I heard the rotors change pitch on the Mi-8 and knew that we must be beginning our descent. I looked down at the river 800' below and could see the bed of it was filled with mossy rocks. "This is going to be tough wading", I thought. At that moment, someone hollered that the helicopter had flushed a brown bear from the brush and all eyes snapped to the bear as it bolted away. When I looked down at the river again we were only 100' or so above it and what had appeared to be mossy rocks were really pink salmon. The wading wouldn't be so tough after all.
As it turned out, the pinks made the fishing challenging, especially for the first few upriver days where the water was shallow and the pinks were jammed shoulder to shoulder on every bit of gravel bottom. The problem was to be able to fish without having the aggressive males pinks take the fly or having it snag up on their backs. The solution turned out to be egg patterns fished with either a short drop from a strike indicator or a high stick drift on a short line. It was a deadly technique for char.
This river also had a reputation for nice rainbows, but to my surprise they weren't very abundant in the spawning riffles and nobody was catching many. This would take some sorting out, but we had a good crew of veteran cold-water flyfishers and I was confident that we would have it figured out in short order.
Two members of the outfitter's party, Charra and Chaza, were four-legged Siberian bear dogs. Mid-day on day two, George Brownell and I were fishing out of Big Sergei's raft. We had stopped to fish a long run when George, who was downstream from Sergei and me, started gesturing in an animated manner and hollering that there was a bear behind him. I, in turn, gestured in an animated manner and hollered to Sergei, who was upstream from me. He brought his dog to where George was and pointed to the bear, which had moved away from George's backcast and was 100 yards away staring at us from across a backwater.
As soon as the dog spotted the bear, he let out a bark and and took off at full steam around the shoreline for the bear. The bear placidly stood its ground at first but as the dog closed the distance, the bear figured out that if it didn't do something this tan little missile was going to run right down his throat and exit somewhere under his tail, never breaking stride in the process. The bear did the only sensible thing. It turned and ran. When we last saw the 400 lb. bear, it was rocketing up the hillside with 45 lbs of barking fury at its heels. As they say, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight...." George recounted the bear story that evening over dinner and as a result, the dogs got an extra ration and everyone slept more soundly.
By the end of day two, we pretty much had the upriver rainbows figured out. Nobody was catching many anywhere, but the ones we did find were in the deeper pools and side channels. Streamers and mice were what produced fish, with streamers working best in deeper water and mice working in pocket water and at the edge of riparian vegetation. That approach was effective whenever we found the right water.
The char fishing continued to be fantastic which helped balance things out in the stretches where the rainbow fishing was slow. The char ranged in size from a half pound up to about 5 lbs and seemed wider and deeper than the ones I was used to in Alaska. They fought larger than they were with that never-say-die tenacity so typical of char.
The male char had started into their spawning colors; dark green and spotted dorsally and an absolute electric orange below the lateral line with pectoral fins of the same orange edged in brilliant white. In late summer and fall, male char are the most beautiful freshwater fish I know of and these were the best of the best. Every one I landed caused me to pause and admire its beauty.
When I signed on for the trip, the one thing I was a little apprehensive about was the quality of service by the Russians. As it turned out, my concerns were totally unfounded. Galena and Sasha, the husband and wife owners, met us at the airport in Petropavlovsk and the logistics throughout were as smooth as any I've experienced anywhere. We always had the sequence of events explained to us beforehand, the staff was friendly and the Russian food was very good (thank you Galena and Rita!!). They provided beer for the day and around the fire, plus vodka and champagne for toasts during the evening meals.
The Russian beer was a good local Kamchatka brew packaged in 16 oz cans. The cans all had the same logo, but they came in 3 different colors correspondingly labeled #5, #7 and #9. It didn't take us long to figure out that while we didn't know the meaning of those numbers in precise terms, they did represent relative potency. Beer consumption quickly became an on-going math story problem with such subtleties as the difficulty of wading conditions and the time of day entering into the equation. A basic equation that even the mathematically challenged could master was that 2 #7's = a #5 + a #9. Sitting around the fire at the end of the day if you found that you could no longer do the math, it was time for bed.
During the third day, the river began to change character. There were deeper runs and the pools became larger and more frequent. As a result, the rainbow fishing picked up noticeably and on average, both the char and the rainbows we caught were bigger.
At the end of that day, I was fishing by myself below some fast water. There were spawning pinks all over the place so I decided to try a mouse pattern for bows along the banks and in the pockets. The light was fading and the river looked like a pool of mercury. I worked the mouse below me and saw a bulge behind the fly as a fish missed the strike. I presented the mouse again and this time I hooked up. As I played the fish to my feet, I could see that it was a beautiful buck char of 3-4 lbs in all its garish fall colors. I'd never caught a char on a mouse before and I was cranked. When I floated into camp, I excitedly told Big Sergei about catching the char on a mouse. "No problem," he said, "It's usual." ...so much for being on the cutting edge of things.
There were other magic hours, as well. At a lunch stop at the bottom of a tailout below a big pool, I caught over a dozen char and 3 rainbows, most in the 3-5 lb range. I never moved from where we parked the rafts. Dave and Avery were fishing across the river and were having every bit as good a time until a bear popped up behind Avery and pushed the decision that it was time to break for a lunch.
After lunch, Goo Vogt & I floated downriver 300 yds. and fished a 100 yd. stretch that was even better than the lunch stop.
On the morning of the fourth day, the Brownell brothers, Ken & George, were upstream at a huge pool, Kate Van Driest and her father, Dick, were below the pool and across the river from me. Dave and Avery were downstream from that. Everyone was into fish. As a result, we were late starting our float because no one wanted to quit. Young Sergei, a competent boatman and aspiring guide, had been sitting on the raft for over an hour watching me fish. When I got back to the raft he asked in broken English, "How many?... 30?" I had seen him that morning trying to learn how to fish the egg patterns with only moderate success and I didn't want to make him feel bad. I said that count was about right, but in reality I think his estimate was conservative. What a morning! I opened a #5 and we floated on.
The week sped by in this fashion, one day blending into the next, and all too soon we were loading the helicopter and on our way back to Petropavlovsk.
In Petro, we had a day to shop and see the city aboard a bus named Nazareth (in honor of the rock group... yeah, that Nazareth, of Hair of the Dog fame). It seems the buses' defining moment had been when it shuttled Nazareth around town during a tour some years before. In the hustle of a busy, foreign city none of us ever had trouble locating our ride.
Galena was an excellent tour guide and ambassador so we got a good feel for the future of emerging Kamchatka; a solid port area, new malls with a variety of modern, well-stocked stores, curio and souvenir shops catering to a blossoming tourist industry and young skateboarders grinding at the feet of a statue of Lenin.
We finished our last day in Russia with an evening meal at a local oriental restaurant and it was a truly communal meal. The whole Russian crew was there with us. Galena & Sasha, Big Sergei and Andre, the former Russian submariner, all brought their daughters. The girls were all of middle and high school age, charming, intelligent, had a good command of English and are, as my buddy Dick said, the future of modern Russia.
Tackle & gear recommendations for an August trip:
Generally, go as light as possible. Keep your total luggage to under 50 lbs and have it in a good dry bag. Take 1 set of casual dress clothes for traveling and the time in Petro.
Clothing & camp gear: Good raingear, a good layer system for clothing, waterproof camp boots, 30 degree synthetic sleeping bag, full length thermarest and a filtration style water bottle.
Rods: 6 wt and 8 wt med to fast action rods each equipped with a floating and a high density sink-tip line.
Leaders: 9' & 12' 8lb leaders (nylon or fluorocarbon) for egg patterns. Also have some BB & 3/0 lead shot for the really deep, fast runs. If you use Billy's Krystal egg pattern mentioned below it will reduce your dependence on lead shot.
9' 10 or 12 lb leaders for mice (nylon) and streamers (nylon or fluorocarbon).
Spare tippet material to match all leaders.
Egg patterns: Glo bugs in medium pink, especially Billy's Krystal egg (pattern attached see below). I caught the lion's share of my fish on this pattern.
Baitfish patterns: egg-sucking leech & woolhead sculpin both worked well. The next time I might try a zonker, deceiver, Tabory's snake, black beadhead leech and crazy Charlie. A size 4 would be a good standard for streamers.
Floating patterns: A mouse was the only topwater pattern any of us used as far as I know, but a waking pattern might also produce. Be sure to bring floatant for the mice. I saw very little insect activity, no hatches and no surface feeding behavior by fish.
Other fishing gear: I recommend a belt pack instead of a vest. It reduces the weight and bulk of your luggage and is more convenient to fish with, especially out of a raft.
Waders, wading boots (no cleats!), polarized sunglasses, line clippers, hemostats, hook hone, durable but inexpensive landing net.
Billy's Krystal Egg Fly
Hook: Tiemco 105, Orvis 8891, etc, size 6 or 8
Thread: pink flat waxed nylon or clear (mono) G.
Bead: 5/32" brass colored bead (tungsten is heavier, but standard brass beads will work).
Tail: 4 strands of pink pearlescent Krystalflash.
Body: McFly Foam yarn in Strawberry, Iliamna Pink, McRoe, Late Pink (or January) colors. I like to have a mix of light and medium pink in my fly box. Iliamna pink seems to be the most productive. I find that the McFly Foam makes it much easier to tie round eggs than does Glo-bug yarn.
1. Crimp the barbs on all hooks.
2. Slide bead onto hook to eye.
3. Wrap thread base from behind bead to bend of hook.
4. Tie in 4 strands of Krystalflash for the tail, leaving the thread at the center of the hook.
5. Tie in a hank of McFly Foam roughly the diameter of a pencil and about 2" long by its middle using 2-3 tight wraps of thread one on top of the other.
6. Lifting up on the ends of the foam, tie a figure 8 around the hook shank crossing in front of and behind the foam where it's tied in. Start with the thread under the hook below the wraps and wrap it over the shank just in front of the foam, then under the wraps and immediately behind the foam, over the shank again, then under and forward to just in front of the foam. Be sure to cross your thread under the foam, not over the clump. This figure 8 does two things; it lifts the edges of the foam, making it easier to attain a round shape and it secures the yarn to the shank preventing it from rolling around.
7. Wrap thread forward to just behind the bead.
8. Whip finish and cement.
9. Pull up on the ends of the yarn and cut to desired size with a sharp pair of scissors. The finished diameter should be roughly 6-8 mm (1/3 inch). Cut a few of the Iliamna Pink patterns smaller to imitate sockeye eggs. You might also leave a few of these unbeaded.
The credit for developing this pattern goes to Bill Wagner of Sheridan, WY.
Trip report submitted by Chuck Ash
Chuck Ash has been guiding fly fishermen in Alaska on float trips for over thirty years. His company, Brightwater Alaska, offers sensational trips on some of Alaska most remote and productive rivers. Chuck is a consummate angler, a tremendous outdoorsman and one of the funniest people we have ever shared a run or a flat with. Chuck was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a legendary guide. Chuck has acted as a host on many of Angling Destinations' exploratory trips and will be co-leading our trip to Cosmoledo Atoll in the Seychelles in March 2005.