I first visited the Kharlovka Camp, part of the Atlantic Salmon Reserve 18 years ago. Coincidently it was over the exact same week and it was also a result of an impulsive short notice decision. On that occasion, it was to explore the opportunities to fish in August which up until that stage, was after the normal closure of the camps. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary success with 5 fish over 30 lbs being caught, in part due to great water conditions and has become one of my favourite times to fish on the ASR, a combination of affordable rates and great fishing!
When I received a ‘last-minute opportunity’ to fish Week 30, requiring an almost immediate answer to allow for the requisite travel clearance required by the authorities, I jumped!! I looked at the email for no more than 5 minutes before sending a response signalling my interest. Quite possibly irresponsible and impulsive, but having spent the last 3 months cancelling and rolling over a whole season’s worth of WhereWiseMenFish bookings, including a number of hosted trips I was due to be running, I was quite determined that I would lead from the front and not miss out on yet another opportunity.
With just 3 weeks to the actual trip departure date on 7 August, entrance into Russia by any foreign nationals was pushed back from the planned date of 15 July with a review rumoured for 1 August. The ASR let those of us on the trip know and gratuitously once again offered to roll over our trip to next year should we feel unable to come. Obstinately or determinedly I, and as it happens 3 other Scotsmen, held firm! Miraculously, (if you are an incredibly eager and passionate fisherman suffering from lockdown anxiety), the United Kingdom and 2 other countries were given the OK to travel to Russia. COVID clear certificates were required to be presented on arrival, taken within 72 hrs and of course, Russian visas obtained, always a point of concern due to the lengthy forms and implications of an undetected spelling mistake. (Personally, I have always found the Russian visa staff helpful and obliging at both the Edinburgh and London office). COVID clear we were set to travel!! We were due to be the first international anglers to fish at the ASR this year and I would hazard a bet the first to do so across the Kola in 2020. We may not have been pioneers in the original sense but we were certainly breaking new ground.
The regular and convenient scheduled charter flight from Helsinki was not operating so we travelled via Moscow, a slightly less convenient journey but by no means complicated. My only word of warning is to avoid at all costs the taxi drivers at Moscow airport. You will probably be required to change terminal. They will show you an ‘official’ rate card offering to provide this service for $100 when there is an infinitely more effective internal and free shuttle train, even though we were adamantly informed that it was not operating due to COVID! I had been bitten 18 years ago and was not going to be fooled again!
Once we had assembled in Murmansk, we were given an additional Covid test to make absolutely sure that we were clear and consequently everyone at the camp would remain safe. To bring COVID to the camp would clearly be a disaster and so this extra precaution was welcomed, even if it added a final apprehensive hurdle to the travel equation. If any of us had tested positive, then it would have resulted in a rather miserable journey home. This might have constituted an unacceptable risk for a great many, keen but cautious anglers. From my perspective, like much in life, it was just another calculated risk which I felt had been suitably minimized by the summer lockdown with consequent social distancing and sensible daily precautions.
Even after 18 years I retain that palpable sense of excitement when travelling out to the ASR, something I hope but equally I do not believe I will ever loose. Once again, a chance to potentially come into contact with some of the biggest Atlantic Salmon on the planet, in one of the most rugged and unspoiled locations in the world, on rivers that for me exemplify almost everything that I find exciting about not just salmon fishing but fishing in general! This year has been unusual in that the usual flow of reports had been missing alongside any international guests and with it the subsequent update on water conditions and weekly injection of anticipation. The rivers had of course been fished throughout the season by Russians but in lower numbers than on a regular year.
Our diminished party of 4 was treated to a private helicopter flight on the original mini-workhorse of the Kola, an Mi2 which will accommodate 6 people and luggage vs the far far larger MI8 which would normally transfer anglers to the respective fishing camps at Kharlovka & Rynda. With our duplicate COVID tests having been completed, none of us, all regulars of the camps, felt any requirement to hold back from the hearty welcomes by the camp staff on arrival. As we touched down, we waved goodbye to the infernal facemasks and social distancing that have become the buzz words of 2020!
If we had been blessed with the privilege of having the camp to ourselves along with individual guides, (although we still fished and deployed in the usual fishing pairs), water conditions were less than amazing. Despite one of the thickest snow-packs on record, resulting in monstrous water levels at the start of the season, the Kola region had been almost entirely devoid of rain throughout the whole of June & July. Although the water temperature had dropped over the previous week to an acceptable 14 C in line with the air temperature, the Kharlovka gauge stood at -19 cm. By contrast over the same week last year the water level was at 40 cm which was at the very other end of the scale. The rivers continued to drop over the week ending up at -22cm, a water level not typically seen during the entire fishing season. Low water is, of course, the curse of salmon fishers the world over however I would argue that so long as it is not in combination with bright sun it need not spell doom and despair! As one of our party put it, at least we will know where the fish will be!!
Having recently returned from Iceland where I had experienced significant success with a 1/2-inch hitched sunray shadow and the smallest tungsten conehead Red Francis tube in my armoury, these quickly became my go to options. My fishing partner for the week, Ian, drew the Upper Kharlovka for our opening session and having individually drawn again for our starting positions I took the lower section of Kharlovka Canyon. The low-water conditions afforded an unusual level of visibility into the clear but tannin-stained waters of the Kharlovka, which, when combined with an eagle’s viewpoint from the high canyon walls, is nothing short of exhilarating. Casting close to the far canyon wall with my hitched sunray, at almost the first retrieve there was an immediate and large push of water as monster emerged from the depths. Immediately in my excitement, it had me turning to guide Igor with a “did you see that” as moments later my rod bent double and my reel emptied deep into the backing. The next frantic seconds were spent desperately trying to release my line which had become trapped around my chest-mounted go pro whilst reeling in frantically as the large fish returned towards me at equal speed. Not all autumn fish play with gusto and certainly not compared to a spring fish, but equally a spring fish is not typically hooked on a size 12 double hook! When its 26lbs were safely in the net I definitively broke social distancing and Igor was the subject of my immediate affection, in thanks for his competent network and general need to celebrate my good fortune.
My opening afternoon session was not yet complete! I continued to attract more activity using hitched flies all the way back to the camp. In low water conditions, the top 50M of the ever reliable Kharlovka Home pool is where all the action happens vs the 300+m of double banks that can be fished in high water conditions. The concentration of fish in this confined area can only be guessed at, but the amount of activity that is typically seen vs any other pool on the river is beyond impressive, as is the size of the fish. When the fish have been exposed to more than a few fly boxes, a more belligerent fishing approach is required, especially when covering an area where the salmon are clearly very concentrated. Certain techniques may reap dividends, but I must also surmise that more than a healthy degree of putting the right fly in the right place at the right time comes into it. Fly choice or simply luck I will not know, having risen but failed to make anything stick on both a Hitch Sunray and a Golden Killer I turned to my trusty tungsten headed micro Red Francis.
I had fished beyond the main hot spots and was now simply casting at an ever-increasing range with a favourable downstream wind. Casting beyond the main-stream into the slacker water, my fly was almost certainly hitting the water, sinking briefly and then being whipped round by the current. Certainly, I had little regard for line control even and was simply letting the length of my cast make me feel good about life. With an eye on change of fly I had made what was to be my final cast whilst inspecting the depths of my waders front pocket which I lazily substitute for an organised fly box when for the 2nd time in as many hours the rod was almost pulled from my hands. The salmon emptied line and backing as it attempted and probably did encircle some of the larger submerged boulders on the far bank midway down the pool. The fight was no less powerful than the first with some searing runs, but the same size 12 hook did its work, even if it came out in the net, and an almost identical fish weighing in at 27lbs was safely confined to the net! Luck, chance, skill? It is all part of the magic of salmon fishing.
Those two experiences exemplify why I have returned to the ASR, whenever I have had the opportunity, over the last 18 years. I may still not have cracked the elusive 30lb goal, the river was showing its bones and therefore ‘less’ appealing but the chance of something huge is omnipresent, regardless of when you go during the season and dare I say it, the cost of the week in question. I am certain lack of fishing pressure had its part to play in our overall success but equally, we saw fish and had significant action wherever we went all week.
As often happens, fishing techniques diverged between our two pairs. Ian and I, based on our own successes, consolidated our fly offerings around small or hitched flies. To my mind, they seemed the obvious choice given the clear low-water and as anyone who has fished with a hitch will know, they are great at attracting a salmon’s attention, even if they do not necessarily result in a good hook hold. Allan & Jamie, ASR veterans of equal tenure, by contrast, went much larger and heavier with the ‘Big Baldy’ (A snaeldaesque creation with a tobyesque shimmering skirt of flashabou). They then migrated to a bright gold-bodied Willie Gunn with an even brighter orange head. Between them, they have the honour of filling 24 out of 25 entries on a single page in the catch records book, over 2 days, with every fish caught on the same fly!!
The low-water conditions meant that we fished areas that we would normally only have given a cursory inspection, if at all, and low and behold they did indeed yield fish. Grilse tend to be easier to extract in autumnal low-water conditions than bigger salmon. That did not stop my partner Ian catching a truly spectacular, sea-liced, 18lb salmon (not an Osenka just a big late-running fish) from Lower Tent.
Do not assume that low-water conditions make it a straightforward process when it comes to landing a better-sized salmon. The large boulders that are umbrellaed with water when there is a full flow of water become formidable obstacles when it is low. Whilst Ian successfully navigated his 18lb fish to the net shortly after I lost what felt like a very good-sized fish, even if unseen, from the same pool. I had barely dropped my fly in the water whilst lengthening my line for another run down when there was an incredibly vicious take and the line audibly ripped through the water as the fish surged upstream, against a heavy drag, before it deftly changed direction, encircling the large boulder against the far bank and then heading straight back towards me. The fish stayed on for a fraction longer before the fly was returned to me bearing a smudge of weed and tell-tale abrasion marks on the leader. There is a time and a place for a light tapered leader but when every cast has a potential fish of a lifetime at the other end, regardless of water height, to fish with anything less than the toughest hooks (Ken Sawada Tube doubles!!) and 25lb nylon or stronger, is to court disaster! One look at the carving of Chris Tarrant’s 47lbs salmon on the wall of the Kharlovka Lodge should be all the reminder you need of what you might encounter and what you may need to tame a fish of that size!
Whilst large fresh fish are relatively few and far between in early August, in on the tide salmon and grilse made up 10% of the catch including two of 16 and 18lbs. The mosquitoes had by and large gone, with the exception of a few showings in the most sheltered areas and especially calm days. The guides are naturally wary of bears and suitably cautious but when Jamie received a whistle from his guide Kola, whilst fishing Litza Reindeer pool, on looking up he did not expect to see a mother bear and 3 cubs, happily munching berries downwind of him. Unexpected visual treats such as this are not commonplace but no less a reminder of the incredible wilderness of the surroundings and indeed privilege to be able to fish in such a location.
Of all the pools on the Litza and Kharlovka, the only one which seemed to obstinately refute our best attentions was Flat Stone, normally one of the absolute bankers and a highlight of any trip to the Litza. By contrast, we caught, lost or had interest from salmon in almost every other pool on both rivers over the course of the week, including a good number from the barely perceptible pockets in between the main pools. Our tally for the week was an exceptional 96 salmon between the four of us. The level of activity meant that it felt as if that figure could have been double! Given the extreme low water and the time of year, it says most of what you need to know about the health of the rivers and indeed our good fortune. We did not break the 30lb barrier although we saw some real submarines. It is impossible to even suggest what we would have caught had we been a full team fishing over the week but I expect we would have doubled but not tripled our catch.
Both teams had their fair share of success on different days. For Jamie & Allan, one of their many productive days came from a stint at National Park on the Upper Kharlovka. Although at risk from the low-water it had also been well-rested. Allan secured fish of 4, 19 and 20lbs whilst Jamie hoovered up fish of 5, 6, 12 and 14. They both added a couple of additional grilse from Kharlovka Canyon on the way home! On another day they managed a total of 15 salmon from the Lower Litza!
When we signed up for the week, we had little more than hope that it would go ahead. There was certainly no inclination that we would end up as an exclusive foursome on two of the best Atlantic salmon rivers in the world. When Vladimir Rybalchenko bought the Atlantic Salmon Reserve from Peter Power several years ago, he naturally had no idea of any of the travails that both military travel restrictions and now the impact of C-19 would have on the camps. I can only express my absolute gratitude that he not only kept the camp open for us but be equally thankful that his firm hands have remained on the tiller over such difficult times. Deposits and booked weeks have always obligingly been rolled over or refunded. The guides with their huge wealth of experience, along with all the camp staff have all been more than adequately looked after and was the reason why on this week we were treated to an individual guide each. Where improvements are possible, they have gone ahead and this year the food was quite simply the best I have experienced whilst staying at the ASR. Headed up by Volodoya, camp manager and commandant, whose unwavering eye for the high standards upon which the ethos of the ASR has always been based, continues to offer all guests to the ASR a simply unparalleled service. A trip, which in many and indeed most cases, goes well beyond expectations.
Thanks Justin, it was great to fish with you and be part of a unique experience in the camp .... it has to be the best Atlantic salmon venue In the world ...... both for the remote tundra location and the sheer quality or the rivers and camp.
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