Chasing Rainbows in the Wild, Wild East of Kamchatka
By Michael Hamilton
Ever hook a rainbow so big, so bad ass, that the hairs went up on the back of your neck as the line went tight and your reel started singing Big Bad John? Welcome to fly fishing for Kamchatka rainbows in the wild, wild east of mother Russia.
This is a tale of two rivers that flow through vast uninhabited tracks of pristine wilderness along the mountainous spine of the Kamchatka Peninsula in one of the most remote regions of the Russian Far East. The gin clear waters of the broad shouldered spring fed Ozernaya River and the freestone flows of the Dvukhyurtochnaya River, more commonly known as the Two- Yurt, hold many of the largest native surface feeding resident wild rainbow trout left on earth.
The Ozernaya teems with incalculable numbers of migrating Pacific Salmon, Sea Run Char, Dolly Varden and the largest Grayling in the world. The Two Yurt can see runs of 200-300 thousand sockeye annually. Geographically isolated for centuries, the Ozernaya and Two Yurt Rivers appear frozen in time. Set against a backdrop of symmetrical snow-rimmed volcanoes, precipitous buttes, valleys of birch, aspen, pine, and willow, sheltered swamp-like flowering grasslands and fat berry eating, salmon gorging Brown Grizzly Bears, these rivers represent the last places left on our planet where complete cold watersheds flow into oceans unimpeded by dams. They also offer unimaginable solitude. Consider that both rivers see less angling pressure in a season of 11 weeks than virtually any quality rainbow stream in Alaska will see on a normal weekend.
The Kamchatka Peninsula lies between the Sea of Okhotsk on the west and the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean to the east. Shaped like a human spine, it is 1600 km (954miles) long north to south and 480 km (300) miles across at its widest point. Born of fire like creation itself, the landmass beneath the Peninsula is constantly bobbing and weaving like a welterweight contender. Situated on the Great Pacific Rim of Fire, Kamchatka has the highest concentrations of active volcanoes on earth. Approximately 160, some only 110 miles apart, are jammed together like fish in a barrel. With barley pronounceable names like Koryaksky, Avachinsky, Kozelsky, Klyuchevskaya Sopka, Plotsky-Tolbachik, Kizimen, Shiveluch and Bezymianny, they frequently belch sulfuric smoke, bubble up red glowing lava and burst toxic plumes into the Russian sky.
Historically, The Kamchatka Peninsula was one of the most mysterious regions in the Russian empire. The Soviet Military established an elaborate cold war listening outpost in the 1950’s to spy on the west and subsequently kept the area secret for over 60 years. Even Russians had to get special permission to travel there. The isolation did have an upside. The inaccessibility protected one of its most valuable assets – the world’s last remaining strongholds of Salmon, Steelhead, Rainbow Trout, Searun Char, Dolly Varden and Grayling.
In 1991, the reforms of Perestroika changed everything. The Soviet Empire collapsed. The Cold War ended. Perestroika also brought a handful of American outfitters and guides that began exploring Kamchatka’s vast untouched watersheds. These pioneering efforts helped create Kamchatka’s expanding angling tourism market and spawned new partnerships like the one between Russian outdoorsman Victor Rebrikov, owner of Utgard Expeditions and American outfitter Will Blair, owner of the Best of Kamchatka. Their joint venture is the nucleus behind the Ozernaya and Two Yurt fly-fishing programs.
I first glimpsed the Ozernaya, a.k.a., the Oz, through a circular port hole-sized window of a Russian M18 Helicopter just before 9pm on the evening of August 8th. I was jammed inside shoulder to shoulder with two groups of anglers. 7 would join me to fish the Ozernaya River. Six others would continue on in the helicopter to the Two Yurt Camp. A mountain of dry bags, duffels and rod cases were piled to the ceiling in the rear of the chopper. As our big burly chopper banked hard left and started its descent toward a grassy meadow filled with a sea of pink wildflowers, I could see below a big broad shouldered river. Nowhere was there barren Arctic tundra that is so common in Alaska. Rather, a vast endless panorama of forested canyons, contoured valleys and flowering meadows. Sourced from cold-water springs, snowmelt and one tributary that flows out of a mountainous lake, the Oz twists, turns and braids through a wild, uninhabited verdant landscape on its 100-mile journey to the Bering Sea. What makes the Oz so remarkably special is what swims beneath its surface. Dense populations of exceptionally large rainbows that range from 18 to 27 inches, with larger specimens a cast away are thick as thieves. (The week before I arrived a 32-inch rainbow was netted after slamming a size 6 Moorish Mouse). Trophy-size Graylings with their distinctive translucent dorsal spines are abundant and eat dry flies at will. Resident Dolly Varden, with olive green sides that shade to a white belly peppered with reddish orange spots, eagerly slam streamers with almost every cast. Most of the fishing on the Oz is wading. However, when the river runs high, as was the case in 2013, we mostly fished from the boat casting tight to the banks or across riffles. Guides run up or downriver in twenty-foot long, flat-bottomed aluminum Lowe johnboats, powered by 40 horsepower outboards. The fishing days begin around 9:30am with all boats arriving back in camp by 6:30pm.
For casting streamers, I used my 7 weight Sage ONE, a floating line with a 6-foot RIO Tapered 10 LB Steelhead/Salmon leader. It was the perfect set up. Without exception, a fish would violently yank the streamer every second or third cast. (Believe it!) You never knew right off what you had on until the fish either stayed deep like a dolly or grayling, or skyrocketed out of the water like an acrobatic rainbow. When I would tire of throwing big streamers, I would grab my six weight Z-Axis and tie on a size 6# Morrish Mouse. You can expect a lot more casting with a mouse before a strike but when a huge bow charges your rodent like an angry bull chasing a rodeo clown around the ring, the extra effort is well worth it.
Unlike Alaska’s trophy streams, the big rainbows of the Oz see very limited angling pressure. Beginning in July after runoff and continuing through mid September, only 8 anglers fish about 50 miles of river each week. Angers stay in 4 A-frames that accommodate two each. The cabins are comfortable, dry, and mostly bug free. A word-burning stove provides heat. In the evening, a generator supplies electricity. Breakfasts and dinners are served in a comfortable long house. Lunch is streamside. Hands down, the Ozernaya is the ultimate adventure for anglers who seek high catch rates and who want to battle fat, sassy and uneducated rainbows while discovering true wilderness with a touch of rustic luxury.
The Two Yurt
The Dvukhyurtochnaya River, often referred to as the Two Yurt, (for obvious reasons if you don’t speak Russian) is as different and chalk and cheese when compared to the Oz. It’s a much smaller freestone river that flows east through the heart of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Historically, the Two Yurt sees annual spawning migrations of 200,00 to 300,00 Sockeye and equally impressive numbers of King Salmon. From Bears to Stellar Sea Eagles, and from rainbows to modest populations of Dollies and Graylings, the salmon biomass of eggs and flesh is by far what feeds the river’s food chain throughout the summer season.
Unlike the Ozernaya, the Two Yurt is too small to navigate by jet boat. Instead, large rafts are deployed to ferry fisherman and gear from camp to camp. Overall we floated about a 45-mile section of the Two Yurt beginning not far from the river’s outfall at Two Yurt Lake. The river made countless twists and turns through a picturesque valley framed by towering mesa-like buttes covered with dense stands of Poplar and Aspen. Many small streams and tributaries add to the rivers flow offering anglers a variety of water to fish. The riverbanks were thick with willows, alder brush, and high grasses. Bear trails flanked both banks and were easily visible where the grass had been trampled. The climate was humid even muggy at times.
Each day we would float 8 to 10 miles of river. One guide would leave camp with two anglers and float about a mile downriver. The anglers would spread out and start fishing both sides and the middle of the river. A second raft would follow and stop about a half-mile. The third raft would hold back and anglers would start from there. This leapfrog strategy allowed everyone to fish more than enough water throughout the day. What I liked most was working close to the grassy shore and casting a mouse pattern (#6 Morrish Mouse) straight down the bank. Twitching it out and across the current, I had many rainbows charge out and try to kill the rodent. The rainbows averaged 16 to 22 inches with a few big boys pushing 24 inches. The best streamer on the Two Yurt was the Dali Lama in black over white. It was an almost automatic strike and hook up in many deep slots and swinging it over salmon redds. Sculpins are big and plentiful in the Two Yurt and the fish couldn’t seem to resist the Dali’s flash and motion. I fished my Sage Z-axis five-weight rod and used a floating line. It was more than enough to cast mice patterns and chuck streamers. However, I would recommend bringing a 6 weight if you want a bit more muscle behind casting streamers.
The Two Yurt has a total of five fixed camps staked out over about 50 miles of river. Each one features three two-person style A-Frame cabins identical in design to the ones at the Ozernaya camp. A small wood stove can supply heat to dry waders. Each camp provides a flush toilet and a wood fired hot shower. Breakfasts and dinners are served in a mess tent. Lunches are prepared streamside. If you want a true wilderness adventure with excellent walk and wade fishing this is what the Two Yurt is about.
Of Mice and Men
“Every angler that comes to Kamchatka wants to catch a rainbow on a mouse pattern,” says Best of Kamchatka owner, Will Blair. In Alaska, where bobbers and beads are often the norm, Kamchatka rainbows never got the memo. Blair explains that Kamchatka’s bows are aggressive, opportunistic surface feeders that will chow down on a wide variety of prey especially if their quarry is skittering across the surface like a rodent on the run. “Mice or shrews aren’t very good swimmers. They sometimes drown if they end up in water. That’s why they skitter,” says Blair. Well, pity the poor rodent that falls in. Its time on earth is measured in seconds. In spite of pre trip advice on what mice patterns worked the best, anglers at both camps brought dozens of different mice and vole patterns (looked like a nest in their fly boxes) sporting more whiskers and foam that is legally allowed. The only thing missing was a hunk of cheese to bring these patterns to life. Turned out the best pattern was a size #6 Morrish Mouse. It out fished all of the other patterns.
The Two Yurt rainbows that did charge my mouse would literally “push water” like a Trident submarine coming to the surface. The water is gin clear so you get to see the entire attack. Drown it, kill it, and kiss it, however you describe the assault, one thing was certain. Watching a two-foot long beautifully black spotted big-shouldered rainbow porpoise from beneath a grassy undercut bank and absolutely crush my rodent pattern was enough to make my knees shake. “The Kamchatka trout experience is about hunting big fish with dry flies who are also on the hunt. I guess you could say predator hunts prey and prey turns into predator to hunt more prey. Kinda’ wild really,” adds Blair. You simply have to experience the thrill of fishing a mouse in Kamchatka first hand to even begin to imagine the rush.
When I returned back to the states, my wife Pam, asked me, “Is Kamchatka for everyone?” Probably not. However, if you want to experience the best rainbow trout fishing left on the planet, walk in rivers where only a few humans have stepped, and lay claim to visiting one of the most remote, wild regions of the Russian Far East, then see it now. One other piece of advice – when traveling to Kamchatka it is best to expect the unexpected. Take a deep breath and relax.
Kamchatka Notebook (as of 2014)
Traveling to Kamchatka, Russia is ¾’s planning and ¼ execution. Fly to Anchorage, Alaska on a Friday and overnight. On the following morning, catch Japanese owned Yakutia Air Company’s 4 and ½ hour, weekly flight from Anchorage, across the Bering Sea to the Russian port city of Petropavlovsk Kamchastky. Return flights to the US from Petropavlovsk Kamchastky are scheduled the following week departing Saturday evening at 9:30pm. You will need a visa to enter Russia along with a current Passport. No immunizations are required. The Best of Kamchatka’s 4-color brochure covers all trip information including seasons, travel information, and gear. Request direct from:
The Best of Kamchatka
5590 Colt Drive
Longmont, CO 80503
Phone – 530.941.8524
Toll free – 877.707.0880
Mobile – 530.941.8524
Michael Hamilton is a former radio and television broadcast journalist. He writes outdoor and travel articles for print/online publications globally. www.troutdogs.com – 206.914.4290