There is a place, far away, deep in the Arctic Circle, where monster fish dreams come true. You just need a private jet and a helicopter to get there
They call Russia’s Kola Peninsula fishing nirvana. It’s a place where it’s possible to catch 35 giant salmons in a week and where the promise of a 30-pound monster is just a rod cast away. The problem is that it’s so difficult to reach and so far north, tucked away inside the Arctic Circle, that you need to first charter a private jet to the Russian city of Murmansk, and then book a helicopter to get to the action. Hemmed into the landscape by snow-capped mountains, frozen tundra and endless pine forests, the Kola’s rivers are completely inaccessible without helicopter. And this is a good thing.
A Pristine Ecosystem
“The fishing there is so special because the ecosystem has been untouched since the last Ice Age and the only way to get there is by air,” says Kurt Albertsen, a pilot who helps fishermen helicopter in and out of one of the region’s most untouched areas, the Atlantic Salmon Reserve (ASR).
“The reserve is bounded by the Barents Sea and the water basins of the Rynda, Zolotaya, Kharlovka and Eastern Litza rivers, and more than two million acres that are pristine and untouched. It has the best river in the world for wild brown trout and salmon, and is completely protected. Only a limited number of fishermen are allowed into the area every year.”
In this strange and wonderful land, reindeers are still herded across the frozen landscape, Russian military bases continue to operate an active submarine force within a leisurely missile strike of Europe, and the only interruption for anglers may be an occasional bear or a wandering nomad wielding a Kalashnikov.
When the Cold War ended, British multi-millionaire Peter Power took out a long lease on the area from the local government on the condition that the area remained unspoiled. Until that point, it had been protected by the military and very few people were permitted to access the area.
Power was passionate about fishing and when he discovered that giant Atlantic salmon were returning to the Kola’s pristine rivers to spawn from Greenland and the Faroe Islands, he knew this was an experience that had to be shared. He created the Atlantic Salmon Reserve.
“The season only lasts nine weeks and there are only 150 people during that time,” says Albertsen. “So very few people will fish in the same place every year and then it’s left to nature until the next season. Litter is not allowed. We use tents and we walk a lot. That can be quite tough when there are mosquitos or low temperatures, but this is real adventure fishing.”
The trout, for example, are particularly special because they can weigh up to six kilogrammes and they never stop feeding on insects even when they grow big. Normally, trout start to feed on smaller fish when they reach a certain size, but not in the Kola. This makes it possible to catch a monster trout on small dry flies with light fly rods, says Albertsen. Roughly translated? “It’s a very visual and exciting experience, and when the water runs quickly, it gives a more challenging fight.”
The average catch is about 70 big trout per group of six per week with sizes ranging from one to six kilogrammes, but Albertsen says there have been groups that have caught more than 240 in seven days. During 2015, the largest salmon caught on the reserve was almost 18 kilogrammes in a 13-week season that resulted in 2,660 being caught, of which 477 were heavier than 6.8 kilogrammes. All fish are strictly catch and release—after the obligatory selfie—to avoid disturbing the delicate balance of this fragile eco-system.
A River Runs Through It
ASR is not the only fish in the sea when it comes to operators who will whisk you away by helicopter to catch gargantuan fish. Another key player is Roxtons. The company enjoys an exclusive lease on the Varzuga River and operates there during the peak salmon migrating months of May and June. In 2014, 174 fishermen caught a staggering 8,916 salmon in just six weeks. It was a record year for the company that first started working on the peninsula in 1991.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, the fishing here is among the most productive in the world,” says the company’s Charlie White. “The average is about 51 salmon per client during the season and that is phenomenal by anyone’s standards.” In just the first week of 2015, 577 were caught and released by 15 fishermen.
Roxtons, like ASR, began exploring the region in the early 1990s as the former Soviet Union began to break up. A few days zipping around in helicopters and touching down to test the waters soon established that the Varzuga was the Holy Grail of fly-fishing.
“For non-anglers, it’s hard to imagine, but it is difficult to get access to salmon rivers these days,” says White. “It’s a very European thing where rivers are often privately owned and the owners keep them to themselves. Even if you do get to fish there, you would be delighted if you caught one salmon in a day and you would be very nervous about losing it.”
All Roxtons clients are housed in comfortable log cabins that offer private bedrooms and “extremely efficient” heating as well as that tundra essential, a Russian sauna. Each of the four camps, spread across more than 200 kilometres of Varzuga River, caters for just 10 clients each. “All the accommodation offers single occupancy with en-suite showers,” says White. “This is not a luxury hotel, more grown-up boy-scout accommodation, but it is comfortable and each camp is a two-minute walk from the pools.”
There are 15 employees for each group of 10 clients to keep the gin and tonics stocked up and the food is, according to White, fantastic. “I personally interview and employ a professional chef for each camp along with a manager that organises fishing rotas, gets people to the best pools and helps with every aspect from advising on flies to netting and releasing the clients’ salmon,” he says.
White visits the camps before the first clients arrive in May when the weather starts to change, with the river ice beginning to break and ice floes starting to crash together. By the time the first clients arrive in the second week of May, the ice has almost gone and the fish are running in extraordinary numbers.
By June, summer begins, Arctic grass carpets the riverbanks, flowers blossom and fishermen are in shirtsleeves. According to White, the experience of catching a salmon under the midnight Kola sun and the chance to meet the occasional member of the local herding community are unforgettable experiences.
“Everyone who visits is amazed at the resilience of these people,” says White. “They are still very wild and cut off from the rest of the world. They simply live by the seasons. In all respects, this is an unforgettable place and an adventure all fishermen must experience before they die.”