A genetic strain of Atlantic salmon like none other, and the madmen who chase them.
[By Matt Harris]
The big rotor lumbers slowly to life, and I look around at the same old faces, everybody grinning, laughing, and digging one another in the ribs. A bottle of duty-free Jameson makes the rounds; I accept it with a rueful smile and take a hefty swig. I pull on my noise-canceling headphones to drown out the deafening noise of the rotor blades and the first bars of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” swirl into my head and bring on those familiar goosebumps. The Mi-8 shudders once, twice, and then lifts into the gray northern skies. The craggy old Arctic city of Murmansk, Russia, unfolds below. We are on our way. The best week of the year. This is it. This is Yokanga.
Many times I’ve gazed longingly at the old sepia-toned plates of yesteryear. Stiff old British gents posing formally beside impossibly huge salmon, fish we can barely dare to dream of today. For many years, I thought those fish were from another time, but in 2001, I found a river that can still provide the leviathans of yesteryear.
I’ve been lucky to fish some of the best Atlantic salmon waters in the world, from Iceland’s crystalline streams to the wide waters of Canada’s celebrated Restigouche to the hallowed canyon of Norway’s mighty Alta. Each has its own unique character and its own unique run of fish. But none offers anything like Northwest Russia’s Yokanga. I first fished it in 2001, wondering if the massive fish I’d seen in the old sepia-toned photos were real—and if so, could they still exist? These were impossibly huge salmon. I dared dream; today, 18 yeas later, I can tell you, unequivocally, they are still there.
Located about 175 miles east of Murmansk, the Yokanga winds its way off the Kola Peninsula’s sprawling tundra and races downhill into the Arctic Ocean at Gremikha Bay. The river offers the largest strain of salmon on the Kola Peninsula, a unique race of deep-bodied, shovel-tailed fish that arrive in mid-June and stick around well into August. To set a hook into one of these leviathans, chrome bright and fresh from the ocean, is an unforgetable experience. I’m unashamed to say that, once or twice, I’ve blinked away tears of frustration on this river; other times I’ve wiped tears from my eyes in unalloyed delight.
I’ve caught my fair share of big salmon from Yokanga, but I’ve lost fish that I would have given my eyeteeth to put hands on. Most nights at Yokanga Lodge, which stands on a high bench above the river and the “home pool,”someone has a tall tale featuring an epic battle with one of the river’s mighty salmon. More often than not, these stories end in despair, but sometimes, just sometimes, one of our lucky band manages to hang on to one, and a vodka-fueled party ensues.
While the majority of Atlantic salmon fisheries are in steep decline, with aquaculture, netting, and habitat degradation just a few of the myriad causes, the Yokanga and the other feted rivers of the Northern Kola still manage to consistently produce fish.
Fish start showing in the Yokanga in mid-June and they remain into August. One in five of its fish weighs 20 pounds or more; 30-pound fish are landed each week of the season; many larger fish are lost.
To fish the Yokanga effectively involves a heavy-duty kit. Leave your funky little switch rods and pretty little reels behind. . . . In the early season, when the water is high and the Yokanga’s biggest fish of the season barrel upstream, you need some serious artillery. Fifteen-foot-long 10-weight Spey rods married with reliable high-capacity reels holding at least 300 yards of tightly packed and well-maintained 65-pound gel-spun backing and featuring a powerful disk drag system, are required. Twenty-pound Maxima is your best choice for a leader, but most veterans choose 30-to-35-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon.
You’ll need two setups to get the best out of Yokanga: in the early season, a Skagit head coupled with a selection of T-14 MOW tips allows you to present large and sometimes heavy flies deep and slow in the fast, high water. In the lower, warmer water of mid- and late season, a full floating Scandi head with a range of 15-foot tips, from floating to Type 8, is perfect for smaller, lighter flies and longer, more subtle presentations.
In the early weeks, you won’t go wrong with the deadly German Snaelda fly, tied on a one-inch brass tube, coupled with an ultra-strong barbless Guideline size 4 double hook. Later, as the water drops, use smaller Temple Dogs, Willie Gunns, Green Highlanders, and my favorite pattern, the deadly Sunray Shadow. Fish the Sunray through the surface with a riffle hitch, and be ready for heart-stopping surface takes.
A typical day on the Yokanga starts with a hot shower in the lodge’s comfortable and well-appointed private suites, followed by a hearty English breakfast in a huge dining room of the magnificent Canadian timber-frame lodge. This is followed by another magic carpet ride in the helicopter to your appointed beat for the day.
Today, we have Upper Norcamp—one of the very best—and it is suddenly visible up ahead through the helicopter window. I grin at Chris, my longtime fishing partner. It’s our turn.
Vova, our brilliant guide, waves us forward and we accept the silent good-luck wishes—the nods and winks and thumps on the arm—from our brothers- and occasionally sisters-in-arms before clambering out of the hovering helicopter and onto the tundra.