THE SALMON REALY ARE THAT BIG
Even in the warm sunshine of a July heatwave, Murmansk airport cannot be said to look welcoming. The concrete is crumbling, the house sparrows have sensibly set up home inside the arrivals/departures lounge and the Russian officials have stepped straight off the set of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Nobody smiles. There are no other flights, but we are herded on to a bus for the 50-yard trek from aeroplane to terminal, for all the world as if we would do a runner if we were allowed to walk. There follows the interminable wait at immigration; eventually, after much stamping of documents, we are in. Welcome to the Russian Federation, sort of.
Murmansk, Russias Arctic Circle port, brutally put on the map by the Kursk disaster, is in the border zone. This has been taken over by the KGB, as part of its search for a post-communist role, so we have to go through another checkpoint. Then it is back on the same bus, which is driven round the block to the helicopter, for the final 100-mile flight east.
We are going, comrades, to the Kola peninsula, to the Varzina, a river thick with salmon. Here be monsters so big that they are weighed in kilos rather than pounds, and where 10 kilos is a good fish, and 15 kilos far from rare. Fifteen kilos! That is more than 30lbs in real money. A man can fish for salmon all his life and never see such a beast.
Forty ear-shattering minutes later, 14 of us are delivered to a camp on a bluff overlooking the river near its mouth. There is a big, low building housing bar, dining room and kitchen, surrounded by two-man wooden cabins. The sun is shining brightly, though it is the middle of the night. We are 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle, and only a small hill to the north spares us from 24-hour sunshine.
And there is a welcoming committee - of mosquitoes. There are only two remedies - a proper bug hat to wear when fishing (the fly-fishing specialist Michael Evans sells a fine, bee-keeper-like contraption which works brilliantly because it holds the net off your ears and nose, thus preventing the varmints from biting you through the mesh), and Avon Skin-So-Soft, which scents your skin so violently the mozzies go off and attack your buddy instead.
The countryside is rugged, low hills with little flashes of water (ideal for the winged perils to breed), but not too rough for walking. There are birch woods in sheltered spots, yet even the trees are poor, wizened things, cowed into strange shapes by the Arctic winter and well spaced out. Here the helicopter is your only contact with the outside world. Otherwise, it could take you a week to stagger to the nearest human habitation, and that is the ill-fated submarine base.
So, a word about the whirlybird. It looks battered, but it has two pilots who inspire great confidence - especially after a couple of days of their putting you down on postage stamps by the river - and an engineer. A week of exclusive use of three men and a chopper is the main reason for the eye-watering cost of fishing with Go Fishing, our tour operator. In addition, every guide has first-aid knowledge, and there is two-way radio communication with the lodge, where there is a resident doctor.
It is an unforgettable experience. Sean Clarke, our head guide, is a qualified casting instructor. He is a brilliant raconteur, as he retails stories of military derring-do and other boy-things, and is also a superb casting coach. Even if you have never seen a 15 ft fly rod, you will be spey-casting like a veteran by the end of the week.
You might catch one of these world-beating salmon, too. They are big enough to break equipment that would cope with a Scottish fish. In the week I was there, two guests who had never even tried for salmon before caught fish weighing more than 20lbs. Their look of awe and delight showed they were well and truly hooked.
The Varzina river is not big by the standards of the vast Kola peninsula. Anthony, a fearless 19-year-old Anglo-Scot and the tallest member of our group, actually waded across it, although the river bed is full of boulders of a perfect size to stumble over. Easy wading is found in the pools near the lodge, where the river widens out and flows over gravel, and where everyone caught fish.
Tom, a genial Irishman in his sixties, caught seven grilse (first-year returning salmon) in a single morning, which is the sort of experience to break hearts on the fish-starved rivers of Scotland.
Fishing is a male pastime, and with the exception of a Russian couple, the party of 14 guides and guests were all men, which explains the tendency to drink too much beer and (of course) vodka.
Fortunately, a long day fishing is pretty tiring. The Varzina river is mostly rapids, which are unfishable, interspersed with long pools, which hold the salmon as they make their way up to the lakes at the top. Each morning, the helicopter drops pairs of fishermen and their guide at the pools, most of which have a hut and fire if things turn nasty. The copter does the journey in reverse in the evening.
For a few weeks in the season, there is also the chance to catch huge brown trout further up the river. The trout camp is a slightly rougher version of the main camp, with big (heated) canvas tents stretched over wooden frames.
In some ways going for trout is more exciting than the blind mans buff of casting for salmon, since it is dry fly fishing quite unlike anything you can experience in England.
Amazingly, considering the latitude, there are hatches of mayfly and sedge (and much more besides) and the trout slash at them in choppy, fast-flowing water. Even if you cannot persuade a trout to go for your artificial fly, there are magnificent Arctic char, which produce a fine fight on a small rod. If you ask nicely, you can even take a char for your breakfast, but the trout and salmon must be returned to the river unless they are too damaged to survive.
If you are really lucky, the helicopter will take you beyond the top of the Varzina to a short, rock-strewn river. This secret place, Zilijavri, offers the most exciting trout fishing you will ever see. Big trout winter in the lakes, but move to the river in the summer. Hook one of these on a tiny dry fly, and you will never forget it.