Beyond Alaska: Russia’s Exciting Flyfishing Frontier
by Rene Limeres
The last twenty years or so have seen phenomenal changes in the world of flyfishing, not all of them positive. Burgeoning numbers of affluent, highly mobile anglers using an endless variety of high tech gear have had a noticeable impact on the quality of fishing in waters near and far. And despite our best efforts to minimize or downplay the effects, it's a simple fact that our rivers, lakes and shores cannot absorb the kind of use we're seeing nowadays without degradation.
Alaska's immense and celebrated wilderness fisheries have not all escaped this onslaught. As a longtime resident and fishing guide, I've seen firsthand the changes brought on by this swelling tide of invading anglers. On the more accessible waters around Anchorage, during the height of the fishing season, things can look more like New Jersey- with crowds, combat fishing and litter-a far cry from the kind of conditions we like to associate with America's wildest state.
Fortunately, a new fishing frontier of great promise has been opening up all the while this has been happening. Located virtually at America's back door, only a few hours by plane from Anchorage, Alaska. Russia- mystiqueful, misunderstood and mislead, holds a universe of flyfishing opportunity that has only just been tapped. Forget all your Cold War notions and Chernobyl nightmares. This is a country so vast and with infrastructure so undeveloped that most of it's hinterlands remain totally unspoiled and unfished, filled with a variety and abundance of species that rivals and in some ways even exceeds Alaska's. Six species of salmon, along with rainbow, steelhead and brown trout, several species of charr and grayling and two species of pike wait to entice anglers. Added to that is the bonus appeal of exciting exotics like the lenok-similar to a brown trout, and the legendary Siberian taimen, fabled trout of Russia's great rivers that grows to extraordinary size (100+ lbs!).
Some of the more enterprising and adventurous flyfishing guides, quick to realize the awesome potential of this last frontier of coldwater angling, have been exploring and developing fishing programs over there the last ten years or so, dealing with impossible logistics, complicated politics and totally outdated ways of thinking (the "Russian way"), to create legitimate adventure angling opportunities that are unique in the world of flyfishing .
Most of us have heard of the great Atlantic salmon fishing now offered on the Kola Peninsula in northern Siberia, with unequalled catch rates and great fishing conditions. But did you know that Russia also contains some of the last great virgin steelhead and trophy rainbow trout fishing? That's right, rainbows and steelhead, the prize of our western rivers, are also native to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East. This has been known for some time, but no one could've imagined the kind of fishing that exists on the hundreds of swift, sparkling streams that drain those rugged, volcano-studded coasts just west of the Aleutians. It's everything Alaska was years ago and more, with husky, hungry trout averaging 24 inches and 4-6 pounds and fall run steelies in excess of 20 pounds. And that's only the rivers that have been explored; the vast majority haven't been touched by western anglers. Even the streams accessed by roads and four wheel drive trails offer a definitively higher quality of fishing over anything similar in Alaska and elsewhere.
For someone with a taste for the more exotic, there is unique fishing adventure to be had stalking the rivers of the mainland for the elusive Siberian taimen(Hucho taimen), the living legends from the dim past of salmon, trout and charr evolution. These ancient fish achieve the largest size and age of any salmonid, with lengths reputed over seven feet and weights up to 200 lbs. or more! Try that on your eight weight! Seriously, they are taken most frequently in deep, fast waters and present an ultimate challenge on a fly, for the most dedicated and skilled followers of the sport. Best fishing so far has been on remote mountain tributaries of the enormous Amur River, along the Russia-China border on the Far East coast, where several IGFA record fish have been taken. A sea-run form is also found there.
The lenok, Brachymystax lenok, is much easier to find and fish for. Similar in size and coloration to brown trout, it occurs in abundance in all clear flowing rivers of Siberia. It will take a variety of patterns with little hesitation and provides great sport. Both Siberian taimen and lenok are newly recognized sport species by the International Game Fish Association, with record book entries a distinct possibility and bonus for fly anglers visiting Russia.
The gorgeous Amur grayling, one of several grayling unique to Siberia, is another bonus for flyfishermen. Much like our arctic grayling, but smaller and much more colorful, it has distinct, vertical bands of fluorescence and brilliant gold-bronze shading. It is plentiful and fond of taking flies on the surface just like it's cousins across the Pacific, so you'll definitely want to take that 4 or 5 weight along when you go over there.
Pacific salmon fishing in Russia is very similar to that in Alaska, with the best fishing on the lower reaches of clear flowing, coastal streams. From
the experience of foreign outfitters and locals, it appears
that most of their runs are still strong, with good numbers of kings, sockeyes, chums, pinks and silvers in the rivers of Kamchatka and along the northern sea of Okhotsk. Another species, the cherry or masu salmon, a fish similar in size and character to our sockeye, enter rivers there in early summer, providing additional sport opportunities.
IF YOU GO
Planning a flyfishing vacation in Russia is not like anything you may be familiar with from other exotic locations. Since it's a foreign country, you need a valid Passport of course, but Russia also requires a Visa that is not granted unless you have an invitation from a legitimate Russian tourist organization. Self guided explorations are not possible(or advisable for that matter) at present, so you must contact and negotiate directly with the Russians or with American business partners running joint venture programs over there. Presently, only a handful of reputable outfitters run quality trips in Russia, so you'll need to carefully check credentials before making arrangements, as there has been a surge of startup companies of questionable experience advertising Russia fishing trips the last few years.
The best fishing programs are all tailored to westerners, with layover stays in modern, western style hotels, plenty of delicious, wholesome food, extremely competent and friendly native guides and interpreters, first rate gear and lots of stream time to maximize your fishing opportunities. Helicopters, four wheel drive vehicles and boats are used for remote transport as there are no floatplanes at present in Russia. Trips vary from one to three weeks, with prices anywhere from 2500-8000 dollars, non-inclusive of airfare to
and from Russia.
The flyfishing season generally runs from late May into October, but varies from region to region. Like Alaska, Russia is subject to great vagaries of weather, which affect the fishing. Your outfitter will provide updated information and support to help you prepare properly for the trip, but plan on using most of the same high quality gear used for fishing Alaska. Salmon anglers will need 7-10 weight rods; trout and steelheaders 6-8 weight; grayling and lenok are best fished with 4-5 weight rods, while "hunting" the awesome Siberian taimen demands an eleven at minimum. Your outfitter should also provide a list of most useful fly patterns and recommended lines, as well as pertinent information on local conditions.