In the Eighties we all knew that the rivers existed. In awed and half-believing tones they were talked about in pubs and clubs.
They were somewhere in the wastes of Arctic Russia and they were, we were told, like the rivers of Britain before the industrial revolution: they teemed and boiled with salmon.
The problem was that no one could fish them because of the Cold War. Then came Gorbachev: glasnost was the new policy and perestroika the philosophy.
The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989.
For huge numbers in the Soviet bloc this meant freedom. For Christopher Robinson it meant the possibility of finding and exploring this salmon paradise.
At that time he was running a company called Bailey Robinson from London, which let a little fishing and shooting. It was the precursor to the highly successful Roxton Bailey Robinson, now Roxtons and sister company Bailey Robinson, operating from Hungerford.
For two years Robinson banged on the door of officialdom in Moscow without success. Then in 1991 he succeeded in persuading the KGB that he was not a spy and a visa was granted for him to visit the Kola Peninsula.
In June of that year he hired a Red Army helicopter, a translator and two helpers and flew along the south coast of the Kola.
That first day is indelibly imprinted in his mind.
“We flew over the Ponoi and the Umba rivers, but finally landed in the evening on a sandbank of the Kitza, which is a tributary of the Varzuga. We pitched camp and at 7 o’clock the next morning I cast the first fly ever on a Russian river. It was immediately grabbed by a salmon. Between then and 11am I caught 10 fish. I could not believe that all the fairy tales and rumours were true and that here indeed was a salmon fisher’s paradise.”
He fished the Varzuga the following day. This, too, produced a plethora of fish.
There is no doubt the Varzuga, which includes the Pana and its tributary the Indel, is the most prolific salmon river on earth. Robinson’s company has been sending clients to fish it ever since. The average catch per client per week is 40 salmon. The wading is easy, the accommodation comfortable and the food excellent.
It is the ideal place to begin salmon fishing and learn a variety of techniques. Roxtons has a private, direct flight from Stansted to Murmansk, so it is possible to fish on the day you leave England.
The same can be said for the Ponoi, except there most of the fishing is done from a boat; however, it is possible to wade in several places.
Although it is Russian owned, it is run by Frontiers. Most of the guides are Russian but there are some from Scandinavia, Argentina, France and South Africa as well. All are highly trained.
One of the best ways to fish the Ponoi is through Peter Baxendale of Coldstream Fishing. Peter has three dedicated prime weeks, staying at the Acha camp which is immensely comfortable. Not only will Peter organise the fishing, he will sort out all flights and visas, too.
It is a multicultural camp and extremely comfortable. However, on both the Ponoi and the Varzuga, it is rather like a prep school for salmon fishermen. This year there were five fish of over 25lb but the majority were 7lb grilse. When the grilse pall most anglers want to move on to more challenging fishing. This is offered by the rivers of the northern Kola.
The main rivers in the northern Kola are, west to east, the Kola, Rynda, Kharlovka, Eastern Litza, Varzina and Yokanga. In 1998 Peter Power took over the operation of the Rynda, Kharlovka and Eastern Litza rivers when they were ill run and badly poached.
He founded the Atlantic Salmon Reserve (ASR) covering two million acres and embarked on a major conservation and protection programme in co-operation with the government. Since the Power era began the ASR has trebled its juvenile salmon stocks and catch returns have risen dramatically. His rivers have become the greatest and best-run of all the northern rivers.
Chris Tarrant, TV celebrity and fanatical fisherman, has fished nearly all of them:
“I have tried virtually all the northern Kola rivers in search of a monster salmon. I fished the Umba [southern Kola] for two years running in 1999 and 2000. The food was disgusting but I averaged five fish per day of roughly 16lb.
During the second year that I fished it, we had a monster of a fishing inspector wished on us.
This man was drunk every night and at one point threatened us all with a live revolver.
It was a terrifying experience and I never went back there. I have now settled on Peter Power’s three rivers where last year I caught a 28lb fish, my best ever.”
This June he beat this with a 42-pounder on the Eastern Litza.
Nowadays the Umba is run by Icelander Árni Baldursson and is hugely improved. The lodge is very comfortable and the fish are big and plentiful. There are as many huge salmon as ever but no gun-toting inspector and the food is excellent. It is reached by bus rather than helicopter.
The Kola is another prolific big-fish river. It is situated very near to Murmansk and is reached by car. Unfortunately it has a reputation for being badly poached. There are no exclusive beats and fly-fishermen are very likely to find Russians spinning opposite them. Despite the poaching, it is full of huge salmon. In the early season the average size of fish is over 20lb. It offers relatively easy wading and the lodge is comfortable.
The Yokanga, owned by The Kola Co Syndicate, which is British, is run and let by Fly Fish Yokanga. It is the largest river in the northern Kola and the one most likely to produce that elusive 50lb salmon.
So far no fish of this size has been caught officially on any of the northern Kola rivers although many have been hooked and lost.
It is not a beginner’s river, having extremely difficult wading. It is a physical river that suits those with a good level of fitness plus experience of Atlantic salmon. The guides are all Russian and have an average ability to speak and understand English. There is a Canadian-type log-built lodge which is extremely comfortable. However, most of the guests have to share rooms.
If no fish of over 50lb has been caught officially on the northern Kola Peninsula, one of 70lb has been taken unofficially. This was in 1995 on the Varzina and the lucky fisherman was Sir Seton Wills.
Sir Seton once told me:
“Our helicopter pilot had been drunk most of the time and this particular morning was so pissed that he had not turned up at all, which was probably just as well. Thus myself, my fishing partner Mark Cannon-Brook and our guide, yomped over rough and wild country till close to the estuary. Mark then set off with the guide to fish the Penka, a tributary of the Varzina.
It was bitterly cold in late May and I began to fish the freshwater pool nearest the estuary. Almost immediately my line went tight and I was into a fish. I realised instantly that it was something huge and expected it to set off for the sea at any moment.
However, it stayed in the pool and after over an hour I managed to land it. Because we had had to walk we had the bare minimum of equipment with us. Thus I had no scales. I measured it against my rod for its length and with some nylon for its girth.
These measurements were 57.5in in length and 19in girth. Thus the fish was somewhere in the region of 70lb. It was covered in sea-lice. I thought of killing it but the journey back was all uphill, so it seemed easier to return it.”
If I had been told this story by almost anyone else I would have found it hard to believe but Seton has fished so much and is a man of such integrity that I have no doubt it is true.
The Varzina can be booked through Maggie Smit of Go Fishing Worldwide.
The best-managed fishery on the North Kola is Peter Power’s Three Rivers, fished from two camps. The Eastern Litza and the Kharlovka are fished jointly and the Rynda is fished in conjunction with the tiny Zolotaya, the whole river being a beat in its own right.
In both camps the food is wonderful and the accommodation superb; every fisherman has his own individual hut with bathroom and shower. All the guides are Russian but speak fluent English as they go to night school to learn it during the winter. Even if a guest has never held a rod there are guides qualified to teach him.
There are also special rates for the young and many a salmon virgin has been deflowered here, one of them with a 38lb fish.
The Kola’s only real drawback is the mosquito season, which lasts from late May until August in the south and mid June to late July in the north. However, with good repellent, the mozzies are easily manageable.
There is also an anti-histamine pill called Neoclarityn which, if taken two days before travelling and during the week in the Kola, will negate the bites’ effects. It is available on prescription only and you’ll need to take medical advice on its use.
The scenery of the north Kola is very like that of Sutherland, being mountainous and treeless. Great herds of reindeer are often seen silhouetted against the sky on the hilltops. Gyre falcons hunt the ptarmigan coveys and eagles glide and circle on the thermals.
Sometimes a bear will raid the dustbins behind the kitchens, although bears are, sadly, rare as the Russians hunt them. It is an incredibly beautiful country and one of the last unspoilt wildernesses left on earth.
The rivers are fast and turbulent. They are the thinking fisherman’s waters where unconventional methods – skated flies and nymphs – will work when nothing else will. The man who thinks that he can merely cast his fly across the river and hope for the best will not be as successful as he who thinks what his fly is doing every foot of its path.
Should it be fished faster or slower, shallower or deeper?
The real excitement, however, is that every time the line goes tight it could be the mythical 50-pounder.
I would advise any inexperienced fisherman to go to the southern Kola initially to learn how to fish and to catch myriad salmon. Then, with the confidence that the Varzuga or the Ponoi has given, go to the northern Kola which has the most exciting big-fish salmon fishing on earth.
The Southern Kola
Varzuga, Kitza & tributaries
Rods Four camps of 10/12
Accommodation Mostly single
Prime time Mid May/late June
Contact 01488 689701;
Roxtons; email Roxtons
Price From £4,500 six days/seven nights from Stansted, incl
Agent Frontiers (Ryabaga camp)
Peter Baxendale (Acha camp)
Rods (R) 20; (A) 10
Accommodation (R) Mostly twin (A) Single
Prime time Late May/early July; mid August to late September
Contact (R) 01285 741340; Frontiers
(A) Peter Baxendale, Coldstream Fishing, tel 020 7823 8718; 07702 317300;
Price (R) From US$5,665, six days, flights not included
(A) About £5,500, 61?4 days,
from Heathrow, inclusive
Agent Árni Baldursson
en suite rooms
Prime time Late August
Contact Tel 00 354 5576100; Lax-A;
email Arni Baldursson
Price From 84,200, 61?2 days, flights not included
The northern kola
Three rivers (Rynda,
kharlovka & Eastern litza)
Agent Kharlovka Company
Rods Two camps of 12 each
cabin with bathroom and loo
Prime time Second week June until end July
Contact Tel 00 44 1865 883063; Kharlovka Company; email Ruth at Kharlovka Company
Price £2,900 to £8,750, 6 1/2 days incl, from Murmansk
Agent Árni Baldursson
Accommodation Single rooms
Prime time Late May, June
Contact As for Umba
Price From 84,880, six days, from Murmansk
Agent Go Fishing Worldwide (Maggie Smit)
Prime time June and July
Contact Tel 020 8742 1556; Go Fishing Worldwide; email Go Fishing Worldwide
Price From £4,900 six days/seven nights from Heathrow
Agent Fly Fish Yokanga
Accommodation Mainly twin
Prime time Mid June to end Aug
Contact Peter Rippin or Roddy Hall, tel 01367 850429, email Roddy Hall
Price $4,500 to $15,000, six days, inclusive from Murmansk