HOOK, LINE AND VARZINA                                                                                                                       by Sebastian Hope

In the wild, unspoilt tundra of Russias Varzina valley, Sebastian Hope recaptures the exhilaration of landing his first salmon only this time its a 22-pounder. Photographs by Sebastian Hope.

I said I was casting like a ----, and Sean, head guide of the Varzina River Lodge on the Kola Peninsula, kindly filled in the blank. He was right. When he took my fly rod, a 15ft Hardy Sirrus, it turned into a magic wand, the smooth three-stage rhythm of the single Spey cast shooting the line in a tight loop over the river. He handed the rod back to me with a smile and instantly a salmon over 25lb came at the fly. Both our hearts jumped with it, mine to see such a magnificent fish, Seans from the knowledge that hooking it there, at the very tail of the Finn Pool and just above a long stretch of rapids, would have produced a tussle as exciting as it was likely to be brief.

I was taught how to Spey cast more than 20 years ago by a bibulous ghillie on the Spey itself with a 13ft split-cane rod. Lift the rod to raise the fly to the surface and sweep it round to the side, drawing the fly upstream so it forms a loop that the final flick sends rolling out across the pool.

There was something deeply satisfying in learning the cast with traditional tackle in the place of its origin. Salmon fishing, however, has moved on since and I had not.

Sean had 20 years of bad habits to unpick. The talk was all of tackle in the queue to check in for the early-morning charter from Stockholm to Murmansk. Most of this weeks run of salmon fishers had fished in Russia before. I felt like a new boy on the first day of school, anxious that I had all the right kit.

Sean was adamant about what was needed: stockingfoot waders with separate boots for ankle support; a reel with an adjustable drag (I chose a Hardy Angel, a thing of beauty in milled aluminium); various lines. He concluded with the observation that the most common cause of disappointment is poor equipment. At Murmansk airport, the weather was closing in; above the Arctic Circle, everything, life itself, depends on it. Helicopters would ferry us to the various lodges. Sean made a sudden switch to an alternate helipad and we got away before the cloud came down. It turned out to be a coup. Only two choppers got off from the airport that morning and the rest waited six hours. We flew low over the tundra, undulating grey-green land that seemed to have as much standing water as dry ground. Most had nodded off by the time the landscape changed. We dropped into the Varzina valley where stunted birches found some shelter. From a lake in its headwaters, the rive falls steeply through rapids and gorges, forming only occasional pools, towards the Barents Sea. We put down on a bluff above the lodge.

The restaurant windows overlooked the Home Beat, five pools that were in easy walking distance of the lodge. An hour later I found myself knee-deep in one of them, Golden, with my ly swinging across the deep lie under the near bank. As I edged towards the pools sweet spot a salmon tweaked my fly. It is always reassuring to make contact with a fish, whether or not it stays on. A little further down a fish did take more definitely and I had time to raise the rod and feel it come alive before it came off. Properly whetted, I was keen for the morning, though that is a consensual notion in a zone of perpetual daylight. Halfway down the Finn Pool, I was beginning to dread the moment when I would have to try another long cast. Sean had taken my action apart,  and now at every attempt the line either fell in a heap, or caught itself before straightening, or landed so bowed that the fly wasnt fishing. Then that big fish moved at the tail of the pool. For once I hit a good cast. The fly swung over the same spot and a thunk passed through the line, but the fish did not take. That was the turning point, the moment I started thinking about catching fish rather than casting. Still, I climbed on to the helicopter without having banked one.The hand signals that had passed between the groups as they got onto the chopper were  xpanded over soup.

The others had done well; our team, consisting of Martin, Geoffrey (on his second week) and me, had been saved by Geoffrey landing three fish in the morning. With the main course of king crab legs and claws the conversation moved on to the mysteries of salmon fishing and revealed the schisms that divide its initiates. At pudding came the hat ceremony, a Varzina cap and pins for first salmon on the river, and first 20-pounder. All the while the river was flowing past the window, the salmon were running and I had yet to earn my colours. It was 11.30pm by the time I had fished the Ice Pool, and I was beginning to get desperate. There is one more pool below Ice before the slack water of the tidal reaches and I trudged across the shallows to a fishy-looking stream. The tide was coming in. Soon the water would be backed up and the salmon would run through without stopping, but before the flood, fish fresh from the sea move into the tail of the pool in preparation. One took the fly. It ran downstream, jumped, ran upstream with the line thrumming in the current, ran to the far bank and then settled down to more dogged resistance in slacker water. Sean arrived just in time to net it, a beautiful 14lb hen, sea-lice on its back and sides so silver they gave off a purply light. My midnight salmon went back into the water; all the fishing on the Kola is catch and release.

When the Kola Peninsula began to open up to foreign fishermen in the early 1990s it was the British who were the chief visitors.

The first rivers were the Varzuga and the Ponoy, offering prolific summer runs of grilse. The northern rivers have a different character. They are wilder and smaller, and their fish, though fewer, tend to be bigger. Many of the fishermen who come to the Varzina have migrated from other rivers in search of something more challenging, more rewarding.

My second morning was short on rewards. In the afternoon we walked up through stunted woods to Hourglass, the Home Beats finest pool. Geoffrey was to have the first cast and with the fifth he had a 20-pounder on the bank, his fourth fish of the day. When my turn came, I tried to do exactly as he had done cast far across the river, landing the fly in the slack water beyond the current, mending the line upstream so that it wouldnt bow as it swung round and the first time I got it right, a grilse of seven pounds took. Nothing would have stopped me from going out again after dinner in my new cap.

Nor did the day ever stop. The first four nights I got to bed around 2am. Having two small children, I thought I was pretty inured to sleep deprivation, but on that fourth night the world began to swim at the peripheries of my vision. The next day in Big Falls I caught my 20-pounder 22lb, in fact the biggest salmon I have ever landed, and in the evening I had to retrieve my second cap pin from the bottom of a glass of vodka with my teeth. The Russians say that fishing is just drinking in hip boots, but after that shot I wasnt going anywhere near the river.

On the last day our group had drawn the lot for the Sidorovka (another river to which the lodge has rights). The helicopter turned west from the Varzina over the lakeland tundra. Below, the contours were marked out in reindeer tracks and, bounding over a rise, we saw a bear and her cub.

Martin, Sean and I were landed on a ridge above a gorge that hid two glassy pools. We could see the salmon lying in them and Martin lost three while the helicopter crew watched. Another hop downstream brought us to a pool called Paradise from where we would walk to the sea. Sean and I caught three fish on the way.

The walk to the coast was exhilarating the rushing river, the rocky hills, the complete solitude. It took me back to my teenage years and to the Western Highlands of Scotland. Standing in the sea-pool, landing fat 3lb sea-trout as the tide came in, I remembered how it had felt to catch my first salmon. It is a feeling no angler ever forgets and this is just the place to recapture it. ✦


© The Varzina River Company LTD, 2009 .     .  .