Russia with... fly

by Jurij Shumakov

 This looks like the beginning of a rather long story, but then it all starts with a rather tricky question. I first came across the question "Do there exist any interesting and original flies in a salmon country like Russia?" in the book "Shrimp and Spey flies for salmon" written by Chris Mann and Robert Gillespie. Actually, there is almost nothing wrong with the book (despite a few critical comments I've read in different sources about the animation technique which was applied to posted flies). There were even a couple of my own flies posted in this book! The strange thing was not that authors hadn't asked my permission to use those flies for publication and hadn't put my name in the list of contributing tiers, but that I was placed among Scandinavian fly-tiers, while I am Russian!? Well, nobody calls Michael Schumacher an Italian just because he drives a Ferrari. J In my case it's ridiculous, Shumakov becomes "Scandinavian", just because I live in Sweden at the time. Well, becoming a Scandinavian overnight felt funny, but still didn't bother me that much. The trigger came when I had a closer look at the Russian local salmon fly patterns.

 So far, there hasn't been a lot of useful information published about fishing on Russia's Kola Peninsula in Western. Funny, yes, useful, no. Most articles belong to the kind of "Chewing gum" stories written by tourists who visited one Kola Peninsula river or another. After many attempts to find something interesting and serious I finally gave up. Or rather, I continued reading, but for very different reasons. You can enjoy a James Bond story with a nice glass of whisky in front of the fireplace during long winter evenings - you just don't take it seriously.

9.5 kg fresh Kola runner taken on Kola fly
9.5 kg fresh Kola runner taken on Kola fly

 These fishing stories helped me understand better, for example, English humor. Reading about different "Russia reluctant rods" describing their amazing "feats" deep in the "incredibly primitive" and uncivilized wild North of Russia. How could I keep a straight face reading one of these great world explorers seriously advising me to "avoid going to the lavatory" because they aren't top quality? Okay, don't go, but then what? Where are pure gentlemen supposed to go when they can't control their "balloons"? The bushes? Would that really be more "civilized"? Or shall these scrupulous men invest in some sophisticated NASA space device to collect the produce of nature from the moment their plane leaves civilized airport? While travelling I unfortunately haven't noticed any substantial difference between gents in other airports and their Russian counterparts. But however fishy they may be, it still never occured to me to report on the state of foreign plumbing in respectable Russian fishing magazines! In fact, when I buy fishing magazines I don't even expect to read about that kind of "waters"!J

 Well, there are even more funny "impressions" and interesting pieces of advice from Russian "expeditions" in my collection. One of my favourites is the tourist who, very serious and without a shadow of embarrassment on his face, describes how he flew on a "rusty" and incredible noisy Russian helicopter. The only problem is that - as any schoolchild could tell you - copters are made from aluminium, and therefore cannot rust...

 Another author does not see anything wrong with Russian copters, but still feels he must add that Russia is a very controversial country. Controversial country or controversial authors?J Some tourists are amazed how Russian salmon could be so "strong" in such "cold" water?! Is salmon weaker in ice-cold Norwegian or Icelandic waters? Or stronger??J And you will find many other fantastic pieces of "serious" observation decorated with photos of the courageous faces of the participants and pictures of crashed helicopters! The funny thing is I've never read such heroic articles about fishing in Argentina or Alaska, Mexico or Venezuela.

 Most of the stories on fishing in Russia's extreme north can simply be described as a "fish took Ц I hook!" literature. There is a real world of fly-fishing mythology! So where does the serious reader - or the beginner in need of useful advice - go to find relevant information? I am sorry to say that this part of the fishing world seems virtually off the maps.

 Usually anglers start to read about destination well before the date is settled. They need to tie flies and look for information well in advance. If you spend a few thousand on fishing of a lifetime, you want to be well prepared and not throw your rods to the wind, nor your money in the sea. Of course many rely blindly on camp staff and their advice, but occasionally even tour organizers will be way off mark. A few years ago, I went to Kola Peninsula guiding a group of Swedish rods. Based on my own experience I advised on the kind of flies they would really need at that time of year and on specific rivers. We fished expedition style on six different rivers for two weeks. The last point on this journey was Strel'na and Chapoma rivers. When we arrived at Strel'na village, where we rented a house, we first visited the English camp situated about 1 mile upstream. We needed licences and wanted to ask about situation and catch on both rivers. The senior manager told us that the previous day's fishing on Chapoma had been quite poor, so camp rods were going to fish the following day on Strel'na. Since we didn't want to disturb the others - or be disturbed! -  we decided to go fishing on Chapoma.

 It turned out the river was just fantastic! Each rod in our group landed easily ten or more salmon in the course of the day. That evening we visited the upstream camp on StrelТna, and told them it might be fresh fish had arrived but, in any event, we had had an amazing day. Senior manager said fishing on Strel'na, on the contrary, had been poor: many from their camp hadn't caught anything and only the most experienced rods managed to land one or two fishes. Could the fish have moved overland from one river to the other?  We agreed to stay on the Strel'na next day and that camp rods fish on Chapoma.

 Next day on Strel'na, with light foggy weather in the early morning, was just magic. We caught fish after fish. Even a few nice sea trout were landed. By lunch time, senior manager with one of camp rods who had decided to stay on Strel'na came down to the river bank. After an hour of hard pondering over the most promising pool, they gave up and went back to camp empty-handed. We also stopped fishing, mainly because we could hardly lift our arms after playing so many salmon. Adrenaline level was close to zero.

 That evening we all gathered at the upstream camp for a "beer party". Camp rods and guides were gloomy as a Kola sky at its worst. Well, I guess you've already predicted the result of our conversation: only four out of seven camp rods had caught any salmon on Chapoma that day. When we described the fishing on Strel'na I could see in their eyes real and deep suspicion.

Local flybox
Local flybox

 The whole business developed into a sort of scandal, when I asked them to show the flies they had been using on both rivers. A brief comparison of our fly-boxes provided a clear answer. Advised by their camp manager those guys and girls had stubbornly stuck to Willy Gunn tied on 2 inch Waddington and size 6 Ally's Shrimp. Meanwhile our favourites had been Black Templedog and Akroyd tied on 1 inch aluminium or plastic tubes, as well as Chapoma Spey tied on singles or doubles size 6. At least the fish could plainly see the difference. Since we were running low on booze at that point, I proposed to exchange some flies for a couple of bottles of beer, so camp rods would at least be able to enjoy the rest of their stay.

 The proposal was flatly rejected. We said a last "Hello" and "Bye" to each other that last evening, leaving them baffled by their "bad luck", while we went home full of exciting impressions and great memories from the Kola. Back in those days, most rods from the UK were firm believers that Willy Gun and Ally's Shrimp were the right medicine for early spring fishing on the South coast rivers of Kola. So what can I say? Yes, both flies, Willy Gunn and Ally's Shrimp are very good. They are popular on some Kola rivers certain years.

 However, to draw the conclusion that they are always effective for all Kola rivers in each and every season, is pushing it a bit far. As we saw, quite often they simply don't work! As a matter of fact, I have many stories about instability in catching fish for almost all flies. Every serious angler should remember the simple fact that fish entering river this year are not the same as the year before. Even in different months, different fish will come to a river. On the river Umba, for instance, at least five different races of salmon enter each year. There is a variety, which spends two years in river before spawning! Little wonder then that habits and fly preferences also vary enormously!

 Coming back to the Mann and Gillespie book, I would like to dispute their thesis that any fly could be deployed on any Kola river with the same success, just because there are so many fish and all rivers are so prolific that they remind authors of Scottish rivers two centuries ago or something like that. Authors also claim that new successful flies can only be developed in countries with big fishing press, poor fishing and low number of salmon entering rivers. According to these criteria, the Russian Kola Peninsula would be counted as a place where such conditions are unthinkable, and where new flies could therefore not be developed. In fact, the whole argument is wrong. The simple reason can be found within the borders of the United Kingdom.

 All the most famous and well-known Atlantic salmon flies, colour combinations and sizes were developed in the UK at a time when its rivers were prolific and full of salmon, a century ago or so! The same story goes for flies created on the North American continent. All modern flies are based on those classic patterns in one way or the other. The development of new tying styles and the discovery of new fly patterns obviously do not depend in any regular way on the amount of fish in the rivers. Constantly developing new patterns is part of the very nature of fly-fishing, regardless of country, fish stock and fishing conditions.

 So when a fisherman visits another country, it might be a good idea to check out what kind of flies are the best for that place. Moreover, the experienced angler will try to obtain full information about the particular river system he expects to fish, because there are no two identical rivers in the world. Many thousands of unknown local patterns are this very moment peacefully relaxing in the fly-boxes of some local genius, and personally I wouldn't be all that surprised if those patterns have something to say to the local fish.

Remains of successful local flies after many takes

 With an open mind and a bit of luck, you just need to be in the right place at the right time to come across real treasures. I myself was fortunate to travel in different countries, and meet nice fishermen I could exchange patterns with. In one of the articles I read lately, the author described some flies tied for Western tourists heading for the Kola in the following words: "Kings of the Kola!" Wow! For all salmon from about 100 rivers!" Wow indeed. That just about sums it up. First, those flies are completely Western patterns and likely known among Western tourists, not Kola local fishermen. So, author could fairly say he found a few patterns after conversations with tourists and guides, and that these patterns seem to work on some Kola rivers at least. But calling them "highly popular flies from Russia's Kola Peninsula" is misleading. It gives the impression that those patterns are in broad use by all who fish Kola rivers and not just Western tourists and guides.

 Second, most of those patterns are clearly American or English or Scandinavian patterns, only slightly modified and adjusted to Kola's international fishing camp rules: "Single hook only" and "Catch and Release". They are not authentic Russian Kola patterns by any means. Saying that big singles are most in use on Kola rivers is also untrue. Locals use that type of flies on hooks size 6-8 for summer conditions. But claiming they should be used for spring conditions as well, is stretching it. Those who come to Kola rivers avoiding international camps would never use those patterns for spring fishing!  At least for the six last years, most popular local spring patterns of Kola flies have been tied on big doubles size 2-4, tubes or Waddingtons up to 2 inches. There is no big difference between Kola, Norway, Scotland, Ireland or Sweden in this respect. So would it be better to give American patterns, as they are on singles, and Scottish and Scandinavian patterns on tubes? Just recommend anglers, instead of double or treble, to use a single hook on them! This makes sense, even from a practical point of view: patterns with long wing work better on tubes, and often, with the use of free-swinging hook, it helps to avoid tangling. The two last patterns of that article, if they are tied on singles, are clearly "dead babies".

 Personally, I would never use long and soft Arctic or Silver fox tail hair on singles with wing in 4 lengths of hook. Wing will tangle for sure, 100%. So although I understand that author wants to help Western tourists achieve workable patterns for at least some Kola rivers, according to camp demands, and also propagate singles on UK rivers, I really can't see that those particular five patterns are the "Kings" of Kola. The proverb says "Modesty embellishes the man".J

 A couple of years ago, I fished the Stjördal river in Norway with a friend of mine. Unfortunately, we came to the river at the worst possible time. Due to small amount of snow in mountains, the dam was closed and water no longer released from upstream reservoir. River quickly sank to lowest water level, and fishing became very tricky indeed. New salmon didn't enter the river, and those which were already there, either stayed "parked" in deep private pools, or moved upstream from the area we were allowed to fish. Our only chance to catch salmon was at high tide, and only in the lower part of river, near river mouth. Under these unlucky circumstances, I tried many flies and presentations until I finally found a combination, which gave me a few fishes. Mostly grilse, but still, I was very happy not to be completely "dry".

 The only fly I could manage to tempt Stjördal's grilse with was a small variant of the Kola fly "Murmanskaja #1". It is a popular local pattern among Kola fly-fishermen for summer conditions on rivers around Murmansk. So, what would Norwegian anglers say if I were to write that I used the Murmanskaja fly while fishing Stjördal, which drives Norwegian salmon? I think you don't even need to answer this question.J

 By the way, there are less and less foreign guides in international camps on Kola Peninsula rivers. Local fly-fishermen and Russians from other parts of Russia take their places. Those guys are mostly very scheduled fly-fishermen and can provide advice for all situations, not just supply the rod with sandwiches and holding nets. They fish for salmon many months every year and use local or their own fly patterns. Most of them tie flies themselves and sell to tourists. So be prepare to accept flies, which you cannot find in Western fishing magazines, but which can be extremely effective under local conditions. These guides often fish on Kola Peninsula rivers which are already fished out and where catching salmon is very tricky business.

Salmon badly injured by net
Salmon badly injured by net, caught on Western Litsa

 Yes, don't be surprised. You heard me. Not all Kola rivers are prolific today. There are many Kola rivers which have been emptied by furious illegal net fishing. This is one of the reasons LOOP moved his camp from Umba to Ponoj. Many local people are unemployed, and salmon fishing is how they provide for their families. Or they give the same reason as everywhere else in other salmon countries: they "have rights" to fish on their local rivers, because they live near that river and their fathers did it and grandfathers did and so on. So local fly-fishermen have to work hard on fly patterns to catch fish, not less than, for example, their Irish fellows, who suffer from net fishing around Ireland. As I was told by friend of mine from Ireland, last year, over half a million salmon were taken by nets in sea around Ireland.

 At the end of the day, it doesn't matter for salmon and anglers, how and for which reasons rivers are emptied by nets - legally and "civilized" in Ireland, or illegally in Russia. Short sighted thinking leads to empty rivers. These last sentences I particularly address to authors of  "Shrimp and Spey flies for salmon". They claim the Kola Peninsula is a fishing "Haven", whereas the UK is "Hell". The sad truth is, we can find that kind of Hell everywhere now.

This fly presentation continues here: part 2  part 3  part 4  part 5  part 6  part 7