For most people, the mere mention of fly fishing in the same sentence as Russia brings to mind images of massive trout nosing at mouse patterns and steelhead moving in from the Sea of Okhotsk in Kamchatka.
Kamchatka, while largely still a wilderness area, is becoming well known in the world of fly fishing travel and adventure.
Lesser known is the Kola Peninsula. Located on the opposite end of Russia’s expanse, the Kola is the country’s furthest northwestern reach, and can be found on maps as a “thumb” sticking out of the eastern side of the Nordic countries.
See more of Jess’ work at www.FireGirlPhotography.com
The population of the entire peninsula was well under 900,000 at last count with many residents driven away in recent decades by military movement. The last of the Russian Sami people - indigenous, nomadic reindeer herders also live in the region.
The Kola Peninsula is home to a host of rivers, including the fabled Ponoi, Yokanga, Kharlovka, Litza and Rynda – each known for their impressive Atlantic Salmon populations.
The Ponoi seemingly draws the most traffic, and in the decade or so since fly fishing has opened up in the largely militarized region, continues to produce impressive fishing opportunities.
I had the opportunity to spend several months working on the Ponoi and to experience first hand the ins-and-outs of a working Russian fishing camp.
The act of simply getting to the river proves an adventure unto itself, as I soon discover many things in Russia were. After flying into Murmansk, I go through two days of medical exams in military-grade Russian medical centers (an experience I’ll never forget and, oddly, would find fascinating to repeat), I meet up with a group of men also traveling to the camp. We drive for three hours in a commercial bus across the tundra.
The landscape above the Arctic Circle is vast. Vast and harsh. It is filled with small, hardy little pines, intermingled with dark, cold lakes and roads with potholes that could seemingly eat up a normal-sized vehicle.
Rounding any corner on the seemingly empty roads, one can expect to be met with military facilities, extremely well guarded and hidden away. There is something strangely thrilling about being in a bus full of Russian men, crossing their territory and seeing things you know you are really not supposed to.
There are strange, dangerous things in those lands.
After the bus ride, we climbed into an old Mi-8 helicopter for another two hours of transport to the fishing camp.
Despite the rattle and whoosh of the helicopter, everything was silent. The younger men plugged into iPods, and some collapsed against the pile of equipment in the middle of the helicopter and slept. A few use the open buckets in the helicopter as toilets, in plain sight. There was no embarrassment, as we have seemingly have left civilization behind.
As soon as we landed in camp, the days seemed to progress on the same pace as the flight in. April in this land means twenty-four hours of straight sun, and despite twelve-hour workdays, most of us find time in the wee hours of the morning to take out the jet boats and fish.
As life in camp progressed, sleep became irrelevant, and days became fueled by little more than piroshky and salmon – we ate it in every way, shape and form. Nights are fueled by fishing, vodka, and a dice game called perudo left behind by a first-week British client.
The fishing was outstanding, though certainly more difficult than advertised. Coming from the American West, I am used to casting a five-weight with dries to rising trout, and nymphing in the winter. At my first fishing session, a spey rig was placed in my hands and I was simply instructed to “go to it.”
By some miracle, on that first day out I also land the camp’s biggest fish of the day – a stunning Atlantic Salmon that gave me a sold twenty-minute fight.
Every morning the guide team loads up and heads out in their assigned jet boats. While the boats were named, I found it easier to identify guides on the water by the color of the Buffs they have pulled over their faces and they way they move in the boat.
Days came and went, marked by the passage of the Arctic sun that never sets. My days start at 0500h and often ended at 0200h; sleep deprivation was something one simply had to accommodate. Every day at 1800h, the sound of engines could be heard echoing up the river as the guide boats came back in.
Thursdays were supply days, which mean a Mi-8 flies in from Murmansk in the evening loaded with food and necessary equipment. We quickly learned to look forward to the whump-whump-whump of incoming helos and the fresh food they brought.
I learned Russian on the go, the vocabulary at times convoluted. I could direct a helicopter over a satellite phone but somehow I think I would have had trouble ordering in a restaurant back in civilization.
My first Russian words were fishing related, and the list quickly grew from there into a plethora of camp equipment and bar words. Swear words followed soon thereafter.
I was the first woman many of the men haf seen drive the camp vehicles – an eclectic selection of Polaris and Kawasaki rough-runners – and the helicopter crew always gave me a ribbing in Russian when I pull up to the chopper.
We laughed it off and share a shot of vodka.
Such is life on the Russian tundra.
Jessica McGlothlin, the principal behind Fire Girl Photography, travels where the call to work takes her. This past year that included Russia, Texas, Washington and many small towns across the American West.
She works freelance for a broad selection international publications, and is available for assignment work across the globe. Currently, she is working on a long-term project on Montana’s Missouri River.
See more of Jess’ work at www.FireGirlPhotography.com