquitoes at our new campsite, but rather insane numbers of tiny flesh-eating gnats. This combined with the extreme heat and poor fishing gradually took its toll on our group. We asked our Russian guide/cook for the latest weather report, and it was more of the same for the rest of the week. With no respite in sight, the group concluded that it would be better to leave for Murmansk than to sweat it out on the tundra getting eaten by gnats. Luckily the fantastic guys at the Kharlovka Company arranged for us to be picked up only hours later, and we headed back to civilization once again.
The tundra can be an unforgiving place, but it can also be fantastic. This time we had a bit of bad luck with the weather, but at the same time we had some great moments both on the river and in the lavvo. These kinds of experiences, so different from life in the civilized world, is like balsam for the soul and something that will never be forgotten. And when we hopefully have better luck sometime in the future, we can look back at that year when we sweated away, got eaten by gnats and pike was in all the good spots on the river. Our suffering this time around will make a future more successful adventure even more enjoyable.
Unfortunately, I managed to drop my camera in the water on day 2 and it had to dry out before using it again. Luckily, I got it working again, but I was not able to do as much photography as I wanted to. Below you can find some of the pictures I shot before the accident.
Thank you to the Kharlovka Company for doing such a great job both for the salmon and trout fisheries on the Kola! See you another season!