For the angler whose passion is far-flung waters, it is hard to wrap your mind around what is Kamchatka. In order to do so you must first grasp how secluded Kamchatka is from not only the rest of Russia, but from the world at large. You must start with the concept of a frontier so geographically isolated that it is ten time zones from its forests and rivers to its capitol city of Moscow.... Ten time zones! Now imagine a land this remote that was purposefully kept roadless and undeveloped by a regime that feared an invasion from the east. This regime thought that without roads and infrastructure, a conqueror could move neither quickly nor easily westward into the motherland. To this day, only one, mostly dirt, road runs the length of the peninsula.
If continuing your quest to understand the magnitude of what is Kamchatka, you would have to grasp the size of Kamchatka, especially in the context of its population. Maybe it would help to imagine a peninsula the size of California with only 1% of California's 33 million inhabitants. (It should be noted too that Kamchatka's population has fallen, and is still falling, since the demise of the Soviet Empire. With this fall, over 300,000 soldiers, and various people supporting the military, have left Kamchatka. This exodus left about 300,000 folks to inhabit Kamchatka or roughly 1% of the population of California. At least 250,000 people live in the city of Petropavlask. That leaves the rest of the peninsula and its primeval forests and tundra with only about 50,000 people scattered here and there in small villages.)
So now that you have grasped the statistics and understand how remote, secluded and sparsely populated Kamchatka is, consider this: A vast mountain range splits Kamchata north to south and sends its rain and snowmelt either west to the Sea of Okhost or east to the Pacific Ocean. Scattered upon this land of high peaks and dark forests are numerous volcanoes, many still active. Their lofty cinder cones and precariously balanced slopes bear huge growling glaciers and domed summit snowfields that further feed many of the rivers and streams that slither east and west to the seas. And while you're focusing your mental powers around the pristine immensity of this wilderness, wrap your cerebellum around this: There are 1100 rivers in Kamchatka with significant salmonid populations... that's one thousand one hundred! Of these eleven hundred rivers, 12-15 have been seriously sportfished and maybe a dozen more have been floated and fished!
So if you've been concentrating, you must have concluded by now that Kamchatka is a sportsman's paradise... your ruminations would be right!
Bear, moose, sable, otters, eagles and caribou make their home in Kamchatka. So do king, silver, sockeye, chum, pink and masu salmon. And so do grayling, Arctic char, Kundzha char, dollie varden and perhaps most importantly, big rainbow trout and chrome bright steelhead.
It's no wonder so much attention has been focused on Kamchatka by the angling community. And if there is one guy who has been there from the beginning... if there is one guy who has seen the best and worst Kamchatka has to offer... if there is one guy who knows the ins and outs, the highs and lows and the good and the bad... it's Monte Ward. Monte has explored, floated and fished more of Kamchatka's rivers than perhaps any other westerner alive. As Director of Kamchatka Operations for the Wild Salmon Center, Monte was the front line guy and he has learned the peninsula like no one else.
When the Wild Salmon Center got a bit too big for its britches and started charging $150.00 for a six day fishing license that really cost $60.00, and when the Wild Salmon Center demanded a "donation" of $600.00 in addition to the trip cost, Monte screamed foul. Unfortunately, big britches must cause hearing loss because Monte's protests fell on deaf ears. It was then that the WSC and Monte Ward parted company. Knowing the direction he wanted to head, Monte started his own company called Kamchatka Waters. We immediately booked a week of his inaugural 2004 season. We knew we were in good hands and certainly trusted his choice of rivers. Monte set his camp on the banks of the Yelovka River, which gives his anglers ready access to the Levaya and Rassoshnya Rivers...
Enter our group of six. During our week, we explored many nooks and crannies of both the Levaya and Russoshnya Rivers. We caught dollies, silver salmon, chum salmon, Kundzha char, a jack king and googobs of grayling up to 24 inches... many on mice patterns! Was it better than Alaska? No. Were the rivers beautiful and gin clear? You betcha! Did we see any other anglers? Hell no! Would we have taken the extra 4 hours and 10 minutes - some 1850 miles - for fishing that was as good as Alaska? Probably not... we would stop in Anchorage and go to Dillingham or Iliamna. But if you add the rainbow trout we caught AND the manner in which they were caught and then ask the question again, I think all of us would gladly have added on the flights, the long bus rides and the helicopter flight to reach these rivers.
As Dean Kalmbach of Colorado said one evening "On a scale of 1-10, I'd give today a 25!" Each day we caught rainbow trout averaging 19-20 inches. Some days, we caught ten a piece, some days we caught 25. But this doesn't tell the story. While we caught some 'bows and some big 'bows on streamers and egg patterns, the vast majority of rainbows were caught on mouse patterns... BIG mouse patterns! Actually, Kamchatka rainbows feed on voles, a small rodent very similar to a mouse. It was not uncommon to catch a big rainbow that was excreting a fur strip that looked much like an owl casting. Some strips were 3 or 4 inches long and dark charcoal colored. Imagine the caloric value of a vole this size to a trout. A meal this size would make a mayfly or even grasshopper seen inconsequential... like an M&M vs. a 16 oz. Porterhouse steak.
We had gone as far as we could go by boat. We had turned off the Yelovka into the Levaya and gone well past yesterday's beat. The water was gin clear with riffled runs, loggy bends and shallow braids. Antoine, our young Russian guide, was nervous. He was afraid of reading the runs wrong and damaging his beautiful new 40 hp. Yamaha. We told him to relax, go where we pointed and pull over when we said there was no way up. At these points, we would swing our wadered legs over the gunnels and begin hauling the "War Eagle" skiff up and over the shallow bar or obstructed channel that blocked our way. Once we were in the next run, Antoine, eyes dilated with adrenaline, would once again fire up the Yamaha and we would continue up the Levaya.
Now we could go no further. At the base of a steep cutbank, logjams and sweepers were stacked all the way across the river. Without a chainsaw or at least a big handsaw, we were done. We told Antoine to pull in. Relief washed across his face. At least for the moment, Antoine would survive the crazy intentions of these wacky Americans. We pulled in, tied off the boat to a tree and grabbed our" mousing rods". I looked upstream past the cutbank and saw a beautiful little riffle plunging into a deep pool formed by the terminus of an old back channel. I had to get there! The lure of virgin water is strong and was, after all, why we had come this far!
I kicked steps in the layered mud of the cutbank and climbed around the roots of trees that had fallen from the rim, their anchors finally eroded by a river on the march. On the far side of the cutbank, I repeated a loud hello into a forest that held the highest density of brown bears on planet earth. Finally, I made it to the dark, deep pool. I was bathed in a cloud of mosquitoes and sweat. The pool looked good. I threw a big hairy mouse with a foam collar and orange legs slightly upstream, then skated it into the pool. As my mouse that looked like no mouse swung into the eddy line, a bright flash made Mickey disappear. A quick hookset and a strong fight brought a 23" 'bow to my feet just as I saw Scott Shoppell begin to negotiate the slippery mud and loose gravel of the cutbank. By the time he had joined me, I had caught another 20" 'bow and a couple 16" grayling, their mouths barely big enough to ingest the mouse. Scott and I walked upstream to the next bend, then decided to fish back to the boat and fish the miles of water we had, perhaps a bit too energetically, motored past.
When we again passed the deep pool, Scott paused to try his mouse, while I re-rigged with a pale white and slightly pink, wooly bugger. Almost immediately, I caught a nice 20" white Siberian or Kundzha char. This beautiful fish had nickel-sized white spots somewhat reminiscent of a lake trout. This fish was a real treasure and this year's first Kundzha for me. A few more casts brought in a big grayling and a 19" rainbow. Scott had flashes on his mouse, but no takers. I had probably ruined the run for him previously. As he reeled up, I made the proverbial last cast. The line stopped and I struck hard knowing the 12 lb. tippet could handle the shock. Initially, the line didn't move, but then pulsed once, then twice as a big fish wallowed to the surface.
"It's a 'bow... a big 'bow!" I whispered.
"Whoa" Scott added, accurately summing up its apparent size.
I can't say the fish fought exceptionally hard. He didn't rip off a lot of line and he did not jump. I got the feeling that this was a very old guy. An ancient creature wise to the ways of fishing bears and aggressive salmon, but not prepared to have his seniority questioned in quite this way. He sulked on the bottom impossible to turn, then repeatedly rolled to the surface in a massive boil flashing silver and a deep burgundy stripe. Eventually it was over, the fight more time consuming than difficult. The measure of this fish was not in the quality of the battle, but in the rarity of his length and girth. He was a monument to survival and sheer time.
"We need a camera," I mumbled, knowing it was far away, stored in my dry bag on this rainy morn.
"I'll get it", Scott offered with a smile, approaching the difficulty of the hike back as he had every other obstacle or inconvenience on this trip.
'I'll owe you one." I said and I meant it.
Scott raced across the cutbank, grabbed my camera and in no time was back with Antoine in tow. As in turned out, Antoine was happy to join us as a big brown bear had just poked his head out of the forest not 50 feet from where he was laying out lunch.
By the time they got to me, the big 'bow was fining comfortably in the pool.
"That's the biggest 'bow I've seen on this river!" exclaimed our young guide. "He's beautiful."
We photographed him from ever angle taking extra care to keep him alive. Copepods coated his gill filaments perhaps explaining why this old fella didn't fight harder. We measured him at 30 inches and estimated his weight at 5.5 kilos... around 11-12 pounds. We placed him back in the pool and for a while lost him in the mud that we had stirred up. Eventually, he swam slowly out of the cloud and back into the fast clear water. He was fine, although I was left with the feeling that this venerable fellow wouldn't see too many more Kamchatka summers.
Quietly, we marched back to the boat to dine on Russian black bread sandwiches and strong dark #9 Russian beers. Antoine told us he could smell the bear before he saw him.
"He smelled awful." He said as he bit into his sandwich," Like a swamp..."
My thoughts were not on lunch or bears, but were back upriver with a gutsy older gentleman who dressed in gaudy stripes and spots.
We used 8 weight rods to search the waters with these vole a.k.a. mouse patterns... and search we did! We skated, skittered, popped and plopped our big mouse patterns through riffles, around log jams, under cut banks and over gravel bars and shelves. We fished classic "mousing' water, often complex or varied water and always thrilling water. Water you had to dissect and read and translate with a big ball of black or brown deer hair. Water like you read about!
But I'll also issue a warning about Kamchatka. Whereas the rainbows are big, take flies readily and are as plump as a Gerber baby on a diet of Russian sausage and dark beer, they do not jump in the boat. You'll have to cover water from the eddies and riffles at the top of a run to the bulldozed king salmon redds at the tailouts and from the log jammed and buggy side channels to the undercut banks of the slower slicks. You'll have to cast, wade, cast again and then wade again. You'll have to work the water and in the process, the water will work you. But this is good work, if you're so inclined... and if not, please stay at home. And if you decide to come and then don't put in the effort, don't blame the guides, or the river and certainly not Kamchatka! For some anglers, Kamchatka is heaven. For others, it is a disappointment. In Kamchatka, you don't need superb angling skills. Often mediocre talents can be overcome with energy and enthusiasm. And one last bit of advice, don't expect Kamchatka to be like the good ol' U.S. of A. Expect some glitches and blips... from maddeningly slow passport controls to off schedule pickups to foods to which you are not accustomed. And don't immediately start in with "what they oughta do" because it has taken ten years to get them to stop serving hot dogs and spaghetti for breakfast or fish head soup for lunch.
But if your constitution is tough and if you love wild trout and remote water with no other anglers within 100 miles, Kamchatka may be your cup of tea.
Monte's camp on the Yelovka is very comfortable. Anglers are housed in A-frame metal-sided chalets with comfortable cots, screened windows and solid floors. The two showers come with plenty of hot water and are the best we've seen in Kamchatka. There are flush toilets, a central fire pit adjacent to the dining/cook tent and a drying room next to the showers. Boardwalks join all the buildings. The War Eagle aluminum boats are new and are equipped with new 40 hp. 4-stroke Yamaha motors. As stated previously, Monte is the most experienced man in Kamchatka. He has learned what to do and what NOT to do on the other rivers. He has applied these lessons learned with the Yelovka camp. We had only a few suggestions, and only one complaint!
Meals are ample... always good and sometimes excellent. We had fresh salmon, chicken, and lots of superb soups. Lunches were fruit, sandwiches, candy bars and all the water and beer you wanted. We cooked a shore lunch two days enjoying fresh silver salmon and char. Breakfasts were good with eggs, toast and ham with one exception and this involved our only complaint. Unbelievably, on two mornings we had spaghetti and what the Russians called sausage. We called it hot dogs. First thing that came to mind was "What they oughta do is"...
You want an example of how Kamchatka can seem a little "off" at times? Well, here is just a small slice...
While riding on the bus that was decorated like a cross between a cheap bordello and a little girl's room complete with stuffed animals and frilly curtains, Dean Kalmbach tried to get some shut-eye in a window seat. It was working quite well until we hit a large bump.
I sat up quickly to find Dean remarking laconically,
"The window just fell out."
... and indeed it had! We stopped briefly, while the drivers looked for the dearly departed part, only to find the rubber gasket intact. After scooping it up, we continued our journey with no comment from either driver. Dean changed seats. I scooted over to peer out the open window. If the bottom of the window had still been there, it would have been almost flush with the seat. It was now quite an airy view!
Within minutes, a big bull moose dashed in front of the bus. As the driver braked hard, the big bull slid down the side of the bus past the open window. The moose was so close that, if I had wanted to reach out the open window, I could have grabbed his massive antlers... .
The drivers never remarked or smiled, they just took the opportunity to cover the window with plastic and masking tape. Soon we were on our way. Situation normal... I guess?
Thanks Monte for a great trip! And thanks to Eric Berger, Bill Ellis, Dean Kalmbach, Scott Shoppell and Richard Jensen for being such enthusiastic anglers and great guys to be with. I hope we can get together again soon. Maybe in Brazil for peacock bass!!
Report by Scott Heywood, photograpohs by Eric Berger, Scott Heywood and Todd Sabine.