You know how on paper some things just don't appeal to you? Thus it was with this trip. I’d heard about fishing the Ponoi during September for years from my mate Bill Day whom I fished with on Tulchan when there were still fish to be caught up there. He’d told me how vast the Ponoi water was; how you fished from boats; how you used sunk or intermediate lines; how you used big flies and stripped them. Not one bit of that appealed to me and so I had never had even the remotest inclination to go, despite the overwhelmingly positive experience I’d had on the
Varzuga. The difference was that Bill, a
man to be believed, loved the Ponoi whereas the nay-sayers talked down
The Brevyeni Camp on the Ponoi takes 8 guests but if they don't have 8 guests then they won’t open it. Big Phil had lined up 7 including himself: he’s a mate; he’s a good fisherman; he’s a man to be trusted; and he wouldn't let it go. So I eventually caved and agreed to make up the last rod but in the run up to the trip I had started to refer to it as “The Contractual Obligation Week”.
After all a deal’s a deal and when you say you’ll do something, especially for a mate, then you do it whether you like it or not. End of.
We’d decided to travel our way – Frontiers normally do the bookings for Ponoi and they lay on a charter plane from Helsinki to Murmansk but it is ludicrously expensive (having a mate in the charter business I know the margins) – and we went via Moscow on Aeroflot connecting to a Nordavia flight into Murmansk at around midnight.
We were met by the Ponoi River Company rep, Sasha, who sorted out everything including tracking down
Rupert's missing bag. Frontiers £1200: our way £400. No brainer.
We got into the hotel about 1am and with everyone having to be up at 6am to catch the morning flight it was obvious what we had to do – we hit the bar and drank until 3am. So it was a wabbit and jaded bunch that bundled into the taxi and listened to, of all things, Bob Marley, en route to the small helipad outside Murmansk where an executive class chopper awaited us. For my part, I slept as well as I could through the bumps and the noise of the flight and missed most of the stunning autumn tundra scenery, awaking to some glum faces looking down into a fog-bound valley. Clearly we weren’t landing in that. So we had to turn around and head to a half-way point called Lovozero which is the main refuelling point for all the Kola helicopter fleet.
We disembarked and were shepherded into what you may loosely call a waiting room. Frankly it could have been used by the CIA for Extraordinary Rendition. Spartan doesn’t come close. There were no toilets (apart from the nearby tundra), no food, no water, no heating
and no information.
There we waited....and waited...and waited...and then waited some more. No one told us anything. Luckily it was a beautiful day and there were two Russian passengers who kindly went into the local town and came back with some basics for us – little Russian pies (called pirajocks) and fruit juice. Some of the guys bundled into a taxi and went into town themselves
only came back with less appetising food, confirming that there was no cafe or restaurant and that all they found was a local shop selling possibly the most disgusting combo potato chip on the planet: gherkin and dill. They smelled like old feet that had been dipped in sheep manure.
I didn't partake of them but Peter assured me that the taste was of
that ilk and that it lingered a bit...
At one point another two locals showed up with a case of beer and
a case of water and dropped them unceremoniously on the prison cell like floor with a grunt and a wave.
But that was it on the hospitality front.
At about 3pm the pilot told one of the gang it was “military reasons”
that were keeping us grounded and maybe we could go at 6pm.
Finally the pilot got a phone call from air traffic at Murmansk – we could go – and he could also now tell us why we had been delayed. President Medvedev had decided that he wanted to go fishing on the Ponoi that day and so the heli-fleet had to be grounded whilst he had his day off. Hmmm. I suppose it was good for the river, especially in that there is currently a bill going through the Russian Duma to make it illegal to have private water for fishing. If that bill made it onto the statute then you can kiss goodbye to all of those wonderful salmon rivers up there as you will see shoulder to shoulder guys with spinning rods in no time.
Think I’m being elitist or alarmist? Just ask anyone who used to fish the Kola River what it’s like now. Or the bit between Lower and Middle Varzuga where the Russian fishing camps are. I’ve seen the latter with my own eyes and it’s not pretty: the former I have heard
of only by anecdote. Hell – just look at the public access rivers in Alaska when the Sockeye salmon run is on. Meat fishing at its best. So maybe our Dimitri will grant a stay of execution to the rivers of the Kola Peninsula: one of the last wildernesses where the Atlantic salmon can live out its lifecycle relatively undisturbed except by a very few purist anglers who make sure that almost every one that is caught goes back alive.
Put like that it's almost a public service.
was nip and tuck but we made it into the camp just as the light was
going and the descent was as spectacular as you could imagine with the chopper coming in on a long low trajectory over the lip of the valley and down onto the banks of the mighty Ponoi. What a size of a river it is: bigger than the Generator Pool on the
Varzuga throughout it surely is an intimidating beast, but the little streams and riffles dotted about the Home Pool just screamed out quality fly water.
It’s amazing what a good meal, some good wine and great company can do to erase what could have been a trip defining bad day. The camp at Brevyeni is an absolute gem of a place. Each angler has an individual cabin with a wood stove, which the staff will light for you at 7am, and extremely warm and comfortable beds. The cabins are set in mature birch forest, alight with glowing golden colours in autumn. Little lemmings scurry everywhere and birds rustle about in the trees, all feeding up before winter arrives. There is a bania (Russian sauna) to ease your tired muscles after a long day Spey casting as well as a shower and toilet block that was scrupulously clean and thoroughly modern – made
Alaska West look like a Gulag actually. The central communal hut was used for partying and dinner, and what fantastic dinners the chefs cooked up for us. Honestly – top quality restaurant standard fare every single night and plenty of it. This is how it should be done: all you other camp managers and owners take heed!
The camp manager, Boris Mamantoff (half Russian, half Argentinian!), gave us an orientation talk the first night and informed us that we would be rotating guides each day. I like this system actually – it gives you a chance to try new things as every guide has their own way of doing things. Unlike the
Varzuga, the Ponoi has a history of having proper guides. By that I mean guides who can flyfish. In the past it was mainly Americans with some Europeans but they have trained the Russians to fish and guide over the years and almost all of the guides are now Russian which is fantastic. I am deeply in favour of anything that makes a financial connection between rich foreigners catching
the poor local’s fish. It builds an invaluable link between preserving the wilderness because it brings money and jobs into often fragile local economies. If you have ever seen
Cabo San Lucas you would see no finer example: an entire city and local economy built on marlin fishing where the Mexicans now enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the country.
In keeping with all of the Kola rivers again this year, the Ponoi was having a poor run. The water and air temperatures were unseasonably high which could be a factor but there was no doubting that the salmon numbers in the river were down suggesting other problems, the solutions for which ranged from global warming to predation at sea to cyclic variations in salmon runs. As usual, anecdote ruled and no hard data was there to prove or disprove any of it
so Everyman's opinion ruled. But isn’t that part of the magic of salmon fishing? The great unknown? Expectations had therefore been astutely set by Boris: we would get fish but it wasn’t predictable as to how many and it would be less than a “normal” year.
Enough wittering: let’s go fishing.
The boat ride out on the first morning was slightly nerve-wracking with heavy fog obscuring everything down to 20 yards in places. We had to run well upriver to meet my fishing partner Bill who had been deposited at Ryabaga camp 30 miles upstream the night before and was coming down to meet me. Bill had gone on the charter flight and had come in on a different chopper to us thereby missing the delights of Lovozero. He met us by hovercraft which was the most impressive entrance I think anyone has ever made on a fishing trip. It was good to see him again and I looked forward to some good fishing and some good crack for the week ahead.
The sun eventually burned through the fog to reveal a Tolkienesque landscape of golden birch, scarlet rowan and green lichen, with the underlying hiss of a powerful river that had sliced through rock over millennia to form a deep, sheltered valley providing the soundtrack. It was simply stunning.
Our guide Ruslan expertly threaded the boat through the channels between huge rocks until he got to our first drop. A drop is where the boat is held by a heavy anchor in the stream and then lowered yard by yard down the pool for anything up to 100 yards with one angler fishing the front and the other the back, casting to bank or middle depending on the side the drop was made. I hadn’t been up for this having had a few poor experiences of it on the Tweed but to be honest these big Ponoi jet boats had loads of room to stand comfortably and fish safely so it wasn’t long before we were in a good casting rhythm and I actually found myself enjoying it. On a big river like the Ponoi it lets you cover much more water than you could by wading so it is very practical indeed.
I had started with my usual Spey taper line and a short sink-tip. The fly was a large tube called a Maxfly which I was unfamiliar with and was much bigger than I would use on a Scottish river, but that was what Ruslan suggested so that was what went on. I learned long ago that if you don't take the guide or ghillie’s advice, at least at the start, they tend to clam up and don't suggest anything else to you. This was all new to me so there was no way I was going to act the Big Man.
Bill had been out at first light and had lost one on the Home Pool at Ryabaga so he was already up to speed, and we set out full of enthusiasm. The place just looked fishy. However, apart from some cracking sea-trout and big grayling, the salmon eluded me. I rose two but one didn't hit the fly and the other just nipped it. In the late afternoon I got a stonking take which I stupidly struck and pulled the fly out of its mouth. I needed to remind myself that these aren’t King or Chum salmon: you strike Atlantic salmon at your peril.
So that was day one sadly: blank for me. Most of the other guys had got fish, including Bill who had one and lost one, which was great for them and encouraging for me.
The next day we went out with Dan – Ruslan’s brother – and he was a big fan of stripping the fly. I still had on the Spey line and these lines aren’t made for stripping because as soon as the running line is inside the rings they are a complete palaver to cast. As a consequence I didn't bother much with it. Besides...it just doesn't feel like proper salmon fishing does it?
By lunchtime Bill had had a nice fish to add to the two he’d had from the Home Pool before breakfast (one of those, interestingly was a Pink salmon: a Pacific species escaped from a fish farm) but all I’d taken were sea trout and grayling. I could feel the pressure building.
Finally Dan said “Look Chic, try this.” He picked up the camp spare rod which was in the boat and handed it to me. It was loaded with a Rio AFS shooting head. Now, as a dyed in the wool traditionalist, I am not a fan of these things. I had used the Skagit shooting head system in Alaska but only as a means to an end (casting big weighted flies into the wind with a long fast sink leader – it really is the only thing you can use for that) and I really hadn’t come to Russia to do that again. But on the basis that if the only tool in your toolkit is a hammer then
all your problems look like nails...I decided to give the Rio a go.
I threw out a pretty impressive line with it actually and it was a lot easier and more pleasant to cast than a Skagit. I started to strip as Dan suggested and, because of the long running line, it was easy to strip from the second the fly hit the water.
You have to strip all the running line back in anyway before you
cast so you may as well make the fly work a bit. Then, miracle of miracles, on the fourth or fifth cast there was an almighty BANG! and a bar of silver streaked across the surface of the water cartwheeling as it went. My heart was in my mouth as I started to fight it through the head of the rapids, knowing that it only had to turn and dive down through them and it would be gone! I managed to turn it though and worked it back to the boat to discover it was a mere 8lbs.
I say “mere” only because it had fought like a fish twice its size.
I’d heard that these salmon were in a different league to the other Atlantics that I’d caught but it’s not till you hook one that you believe it. They are called Osenkas and, even weirder than the usual salmon story, they come into the river in September, stay under the ice all winter and then spawn the following September. All without eating. That could explain the phenomenal strength for their weight – they have packed it all on at sea so that they can effectively live off their own body weight for an entire year. Wish I had their self control...
Anyway, three more followed, all on the strip: a stunning fish of 14lb with sea lice; a 10lb bar of silver and a black gravid fish from last year. I lost a further silver fish in the fast rapids when it peeled line off and couldn't be stopped.
So it seems I had cracked it: big flies stripped fast over them a few inches under the surface when they were in fast, shallow water.
It might not feel like proper salmon fishing right enough but it
sure worked. Sorted.
I didn't have many of the big flies needed
for this kind of fishing but Piggy (real name David but insists on
Piggy...) had his tying kit with him and promptly tied me up a great fly that we christened the “Kinky Malinki”...not telling you why...strong
drink had been taken...but it did take 4 salmon!
The success of the stripping technique was reinforced the next day when I took 5 fish. Well...I took 5 fish by my standards. For me, if I hook and play a fish to the boat and either you can touch the leader or a competent boatman can get it in the net then it’s caught. However others in the party didn't agree with that and neither did the camp who only count the ones in the net and unhooked by the guide. Fair enough: no point in me counting one way and everyone else counting another.
So, even though one of my fish was in the net and then bounced out when the guide tried to lift it; and the other two were slashed at with the net and missed...the count for the day was 2 fish in the book. I’m not
over worried about numbers to be honest – but it's only fair
to be square with others in your party so we agreed that I had my money’s worth out of 5 fish but only 2 made it into the book.
It is an interesting debate though: Big Phil is adamant that part of the skill is determining how much pressure to put on the fish to get it into a net, so it’s not “caught” until it’s handled. My view is that if you’re gonna release them at all you should minimise the stress that you put them under and hauling them aboard a boat, unhooking them and holding them up for the grin shot puts them under
more than a little stress, so horsing them to the boat for a fast release is just fine
by me. If they come off at that point so what? It’s all good.
What I do find a little odd is that the camp were happy to count 3 little fish that they called grilse, and we all called smolts, as full salmon (they were less than half a pound after all) yet wouldn’t count a proper fish that had been in the net and bounced out again...food for thought and a word of caution on their catch statistics.
The weather started to deteriorate and high winds caused me to change to the Skagit line which is a very inelegant way of fishing but undeniably effective in high winds. The catches kept coming though as long as I kept stripping those big flies. The technique was growing on me and so was fishing from boats and using shooting heads. I have been turned to the dark side it seems.
I did do some wading and had a few fish from the bank which was fun including a very lively and shiny grilse. Some days you would
be dropped from the boat and find yourself wading down the centre of a very large expanse of water. The wading wasn’t hard in general but caution was still necessary as Robbie managed to find a hole and go for a swim and I came close twice finding myself cut off from the bank by a deep channel.
A sphincter-tightening moment when you're hooked up to a lively
fish and the water is at the top of your waders in a fast current!
One of the great things about being in the boat anyway was the fact that you were invisible to the wildlife.
There were sometimes seals in the river and we saw moose a few times which were extraordinary animals, huge and powerful, seemingly fearless of us. And, from the sublime to the ridiculous, when we were fishing every so often we’d hear a tirade of squeaks behind us to turn around and see a tiny lemming swimming the river and threatening us not to get in its way.
The river is absolutely vast and we all marvelled that such a tiny
creature would contemplate it never mind make it to the far shore. Of
course lots of them didn't make it: you often found their little
sodden bodies washed up on the shore and I caught a very fat brown trout which we were sure had just swallowed one! White tailed sea eagles, rough legged buzzards, peregrine and merlin falcons patrolled the skies and one day we were treated to a stunning aerobatic display as a little jack merlin saw off two crows from its territory. I went to
Alaska to see this sort of thing and was sorely disappointed so it was great to be in the thick of it here.
We had one strange day when I took 4 fish and poor Bill standing 6 feet away from me, using the same line and the same fly and doing the same thing never touched a fish. That’s the maddening and infuriating thing about salmon fishing and why
I keep coming back. It's a sublime puzzle. Peter, on his first ever trip, comprehensively outfished everyone one day.
A novice can therefore be forgiven for thinking that all the new techniques and must-have-tackle is just to catch fisherman, not fish. To be honest – sometimes I think that too.
One day I was having a torrid time trying to cast and my Cirlce C
Spey was just landing in a heap. On a particularly bad cast I
flung my hat off and let out a roar of frustration. I started
stripping line to recast when a little lemming swum right above
where my fly was. I said, aloud, "You might as well take it then" when there was an
almighty bang and a lovely silver grilse hit the fly right below
the little rodent! Sometimes you wonder why you bother learning to
cast at all.
Every so often in your life you get a fish that is just exceptional.
We were doing a drop from the top of a nice run on the day that I was catching and Bill wasn’t. I saw a nice fresh fish show on my side and offered Bill a swap so he could take a shot at it. He got a nice pull and I thought he was in, but it turned out to be a grayling.
The guide called last cast as he started to unhook Bill’s grayling and I had a final throw
on my side towards the bank. I started stripping and got a savage take, set the hook and the fish just shook its head and came towards us. It hadn’t figured out that it had been hooked...yet. The instant
it figured it out, it leapt into the air and we saw that it was a
bar of pure silver. It then took off - and I mean took off - for the sea. I am not exaggerating when I say that it took 150yds of line in one searing run, jumping and greyhounding the entire time. If I
upped that to 200 yards I could be right also – my backing is 250yds and it was pretty thin
on the spool when I finally turned the fish. I brought it back to the boat and it promptly turned and did it all again. I was absolutely convinced that I would lose the fish: it was a small Loop double hook; how could it be handling that sort of pressure?
Finally, after a lot of heart stopping moments, Alexei slipped the net under the fish and he was mine. I am a loud bugger at the best of times but jeez did I let out whoop!
Alexei weighed it in the net and it went 15lbs. You believe that? A 15lb salmon making two runs of over 150yds? Jumping and cartwheeling all the way. In fact...it wasn’t 15lb cos it was in the top of the net when we weighed it! We agreed a 2lb tare for the net and it went in the book at 13lb. Wow.
That one is one of my Top Five fish ever.
A few of us had
a hold of fish like this so it wasn't a one off. Piggy had one estimated at 18lbs that did the same but fell off while Bill hooked one that took easily 200yds in one smooth
unstoppable run that would have shamed a striped marlin before wrapping him round a rock and pulling the hook. Edward, our guide, had that one down as a 20lb plus fish. I had one more that did the same as Bill’s fish – one huge run then wrapped me round a rock to pull the hook. Incredible.
These Osenkas will kick your ass man. In these shallow pools they have nowhere to go so they just take off. It is quite astonishing. They knock spots off the
King salmon of up to 35lbs that I had caught in Alaska and the closest experience I can give you is hooking a tarpon; except much better.
So...to the final numbers. As I said earlier the river was down
in fish overall so we were under what we’d expect an “average”
week to be in this, normally a prime week. I rose 25 salmon (that
I saw or felt) in my week. Of these I lost/missed 8. Of the
remainder I had 14 in the net that were counted by everyone and a
further 3 that I got to the boat and that I am happy to count
myself. Add to that 9 very impressive sea trout (I am taking a
small rod next year!), two superb brown trout (one of which fought
like a salmon and weighed 4lbs) and two trophy grayling...I think
I can say that I had a good week!
And I learned, once again, that
keeping an open mind and listening to people who know better than
I do pays dividends. A closed mind would have declined the offer
to go in the first place: or when he was there refused to change
his technique and style.
Old dogs, new tricks...who says it can't be done.