Bryan Sohl’s report from Lower Yokanga

I have just returned from fishing two weeks in Russia’s Kola Peninsula for Atlantic Salmon. My trip was on the Lower Yokanga River, in the Northeastern part of the Kola Peninsula.

This trip was purchased through FlyWater Travel, working with Lax-A Angling Club. Lax-A Angling Club is owned by Arni Baldurrson. Ken Morrish and I had the opportunity to meet, and fish with Arni in 2008 on the Kola River and at that time Arni planted a bug in my ear about the Yokanga. FlyWater Travel works with Lax-A in both Russia and Iceland. Arni is a business partner with Russians in the Lower Yokanga camp I visited. On a side note Arni is probably the World’s most accomplished Atlantic salmon fisherman. The Kola Peninsula is home to what is I think undeniably the world’s best Atlantic Salmon Fly Fishing. The Kola Peninsula’s mid and southern rivers, such as the Ponoi and Varzina, are known for anglers typically catching very large numbers of smallish fish – 4-10 lbs with an occasional fish in the mid-teens and a rare fish over twenty pounds. The Northern Rivers such as the Yokanga, Kharlovka,, East Litza, Kola and Varzina are noted for anglers catching far fewer, but much larger fish. During June on these rivers, it is the norm for at least a few anglers in camp to land a fish over thirty pounds, with much larger ones being hooked and typically lost.

Travel was for me on commercial flights (Delta/KLM)from Medford, OR to Portland to Amsterdam to Moscow and then from Moscow to Murmansk (Aeroflot) in the Kola Peninsula. On prior tips to the Kola I had always arrived in Murmansk via a charter from either Stockholm or Helsinki. If you can afford the charter take it! The Moscow airport (SVO) is an absolute nightmare both coming and going. My luggage was lost. I received little help in the Moscow airports luggage lost and found. English is not widely spoken and signs impossible to read. There are separate domestic and international terminals, which are widely spaced. Avoid Moscow and either go through St. Petersburg, or take a charter to Murmansk from Stockholm or Helsinki. FlyWater travel could share information regarding charters. You must never have a tight connection in Moscow. My fishing partner had articles stolen from his luggage including reel spools.

The Lower Yokanga fish camp is reached by a 1-½ hour helicopter ride. The camp is situated about 5 km above tidewater. This camp runs Friday-Friday, unlike most other Kola camps which run from Saturday to Saturday.

This was my first trip to the Yokanga. I had previously spent 9 weeks on a variety of rivers in the Kola.

The Yokanga in particular has reputation as a large, bruising, unforgiving river with a penchant for giving up very large fish. There are two camps on the Yokanga. One camp is on the Middle River. This camp is relatively luxurious with a permanent, log cabin style lodge and involves daily helicopter fly outs to the various beats. The camp I was at was on the lower river. This was only the third season for this camp as the lower part of the river is near the mouth of the river which houses a Russian Naval Submarine repair port, and for security reasons this region previously has been closed to foreigners.

Each week there are up to ten fishermen in camp. Fishing is done in pairs with one guide per pair. Beats are rotated and determined by lottery. The guides are not typically experienced fly fisherman and for the most part spoke little to no English. They do not necessarily know the water well. The first week my guide did not speak any English and really was of very little help except in directing us to and from each beat. He in all honesty was not a hard worker. It contrast, my guide the second week was great. He really had little fly fishing knowledge, and minimal English skills but he was very hard working in terms of helping me with wading, freeing flies hooked on rocks or trees, netting fish, etc. We laughed a lot and had a great time together and I will be sure to ask to have him guide me again. The level of guiding is very much different here than for instance what one would see in British Columbia or even on other rivers on the Kola – The Kharlovka/East Litza or Rynda for example.

Our camp atmosphere was very different each week. The first week we had anglers from 8 countries amongst us. There was a lot a laughing, beer and wine were flowing freely, and we fished and partied to the wee hours of the morning each day. The second week the camp was divided equally in half between English speakers and French speakers and there was not a lot of intermingling between the two – until a raucous alcohol party on our last night in which language barriers seemed to melt away.

The camp consists of very nice waterproof and bug proof tents which each hold two anglers with a large entryway for storage. There is a large and comfortable mess tent where much of the camp socializing occurs. There were two showers with an endless hot water supply. There was a very nice sauna which I enjoyed daily. And there was a drying room for waders and wet clothes which I found to be a great addition. The food in general was adequate. Breakfast was the same every day, which is typical of Russian camps. Porridge, two fried eggs, bacon, and horrible instant coffee. Lunch, served on the river was the same every day. Three pieces of white bread, a slice of salami and ham, a tomato or cucumber, and a snickers bar. Dinner consisted of an excellent soup, a salad usually involving relatively large portions of mayonnaise and small portions of vegetables, and a meet of some type. We occasionally ate fresh salmon either barbequed, or as sushi. The food was definitely adequate, and definitely not gourmet. Beers were five bucks each, but were nice and cold. Wine was extremely expensive at 50-80 Euros per bottle. Hard liquor was sold at camp, but was very expensive. Bring your own booze if you come here. Amsterdam Schiopal Airport Duty-Free bought Maker’s Mark was perfect. Each angler got one free water bottle or coke per day. More water cost 3 Euros per bottle! I used a Katadyn filter system bottle and just drank river water each day.

This year the camp was on a plateau quite elevated above the river, with a steep 20-minute walk to the home pool. The benefit of the higher elevation is that the nearly ever-present wind helps with the bugs, which can be bad at times. Next year it is rumored there will be a permanent camp closer to the river in the forest (6-10 foot high Birch like trees) which will make fishing the home pool beat easier, but make the bugs more problematic. At the beginning of the trip , when it was cold the bugs were non-existent, but later in the trip, especially on warm, relatively windless days they were thick. The wind can be severe at times and the direction can change quickly from upstream to downstream.

The river is unlike anything I have ever seen. Big and brawling. In terms of being a physically demanding river I am certain it has no peer. Nothing likely even comes close. The banks and river bottom wading surface consist of boulders, and then more boulders. Slippery, moss-covered boulders. Be sure to wear felt soles. There is no gravel. No rocky shelves. Just big, slippery boulders ranging from beach-ball size to VW Van size. The water dropped likely 2/3 of a meter while I was there. The first few days it was heavy water, fall in and risk drowning water. At the end of the trip the water was very low. The water is peat brown colored. It is clear, but one cannot see where one wades.

The walk to and from the upper and lower beats is long. Likely 45-60 minutes over difficult terrain. The terrain can consist of soft spongy tundra on a relatively flat plateau, to very steep wooded areas with birch trees growing between boulders, to the bankside walking over boulder fields with the rocks of very uneven size.

The fish. Oh my, the fish! Simple awesome creatures. The fish are big and strong. Deep and bright. Aggressive. Happy to take a fly. The first week I went 15 for 24 landing two of twenty pounds. My average was around fifteen pounds. Only three fish were less than ten pounds. The fish were found where one would expect them. This was at times close to the bank on a short line, and at times in the middle of the river in a slick that to reach required all of my casting skill and distance. The fish fought extremely well, without exception. Many in the first week were sea-liced. These fish must run huge rapids/cataracts in their upstream migration and have genes that code for big muscles. I had many fish leave the pool on screaming runs only to have me stumbling and falling along in chase to usually be broken off on the 30# Seaguar (the veterans fished with 45# nylon). Some of these runs were incredibly straight UP large and long whitewater stretches. The key to landing the fish was to keep them in the pool or pocket. This would require a dance that alternated between light and gentle to no pressure, and then at times really “putting the wood “ to the fish. The first week I fished with heavy flies, typically on a type 3 tip. The second week in low water I fished a skated dry fly (Black Morrish Skater – Kenny please make these more visible with white or pink body). The fish often came for the fly two or three times before getting hooked. If you rose a fish on a skater, chances were about 75% it would come back again. The fish of the trip for me was a 19 lb chromer hooked on it’s eighth rise to a skated dry, and landed after a ¼ mile chase downstream with the fish well into my backing.

In our first week 10 anglers landed 105 fish. This group included some of the most experienced salmon fishermen to be found. There were at least three fish landed over 30 lbs, and two between forty and fifty pounds nearly landed but ultimately lost. The second week 11 anglers landed around 80 fish , but none over thirty.

I can’t stress enough the physical, and in truth psychological demands of this river. I was physically spent after one week, and had a week to go. As I write this one week after getting home I am still to some degree struggling with the wear and tear my body took on this trip. I lost 13 lbs in two weeks. DO NOT come here if you have hip or significant knee issues. Do not come here if long hikes over uneven and at time steep terrain will not be tolerated. Do not think of doing two consecutive weeks here. In fact in my second week the French team, mostly 55-65 years old could not in fact physically get to the beats and walk them by the second half of the week so their fishing was restricted to the home pool area.

I broke a rod. I broke a reel. My never used wading boots fell apart. Bring extra rods, reels, lines, running line, backing and boots. Flies that worked well for me included Green Highlander Templedog type patterns, Snelda, Willie Gunn, Ally’s Shrimp, Cascade, Morrish Skater and a variety of Sunray Shadow’s (in low water fished hitched and on the surface).

Remember that this is Russia. Things will not be as completely advertised. At the end of week two we were startled to see a group of 5 spin fisherman, business acquaintances of the Russian camp owner, arrive one afternoon by helicopter and march straight down to the home pool at dinner and rake the water with spoons prior to our anticipated last evening’s fish. Our helicopter ride back to Murmansk ended an a “weather forced” landing well short of Murmansk.. After a three-hour wait in an empty, in the middle of nowhere helicopter airport terminal we finally reached Murmansk after an additional two-hour van ride. We were told there was “bad fog” in Murmansk. Fog we never saw.

In summary, this is hard-core fishing for the salmon fanatic. The Lower Yokanga River is a beast. It rewards well hard-working, experienced fisherman. The fish are, if not the worlds’ strongest, then certainly amongst the Worlds strongest anadromous salmonids. You will feel this river in your body for weeks after the trip. But I am certain you will feel it in your soul for years. I will be back – Next Year!