Kamchatka: “Wade Deep, Fish Hard”
TWO WEEKS AGO I was trout fishing on the lower Zhupanova River at ZendZur Lodge on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. It was a fitting end to a three-week expedition that took me three quarters of the way around the world and back. And was worth every single hour my butt was glued to a jetliner, helicopter or car seat.
Marty Johnson and I started in Redding, California and flew Horizon Airlines to Los Angeles. There we boarded an Aeroflot Jet and flew approximately 11 hours, right over the North Pole to Moscow. Marty and I met up with Sandy Saxe in Moscow for a couple of days of exploring this fascinating metropolis. Although certainly the highlight of our two days in Moscow was our tour of the Kremlin, Armory and Red Square, we all agreed that just tooling around Moscow, walking the streets and checking out the big city scene was just as enjoyable. The conspicuous display of wealth by the nouveau riche Muscovites was mind-blowing. Get this: sitting in a street café having a beer after a fabulous dinner at this cool Uzbekistan restaurant, we saw a Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari, and Maserati all drive by in a 30-minute period. Mercedes “S” Class and BMW 700 series coupes were as common as Toyota Camrys in Redding, and Porsche Cayenne Turbos like Jeep Cherokees. Russia has definitely arrived into the 21st Century.
I am not a big city guy, and two days in what is ranked as the most expensive place in the world today was plenty — we were ready to fly to Kamchatka and start fishing. The flight from Moscow to Petropavlovsk was about 10 hours and uneventful. All of our luggage arrived and we were quickly whisked off to the heliport, weighed and x-rayed (I don’t think the x-ray machine was even turned on, but it looked good), and were soon flying north to Esso. We were informed upon landing in Esso that the Pirishnikova was blown out after two weeks of heavy rain in the Tigil River basin, and that we were being diverted to the Sedanka Spring Creek. Although some in our group of anglers were disappointed in not being able to fish the Piroz as planned, I was not, as I knew what we were in for, having floated and fished the Sedanka some four years previous for two weeks. And, just as I expected, the Sedanka, a 100-mile long beautiful, sexy, spring creek was loaded with wild rainbow trout that averaged 19 inches with numerous fish landed well over 20 inches. The trout ate everything from skated mouse patterns to a size 12 Parachute Adams and about everything in between.
What can I say about the Sedanka that has not been said or printed? It has to be one of the greatest trout streams on the planet. It is a true spring creek; I have hiked upstream from Camp I and fished the headwaters where its bubbling 42-degree water gushes out of solid volcanic rock. Sedanka trout stack up like cordwood slurping big slate-grey mayflies, little yellow stones and tan caddis as they drift helplessly down slick water runs reminiscent of Hat Creek in Northern California. Crazy thing is, the trout would rather take naturals off the surface over the zillions of salmon eggs rolling down the river bottom. And oh yeah, if you get tired of catching these free-rising wild trout, you can throw a mouse or baitfish and do just as good. And oh! The grab on a mouse? There’s nothing like it! Don’t even think about a using a silly old streamer.
We stayed two days at three camps while on the Sedanka floating and fishing between each on travel days. Camp II is my favorite. The water up-stream — Magic Island as the Ruskies call it, a short 20-minute flat hike away — is mind blowing. The dry fly water would make any fly fisher wet their pants. At times, dozens and dozens of trout can be seen lazily sucking dries down with total confidence. A short cast, mend, and decent drift of a Parachute Adams or Adams SuperFly is all it takes. However, I had one fish, a particularly big boy hanging under a leaning birch tree, refuse three different flies I floated down his lane. I had twenty minutes invested into the fish before he ate my fourth offering, a tiny, light-tan caddis. And although the fish was not the biggest at about five pounds and 23 inches, I have to say it was my most memorable of my 14 days of fishing, if only because I had to work for him. Everyone had great fishing on the Sedanka and the entire group was well taken care of, well fed, and heavily intoxicated on fish and the beautiful Kamchatka countryside.
I said my goodbyes to my new friends as they loaded the rafts and started floating to Camp III for the last two days of their Sedanka Odyssey. I stayed in Camp II waiting for a helicopter to pick me up and take me to Esso, where I would get in a car and drive to Petropavlosk. Here I would hook up with a group of anglers coming in from Moscow headed to the Zhupanova River and ZendZur Lodge for my second week of fishing. Well, for those of you that have waited for a helicopter to arrive in Kamchatka, you know I was resolved to sit all day waiting for the beast to arrive. It was 10 AM and I was sitting with Natasha, one of our interpreters, learning some Russian words, when out of nowhere a helicopter swooped over the trees and landed hot (not shutting down). I luckily had my bags packed so grabbed them, ran up the stairs to the make-shift heli-pad, and threw my gear and my butt in the chopper, rotors in full swing, and sat down. There was only one other person in the chopper, a big woman, with a striking resemblance to Merlin Olsen, the football player, without a beard. She did not smile.
The whole ordeal was like something out of an Oliver Stone movie … and 45 minutes later I was in Esso and loaded into a right-hand drive Toyota station wagon for the eight-hour drive to PK. However, when my driver, Sergey, motioned to his son to hand him his rose-colored driving glasses and black leather driving gloves I knew I was in for a ride. At one time I braved a look at the speedometer and we were barreling down the rutted, washboard, gravel and dirt road at over 120 kilometers an hour (75 MPH). We made it to PK in just under 6 hours, and that was after three stops: one to pee, one for Snickers bars and some peach nectar juice, and another I can’t remember. When I arrived at the Purga Compound, I thanked Sergey (now nicknamed Michael Schumacher), for the driving clinic and paid him with fresh, new greenbacks.
For those hearty souls who have spent any time at the Purga Compound, complete with razor-wire fences and guard dogs, I salute you. It is what it is and I will leave it at that. Thankfully, I only had to hang out there for 24 hours before our group — well, most of us anyway — were in the helicopter for the scud run (low ceiling) to ZendZur. Two thirds of the group got left in Moscow due to Aeroflot overbooking the flight. However, they did make it down the next day, and missed only one day of fishing.
Zendzur Lodge sits on a forested hillside above the Zhupanova River below where the float takes place, downstream of Cedar Lodge. Zendzur is without a doubt the nicest fixed-base fishing lodge in Kamchatka, and features comfortable rooms, with in-suite full bathrooms, comfortable beds, a natural hot spring for soaking, and, in my experience, the best food in Kamchatka.
You go to Zendzur to catch monster rainbows in excess of 30 inches. Don’t expect big numbers of fish, unless you get into a silver hole, where nearly every cast will produce a chrome Coho averaging about ten pounds. And if you want to satiate that need to catch an obscene amount of fish, park on a Dolly Varden riffle and hurt yourself. I watched Ben Wiedower hook and land a nice Dolly in full fall-color splendor (three to five pounds) on every single cast until we dragged him into the boat to search out some big Bows. Like I said, you come to Zendzur to catch the biggest rainbows in Kamchatka and if you fish hard, that’s just what you will do. Our week at Zendzur started off kind of tough, with each of us only hooking and landing one or two big rainbows a day. The guides were scratching their heads, and for the life of me, I could not understand why we weren’t getting into more fish. The runs we fished were near perfect, as was the water clarity and temperature. The only way I can account for our slow fishing the first couple of days was possibly the weather and a constantly bouncing barometer. Halfway through the week a big high pressure system built in and after the morning fog burned off, usually around 10 AM, we had blue skies, lots of sun, incredible views of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes, and improved fishing.
During the first part of the week I was dredging the runs with a Type VIII 15-foot sink-tip and heavily weighted streamers on my spey rod. Once I switched to a floating tip and surface fly, Whitlock’s Swimming Baitfish, everything changed. Everywhere I thought there should be a fish, there was, and they ate that big old 1/0 saltwater streamer like man eating his first meal in ten days. I had numerous big fish slash at the fly as it skidded and jerked across the water, often three, even four times before I got a hook in them. And the entire time, this was happening on the surface or near the surface for all to see. To say it was awesome is an understatement and all I can say is that you have to see it to believe it.
All of us landed some amazing rainbows at Zendzur under ideal river conditions with gorgeous weather, good food, good grog and great company. On my best day, I probably hooked or moved 12 fish and landed half that amount. You would occasionally hook and land a small fish of 12 to 18 inches, but the majority by far were in the 25-inch-plus range. The biggest fish landed for the week was 32 and a half inches.
The guides were polite young men, who knew their river beats well but did not offer or provide a lot of fishing advice. My feeling on the “young” Russian guides is that they are shy and feel that if they give advice to an angler, usually an older man, it will be interpreted as disrespectful. Respect of elders in Russia is taken very seriously. So anyone planning a fly fishing trip to Russia, and especially older gentlemen, should insist guides give them direct feedback on their fishing, i.e. fly lines, flies, techniques, choice of water, etc.
Rarely does the fishing in Kamchatka let one down. The Sedanka is a special place and has to be one of the greatest and most unique fisheries in the world. And the Zhupanova, after all these years, is still the king for big rainbows.
Is Kamchatka for everyone? Certainly not. Kamchatka is in its infancy as a fishing destination when compared to Alaska, which has been catering to regular arrivals of sports fishers for more than half a century. Still, the outfitters and infrastructure have made leaps and bounds in improving equipment, staff, service and food. One stroll through a supermarket there will tell you that Western culture has landed in Kamchatka. (I won’t comment on whether that is bad or good.) But Kamchatka is Kamchatka and if you want to experience the best rainbow trout fishing in the world, then you are going to have to put up with her sometimes baffling, and often comical inadequacies. But that’s what makes Kamchatka cool, too.
I will leave you with this one thought, that comes from John Kauffmann in the fabulous book on life in the Alaskan bush, Coming into the Country by John McPhee:
“‘You come to the place on its terms,’ Kauffmann put in. ‘You assume the risk.'”
In Kamchatka, the risks manage to always seem worth taking.