Kamchatka: A Land Untouched

Kamchatka: A Land Untouched

Russia's eastern most frontier is like fishing in Alaska 30 years ago

  • By: Will Rice
We were three-quarters of a mile up a shallow tributary that flowed through tundra-covered hills. Sergey stood on a high bank, a Kalishnikov slung over his shoulder, his experienced eyes scanning for the omnipresent bears. Will Blair, the head of the Russian program for The Fly Shop, looked a bit disappointed. "I didn't see much on the hike up," he said. "A few chums. Tucker told me that they found some rainbows in here a couple of weeks ago, but no one else has ever fished it. Sometimes these things work, and sometimes they don't.Let's fish our way back down." Skip, the third member of our little scouting expedition, switched to a flesh fly and cast it into a cutbank as I tied on a mouse. There was an almost instant whoop and then a quick expletive. I looked up to see a wry look on Skip's face and a slack line. "Damn," he said. "That was a big fish." So much for Will's disappointment. We worked back down-Will with a dry fly, me with a mouse and Skip fishing his flesh pattern. Every seam and pocket appeared to hold trout. They were strong, heavy fish that had never seen a fly and they appeared willing to eat anything we threw in front of them-not bad for a scouting expedition, but then this was Kamchatka-the last unexplored trout water in the world. I moved to Alaska 30 years ago, when the fishing was largely unexplored and the common wisdom was that trout could not be caught on flies. Boy, do I wish I had known then what I know now. The invitation to travel to Kamchatka was like an opportunity to travel back in time. But although parallels exist, and much of the fishing seemed familiar, Russia is a very different world than Alaska, even an Alaska 30 years removed. The terrain, the culture, even the flies we used were different, but the biggest difference was the sense of true wilderness. For years a military reservation off limits even to Russian citizens, Kamchatka has been opened to visitors only in the past decade. The areas where I fished are roadless and largely uninhabited. In two weeks, the only signs of other humans that I saw were a distant helicopter and a tepee-like frame erected by nomadic reindeer herders-not a single footprint in the sand nor a jet contrail in the air. The first concrete distinction between Alaska and Kamchatka came with the flight into camp. No venerable old Beavers here. We piled 12 people, their gear, a week's supplies for two camps, and various other items into a Mi-8 helicopter. Rugged, simple and reliable, these ex-military aircraft can carry massive loads,-though comfort is not one of their virtues. Benches line the sides of the aircraft, and cargo is stacked in the middle. We opened the porthole-like windows and leaned into the slipstream to shoot pictures of untouched streams, snow-capped volcanoes, and rainbows arching over dark green hills. Three hours and a refueling stop later I saw the first of the two rivers that I would get to fish. We came in over a low saddle and were greeted by a braiding stream that sprang full bore from a not-very-ancient lava flow. A mile downstream stood an old trapper's cabin and a bevy of wall tents that, in spite of their somewhat faded orange color, bore the utilitarian look of the Russian military. Sedanka Spring Creek. Sedanka is a true spring creek. Its waters filter through the lava fields and emerge in bubbling crystal clear torrents. Emerald moss banks provide habitat for a wide variety of insect life, including several different mayflies that are fully three quarters of an inch long. Grassy banks provide cover for big rainbows with appetites that run the gamut from insects to sculpins to small mammals. Deep fast chutes hold Dolly Varden and kundzha-a chocolate brown char marked with white polka dots. A few miles below the headwaters of the Sedanka is a shallow lake that provides rearing habitat for salmon fry, making the upper river a prime sockeye spawning area. The salmon bring big trout with them-but also make this short stretch one of the most bear-infested places that I have seen. Unlike the grizzlies of Brooks or Moraine Creek, these bears are not habituated to people. By necessity, safety in this area is based on fear, not familiarity, and the Russians do not hesitate to fire a round over the head of an overly bold bruin. These bears are hunted, and as a result most will run at the first sign of a person. But there are few people here, and many of the bears display the curiosity for which they are famous, as I discovered when I awoke the first night to the snuffling sound of one investigating my tent. Each camp has at least one bear dog, bred to harass any bears that venture to close. They are effective, but obviously not foolproof (even bear dogs need to sleep). In part because of the number of bears in the upper river, we decided to float down to Camp Two the following morning. The outlet of the shallow lake was full of trout, Dollies and kundzha that would hammer a leech or Woolly Bugger. As we floated farther down and the day warmed, we began to see more bugs coming off. Caddisflies, stoneflies, brown drakes-there was a smorgasbord of trout food on the water and the fish were not selective. These were not the blanket hatches found on some Western spring creeks, but the size and number of the bugs got the fish looking up, and my fly didn't get lost in the crowd. The quality of the dryfly fishing, particularly this late in the season, was a marked difference from fishing in Alaska, where flesh flies and glo-bugs would be the patterns of choice. At the end of the day, my guide, Slava, mentioned that he had counted 22 rainbows, ranging from 18 to 25 inches. Most of them came on dry flies. As usual, it was the one that got away that I remember best-a monstrous fish that ignored several patterns before he ate a size 8 Gray Wulff. Traditional dry flies took a lot of trout on the Sedanka, but the real action was on mice. Kamchatka is full of voles, lemmings, mice and various other small rodents that seem to end up in the rivers often enough for trout to recognize them. A deerhair mouse thrown tight to the bank and skated rapidly away would draw jaw-dropping attacks from the rainbows. I got a real feel for it when my guide, Ivan, wading deep, walked the boat down a long stretch of river while I cast in both directions. Trout would swirl and smash at the fly, with me pulling it out of their mouth more often than not. We whooped and laughed with every strike. The Sedanka is fished with rafts, which are stationed at three different camps. A jet boat at the two lower camps is used to tow the rafts upstream. The channels and bends added to the sense of isolation and it was always a bit of a surprise to see one of the other boats. Lunches were on the riverbank and a highlight of the day: hot tea, sausages roasted over a campfire, the occasional char baked in aluminum foil, tomatoes and cucumbers and cream-colored apples from the Ukraine that tasted like the pilfered fruit of my misspent youth. Slava and Ivan, the Russian guides on the Sedanka are, hands down, the two best woodsmen that I have ever seen. Slava, an ornithologist who lives in a wildlife refuge with his wife and children, spent his mandatory military service as a sniper in Chechnya. Ivan is a former member of the Russian equivalent of our Navy SEALS. Their casting skills may not be up to those of American guides, but they know where the fish are and how to catch them. They also inspire a great deal of confidence in bear country. Evenings were spent around a campfire, fortifying ourselves with vodka, cucumbers and smoked char, laughing with the Russians, or convincing Natalia to sing another fishing song. Always gracious and open-hearted, the Russians I met came to be friends, rather than simply hosts. The camps are rustic but comfortable, with a building for cooking and dining, a drying room for gear, hot showers and flush toilets. The food may not be at the consistent level of fine cuisine now appearing in some of the high-end Alaskan lodges, but it was tasty and filling, and a few dishes, like Dima's wild mushroom soup, could grace the table of any restaurant in New York. The wall tents are spacious and bright, with double walls, a plank floor, and a small wood stove to take off the chill of the morning fog. Each camp is sited on a ridge above the river, offering views of a wild countryside. The landscape is classic tundra, but in place of the willows and alders of Alaska are elegant groves of stone birch, their white trunks standing in stark contrast to the deep palette of late summer. Thick mats of miniature Japanese pine turn steep slopes a dark green. For someone like me, raised on the spring creeks of southern Idaho and now living in Alaska, Sedanka is the best of both worlds: lots of big strong fish, easy wading, great hatches and a sense of wilderness that has become almost impossible to find on Bristol Bay's best streams. Sedanka is a gem. I was reluctant to leave it, but anxious to see the second river on this trip, the Ozernaya. Opened only a year ago, it already has a reputation as one of the world's great trout rivers. Ozernaya River. The Oz is a much different river than Sedanka. If the Sedanka is an idealized version of a Western spring creek, a northwest steelheader will feel right at home on the Ozernaya. It is a wide river with steady flow and long runs. Big (well, sometimes very big) trout hold behind its ledges and dropoffs. This is a river for double hauls and long casts, rather than precise placement and careful drifts. In spite of its size, I persisted in fishing mice whenever possible, sometimes casting into the bank and sometimes working the seams farther out. I caught plenty of fish, although the guys throwing streamers usually did better. The river is shallow enough that floating lines worked well, even with sculpins and leeches. In fact the best fly was a Whitlock Swimming Baitfish, which has a deer hair head and jerks and twitches just under the surface. The trout seemed more aggressive than those of the Sedanka, and they were certainly beefier. In fact, these fish were so heavy that I consistently overestimated their length by a full two inches. Most of the fish ran 20-24 inches, with a couple of fish that taped at 27 inches. These are the seminal rainbows-the genetic record indicates that the oldest strains in the world come from Kamchatka. The Oz also has a healthy population of the biggest grayling I have ever seen-the equivalent of the early days at Ugashik Narrows, which produced most of the world's record-class sailfins. They readily attacked a skated mouse or large streamer, and frequently managed to get their mouths around them. Grayling weren't the only alternative to rainbows. Dolly Varden were beginning their spawning migration and provided good fishing on dry flies. Cohos were also moving into the river and big schools could be found in the slack water at the mouths of the various tributaries. A skated pink 'Wog or a small bass popper would bring swirling strikes. Unlike the Sedanka, the Oz is fished by jet boat from a single camp. The two operations have different Russian owners and vary slightly. Comfortable wood A-frames replaced the tents of the Sedanka, but both operations are modernizing too rapidly to predict next year's configuration. During the week I was on the Oz, the shower went from a plastic tarp-encased shelter to an enclosed wooden building, the tussock-ridden trail to the cook tent was dug out and leveled, and work began on a new crew shelter. The camp sits on high ground overlooking the river, surrounded by rolling hills that give it an almost pastoral feel. Every morning the fog lifted to reveal the same large boar grizzly grazing on berries on the far hillside, and by late afternoon, the sun, burning through the haze from a distant forest fire, bathed the hills in a Tuscan light. It truly seemed like the land of Oz. "So how many people have fished the Ozernaya?" I asked Tucker English, the head guide. He pulled out a book and slowly ran his finger down a page of names. "You are the forty-second," he replied. Of the hundreds of rivers scattered throughout Kamchatka, only a handful have been explored, and even those provide a wide range of experiences. Among them, a fisherman can choose the pocket water of the spectacular Two-Yurt, the trophy rainbows of the Zhuponova, or the spring creek fishing of the Sedanka's sister stream, the Kalgauch. Kamchatka certainly has the same magic that a few lucky people found in Alaska 50 years ago. Visitors also have many of the same concerns, some of which are justified. The weather is better than Bristol Bay, but you still need to be prepared. I have mentioned the bears, but it is the bugs that are truly bloodthirsty-worse than Alaska. Don't make the mistake of bringing some "natural insect repellent" designed for backyard barbecues. You will be reduced to a nice-smelling, but bloodless, husk. The biggest worry for many is the prospect of flying long distances in a Russian helicopter. I am a white-knuckle flier, particularly in helicopters, but I felt completely comfortable in the massive Mi-8s that transported us around. The charter business provides money for proper maintenance, and I was somehow reassured knowing that each helicopter's mechanic also flies as the flight engineer. The pilots are very weather conscious, and the terrain over which they fly is generally benign. In fact, their caution can have unsettling consequences, as we discovered on our last day. Fog in one of the passes kept the helicopter from reaching us in time to catch the weekly flight back to Anchorage. I have been weathered in before, but this was the first time that I had to reroute through Vladivostok and Seoul in order to get home. It was a reminder that, in Russia, patience is not a virtue, but a necessity. Fortunately, missed connections should not be as much of a problem in the future. At least one of Kamchatka's major operators, the Fly Shop, is switching to a charter flight for next season. Kamchatka is in many ways similar to Alaska, at least as it existed at the middle of the last century. There is that same sense of discovery, of being the first person to cast a fly over a piece of water, of knowing that no one outside of your party is fishing the same river. The accommodations are rougher and the logistics are more difficult than today's Alaska, but the rewards include an experience that future generations will never know. Contacts: There are several outfitters that handle trips to Kamchatka. The rivers mentioned here can be booked through The Fly Shop, 800-669-3474, www.theflyshop.com. They operate in partnership with Wild Salmon Rivers, 800-687-0411, www.wildsalmonrivers.org, a conservation organization devoted to protecting these fisheries. How To Fish A Mouse If there is a single memory that every fisherman brings home from his trip to Kamchatka, it is the picture, burnt in the mind, of a big rainbow attacking a skated mouse. Mousing works almost everywhere (I have even had Henry's Fork fish hit them), but it comes into its own on the rodent-rich rivers of eastern Russia. Finding the right place to swim a mouse is a prerequisite to success. The best water has a smooth flow with a moderate current. Grassy banks, especially if they are undercut, are ideal. Casting the fly onto the grass and pulling it into the water is the classic imitation of real-life behavior. However, it is not the only, or even the best, way to entice a big fish. Trout will hit a mouse anywhere in the river. My favorite method on Sedanka and the Oz was to wade downstream a cast's length from the bank and fish both directions. I usually took more fish from the outer seams than I did from the cutbank. Do not pass up a backeddy. Just cast the mouse into the still water and skate it back through the scum line. Usually the fish will hammer it just as it hits the current seam. Trout will slam a skated mouse, which means heavy tippet-1x is not too much for many streams, and in fact proved a bit light for Kamchatka, where we had our best success with 12-pound Maxima. Tie a riffle hitch under the throat of the fly to bring its head up and make it skate better. (A riffle hitch is simply a half hitch tied behind the eye (or a little farther back), with the tippet leading out from under the fly.) Mike Van Wormer, the head guide on the Sedanka, pointed out that any mouse or vole that lands in the water is in a panic. Swim the fly relatively fast. It is important to give the trout only enough time to react to escaping prey. In the right current, a downstream quartering cast will provide the proper speed, but the are times when it is necessary speed up or slow down the skate. Popping the mouse will sometimes entice a strike from a reluctant fish. Trout will often swirl on the fly without hitting it (just like steelhead). Keep skating it and if there is no follow-up, cast again. The fish will frequently come back for a second (or third) try. Hooking the fish is the hardest part to master. Even experienced dryfly fishermen strike too soon and pull the fly from the fish's mouth. If the fly disappears, give a little line (the old bow-to-the-tarpon trick), and wait until the fish has had time to turn with the fly. There are a number of good mouse patterns. My favorite was a Morrish Mouse, but other fishermen were having good luck with a Mighty Mouse or a Blair Mouse Project. Avoid those realistic patterns that have a downward sloping face-they tend to dive rather than skate.