Helicopters make my nose itch. Maybe it's just Russian helicopters that make my nose itch, but since I've never been on any other kind of helicopter, I'll just have to assume for now, that all helicopters make my nose itch. Anyway, here I was on one of those powerful, orange, retrofitted remnants of the Afghani War, the MI-8, and we were barely skimming the tops of pine trees on our way to the Ozernaya River on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula... I was literally itching to go fishing.
It had taken a long time to get to this point. It had taken us almost two years, in fact, to get to this point. We had to cancel last summer's trip when the Russian carrier Magadan Air, had gone bankrupt terminating any possible flights from Anchorage to Petropavlask making getting to the river impossible.
Over the winter, Will Blair, owner of "Best of Kamchatka", along with his Russian partner, Victor Rebrikov, had hammered out a deal with Dalalvia Air to fly Anchorage to Petropavlovsk and thus the trip was resuscitated. Then, in the spring, Dalalvia had cancelled its flights and it looked like Kamchatka was on the verge of falling off the angling map. Will, ever the bulldog, forged a route through Seoul, Korea to Khabarosk, then on to Petropavlovsk that promised to finally get us to the "Land of Oz". That was the good news, the bad news was what had been a 5 1/2 hour flight from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk was now 12 hours from LAX to Seoul, 3 hours from Seoul to Khabarovsk, an overnight, then 3 more hours to Petropavlovsk and another overnight. What had been a very convenient flight schedule, especially in retrospect, had now morphed into a Seychelles-like time commitment. It would take a major expenditure of time, effort, and money to reach Kamchatka now and as I stared out the porthole of the big chopper and scratched my itchy nose, I hoped it would all be worth it.
After a fuel stop near Esso, we backtracked a bit, veered east and sliced around some bad weather before we turned north again. Before long, we were crossing the Levaya River then the Two Yurts River and the scenes of earlier Kamchatkan angling epics. After two years and thousands of miles, we were finally on our way to the Oz... the Ozernaya River.
With over 1000 rivers and 127 named volcanoes, Kamchatka is a land of fire and water. We were flying up the peninsula skimming the treetops between the Sea of Okhotsk to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. Below us birch and larch forests peppered the tundra. The Kamchatka Peninsula is about 1000 miles long and has a population of less than 300,000 people of which 90% live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Petro, as the Russians call it, is the political, cultural and industrial center and the capital of Kamchatka. If you subtract the inhabitants that live in Petro and imagine a land mass as large as California with somewhere around 30,000 people sprinkled in small settlements on it, you have some idea of what a magnificent wilderness Kamchatka is.
It wasn't long before we piled out of the chopper onto the tundra. As the chopper lifted off, we grabbed our bags and then hunkered down amidst the uneven tundra to avoid the prop wash. We were here... the Oz... let the games begin!
Hayden Groendyke had never trout fished before. He was a saltwater guy. Hayden had been in the Seychelles a few times with us, but born and bred Oklahoma; he had never caught a trout. He wondered whether he would like it or not. Going to Kamchatka was like starting your football career in the Super Bowl. If he didn't like fishing for these big 'bows, I was in trouble... for I had talked him into this trip telling him he would love trout fishing.
In the very first run on Day One, I gave Hayden a few quick lessons on proper techniques for Kamchatka. Hayden listened well and caught five grayling and char before I could wade a casting distance away from him. Keeping a casting distance apart, we worked our way down to a small island and eventually to some lazy water on the downstream side of the braid.
We switched Hayden to a big mouse and I grabbed his rod, prepared to give him some mousing tips including how to wake the fly and strip it like a popper. As I began imparting my wisdom to Hayden, the big deer hair mouse drifted still in front of us. Just as I was getting into the finer points of my diatribe, a big 24" bow attacked the reposing mouse.
OK Hayden... forget everything I said. Obviously in the "Land of Oz" the rules were somewhat different. I reeled in the big 'bow on Hayden's rod, unhooked the fish and chagrined, handed him his rod. Hayden almost immediately caught his first trout. It was a 22" rainbow. This was his first ever trout! We had ruined him! Where do we go from here?
Our camp on the Oz was very comfortable. With room for 8 anglers, we stayed in "A" frame cabins that were dry and roomy. Meals were taken in a wooden dining hut with a big banquet table with seating for at least 16, including 4 guides, 8 clients, and Will on "his" seat at the head of the table.
Our meals were wonderful and always started with a delicious soup followed by a main entrČe of, for example: goulash, pork chops and freshly caught silver salmon. We had mashed potatoes, plenty of vegetable dishes and fresh tomatoes. There was always way too much to eat on the table and plenty of beer to wash it all down. We ate with gusto or as a way to avoid the seemingly endless vodka toasts. As the days wore on and we got to know the guides better, the vodka toasts became more numerous and naturally led to some "prolonged' evenings and "cloudy" morning heads. For breakfast, we enjoyed crepes with fresh bullberry jam, scrambled eggs and hearty porridge. Lunches were taken on the river and included Russian brown bread, cheese, hard salamis, noodle concoctions, hot tea and soft drinks. I especially looked forward to two things: Russian mustard on my sandwich at lunch and silver salmon caviar on Russian brown bread washed down with vodka at night. We picked up enough silvers to keep a pile of fresh caviar in front of me each night. I felt it important to be on the same diet as the rainbows I was catching.
On Day Two, Will Blair, Jim Dean, Hayden Groendyke and I decided to explore a tributary of the Ozernaya called the Lomutskaya. Our plan was to GPS an entry point from the Oz and cross country across a big bend thus eliminating a long walk up the tributary from its confluence with the Oz. If we could navigate properly, we could fish an unexplored section, then follow the Lomutskaya downriver for the rest of the day.
We took off over hummocked tundra that passed through beautiful larch and birch groves. After a good hike, we were getting pretty steamy in our waders when we began crisscrossing bear tracks. It wasn't long before we slid down the bank and into the cooling waters of the tributary. Refreshed, we hiked further upstream until we satisfied our need for truly virgin water. We then rigged flies and split into two groups. After another slug of water directly from the Lomutskaya, we began our fishing day. The tributary was low, but good numbers of chum and pinks were spawning and this bode well. Surely some rainbows would be around eager to scoff up some errant eggs.
It started slowly... an 8" char, then a 10" rainbow. It was a beautiful day and if this were all the trib would offer, then I felt at least I could appreciate both the day and the beauty of this small stream. I started with a big stimulator and then tried a sculpin pattern, but no big 'bows came to investigate.
I saw a good-sized rainbow scoot away from below a shallow chum redd. I decided to try a flesh fly with a few pink beads slung on the tippet above the fly. No self-respecting rainbow could scorn this entrČe. Almost immediately I got a good "bump", so I started skimming the fly through likely holding spots in a shallow riffle. I let the fly linger in the most promising spots and soon saw a big 'bow come out of virtually no water to charge and then miss my fly. This encouraged me to slow way down and fish every bit of holding water. I fished the flesh fly like a streamer often letting it just sit there and surf in the better looking runs. That was when I started to catch fish! 21... 22... 23" inch rainbows materialized from virtually nothing and the next two hours were thrilling. It seemed that every little run held a big 'bow and if I hadn't discovered this lingering streamer retrieve technique, I wonder if I would have caught anything at all. I could have easily walked the Lomutskaya and finished the day convinced the river held few, if any, quality fish.
As the morning gave way to afternoon, cumulus clouds brought thunder and then the inevitable rain, which both cooled off our good fishing and made the river harder to read... but man, what a few good hours we had had! Eventually, we headed out of the tributary and up the Oz to fish below a small 500' volcanic cinder cone where char, grayling and a few rainbows were stacked like cordwood... but that's another story.
In camp, we had plenty of hot water for showers, a flush toilet in the outhouse and a fire ring overlooking the river where we enjoyed appetizers and beer before dinner and if the mosquitoes weren't to bad, cigars after.
Our bugs were at times bad and if you can't handle some bugs, this is most definitely not the trip for you. And as long as we're on the subject of Kamchatka 'realities"... here goes: If you're expecting a deluxe lodge or camp, this trip is not for you. In the Ozernaya camp, your basic needs are more than covered. You have a warm dry place to sleep, plenty of tasty hearty food and a daily hot shower. But if you're looking for amenities, this is not the trip for you. This camp is for the angler that likes to fish the most remote and prolific spots on our big blue ball. If this is your #1 priority, the Oz is for you.
On Day Three, we ran downstream until we saw two inflatables. There were three military-type guys in each boat. We were on plane over shallow water and when they signaled us to stop by crossing their wrists above their heads, we kept speeding downstream. They became more adamant and tried to block our way. We veered and didn't throttle down. Soon an AK-47 came up and it seemed a prudent time to slow down and come off our plane. The two boats came alongside and speaking no Russian, we experienced a few tense moments before they gestured for us to head back upriver. Their attitude and the AK-47's made the decision an easy one for us. Whether they were military guys on official business and simply unaware of our permission to fish the river or poachers intent on keeping their activities undiscovered, we got the message and headed back up river. We would let Will sort this out. In the meantime, we would fish.
I chose a small back channel as a good place to quell my AK-47 induced heart palpitations. It was a good choice. Over the next three hours, I moved only 200 yards. Using an olive sculpin designed by Ken Morrish, I must have caught 30 rainbows. My largest was 26 inches, my smallest 20". I had ten in a row that were 22"! It was one of the best few hours I have ever had trout fishing... anywhere in the world. When Eric, our guide, came back to get me for lunch, I told him "Make me stop and step away from the rod." Catching these big 'bows was addicting and I needed a little "rehab" time over lunch.
This seems like an appropriate time to talk about guides. These Russian fellows are hardworking and very friendly. They know where to go. The river is broken up into beats and within their beat, each guide handles his own water resting and using his water as he sees fit. These guides can help you with fly selection or can make suggestions as to whether a particular section is better fished with a mouse or a streamer. But they are not like guides in the U.S. who stay next to you taking you through the whole angling process. If you need that, don't go to Kamchatka. The guides use metal Lowe skiffs with 40 HP jet thrust motors. You'll cover a lot of the river, 40 miles or so, over the course of a week. You'll fish everything from big water runs to shallow riffles and from skinny tributaries to slow lazy channels. The Oz offers a tremendous variety of water and this is part of its attraction. The other is, of course, the fish. We caught 5 species of salmon including: kings, chum, sockeye, pinks, and very fresh, chrome-bright silvers. The char and grayling are numerous and get big... really big! We caught many 20+" char. David Miller caught one monster that was 31 1/2". The grayling are big too... up to 22" and readily take egg, mouse and dry flies. I could not tell you how many grayling I caught... hundreds I suppose.
But the real reason we all came so far and suffered so much travel time was the Ozernaya rainbows. On the Oz, they probably average almost 20". Everyone caught scores in the 22" range, dozens in the 23" range, quite a few 24 " and a few 25-26 inch fish. My biggest fish was 28". Danny Sheldon caught one that was 29 inches. The river's record is 31.5 inches!
These big rainbows can be caught using streamers cast 45 degrees downstream and stripped slowly back up... and I emphasize slowly. I did my best work with an olive sculpin and a black, articulated wooly bugger. The other technique that works extremely well and is definitely a reason to come to Kamchatka is a mouse (or whatever pattern you choose to call a mouse). Not only do true mouse patterns (such as Blair's or Morrish's patterns) do well, but also big deer hair streamers bring big 'bows to the surface often from very shallow water either in riffles or from undercut banks or below salmon redds near shore.
This mousing can be simply thrilling. To see a 24" rainbow charge a skating mouse will put a lump in your throat. Mousing may not be the most productive program, but it is the most exciting. My 28" 'bow took a 5" Whitlock streamer in 2' of water, 10" from a grassy bank. I saw the fish materialize in a flash of pink, watched the white mouth open and saw the fly disappear into the maw. It just doesn't get any better than that!
Our pickup day dawned rainy and windy. This weather lasted through breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our 10:30 AM pickup time came and went. We read, tended the fires in our cabins and knew no chopper would come if the weather remained in its foul mood.
I thought we had until 8:00 PM for a pickup then it would just be too late to get back to Petro. That would mean we would miss our flight tomorrow and who knew what flight arrangements we could make to get home. At 8:15 PM, I gave up and went to dinner. I drank two beers, a pile of caviar and then loaded up on silver salmon fillets. By 8:45, I was resigned to the inevitable and reached for another bottle of strong Russian beer.
Just then, Svetlanya rushed into the dining cabin saying excitedly "A chopper is on its way!"
Whoa! How long? Will the pilots spend the night here and then we'll head out at first light? Before I could even push back from the big table, I heard the whomp, whomp, whomp of the big chopper. It was above the landing site before I could get to my cabin.
Then someone yelled, "Victor is running at full tilt towards us".
Then I knew we were leaving... and right now! It was 9:00 PM and we were on our way to who know where.
"5 minutes!" Victor yelled.
There was no time for goodbyes. I shepherded my group away from the rear rotor as the big blade cleaved the air ominously overhead. While our group climbed in, gear and food was being off-loaded. It was chaos and when we caught each other's eye, we gave each other the "this is insane" look and smiled. I tossed our collected tip pool to Will, gave him a quick hug and shook a few hands before Victor literally threw me in the back of the chopper. I counted heads and before I could get to 9, the big kerosene powered engine revved up and with our light load, seemingly leapt into the sky. We turned south, running with the storm's strong wind, and in the blink of an eye, the Oz was gone.
We picked up anglers from the Two Yurts and Levaya Rivers and with dusk approaching, sped further south. Before we could settle into boredom and just before my nose began to itch too much, we were back at the same refueling spot from the trip in.
As the engine revved down, Victor told us the weather in Petro was very bad and foggy and if we were to make our flight tomorrow, we would have to take a bus. It was on its way from Petro.
We stashed our luggage near some old half-tracks and tanks and walked the quarter mile into town to a small hotel where we could get away from the mosquitoes.
At midnight, the bus arrived. We loaded our luggage needing the entire aisle and many of the seats to get it all in.
Hayden turned to me and said; "Man, I plan on getting some sleep on the bus" I told him, "Don't count on it."
I had taken this bus ride before to Petro and I knew it would be a tough one.
At 12:09 AM we pulled out of the village. Between us and our 9:50 AM flight, we had 327 miles of washboard-scarred, mind-numbing, teeth-rattling dirt road to cover in a bus with poor shocks and a driver who had already driven for over 12 hours straight and been up for 18 hours.
Chad, Victor's daughter Inga, and Hayden vowed to stay up to keep him awake. I hunkered down in my seat knowing what was to come. I spent the next 8 1/2 hours checking my fillings as they seemingly were vibrated out of their respective teeth. As we drifted alarmingly on the washboard road or veered toward the shoulder as the driver nodded off, I tried to avoid looking out the broken front windshield.
"Hey, Wake up!" Inga, Chad or Hayden would shout. The driver would be startled back to consciousness and light a new cigarette. At least for a few minutes, we would be safe.
At 8:45 AM we arrived at the airport. We made our flight. Some of the eighteen Americans aboard thought it was the worst night of their lives. Everyone in our group from the Oz thought it to be an exhilarating, if not a bit crazy, adventure. Guess it's all in how you look at something.
So, if you can stand bugs, rough edges, long flights, bad weather, the anxiety of remote places and the uncertainties of wild places - all in the pursuit of big wild rainbows, Kamchatka is for you. But, if you go and find yourself whining about how things are different in Russia, you have nobody to blame but yourself. Kamchatka is not America. Kamchatka is not Alaska. It is Kamchatka... and Kamchatka is in Russia. You'll trade a lot to get to the world's best rainbow trout fishing. It will be Heaven for some and hell for others. Choose wisely.
We went to great lengths to make sure we had the right people on our trip. I think to a person, everyone had a great time and more than appreciated the experience. Many of the guys said this was the trip of a lifetime and most want to go back again. Some of the other groups we saw were not as thrilled with the experience. Either they had not been told what they were getting into or they didn't have the cultural awareness or personal fortitude to appreciate the experience. If you are contemplating Kamchatka, here are a few thoughts to mull over before you book your "high adventure" to Russia.
We heard many Americans, often in a loud voice, complain, make fun of or whine about the Russian state of affairs. These fellows seemed compelled to point out the inadequacy of everything from food to elevators and from hotel rooms to airline procedures. Maybe they were homesick, but please know this: things are different in Russia and often less comfortable. In addition, before you consider Kamchatka please understand that:
1.) More Russians speak English than Americans speak Russian. When you loudly complain about their country to anyone that will listen, the Russians find it insulting. Just as you would if a Russian complained about your country in a loud and superior voice.
2.) The Russians are a hard working resourceful and very proud people. They have been burdened with an unsuccessful economic system, but that doesn't make them stupid or ignorant. If the roles were reversed, most Americans would not do as well. Feel lucky you were born in America with all our opportunities and advantages. It is only through the grace of God that you were born an American. Show some class and don't constantly point out their shortcomings. And if you want everything to be as it is at home then by all means...stay home.
3.) If you are smart enough to earn the money to go to Kamchatka, you're smart enough to learn and use two words in Russian. They are please and thank you. Use these words, it is amazing how well people will respond to you if you do.
Written by Scott Heywood