As we huddle low and watch theMi-8 lift into the sky, we savor that special anticipation of having perhaps three miles of the very best Atlantic salmon fishing in the world all to ourselves.
Vova busies himself pumping up the little inflatable raft, and Chris and I rig up.
I put up my favorite Hardy 15-foot, 10-weight rod and bolt on my big Mako 9600 reel, loaded with about a million miles of meticulously maintained 65-pound gel-spun backing.
The water has dropped and warmed considerably overnight—the onset of summer. The flower buds, tightly shut just a few short days ago, are starting to open.
Perhaps a little optimistically, I replace the Skagit head and the 12 feet of T-14 with my favorite full-floating Scandi head. I ignore the German Snaelda fly that has been catching some cracking fish all week and instead rig my favorite Sunray Shadow tube fly to a long, tapered, 15-foot, 30-pound-test leader. I feed the leader through a hole in the side of the tube so that the fly will hitch across the surface, and attach a large single hook rather than the more common double hook, which tends to snag the fly’s long wing.
The river is wide here. Chris clambers into the raft and Vova rows him to the far side of the draw, while I wade into the river and tackle the tail of Upper Norcamp pool.
By lunch, we’ve each moved a fish but have nothing to show for our efforts. Vova blames a drop in the air pressure. The Arctic skies have turned a dark, leaden gray that suggests summer is postponed for a few more days at least. Snow is in the air as Vova pours the hot soup and we gaze at the wild tundra’s bleak beauty. Vova suggests I change to a sinking-tip. Grudgingly I agree, and thread on an intermediate tip and a favorite black and orange Temple Dog, tied for me by my old friend Hakan Norling.
By 4 p.m., snow is falling heavily.
I take a nip of Lagavulin from the hip flask and wade into my favorite spot on the river, the Lower Norcamp draw.
The blizzard intensifies, thick white flakes contrasting beautifully against the dark northern sky.
I draw the zipper of my rain jacket right up to my chin and do my best to wipe the dissolving snowflakes from my glasses.
I take three steps downstream and now I’m coming to it. The Lower Norcamp pool can almost be guaranteed to provide some action, but it is also a notorious, boulder-studded heartbreaker, with a savage, leader-shredding rapid directly downstream.
Lower Norcamp is a treacherous wade, and the blizzard and the river’s heavy tannin stain make the water almost impenetrably dark, impossible to read. I go carefully, using my wading stick and easing myself into the next spot with exaggerated care. Each of the myriad rocks can hold a fish, and I search each one hard, throwing my talismanic little Temple Dog fly in front of each.
It’s savagely cold now. I pull on my neoprene mittens and send another long snake roll whistling across the river, throwing in an upstream mend to slow the fly’s progress.
I squint through the snowfall, and suddenly, my heart skips a beat.
There it is, a chrome beast of a salmon racing for my fly.
There’s an implosion way out in the gray current, and suddenly, that magical moment: a savage, wrenching tug that brings the reel to life. The running line has resolved out of its deep curve, and is knifing straight out across the river.
The fish crashes away and jackknifes skyward—no color in the monochromatic gunmetal gray of the Arctic snowstorm— just a great black back and gleaming silver flanks slicing through the blizzard.
It’s a big fish.
Forty minutes of wild, knuckle-busting mayhem, of running and slithering over the rocks, and of praying and holding on tight. Finally, we are into the endgame.
Vova brandishes his net. The fish is close, but not ready; it thrashes angrily at the surface, and I ease off the pressure, frightened that at close quarters, the steely 10-weight Spey rod might tear the hook hold.
I let the fish settle down, and Vova endorses my tactic with a tacit nod.
More pressure, and a few abortive attempts at a dash down stream, but the big salmon is tiring now.
The snow starts to ease, and the pale watery disk of the sun is momentarily visible. The big fish thrashes through the surface, and its huge head shows that it is a big, sea-bright cock fish.
It kites around in the current, and Vova skips nimbly across the rocks and positions himself just downstream of the fish.
A vast, spadelike tail rolls up through the surface, and I see that the fish is beaten. I hold my breath and draw the fish gently toward my old friend and his cavernous net. Vova sees his moment, and gently slides the net underneath the mighty fish before lifting the frame triumphantly upward.
Vova punches me hard on the arm and shakes my hand. I thank him with a smile and we gaze down at the magnificent fish. It’s not my biggest from the Yokanga, but it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Forty-four inches long, gleaming silver, peppered with long-tailed sea lice, and shot through with that sapphire-blue line that betrays it as fresh from the ocean. Thirty-two pounds.
I hold this stunning creature for a quick picture. My arms are shaking, and it’s not from the snowflakes settling on my hands or the ice water, or the lactic acid.
As I let the fish glide back into the frigid water, I feel the wild, primal quality of this place.
This is the wildest and the best Atlantic salmon fishing on earth.
This is Yokanga.
Matt Harris has fly fished all over the world, and although he constantly seeks out new fly fishing experiences, he has returned to the Yokanga every year since 2001.