THE CINDERELLA OF THE KOLA
Matt Harris visits the Varzina river where he latches on to the best fish of the week as the helicopter awaits.
I FELL IN love with the Atlantic salmon of Russia’s North Kola peninsula seven long years ago, and year on year, I beg, steal or borrow the means to return for what is for me the absolute highlight of the fly-fishing calendar.
Back in 2002, I stumbled into surely the best week’s fly-fishing I’ll ever have. I visited the Northern Kola for the first time, signing up for an exploratory early week on the Yokanga. We were blessed with a mild spring that year which brought the fish in early and, having worked out how to send a shooting head whistling out across the wide water, I managed 13 fish averaging very close to 20 lb apiece, including three spectacular sea-liced berserkers of 35, 32 and 32 lb. I was besotted and swore I’d return to the Northern Kola every year.
Peter Power invited me to visit his fabulous operation on the Kharlovka soon afterwards, and here too I experienced astonishing fishing: in a week, I had 25 fish including a 34 lb brute, and managed ten rampaging salmon between 14 and 19 lb in a golden afternoon on the Eastern Litza.
This year, I was invited to fish the Varzina, a little-touted and slightly more affordable river that flows slap-bang between the Kharlovka watershed and its archrival, the mighty Yokanga. The Varzina has always intrigued me: there’s no doubt it’s situated in the heart of big-fish country and yet, unlike its big sisters, has never seemed to have attracted a cult following: Sean Clarke at Farlows, head-guide on the Varzina for a number of years, has often raved about the river, but on the whole, I’ve always had the impression that it was the Cinderella of the northern Kola, where twenty pounders, not thirty pounders, made the news.
In spite of this, one yarn has always kept the Varzina hook in me: most Kola veterans know that the biggest Russian Atlantic salmon reputedly caught on fly is Sir Seton Wills’s legendary 57 inch fish that came from the Varzina in 1995. With such giddy thoughts in my head, I tied one last fly, packed my bags and headed for the airport.
My partner for the week was the inimitable Mark Hewetson Brown. Mark’s a top man – an excellent angler, great company and a lot of fun to fish with, no matter how good or bad the fishing is. I knew that a great week was in store as we traded banter and tucked into our first pints of Guinness at Heathrow.
Perched high above the “Sea-pool”, directly adjacent to the end of the tidal water and opposite the confluence of the Penka, where Sir Seton is reputed to have caught his monster, the Varzina Lodge couldn’t have been better appointed. We were met by friendly staff, and introduced to everyone by our host, Staz Gourbonov, the genial Director of the Varzina River Company, himself an accomplished fly-fisher.
Despite arriving in mid-June, it was clear from the moment we set down that winter had yet to fully relinquish its grip, and our first morning’s sport was slow.
Mark had a nice fish of around13 lb almost immediately, but after that, everything seemed quiet. The sky was a bleak wintery gray, and the water looked cold and heavy – spinning water, if truth be told. After a couple of hours, I was starting to go through the motions a little. Then I remembered the Snelda. I’d done a fair bit of “genning up” on the Varzina, and I’d noticed that celebrated salmon angler Arni Baldurson had done well in early season with this Icelandic pattern. I’d used a relatively small, all-black version before with some success, but Arni’s flies were different: way bigger, brighter and more aggressive, dressed in the classic “German” livery of red, yellow and black. Intrigued, I had tied a large armoury on 1 to 2 inch copper, brass and tungsten tubes.
Now seemed a good time to try one, so I fished one out and gave it a swim. Instantly, I knew I was looking at a killer: with all the weight of the fly in the head, the holographic rib flashing silver and the long red, black and yellow bucktail swaying in the current, I was reminded of a Flying C spinning lure – exactly what I might have been inclined to use if I’d been fishing for the pot.
Using a long tungsten sink-tip and a sizeable brass tube would normally spell spey-casting misery, but using my favourite Rio Skagit, a line that I had originally picked up for throwing huge “Intruder” flies for Dean River Steelhead, the ultra-short belly line allowed me to boss the end-tackle with ease, and I was soon punching a nice long snake-roll into a savage Siberian easterly.
Confidence is everything in salmon-fishing, and I started to fish hard, aware that I had the set-up bang on. The Snelda didn’t disappoint – after ten minutes I had a wrenching take and an enraged silver ingot went romping off across the wide waters of the pool. My first Varzina salmon weighed 18 lb and, as I offered the hip-flask to Ilya, my excellent and likeable guide, he grinned at my haste to get the fly back in the water.
The Lagavulin was still fiery on my lips when another sea-liced Varzina rocket went thrashing into the air, and we were truly off to the races. I knew that Arni’s fly had just re-written the rules. Here was a technique that would present a fly with all the lithe movement and loud presence of a spinning lure. With the right kit to launch it, early season fly-fishing in high, icy water suddenly seemed like child’s play.
The following day, Staz and his daughter Nika introduced Mark and I to the magical Finn Pool. Almost overnight, the season seemed to have changed, and we found ourselves bathed in warm sunshine as we went weaving through green buds on our way down to the river, but the water was still high and ice-cold. While Mark, Staz and Nika used conventional tactics and had two fish between them, I again employed the big Snelda in the frigid water: taking two downstream steps after each cast, and figure-of-eighting the fly around every likely rock and riffle,I managed six magnificent salmon ranging from the mid-teens up to22 lb. All were long-tailed sea-liced and fought like tigers.
Armed with my new discovery, I started to fish the home-pool religiously each evening and, after initially struggling to read the heavy roiling currents of Ice-Pool and Silver-Pool, I started to work them out. One night, while playing a feisty 17-pounder in Silver Pool, I watched three fish come skipping up the river on the opposite bank.
Wading carefully, I managed to cross the river, to a point where I could fish the far channel, and that’s what I did, night after night. I timed my sessions to coincide with high tide, and one evening, fishing in the perpetual half-light of the Arctic “White Night”, the mighty Snelda caught me five thumping fish, all of them just a matter of yards from the salt. One fish, a bundle of psychotic silver mayhem of 25 lb, ran 150 yards in very short order, leapt five times and put up one of the most spectacular fights I’ve ever had.
As so often happens in salmon fishing, while I was making hay, Mark had the proverbial monkey on his back. Mark is a much more elegant and traditional fisher than I: he casts just as far, and fishes just as hard, but new-fangled Skagits and shooting heads are anathema to him. I urged him to try my talisman, but he stuck with his Cascade and long-belly line. Finally, with the tally at 14-1, Ilya forcibly pressed the Varzina’s go-to fly, the “Golden Killer”, a simple black-and-yellow bucktail tied on a large single golden hook, into Mark’s hand.
That morning was a revelation. While my previously all-conquering Snelda produced just a solitary fish and a couple of desultory tugs, Mark rattled out three handsome salmon each weighing just over 20 lb. A big dose of reality came up and punched me on the nose: as can so often happen high up in the Arctic Circle, in a matter of days, spring had been and gone, and summer had come. Birds were chirruping in the silver birch and a carpet of wild flowers lay all around us. Crucially, the water had warmed up too. Kicking myself for not reacting sooner, I knew that it was time to put away the “spinning gear”. I ditched the Snelda and the Skagit and put up a full floating shooting head, a long, tapered floating polyleader and a small bottle-tube version of Mark’s fly.
I was back in business with two hefty fish one after the other, and then, with the last cast of the day, was nearly dragged into the river by a 26-pounder that took off like a low-flying train.
That night, with only one day left, Mark and I, absurdly high on the fabulous fishing, drank vodka with the Russians with the dreadful reckless abandon that drink seems to inspire, until the sun came winking back over the bluff opposite the lodge and sent us finally stumbling off to bed.
Two hours later, Ilya was banging on our door and we found ourselves weaving up the hill to the helicopter pad in a wretched stupor.
Ilya scolded us both, telling us that we needed to be on our mettle for today’s adventure, a trip to the tiny Drozdovka that lies just to the east of the Varzina valley. As we flew over the little river, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d rather be battling with more Varzina silver than messing about on this stunted little stream, but after landing on a small bluff above the water, I glimpsed the Drozdovka and immediately my hangover was all but gone. Here was a magical place indeed: below a cascading waterfall, the river bounded down a canyon for perhaps two hundred metres, tailing out into a lovely deep glide.
Leaving Mark to fish the bottom pool, Ilya and I made our way up to the falls. We crept to the cliff-edge on all fours. Gazing down into the glassy water, Ilya told me to wait until the roiling waters offered a perfect glassy window. Finally, they did, and my heart leapt up into my throat, as I suddenly resolved a magnificent pod of seven prodigious salmon lying directly below us, patiently shifting in the mirror-bright water. “Welcome to ‘Aquarium Pool’”, smiled Ilya.
Over the next two hours, I tried a dozen flies, and each was met with disdain. Finally, I fished out a huge Red Frances that looked more like a lobster than a prawn. Ilya shrugged a “why not?” and I swung it out over the fish. Thrusting the rod tip deep into the water to keep the fly down as it came round on the dangle, we watched transfixed as a big silver cock-fish came rushing across the stream to wallop it. I lost that fish in the last throes of the fight, undoubtedly in the high twenties, but another glistening 22 pounder soon followed.
Mark had well and truly kicked his monkey into touch, his Golden Killer taking four lovely fish in the teens from the lower pool, and after lunch, we swapped places. After dragging a 14-pounder out, I took an hour out to rest the pool and take pictures of the stunning little river. I looked at my watch and realised our fantastic adventure was coming to a close. I’d had an amazing week, and yet I couldn’t help but feel that a thirty-pound fish might still be in our grasp. Right on cue, the biggest fish I’d seen all week leapt in the very tail of the pool. I looked upstream and saw the ominous sight of Ilya, slowly working his way down the canyon, no doubt coming to tell me to wind up for the helicopter.
I sent the little Golden Killer arrowing out one more time, and as it came swinging over the lip of the tail, there was a bulge in the glossy surface and the line snapped up tight. Suddenly I was looking at the best sight in fly-fishing, as a vast springer climbed up into the delicious Northern sunshine. It went bulldozing for the rapids below, and I clamped down hard, knowing that if it went out of the pool, all was surely lost. Ilya arrived and was pointing at his watch and yabbering about the helicopter until a glimpse of my adversary instantly shut him up. After a protracted wrestling match, the fish abruptly rushed towards us and we saw every last scale of its fabulous frame in the shallow sunlit bay directly below. Ilya was cursing softly in Russian, no doubt berating himself for his one slip-up of the week, forgetting the net. I told him to get well back from the water and, after what seemed like an age, I saw my chance. As it rocketed round the bay once more, I guided the still enraged fish straight up onto the shallow grassy beach. Ilya and I fell on it, fumbling for the wrist of its mighty tail. Laughing, Ilya lifted the magnificent creature high into the clean, clear Arctic air.
We carefully weighed the biggest hen salmon I’ve ever seen, before reviving her and watching her glide gracefully back. I clapped Ilya on the back and thanked him, then we were racing up the hill.
As the Mi-8 lifted us high above the magical little valley, I gazed down at the Drozdovka , a twinkling quicksilver sapphire rushing down to the sea. Then I heard Mark hollering something rude about my luck and my parentage above the din of the rotor-blades as he reviewed the digital images of my twenty-third and final fish of the week. I didn’t even try to stifle my grin as I shouted back the answer to his question: “31 pounds.”
December 2009 Trout and Salmon 65