I was getting depressed, after having chased salmon the whole day without success, while my fishing buddy Janne had landed five in the same timeframe. All beautiful fish between 7 and 10 kilos, plus a true trophy fish measuring 108 cm and weighting approximately 13 kilos.
It had become a little dark in this foggy July night, and I was close to giving up. I did give it a last chance, fishing through S-Bend pool one last time today. I was half-focusing on fishing, half-dreaming, when the take suddenly came! I was not really prepared for it, and the fish took a quick run of about 50 meters. I did not manage to handle the loose line lying around me, and this resulted in a tangle on my fly line, about ten metres from the fly. I saw the tangle pass with much difficulty the first rod guide, then the second, then the next. I knew the situation was critical, and I could only hope for the best. Seconds felt like minutes. Pfeeewww, in the end the large knot went through the top guide; now I could fight the fish in a more relaxed way. The salmon made a couple of great jumps, which turned the otherwise calm pool upside down. My knees were turning into jelly. I did manage the first feverish rush, and after 3-4 trips up and down the pool, the fish became more manageable.
Now the tangle issue came back in the picture again: I was not able to reel in all the line I wished, and had to continue fighting the fish far away from the riverbank. Janne was patiently waiting in the water close to the bank, ready to net the fish first time it would become within range.
Then the hook lost its hold in the fish-s mouth, and suddenly everything became very quiet. Janne was even sorrier about the lost fish than me. I could sense a kind of bad conscience on Janne’s side, due to the fact that he had caught so many fish today, without me catching anything significant. But I was actually happy that I had at last connected with a salmon today.
Then everything went fast: a new take, which proved to be “only” a grilse measuring 50 cm. The immature salmon did give a good fight; he was more airborne than in the water during his struggle for freedom. And then a new solid take thereafter, on the pool tailout, on my large black tube fly. For a long time, it was the fish which decided the course of the fight. Several times it threatened to swim downstream through the rough water below the pool, but I did manage to turn it every time, stressing line and rod heavily. Janne had warned me several times not to let the fish go downstream; it meant a lost fish most of the time.
But what should not happen, did happen: the fish swam downstream! I was obliged to run after it, if I would stand a chance. Janne ran after me, hauling the landing net with him. I didn’t want to loose fish number two today! A hundred meters down, I found a calm area within all the white-water, to where I managed to lead the fish. Its strengths were tearing off, and Janne could try to land it. He missed the first attempt; I got a clump in the throat… Second try was successful, and at the very same time the fish came in the net, the fly lost its hold… Now it was me being lucky, and not the fish! It was a great relief for me; I fell into Janne’s arms and yelled a war cry! We measured the fish at 88 cm and estimated it at 8 kilos, before we released it. Awesome!
Last year, Yuri Shumakov was fishing at this very S-Bend pool, when a heart attack struck him. He died on the premises. Yuri had been a pioneer in salmon fishing on the Kola Peninsula, and his death felt like a great loss for all the fishing community who knew him. I found myself a lot of inspiration by reading his Kola flies articles. He is the father to the fly Kolalander, among others. Therefore it felt extra special to me to stand and fish this symbolic place, together with Janne, who had known and fished with Yuri.
Varzina is a river located on the northeast side of the Kola Peninsula, in North West Russia, about an hour and a half by helicopter from Murmansk. My Finnish friend Mika Vainio, whom I had met in Kamchatka some years back, had talked about this river with such enthusiasm that I was driven to travel there. Mika had been guiding on the river for the last 10 years. Unfortunately when I decided to go, Mika was exceptionally skipping that guiding season, too bad!
I had bought the trip through the Finnish company for which Mika works, Varzina River Company (VRC). VRC sells two types of trips to Varzina: a salmon trip to the Varzina Main Camp, which is located about 4 kilometres above the river mouth in the Barents Sea. Fishermen get flown daily to various hotspot pools of the river. And VRC sells also this trout trip to the Varzina Trout Camp, about 25 kilometres upstream from the Main Camp. Here fishermen move along the riverbank by foot.
I had chosen the Trout Camp, which is cheaper and also more varied. In fact, in that part of the river, one can chase large brown trout, and Atlantic salmon in good condition (not all bright and fresh fish, but still very powerful). Of course the trout fishing is central in that part of the river, but the salmon fishing is not bad either, especially in July. One can also catch a few char, which do not grow that big though, maximum up to 2 kg. All trout and salmon are protected in the Varzina River, so it was catch-and-release fly-fishing only.
I had for a long time thought of travelling to the Kola Peninsula to fish for trout and salmon, especially after having read and watched Martin Falklinds book and video “The Tundra’s Trout” from the area. Now it would happen, at last! I had tied a large bunch of flies, which should cover most fishing situations. I had also read all the literature available about the area. It appeared that there is not much that describes the fishing there. One book that can be worth reading (if you read Swedish, that is): “Flugfiskefärder på Kolahalvön” (Fly-fishing adventures on Kola Peninsula) by Benny Lindgren. Otherwise, I found various Internet web pages to be useful resources. Worth mentioning are the web pages written by Yuri Shumakov, where he describes various flies to be used for salmon on Kola.
I had also read a few ghost stories that described how things can go wrong in Russia. Notably I heard about a group of French fishermen, who had planned to fish in a salmon camp, and were waiting for their helicopter in Murmansk Airport, for several hours. In the end, their trip was cancelled: the Russian military had decided that their camp was lying too close to military structures in the area. They had no other choice but fly back to Paris!
Hence, I was a little nervous while our little group was waiting for the helicopter. We had plenty of time to meet each other. There was 4 Finns: Mika Manninen, Janne Nyblom (renowned fly fisherman who has written a book about fishing in Finland), Jani Himanko and Panu Sarvilahti; a Norwegian, Jack Gerhardsen, and then a Swiss couple, Ivan and Dominik.
After three hours of waiting and several emptied beer glasses, our Russian coordinator came over to tell us that our helicopter was ready. At last! We were driven to a nice blue-and-white MI-8 helicopter, which quickly was filled up with people, as it would also fly with the fishermen bound to the Main Camp. We were about 20 onboard when the chopper lifted. The low flight over the tundra was beautiful. The nature changed quickly from Murmans to Varzina. First trees and bushes, houses and roads. Then the vegetation grew thinner, and the human’s tracks went sparser and sparser, until they disappeared completely. Suddenly, in the horizon we could see Varzina river meadowing through the bare tundra. And then the camp itself appeared, in a nice bend of the river. After the landing we could get out, and Eino, the camp manager, was waiting for us with open arms. At last I had landed in the salmon and trout Eldorado!
Varzina is one of the few rivers in the world, where one can catch Atlantic salmon on a Woolly Bugger, and large brown trout on a Sunray Shadow! That happened for me during the first two days of angling: while fishing for trout with my Woolly Bugger I ran into my first Atlantic salmon, which proved to be my biggest of the week: 95 cm and an estimated 9.5 kg. The next day I fished the same pool with my Spey rod and a long Sunray Shadow, chasing salmon, when a 3 kilo trout took my fly aggressively!
That means that one can choose one day to fish more after salmon, and then the next look for brown trout. And despite of the method still get unexpected side-catches… I found it very comforting, as I am not so much for fishing for a whole week for salmon, and risking a bad week with no fish. With trout and salmon mixed in, the probability of a bent rod is much bigger, independently of weather and water conditions. Varzina runs out of one of Kola’s largest lakes, Lake Enozero. That guarantees for crystal clear water, even with heavy rainfalls. In July, the large trout from the lake start migrating into the river, in order to find their spawning areas. The angler is hence chasing big trout in the lake area. The lake outflow is about 5 kilometres upstream from the Trout Camp, so if one is willing enough, he can wander up to the lake in about 1.5 hours.
I decided to do that one day together with Mika Manninen, who knows the river in and out, after having fished the area for the last 7 years. It was a long trip up there; it is never easy to walk in the tundra, which beholds many obstacles such as bushes, marshes, and also tons of mosquitoes! We got annoyed pretty badly by these small tundra terrorists! I don’t like wearing a mosquito net, so I went along with deet spray, but that was not always enough; the bastards flew into my ears, eyes and nostrils. Only when the wind blew did we get a little peace.
But the small beasts did not stop us from moving forward. On the way to the lake, we fished promising pools, which gave one salmon, some char and a few brown trout. But we hadn’t yet found the true bonanza trout fishing. That changed once we reached the lake outflow, where Lake Enozero becomes Varzina River. That proved to be the best trout pool I have ever fished in my life. We were the first ones to fish the area in 2007, so it was basically untouched.
Mika started fishing downstream from me, and quickly nailed a couple of brown trout. You were never in doubt when Mika hooked a fish, he would loudly yell “Rock’n’roll!”, also when he saw that I had a fish on. Mika is a very nice fellow to fish together with; he always gets happy when a trout is caught, either by his fellow anglers or himself. He also created a great atmosphere in the camp.
Myself I had a little difficulty finding the fish in the first place. I was fishing in the lake, where the water slowly starts moving towards the river. There I had spotted a few water movements, created by large moving fish subsurface. It was certainly trout getting ready to spawn, and which were aggressively defending their territory. I cast my streamer to a water bulge within casting distance, and took in slowly. When the fish spotted my fly, the bulge changed course, and started moving towards my fly. It touched my fly, without taking it properly! That happened several times in the next 15 minutes, without me landing any fish. It was both fascinating and frustrating, and I really had to stay cool in order not to set the hook too early. But at last I managed to hook a fish, when I changed to a smaller streamer: nice beautiful male trout of 62 cm and about 3 kilos. Incredibly beautiful fish, with metallic green colours over the gill-plates, and yellow belly.
Later, I moved down to Mika, and nailed four large trout in a very small area in the middle of the stream. Where the water moves faster, the fish does not have so much time to take a decision whether to take the fly or not. And I must say most of the time the fish did not hesitate to hit the fly with such force that startled me several times. I even got sometimes deceived by the fish’s size once I had landed it: I thought that this king of take and fight could only be performed by much larger fish!
That night we managed to land about 15 trout together; the smallest being about 50 cm, while we measured the largest at 65 cm and about 3.5 kg. Mika lost a large fish, which he never saw. Shortly after it took the fly, it took off in a big run, and then turned around a stone in the current; this move snapped the leader neatly. Too bad! We caught most fish while fishing streamers, since the insect activity that day was very poor (not considering the mosquitoes of course…).
What is fantastic about this fishing spot, is that there are always new fish coming into the area; fish that are on their way from the lake to the river. That meant that every time during the week when we went up to the outflow, we could find a pretty good amount of fish, almost as if the place was untouched and pristine.
After that fantastic fishing night (actually we fished most days between noon and 4 AM, since the nights were quite clear at this latitude), we walked back to camp, feeling a sort of accomplishment for the trip. We then saw an unforgettable sunrise, and to round up the day in style, we went into the Finnish sauna that warmed us up to our toes. That was pure luxury! That day will stay forever in my memory.
The weather was good the first four days, with sun and clouds mixed in, and comfortable temperatures. But on the fifth day, the eastern wind brought us fog from the sea. That put the trout down unfortunately, since the insect activity went even slower. If we wanted trout, we had to fish with heavy streamers. On the other side, the salmon provided us with a lot of action, so it balanced for the difficult trout fishing.
When the week was over, I felt that I had experienced a whole lot of things. It was of course a pain to have to go back, but I felt that I had reached the goals I had set before the trip. I found that my first Kola trip was a success, with my first Atlantic salmon ever, and many nice trout, the size of which one only catches a few per season back home. Rock’n’roll!
The Camp takes up to ten customers, but during the week I was on, we were only eight anglers, and I found this very appropriate; we never annoyed each other on the riverbank. The Camp is made of a few wooden huts, where kitchen, dining room, bath (hot water is available) and sauna (very convenient I can tell you!) are located. Fishermen sleep in military tents, which are outfitted with a wooden floor and a wood stove, very nice for the chilly nights! A tent is shared between two anglers.
The trip begins and ends in Murmansk. That means that transportation from home to Murmansk has to be paid for by the customer. There are two possibilities to reach Murmansk: either one can board a charter flight from Helsinki to Murmansk, but this is quite expensive: 850 EUR. Or one can choose to fly from Helsinki to Ivalo in northern Finland, and then VRC arranges for ground transportation in mini-bus from Ivalo to Murmansk (4-5 hours of driving). This solution costs about 300-400 EUR, and it is the one I picked. Very convenient I must say.
Over the whole season, about 800-900 trout over 50 cm are caught (the smaller fish are not counted, that says something…), and about 150 salmon are landed (Main Camp statistics not included). There is only one guide available for the whole Camp, so I would advise the beginning angler to travel with a more experienced fisherman. Fishing may sound easy, but one has to work hard for each fish caught, and the fish can be very difficult and picky. This type of fishing also requires good physical condition; one walks a lot during such a fishing week.
Myself I was lucky to end up in a group composed of skilled and experienced anglers, among others Mika Manninen (faithful client of VRC and the Varzina Trout Camp), and Janne Nyblom. Janne is known as “the Machine”. He is a world-class fly-fisherman; during the week he managed to land 22 salmon, plus about 50 trout over 50 cm!
The fishing is catch-and-release fly-fishing. I fished most of the time with my 9.6 foot, 8-weight rod. I did also fish a few times with my 6-weight rod during dry-fly and nymph fishing, and I also swung my Spey-rod (12.6 foot) a couple of days. During the whole week I fished with a floating line and leader, with a 0.28 mm tip for dry fly and nymph fishing, and a 0.35 mm tip for the streamer fishing. When fishing for salmon I geared up to 0.40 mm.
Effective flies for Varzina’s trout proved to be large streamers a la Woolhead Sculpin, Morrish Sculpin or Woolly Bugger ; all-bright flies such as the Järpa fly (designed by Mika Manninen), or the Tinsel fly, which looks aggressive in the clear water, but works fine with the large trout. When the insects hatch (mostly mayflies and caddis flies), dry flies such as Goddard Caddis, Elk-Hair Caddis, Rusty Brown Mayfly, Klinkhammer Special can prove to be effective. Pupae and nymphs such as Super Pupa, Caddis Pupa, Pheasant Tail, Prince Nymph are also a sure bet, but I myself did not fish that much with these flies. For salmon, the classical Kola patterns are effective. Try flies such as Green Highlander, Kolalander, Sunray Shadow, or Collie Dog. I was also very lucky with the fly called Kim’s Killer, a 3 cm tube fly tied with a red arctic fox tail, and a black arctic fox wing. Dry flies a la Bomber are also super effective when the fish are active.