My visit to Ryabaga Camp on the Ponoi – 3rd to 10th June 2017.
Atlantic salmon fishing in Russia has been a phenomenon that all those that have been lucky enough to enjoy it are thankful for. Let us cast our minds back to the early 1990s. Scotland was in dire straits with the north-east drift nets still active. Catch and release was a concept that most were hostile towards and we all had our fingers crossed that the removal of the Faroese drift nets would end our concerns. We also, naively, hoped that salmon farms would reduce the demand for wild salmon on the table and therefore contribute a solution to the threats our Scottish salmon faced. Today we have settled for the new ‘normal’, a far cry from what our rivers should be.
We travelled abroad to Norway in search of the ‘big one’, despite Norway struggling to decide its own salmon future with some of the poorest years on record in the late 1980s and rivers being closed because of disease. We also went to Canada but in lesser numbers; it was also suffering from a crisis of no fish, and therefore most trips at that time ended in despair. Iceland was popular with a privileged few if you could put up with the expense and, at the time (certainly no longer the case), dreadful food.
In the early 1990s it was as if the fishing gods had decided to smile on the Atlantic salmon community and take pity on us all. Suddenly, with Russia, we were presented with rivers with not another soul on them, that offered stunning wading and most importantly hundreds and hundreds of fish; salmon in numbers that our generation had only dreamt of in all sizes from grilse to the occasional 40-pounder. Those that ran the new world of Atlantic salmon fishing in the east would admit that it was a pretty rocky start in terms of the provision of accommodation and facilities, reliability from the Russians and the pure logistics of making it all happen to at least a tolerable standard. Yet we were ready to put up with almost anything to catch some fish so it worked for everyone. Today, things are infinitely more stable and well run though there is the occasional duff offering: one would have to be living under a rock or know nobody, or have done no research, to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Today, Atlantic salmon fishing in Russia offers a huge amount in every sense. The most obvious is the number of fish. Of course, the numbers ebb and flow with good years and less good years, but there have been no crashes for the species like those we have seen in other countries. From time to time there has been extreme cold, extreme heat, winds and pretty much almost any other extreme we can think off but the fish just kept on coming. For those that continued their pilgrimage to the Kola, the rewards continued to flow. The first week on Ponoi in 2016 was another example at 1200+ fish with a wonderful 84 year-old lady catching 65+ fish.
This makes the fishing, in the broadest possible terms, unquestionably the most reliable and productive salmon fishing in the world. But there is much more to it than that. In Britain, we have slowly reduced the length of the beats on our rivers to a size that is shameful. The pressure from owners to make their beats pay has meant that more and more rods are piled on along with an ever-increasing rent. Only after the 2016 season do we hear rumours of rent reductions. All this if one is lucky enough to get on the good beats, an achievement in itself. The strange thing is that we carry on fishing and paying – but we also go abroad. We love our home fishing precisely because it is at home with our families, our friends and our dogs, and we go elsewhere to catch our numbers of fish.
In Russia, access to good weeks is easier for a start and we are fishing true wilderness rivers, some with beats literally miles and miles long between two rods. Russia has given us back the opportunity to fish unkept, genuinely wild Atlantic salmon rivers. There are no mown banks, only fallen trees or broken banks washed away by spring floods of ice. On some rivers one can wade, walk or travel by boat for miles and see nobody. Imagine having 20 rods on the Dee! Russia is probably the only Atlantic salmon nation where the prices reflect genuine cost rather than income-driven rents. The fishing itself does not cost a great deal, it is the logistics of operating a wilderness facility and transporting guests to remote beats that create the expense in Russia. If you go, just look around you and where you are and you will understand why you paid what you did. It is certainly not born out of greed. It has given us much greater reliability too. How many of us head north fishing only to return with nothing due to either too much or too little water. In Russia conditions will dictate good or less good weeks but a blank is almost unheard of.
Russia has been a real gift and has presented us with a massive learning curve. We were a generation of fishers starved of salmon and therefore struggling to be good at it. Today, we are vastly experienced because we have gone to Russia and learned how to fish miles and miles of virgin water. Salmon fishing skills are built from a bank of experience and Russia has given us decades of experience in a very short space of time. Still today, there are rods travelling to Russia for the first time: I spoke to a traveller only days ago who has spent “22 days fishing in Scotland for nothing”. He will likely catch 50 fish in his week and his bank of experience will increase by a decade. Convert that to hundreds of us travelling every year for 25 years and the difference is night and day. The number of 1000-salmon anglers out there in 1990 would be tiny compared to today.
Russia has also given us a wealth of new experiences and techniques. On all the rivers the fish are massively aggressive and rise extremely freely the moment the water reaches close to a civilised temperature. This has given us skated-fly fishing, sailing bombers or skimming sunray shadows across the water to induce some of the most spectacular takes in any form of fishing. We hardly knew such things were possible from salmon until Russia presented us with such gluttony of experiences and fish to try stuff with. It has also given us the gift of time. In Scotland we are limited by light, in Iceland and Canada by rules, but in Russia, until the autumn, the only restriction to being able to fish is your own stamina. All the rivers have wonderful home pools which can be fished throughout the midnight sun, perhaps one of the most special times in salmon fishing. Quite simply Russia has changed our Atlantic salmon fishing world and in the process has changed all the other salmon destinations available to us. They have had to change their ways in order to compete and attract guests.
If we take 1991 as year dot, 2017 is season 27. Finally, the extremes, got even more extreme and we have witnessed the coldest spring on record in 130 years. Certainly over my time the trend has been warmer and warmer springs. We used to open the Ponoi season around 10th June way back when, then the 3rd June and now late May where we have been for over a decade. There have been justifiable discussions about opening ever earlier. But 2017 changed all that for now. The Varzuga was the first to cancel and its blog showed us pictures of writing in the snow on a frozen river they should have been fishing. They cancelled two weeks and had a third week well under par. That I believe is half their season. The Ponoi had to cancel its first week and had its record poorest week for 3rd to 10th June, less than 100 fish compared to a five-year average of something like 1000 fish. The north was mixed, some rivers remain closed as I write this and others should not have opened but did. As these events have unfolded, it has been very disappointing for many. Weeks cancelled that have been looked forward to for so long, other weeks mediocre at best, very poor at worst. But finally the rivers began to warm and Ponoi went from a 12 fish in a day on the Friday to a 101 fish day on the Sunday. From the global perspective for Atlantic salmon fishing, the craziness had begun again and if Ponoi performs as it does normally give or take good years and less good years, two weeks of 16 weeks of the season will have been impacted and some (we will not know for a few weeks yet) might enjoy better fishing than they might have expected.
Let’s return to the word ‘cancelled’. When have we ever heard of a salmon fishing week being cancelled anywhere else? I am not aware of any. I have heard plenty of stories of zero water and no point in fishing or too much water with the equal result but cancelling – no. What happens when we show up to an out of condition river? Money back for the fishing? Fuel costs back? Hotel? House-sitter? I have yet to come across that in the UK and it certainly does not happen in Iceland. What happened for those that were cancelled for their Russian weeks?
Yes, some lost their tickets to Helsinki or their visa expenses but certainly for Varzuga and Ponoi, guests were given the choice of different weeks, refunds, money carried over etc not only for the cost of the fishing but the Finnair charter too. That is what should have happened in my view. I hear that some rivers only carried funds over to next year which might be a little tenacious. I would guess that once the dust settles there will be some goodwill gesture for those that came and had a less than successful week but my guess is the river want to see how things develop before they make that decision and I can understand that. Meanwhile, for the operators of the charter and the rivers, the charter contract is signed, the food is ordered and much of it flown in, the staff have their visas and have been flown in and so the story goes on.
Those with me battling away on the Ponoi were stoic in their sense of humour and getting on with making the best of a bad situation. There is no doubt that it was a major disappointment and I was as upset as anyone having convinced friends to come that week but I have now had time to reflect from the 30,000 ft view and to mull over what Russia’s Kola Peninsula has given so many that so adore fishing for Atlantic salmon, young and old. One short period of failure caused by natural causes in 27 seasons is extraordinary. Yes, we all want the 1000 fish week over the 600 fish week but the fact that we are even discussing such numbers for Atlantic salmon still is amazing and we need to keep some perspective. When the failure comes, all is by no means lost, the majority of money is returned or credited, please tell me where else that happens?
I know and I empathize with those that have been disappointed and I am not trying to detract from that but we all need to stand back and look at the deal and look at the consistency over time. When conditions are just normal or even poor the rivers of the Kola manage to perform way beyond any other Atlantic salmon river on a global comparison. We, as salmon fishermen, have an excellent deal. We are paying real costs, we get the most reliable Atlantic salmon fishing (and some of the best and most visual) and when things go wrong at the start, we even get treated well. Even with the infamous Spring of 2017 which we will all remember, Russia’s Kola Peninsula is the best value by miles.