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I recently returned from two weeks of Atlantic Salmon fishing on the Kola River system in Russia. I traveled there with a group of six great guys. The plan was one week of “exploratory” fishing out of a tent camp followed by a week at the adjoining Kola River’s main lodge. In short it was the best of times and the worst of times. I have often said that Russia comes with its share of drama but if you can handle it with grace, the fishing will likely prove worth it. This trip was no exception.
Located well within the Arctic Circle near the northeastern borders of Finland and Norway, the Kola River is the northernmost of the Kola Peninsula’s significant systems. It is a rugged, handsome river with numerous deep, dazzling, boulder-strewn tailouts, an impressive 20,000-40,000 returning fish, and some of the largest (meaning 40 plus pounds) Atlantic salmon in Russia. The river flows due north entering the Barrent’s Sea smack dab in the middle of the peninsula’s largest city, Murmansk. As you might imagine, this is a mixed blessing: no helicopters needed for access and in the same breath, little escaping the locals and the often bitter realities of their lives. Our first week of exploratory fishing was a major disappointment if not a complete bust. The Kola tributaries and headwaters we had intended to fish were getting pounded hard by local spin fishermen and net poachers. There were communication and alcohol based issues with guides and there was very little quality water for our group to fish. It was a seemingly endless week that we should have never been offered. Tempers and the weather ran hot and by the week’s end the water temperatures rose to 68 degrees. Week two, however, at the Kola main lodge, did a lot to make up for the first week’s suffering. We upgraded to tidy single occupancy cabins and we had new improved guides. The weather came in hard and cold, and we were tuned up and hungry for a crack at the Kola’s prime beats. The karmic payback was essentially instantaneous. Without driveling on, we had amazing fishing and “Team America” distinguished itself with high catch rates everyday amidst a skilled international crowd. The water temperatures steadily dropped to 50 degrees over the course of three days and the river bumped up about six inches. We had days where group members went 10 for 10, 12 for 12 and on our last day one of our party members actually went 14 for 14 with seven fish between 10 and 20 pounds! The Kola River was loaded with Grilse (very strong bright salmon that average 5-6 pounds) but there were good numbers of large adult salmon as well. Virtually every member of our group landed fish in the 20 plus pound class and there were plenty of big fish lost. One fish in the 35-40 pound class was lost after its fourth jump. I had the good fortune of watching the entire event unfold. Hooked by my companion after having seen it roll, the beast headed straight upstream making two low angle jumps along the way. I reeled my line in frantically so as to not complicate the affair and the next thing I knew the monster jumped right at me less than a rod’s length away. It appeared as though there was a case of mistaken identity and that the fish was trying to knock me off my rock! I could see it clearly; its actions severely slowed by it lumbering size. I can safely say that it was the biggest, darkest and most frightening salmonid I had ever seen. It was in excess of 45 inches and its leathery alligator-like head had to be 15 inches long. The fact that it neither growled nor roared as it passed me left me with a confused empty feeling. Next the creature turned downstream and made a desperate wallowing leap like a fat man being chased by hornets through waste deep water. Then it turned back towards the angler, rushing him until line and backing went slack and then he, and our ability to describe the experience, was gone. In camp the discussions surrounding fly selection were ceaseless, but in the end we caught fish on every conceivable technique and fly pattern possible. Effective flies ranged from tiny hitched surface tubes to big sunrays stripped through slack water. By week’s end, our group of seven had landed roughly 230 fish and the lodge had its highest catch rate ever with over 500 fish landed! How quickly the problems of the past can dissolve! So what is the upshot? The bottom line is that the Kola is a great river despite the prerequisite drama and semi-urban interface that it entails. Its awesome fish and exquisite structure are deeply compelling if not addictive. Now after having been there and knowing what to expect, I am eager to return. For the highest catch rates and maximum amount of dry line, dry fly and wade fishing, consider the dates we hold during the second week of July. For those willing to work hard from the raft for a few big, bright, hard to land monsters, consider some of the more expensive weeks in June. In either event, the Kola lodge is a great base for the hardened anadromous angler in search of the real Russia and the largest trophy salmon it has to offer