The cloud in question was a result of a significant number of cancelled weeks at lodges across the Kola Peninsula over the 2019 season. An ‘annus horriblus’ for a great many anglers who had pinned their winter hopes and summer dreams on a trip to one of the rivers along Russia’s most famous coastline, from an angler’s perspective anyway! For the early pioneers of the Kola Peninsula a telephone call to say your trip had been cancelled, whilst sitting in the comfort of your home, would not have raised much more than an eyebrow! During the 90’s it was considered a plus to arrive to find the promised camp had been built, even if it subsequently transpired to be double-booked by a rival group waving a lease signed by the same individual! The rewards were however great, despite some hardship and disasters along the way the tales from those early days remain legendary.
That was yesteryear! Now there is cause for complaint when the checks at immigration last more than 5 minutes and the pillows are not Egyptian cotton with a thread count north of 600. In fairness, the cost to fish in Russia has also increased very significantly and with it comes a higher degree of expectation. Above all, it is the straightforward disappointment of missing out on something that had been front and centre of the radar for the past 9 months. That was exactly how I found myself when all hopes evaporated and a much anticipated July deflated.
I had however recently been in touch with the team from Belousiha Lodge, a relatively new Atlantic Salmon lodge which is located an easy 2 ½ hrs drive from Murmansk. A small and discrete lodge that emerged in 2008, fishing a beautiful and intimate tributary, the Belousiha which runs into the much much larger Voronya.
Anyone who has fished on the Atlantic Salmon Reserve (ASR) or indeed most of the rivers on the Northern coastline will have frequently flown over Tumanny, the ASR logistics helipad at the bumpy end of the most Easterly road that runs from Murmansk. For those who have overflown the area, if you managed to keep your eyes open during the helicopter flight, you would have seen one of two substantial man-made reservoirs complete with two very significant hydro-electric power stations, responsible for much of the power on the Kola Peninsula, and the source of the various pylons that snake along the coastline crossing the rivers as they go. Between the dams runs a ragged boulder-strewn scar, the original footprint of the mighty Voronya river and the home to some of the biggest salmon on the Kola Peninsula. Originally 155Km in length, it was once one of the most powerful rivers on the Kola Peninsula. That chapter in the almanack of salmon fishing almost came to an end with the construction of the dams…almost but not quite!
The damming of the Voronya immediately cut off the bulk of the migratory route of the salmon and for the proceeding 50 years, those that struggled on were ruthlessly poached. The economic hardships that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union does not allow one place all blame on those responsible, especially given the pre-eminence of most of the salmon rivers on the Kola Peninsula versus those at home. Regardless, numbers plummeted, and it is likely that the only reason a trace of the original run of salmon remains is on account of the sheer power and size of the Voronya. When the lease to fish the Belousiha river was obtained with it came the introduction of very strict anti-poaching controls. A basic camp emerged, catering for just 4 anglers, to fish one of the most intimate rivers on the Kola. In 2015 the lease expanded to the Voronya and although the fishable section of the river is only a sliver of its original length it was established without question that not only did it have a viable run of Salmon, but that they had retained the genetics and with it the size of their forerunners! A salmon river was reborn!
So back to where we started. My cancelled trip! I very hastily put together an alternative plan with a friend who was also suffered a cancellation to travel to the Namsen River in Norway and from there to Russia, making use of my existing visa. The journey from the Namsen to Murmansk was an interesting exercise in dedication. I departed at 2 am from Namsentunet lodge in my superbly badly chosen Electric car, its 200km range almost exactly matching the distance to Trondheim airport without taking into account Norway’s terrain! I literally free-wheeled into Trondheim airport at an energy-saving 20mph, the range gauge having hit zero at least 15mins prior to my reaching the airport. If Greta Thunberg would have been pleased with the above, she would have baulked at what followed. A mammoth CO2 disaster, flying Trondheim – Oslo – Stockholm - St Petersburg - Murmansk. I really really was not going to miss out on my annual Russian fishing trip!!
In Murmansk, I met up with two others who had both suffered similar cancellations and who I had encouraged at exceptionally short notice to join me. En route a forgotten bag of waders resulted in a trip to the Murmansk fishing shop which was surprisingly well-stocked, albeit not exactly Farlows! From there a speedy drive to the lodge, 2/3 on tarmac and 1/3 on a less comfortable track! On arrival, we were shown to what must be the most sophisticated looking ensuite fishing cabins on the Kola Peninsula, complete with hi-speed wi-fi and mobile reception!! Maybe one of the advantages of having a cold war radio listening station and hydropower plant on your back door!
The fishing on the Belouisha is all done by foot. Despite an unusually cold summer, it had heated up for our arrival. Although we were fishing over the last week of July, potentially a low-water period, the river had more than enough water to make all the pools fishable and interesting. There are few rivers on the Kola as scenic! This is 100% single-handed fishing territory and although a slightly larger rod might be useful at the start of the season, in mid-June when sink lines and heavier flies are required, for now, it was longer leaders and surface flies. Max, the lodge manager and Russian guide started me off on a cascade which was unerringly effective and resulted in my first fish on the lip of a waterfall. I then moved to hitch flies and barely deviated from them for the rest of the week whilst fishing the Belousiah.
On a river as small and as intimate as the Belousiah, at this stage of the season, it is Icelandic fishing tactics that rule the day. The river runs clear throughout the season and will never significantly colour up. Over our week the clarity was mesmerizing. The first day saw good cloud cover and the fish behaved accordingly. I landed 4 fish on the first day and lost two more. Above all I had the rare pleasure of first rising a salmon on a small hitched sunray and then having it launch at the fly a second-time, leaping clean out of the water as it took, somersaulting in the air and then tearing off downstream, all within the confines of a gorge. Spectacular to say the least.
There are two distinct beats on the Belousiah, with the river typically being fished by two pairs of rods. The middle section, below the camp has a much slower section, although it also has some quite distinct holding spots and at times of the year the salmon can back up in these sections. The lower beat on the Belouisiha lacks some of the ruggedness of the upper section but has an equally beautiful section of consecutive falls interspersed with seductive pools. The very bottom section of the river has some quite slack water. Max, on the first morning, explained to me with a wry smile that although salmon angers do not usually like that sort of water, when they start catching fish their views change!! One section we fished was packed with salmon and although this also included a significant number of Pink's, amongst them were some very good-sized Atlantic’s. It required an element of perseverance to work out how to get them to take but take they will and it resulted in our best-sized fish on the Belousiha for the week.
Although the Belousiha is superbly charismatic to fish, has its share of good-sized salmon and is comparable to what one might expect fishing in Iceland, the draw of the big fish in the Voronya and its typically short but powerful fish was none the less very appealing. The contrast and the variety is as much part of the appeal. This year the summer had been especially cold with the river running at 6C for much of July. Had anglers fished through the heatwave of 2018 this would seem like a good thing, but naturally, as is often the case when fishing, it was too much of a good thing! As a result, the salmon appeared to be holding back from running the river in larger numbers.
The Voronya is huge in relation to the Belousiha. From what I could ascertain lack of water is never an issue, and certainly, the body of water above the dam does not change by much more than 1 meter in height all season. Being perpetually terrified of extreme low-water conditions, this is an encouraging feature! Water is released by the hydro station and this does mean that the level can vary from what one might consider summer conditions to spring conditions over less than an hour. Change plays on an angler’s confidence and the low ‘ish’ water on the first day was replaced with high water on the second. Trying to interpret this is difficult, especially in such a big and powerful river. Go small and high or deep and slow? Not that one fishing technique ever fits, not knowing if you are in the right ballpark can be disconcerting.
On my final day, fishing on the upper section of the Voronya, I received a strong pull and a heart-stopping swirl on my first run down a stretch referred to as ‘the beach’, named for reasons unknown to me! I tried to tempt the fish again with several other flies, but to no avail. Over the next 60 mins the river rose by close to one meter, from low-water to high water. With the memories of the take fading and what had appeared as a potential blue-print for success disappearing, I searched for success elsewhere, but to no avail. With the clock ticking down to my departure I decided to do one last run down the pool, starting from the very top. Just as I got going I saw a large splash in the exact spot where I had the take at the start of the morning. With time against me, I skipped the middle section, with an eye to determinedly targeting that fish. My instincts were rewarded, as soon as I covered the spot the salmon took. I have only once had a fight as acrobatic as the one that followed. Somersault after breath-taking, heart skipping, stomach-churning somersault ensued. I do not normally feel the need to cry for assistance, but cry I did at the top of my lungs until Max appeared. I might add that this was primarily for him to grab my camera, although I was equally happy to see the net! The fish when landed was only a little over 15lbs but it was as short deep and solid as you would ever want a salmon to be.
The Voronya has only been fished over the last 3 seasons and much remains to be understood about it. Like any large river, when it is not producing on a regular basis it can be dispiriting. When salmon fishing, the mind plays tricks like few other sports, and the mix between sight-fishing on the Belouisiha and then casting a long-line on the Voronya, especially when the former was showing and producing, and the other less so, is an interesting combination. Having caught two fish on the Voronya on my first day I was mentally reinforced to cope with a blank period. Like a flood confidence returned on my final day and with luck it will stay with me until my return in July 2020!!
I unashamedly love exploring new locations and the challenges of a new river (s). Belouisiha lodge has much to recommend it. It is well run with diligent ownership and a mix of great guides, both Russian and Argentinean, all with good or excellent English. It is easy to get to, the accommodation and food is good and for those who dislike Russian helicopters a welcome relief. Our fishing week was better than some but less good than others. By contrast to the 2017 season it was poor when both rivers were on fire, but fishing is a long term game and you cannot expect to pull the lottery winner on every draw! Above all, for good quality salmon fishing, on rivers with a track record of producing some very large fish, it is also exceptionally good value!!
"Our trip to Russia was cancelled last minute, but luckily Justin saved the day. In less than 24hrs he had managed to get myself and a friend on to the Belousiha river in Russia. I had not heard of this river and having listened to our brief of wanting to fish an intimate river, Justin assured us this would fit the bill. All of it could be fished with a single-handed rod and dry flies and hitches would be just the thing. We were not disappointed and all that had been described to us was true. The water was varied with Canyon sections, boulder runs and classic pools. It also had some much slower water that when persevered with yielded surprising results. The water is crystal clear and sight fishing was possible. I had a lovely fish in the canyon that I spotted and caught on an upstream hitch. For fishermen who like to experiment, fish dry flies and see fish, this is the river for you with plenty of varied water to challenge and excite - We caught 45 salmon between the two of us on the Belousiah...👍👍👍 Arthur Voelcker - August 2019"
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To those interested in fishing the Voronya and Belousiha with Justin, here are a few notes from my trip to Belousiha River Lodge in the first week of August 2021. Firstly, once in Russia, it is far less of a rogue state than our press would have you believe. All of the signs and announcements in the airport are in English, and ...
Another year ‘running the gauntlet’ to try and fish in Russia. This was to be my third trip to Belousiha lodge in as many years, having fished towards the end of July and mid-August over the previous two years. Early July should represent the prime time at Belousiha Lodge, catching the Belousiha river ...
After a nerve-jangling wait for the green light to go to Russia, the Mason team (Howard, Sam, Hebe and Hugo) and the other members of the party (John, Hideko and Alistair) departed Heathrow for Murmansk via Moscow on the 14th of August. After a little sleep in the simple, but comfortable, Jagel hostel in Murmansk, the ...
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 ...
The 2019 season on the ASR was one of huge potential and of course some great catches, but ultimately there was also significant disapointment due to a series of late norice cancellations imposed at late norice by the Russian authorities. Had it not been for this then 2019 would have been a year to remember. The ...
The Three Rivers programme which runs over the final three weeks of the season on the Atlantic Salmon Reserve covers the Kharlovka, Litza and Rynda. Sixteen anglers with a huge amount of water to cover. The first of the Three Rivers weeks is preceded by a 2 week rest period when the camp is closed with no eyes on the river ...