Whenever I travel to the Kola, via the Helsinki charter flight to Murmansk, as anyone will know who has made more than one or two overseas fishing trips there is always a good chance of seeing a few familiar faces. That said I am usually happy travelling relatively incognito although that is not always possible when your name is announced over the airport Tannoy with what has become quite familiar words to me. "Would Justin Maxwell Stuart on flight XX make his way urgently to Gate XX - This flight is now departing!!"
The charter flight to Murmansk is now inclusive of the full spectrum of anglers fishing on the Kola Peninsula whether that be to the Atlantic Salmon Reserve (Kharlovka, Litza, Rynda), Yokanga, Ponoi, Varzina, Kola or Varzuga. From first timers to veterans there is never a shortage of voices with a huge wealth of experience, opinion and sometimes conjecture over the rivers, the season and what has or has not transpired so far. Over-hearing any such conversations can be very revealing and I always cock my ear when statements such as ‘the best river’, ‘the best camp’, ‘the best week to go’ or indeed the opposites of those are mentioned. My advice…go whenever you get the opportunity and let nature decide the outcome!
For the 2016 season the Atlantic Salmon Reserve created a 'Veterans' or 'Big fish' ring. Anyone who has caught an Atlantic salmon over 35lbs or who has fished for over 10 years on the rivers of the Atlantic Salmon Reserve, on your return to the ASR you will be presented with ‘The Veterans Ring’. I was deeply honoured to receive one of the few that have been awarded so far. A feature of the membership to this very exclusive club that was instigated by Vladimir Rybalchenko, (the owner of the Atlantic Salmon Reserve and who presented me with my ring), is that as he has neither fished the rivers for ten years or has yet to break the 35lb salmon he remains bereft of this esteemed prize that he has awarded to others. I have always marvelled the number of 29lb Atlantic Salmon caught on the ASR rivers, all of which could have nudged the 30lb mark with a jiggle of the net as being an exemplar of excellent sporting ethos and one which Vladimir has endorsed at every level.
What then does that make me, as a veteran of the rivers of the ASR and the Kola Peninsula? It certainly confers a degree of experience, if not wisdom. This brings me back to the conversations mentioned above. With high expectations, as everyone who comes to fish on the Kola typically has, there is a natural willingness to hoist on board individual or passed on experiences on specific weeks and conditions. If there is one thing my veterans status has conferred it is never to attempt to match too closely past experience with what a forthcoming week or season will offer. In short expect the unexpected and so far this season that is exactly what has transpired.
Over the course of the winter months I watched somewhat nervously as the Kola snow pack failed to materialise. As the Kharlovka and Rynda camps opened at the end of May the surrounding area was conspicuously bare of snow. If you are one of the early June rods this will invariably be treated with considerable delight. Lower and warmer water conditions should mean the runs of salmon will be both stronger for the time of the year and there progress upriver more advanced. For those fishing in July and beyond that can lead to a certain degree of trepidation with the threat of low water over the peak of the summer weeks. Regardless of where or when you fish, low-water and sunny skies are never going to get pulses racing!
So how has the season panned out so far. The comparatively low water in June as a whole meant that by mid-month the salmon on the Kharlovka & Litza were comfortably spread out from the esturaries to the falls pools. The spread of fish on the Rynda is always a little slower being further North with the run typically a week behind that of the Kharlovka and Litza. That said extremely good numbers of good-sized sized salmon were being caught. Generally cool, overcast conditions with an ‘unusual’ amount of rain has kept the rivers at stable heights will ensure consistent fishing throughout the summer period.
Just as the season was hotting up, preparing to reach its crescendo…that is exactly what happened, but not in quite the way anticipated. For the third week of the season the skies cleared and the sun shone hard and strong. At this time of the year, deep inside the Arctic circle, the sun barely dips below the horizon and the bright conditions tarnished the actual catches from what one friend reported over the week ‘more salmon than he had seen in his 8 or so years fishing that week’. Water conditions will dictate where and how you can catch the fish however bright sun is always the hardest to counter. That said fishing both deep and on the surface with hitched flies can provide some respite and it is also true that after persistent sunny conditions of three days or so the fish do adapt. As always the guides will be busy strategizing and planning the best means of attack.
Given the option, some inclement weather is always going to provide the best chance of the bigger fish. That said with good light and low winds there are a great many places where you can spot the fish. If your guide momentarily disappears have a glance up and you may well see him on overwatch with an eagles nest perspective. Down at Military Pool that is exactly what Sasha was doing for Howard, spotting a large 20lb salmon lying mid-water column in the centre of the pool. Failing to raise the fish on the surface a Snaelda was deployed. By this stage the fish had dropped out of sight but out of the depths a far larger fish rose from the dark, engulfed the fly and set Howard on his way to his personal Best of 33lbs.
There are a great many occasions when either your guide may spot a fish or give specific instructions to cover and cover well a certain area. Heed his advice!! Persevere in that spot with multiple flies or methods as required. The number of anglers who will testify that had it not been for their guide instructions they would not have hooked and certainly not landed a fish which for many will be a lifetime personal best.
For the final week of June and for the first week of July which I was fortunate to fish, the clouds returned and the fishing accelerated to exceptional levels on the Kharlovka and Litza. On and off rain continued to top up the rivers so that by my arrival on 4 July with the rest of the team for the week the water level was at 20 cm, close to a perfect height. By contrast on the exact same week in 2014 when there had been a very significant snow pack the rivers were at 35cm, again an excellent height but illustrative of the fact that the size of the snow pack is absolutely not the be all and end all which dictates the course of the season. The Rynda was at an equally good height although results were checked by a cold weather micro-climate that seemed to sit over the area.
This was now my 2nd consecutive 1st week of July week when conditions simply could not have been better. In 2014 we landed 205 salmon for the week with a depleted team of rods and more action that I have ever previously experienced. If there was a tiny area of frustration was that with the exception of one 35lb Salmon there were very few fish of over 20lbs caught and probably close to an equal number of salmon that were hooked and lost as the fish were ‘taking short’. Big fish were caught in numbers the week before and the week after but quite possible on account of the sunny weather they were not that obliging to us.
By contrast our full team of 14 rods managed 2011 fish for the 2015 week. In any books on any river that is a great tally however as anyone who comes and fishes the ASR will know the rivers are not about numbers, although it is of course a bonus, but about the possibility of some really good-sized fish and in this respect it absolutely did not disappoint. Nineteen fish of over 20lbs were caught of which three were over 30lbs. All this went to make for a total of six Personal Best fish caught over the week. From a team of relatively experienced anglers the 6 PB’s is probably as telling a statistic as any. That said I always feel it is important to stress that for anyone thinking they can come to any of the ASR rivers and walk away with a fish of a lifetime it is important to take a check on expectations. Each big fish is won with skill and perseverance and a reasonable portion of luck. Fish long enough and the rewards will follow.
Mosquitoes are one of those ever-present concerns for those fishing in July. As I have stressed before the Northern rivers are not afflicted nearly as badly as those in the south however the cool conditions with accompanying breeze meant that with the exception of one day there was barely a Mozzy to be seen and I escaped the week without a single bite!
What worked and what did not? Over the previous week Vladimir had led the charge with a selection of single hook flies and I was more than happy to have come armed with multiple dozens of replacement Golden Killers, the V Fish Fly and a number of other very effective single hook patterns of Canadian Origin. June is rightly considered the month when you will get the first shot at the fish as they enter the rivers however July is definitely the month when you can expect a significant amount, if not all the activity to take place on the surface. The ever-effective Sunray Shadow is always near the top of my list of offerings however alongside that a hitched single can be extremely effective. So it proved to be. After a spate of success on the first day most of my resupply disappeared overnight!
That said I was to have a well known lesson confirmed to me on our first full day on the Litza at Falls and Flatstone. Although conditions on the Rynda were more persistently cold over the week a touch of that was certainly felt by us on Day 3. The water temperature showed a drop from 10 C to 8.4 C on the Kharlovka gauge. A change but still being above 8 C, the temperature widely consider to be the point at which salmon will happily take a fly on the surface. A difference but no obvious cause for a marked change in tactics. The Litza is of course a different river system. A strong upstream wind meant that we skipped Litza Falls on arrival and headed to Flatstone. I set about wading the left bank which immediately felt colder although having walked at pace from the Falls I was deceived into thinking this was just the contrast in my body heat. After having had 7 fish of up to 26lbs the previous day, all caught using surface hitched flies I was pretty confident in my fly selections, but to no avail. As I later discovered from the readings at Litza Tent Camp the water temperature was in fact sub 8 C and the lack of interest in my surface offerings was very apparent.
Not so with my ever exuberant and unfailingly high-spirited fishing partner Steve Edge. Steve is a design, marketing and branding guru who could make the BP Gulf Oil spill look like the centre-piece of a company makeover! That said he had so far failed to turn his off-bank dynamism into on-bank success, made that bit more uncomfortable by my recent good fortune. Persistence, self-belief and determination are as powerful in commercial enterprise as they are key attributes for any angler. On his third run down the right bank of Litza Flatstone all that changed. Although one of my favourites, the Green bodied Willie Gun (also known as a Rogie in its tube form) which Steve was using had recently been described to me as belonging to the dark ages on account of its use of traditional materials vs the latest rarest free-flowing plumage. Lucklily leviathan ASR salmon seem equally inclined to follow historical precedent as much as they are impressed by modern fly creations. The result, an outstanding, 30lbs on the nose, very well deserved personal best for Steve.
Steve caught a further 4 salmon that day, all taken on a standard double fly whilst the all conquering fish-finding hitched Sunray was wholly ineffective. It certainly helped reinforce the lesson that you have to treat each and every fishing day differently, even if it means putting to bed methods or techniques that twelve hours earlier were infallible.
One week on from my return and the conditions have remianed excellent. More cloudy skies, additional rain to maintain steady river levels and the result...three more fish of over 30lbs with a best of 36lbs out of 229 fish in total. What's more a good proportion have been bright silver salmon in the 12-16lbs range. There is no question in my mind, even if the season is only half complete, that this will be a pretty exceptional year on the ASR rivers. There appear to be very healthy numbers of salmon in the system and as I casually flick over the next 10 days, ‘at a glance’, forecast for Murmansk on my iPhone, cloudy skies with continued rain seem to be prevalent and with that I am quite sure the Salmon will remain very obliging.
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