I’ve always wanted to go Atlantic Salmon Fishing in Russia. Always. Well, ever since they first really opened it to outsiders circa 1990. It was 15 years ago that I became aware of the ASR - Atlantic Salmon Reserve and to be honest I never really thought I would be able to go. Too far, too expensive, too exotic, but every now and then in life, things align. I found myself with a booking for the last single-rod available on the first week of the season.
In what was a dramatic case of surge pricing, closely tied to the probability of success, my week at Kharlovka was about 1/5th the price of the folks’ booking three weeks later. So a bit of gamble, but like I said, the stars were aligning in favor of this trip.
Going somewhere like that, especially with the burden of practically life-long held dreams, there was a fair amount of anxiety. Spring run Atlantic Salmon are considerably larger than the later fish, 25% are over 20 lbs with a legitimate possibility for true monsters. They’re fresh from the ocean, chrome bright most with a few sea lice still attached, in snow-melt-swollen-rivers.
Plus you’re in the tundra, a helicopter ride from your cabin, a sat phone away from civilization and getting it right counts. So I agonized. I even had a nightmare. Vladimir was stealing my fly reels at customs. He just loved my lovely old English fly reels! Nothing could have been further from the truth in reality but, which turned out to be a good message from my subconscious because I was happy I packed my nice modern fly reels instead. Speaking of packing, I brought one 5-piece rod and I wished repeatedly that my 4-piece was similarly divided. As the Russian proverb goes: seeing it once is worth hearing it a thousand times, note to self: buy a 9144-5 and a 9136-5 to match my 10148-5, it’ll be worth there purchase price in saved luggage fees.
Most importantly your tackle needs to be in perfect working order, no light tippets, no old backing, I fished 30 pound tippet the whole time. Your loops on your lines can have no frays considering its possible to hook a fish with a weight higher than your fly line cores breaking strength. Honestly fifty pound running line and 300 yards of gel-spun backing, fish leave the pools here often. A shameless plug is in order for Helsinki Spey Clave, they delivered lines, hooks and extra tippet to my hotel room FOC, that kind of customer service is rare. Their knowledge of the Kola Rivers is worth a email for tackle advice if you’re headed there.
Given my standing as a fishing bum-dog sweater salesman (although judging by my reservation date and accompanying bargain pricing, I am no hedge-fund manager) the ASR is as marvelous a camp as one could hope. The fried cod-tongue, the reindeer charcuterie and open bar. They made a chocolate birthday cake in the middle of the tundra for our friend Ulrik from Copenhagen. My guide Volody, a twenty five year guiding veteran, who at 60 sprang up and down the rocks like a mountain goat, cigarette dangling beneath his quintessentially Russian mustache, was so familiar with the river I felt sure he could navigate the whole thing blindfolded.
The tundra was wide and rambling, scrubby with a even green wash of reindeer moss and above, a vast ever-changing, always-lit sky. The wind was fierce and restlessly shifted up and down stream all through the canyon. It was early still and felt like late winter in Oregon, with a moist crispness to the air. That sounds like early in the season right? Remember how I mentioned the stars aligning for this trip? Well maybe that was the case here. The snow-pack was light last year and the the water was 50F when it was typically closer to 40F during this time. It was like I was there at peak-price time, catching a couple fish every day. While I didn’t break the 30 lb mark, I came very close once. Full sinking scandi lines, nope half of my fish came on floaters and unweighted flies. I was hitching tubes my last afternoon fishing. I have had enough of heavy tips and flies by the time I arrived.
So did it live up to my decades of dreaming? Was the fishing all that I hoped for? I can say it comfortably surpassed them, especially when I take into account aspects that I hadn’t thought of - , the breadth of knowledge of my guides, the excellent appointment of the camp. Most importantly there were fresh fish in the river. That’s the biggest part of the trip and there were fresh fish coming every day. I am already scheming for new avenues to make money and surveying the garage for treasures to sell. Would a Costa Rican yoga retreat for my wife convince her that I could go again? I will be back, I'm sure the first week will still be in my price range next year. Thanks Justin, Volody and all the employees of the camp. If you are interested, you can email them directly at khalovka.com.