Atlantic Salmon: Ponoi River Russia

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1980

When I asked Dad what epic fishing trip he would like to do and he mentioned Atlantic salmon, I figured there was only one place to take him: the Ponoi River in western Russia.

My dad and I have been fishing together since I was a little boy, and when he turned 80 this year, Heidi and I wanted to take him on a special trip. Though the Ponoi might not boast the biggest salmon, the annual run produces more fish than any other river in the world. Because of this, the Ponoi is considered one of the best rivers in the world for Atlantic salmon

From Jackson Hole, WY, a journey to the Kola Peninsula requires 2 ½ days of travel.

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TRIP TIPS

  • Travel: International flight to Finland, Charter Jet to Murmansk, then helicopter into Camp
  • Lodging  : Ryabaga Camp
  • Food : Campsite cook tents along river
  • Guide :  Steve Estela , Matt Breuer

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The Ponoi is an incredibly remote and exclusive fishery, falling as it does deep within the Arctic Circle.  From the States, most travelers journey to Finland, then on to Murmansk Russia by charter jet.  From the Murmansk airfield, Ryabaga Camp is a 3-hour flight over the tundra in a military surplus MI8 helicopter.

In order to make the trip up from Wyoming more manageable, we decided to spend two nights in Helsinki.  Helsinki is a beautiful city with excellent food and great people.  We arrived in Finland quite late, and after all the travel we just decided to grab dinner at the hotel and head to bed, so that we could be fresh for touring the city in the morning.  I’d planned a boat tour of the waterfront, and I was looking forward to exploring some of the small islands surrounding the port of Helsinki.

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In the morning, I decided to visit a hunting and fishing store that I had heard was one of the first ever established in the old city.

Russia 167 Russia 168The store, Schroder, was not a disappointment; the salesman working there was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of fishing in Finland.  Heidi and Dad had a hard time getting me out of the shop, but lunchtime was approaching, and those of you that know me can appreciate the fact that I don’t skip many lunches.  The farmers’ market was a great place to grab a quick bite before boarding our boat for the waterfront tour.  It was a beautiful afternoon, and it was great to be off on this adventure with my Dad.  That evening, we met with some of the Ponoi anglers that would be joining us on the trip.  I was happily surprised to see that a few were good friends and clients that I have been fishing with and guiding for years.

We took an early charter from Helsinki to Murmansk,

where we all boarded the Mi8 for the last portion of our trip.  Murmansk is a rugged place, and the former location of Russia’s nuclear submarine base.  There is still a lot of military presence in the city, but we were treated quite well, and Frontiers Travel, that organized the trip, had everything in place.  The helicopter trip is itself an experience.  Twenty anglers loaded alongside our gear in a Mi8 looked every bit as old as it was.  These surplus helicopters are the 18-wheelers of the Russian backcountry, and they are put to long and heavy use.

We lifted off on a 2-plus hour flight over some of the most rugged tundra you can imagine.  Once we arrived at Rybaga, we were met by my two great friends, Steve Estela, Ponoi River Co. CEO, and Matt Breuer, Ryabaga Camp Manager.  Here I was on the far side of the world with two friends, and all of us living our Obsession.  I knew we were in great company.  Not only that, Ryabaga Camp is remarkable.  To think how remote we were, while having such incredible comforts, represents a feat that few outfitters are able to duplicate.

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I do a lot of coldwater fishing.

Salmon and Steelhead have become favorites of mine, and no matter how much time I spend in the tropics, I’m always drawn back to cold northern rivers.  There is something about being in a river and swinging a fly, covering every foot, working slowly and methodically in hopes of getting bit.  Salmon are not actively feeding when they are in the river, and they bite out of aggravation or impulse more than anything.

Most of my salmon and steelhead fishing has been done on the fly, and though a standard 9 foot 8-weight works fine, I have been working on my two-handed Spey casting more and more in recent years.  An 8 or 9-weight Spey rod can approach 14 feet, which enables and angler to cover so much more water with less effort.  I was really excited to be on the Ponoi fishing the new Loomis NRX Spey rods.  I’d brought one for Heidi and 2 for me, though Dad chose to stick with what he knew, his 9-footer.

[pull_quote_center]There is something about being in a river and swinging a fly, covering every foot, working slowly and methodically in hopes of getting bit.[/pull_quote_center]

We arrived to full fall colors and were expecting a great week of fishing, but conditions soon became challenging.  Powerful Arctic winds started to blow our first day on the water.  The first couple days, I fished with Dad.  After all, that was why I’d come, to watch Dad get a great fish, and relive all of those great experiences we had shared.  But the fishing was not easy.

The goal was to get Dad that Atlantic salmon he would never forget…

and though the winds were stiff and the sky was spitting rain and snow, we got the good fish late on the second day.  The first and second day we’d caught quite a few smaller fish of 5-10 pounds, but still had not seen the fish that Dad had travelled for.  After lunch on the second day as the weather started to deteriorate, Dad got a grab on the swing but never came tight.  The next cast he threw the exact same line, and sure enough at the end of the swing he comes tight.  This was Dad’s great fish, and we were getting it all on film!   I couldn’t have been happier for him and for me; to be sharing this with my Dad…  after all we have been through, all the different fishing we have shared, and all leading up to this dream salmon in Russia.  We landed the fish, we photographed it, and we released it.  This is how it was supposed to be.

 This was Dad’s great fish, and we were getting it all on film!

Day 3 I spent with Heidi.  I really enjoy fishing with her, as I have since we first met.  The weather had really gone to pot, and it was blowing 20 knots straight up the river, and snowing or raining as well.  There were not as many fish in the river as we had hoped.  Due to low water, and lack of rain in the early fall, many of the salmon were hung up at the mouth of the river.  With this rain we were hoping that a good push of fish might enter the river, and make their way up to us.  Along the 40 miles of river, Ponoi River Company has established a number of tents complete with wood-burning stoves and fire pits for cooking.  Lunch was always a welcome treat and a chance to warm up and dry off.  Whether it was fresh salmon or a steak with wild mushrooms, lunch was always great.  Day 3, time spent with Heidi and a good warm lunch were about the best things I had to report.

 Along the 40 miles of river, the Ponoi River Company has established a number of tents complete with wood-burning stoves and fire pits for cooking.

Russia 163 Russia 164My professional goal on this trip was to complete two good shows that offered a fair representation of this experience, featuring the travel, the River, the camp, the fish and the people that make it all possible.  I’d hoped to focus one show on Dad, and one on Heidi, making certain that both shows were a little different.  The prospect of me getting a great fish was just icing on the cake.  But as the week drew on, I thought longer and harder about things, and realized that I’d traveled halfway around the world, I was filming salmon footage for my own TV show, and I WANTED A GREAT FISH.  I wanted a 20-pound Atlantic salmon from the Ponoi River.  Despite the weather, Heidi and I were having a great time fishing with guides we have know from other trips and other places.  But time was ticking away, and I still hadn’t gotten that fish that I want.  We had lots of really good footage, and a great story about the adventure, but I didn’t have THE fish.

On the last day we were fishing one of the upper beats.  It was a boulder run with lots of great holding water for salmon.  I was pretty excited about this one run in particular as I started to swing my fly.  In my mind, I planned to cover every inch of it, knowing that there just had to be a taking fish somewhere in that juicy water.  And then as I swung through the tail of the run, I felt it… thump-thump, and the weight of a proper fish.  I saw the fish roll as it headed downriver.  I knew I had the one.  We decided to leave the anchor and chase the fish, but somehow in the process, we got it caught in the jet drive.  We ended up sideways on one of the big boulders, and things looked bad.  I had the fish of the trip on, and we were a total catastrophe.  I was deep into my backing, I couldn’t feel the fish anymore, and I knew he had me around one of the boulders downriver.  I took the pressure off the rod and gave him his head.

I figured on a 50-50 chance that the fish would come out on the right side of the boulder, and just as I was losing hope, he did!

 

I felt the beat of his tail and I knew I was still on.  I kept my cool and began to work the fish back to me as the guide managed to get untangled, and spun himself off the rock.  When all was said and done, we landed the fish, and captured the whole adventure on film.  What’s more, I got a great photo with Heidi.  This trip with Heidi and Dad to a cold, coppery River above Arctic Circle will never be forgotten.

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