Nov 2, 2013

Kharlovka - Eastern Promises


Gather around me, my brethren of the swung fly. I have tales to share with the guild of the two handed rod. You hear stirrings of a magical place where anadramous fish up to 40 pounds return in numbers unaffected by nets, hydropower, hatcheries or clear cut forests. Myths abound about streams where a floating line can be cast at high noon with blue skies uninterrupted by cloud. Whisperings percolate about a virtual shangri la, where a skated fly can be tickled across the current like fingers across guitar strings regardless of the time of day. Legends are whispered about rivers where you are guaranteed to be the only one fishing the pools and no boat traffic occurs. Yes! A place where no commercial fishery exists and no indigenous people live. I’m here to tell you that I’ve been to such a land and promise you that it does indeed exist. And like Dr. Jack Shepherd from Lost, I have to proclaim, “we have to go back” either with or without Kate. The place is in Russia on the Kola peninsula.


I had the good luck normally reserved for lottery winners to be welcomed along on a trip to the Atlantic Salmon Reserve, www.kharlovka.com and their fall 3 rivers program. Their Atlantic salmon season runs from late May to early September and the program does shift depending on which month you visit. Our travels routed through Helsinki, Finland and eventually to Murmansk , Russia where a one hour helicopter ride takes to you to the camp on the banks of the Kharlovka river. As a warning, the visa application process is difficult and complicated and if any inconsistencies exist, you will be denied entry to Murmansk, as two of our party experienced through no fault of their own. During our time, we fished one of three local rivers, the Kharlovka, Rynda and the Litza. For my week of fishing I was paired with Alex, a Russian guide who spoke excellent conversational English   and one other guest, my Asian brother of a different mother, Ian.

The schedule for the week is planned out with military precision because shuttles to and from the river are by 4 person helicopter. A word of warning, the hike from drop off to pick up is significant and involves much elevation change with long scrambles across boulder fields and in one place a short climb up a basalt face with the assistance of a fixed rope. But to my way of thinking, the daily hike only added to the charm of the day’s fishing. A variety of flies can be used including classic salmon flies as well as our own steelhead flies but the camp is oriented to casting with spey rods. The runs are technically challenging with odd breaks in currents and large rounded, slippery boulders and occasional long casts. I was warned that fishing these rivers is equivalent to a PhD defense of all things spey, not a place to learn to cast.
The warning was more than accurate. Our late season involved catching much more colored fish than early in the season with exclusively chrome fish. But a salmon colored like a massive brown trout and weighing more than 40 lbs is still a sight to behold as I found out on this trip. On day five on the MIddle LItza, I fished alone given my fishing partner’s back pain. Towards the end of the day I hooked into a massive fish that when his tail came out of the river genuinely frightened me. At that moment, I was wishing for more than 15 lb leader and a 6/7 weight Winston B2X which by the way was felt to be an act of madness by the Europeans. The fish played nicely for a few moments but then elected to show complete contempt for my light gear by swimming between two Volkswagen sized boulders in the middle of the river and headed a few hundred yards downstream. At this point, I had given up all hope, but Alex, a literal bear of a man, waded to midstream using the landing net as a wading staff and cleared the backing from around the closest boulder. I then hustled downstream with the agility of pregnant Yak climbing over endless numbers of large boulders that I swear were covered in silicon spray. Alex eventually netted the fish and we erupted in primal screams of triumph.
Needless to say, upon return to the lodge much vodka was consumed to commemorate the event. The lodge accommodations were incredibly comfortable considering the remote location of the camp. Unlike the better known Ponoi river, the Kharlovka sits straight east from Murmansk along the Barents sea, 250 miles above the arctic circle. Each of our group had a private half to a cabin with our own bathroom, hot shower, and, wait for it...drying closet with heater!! Dinner was of the highest quality with appetizers and multicourse meals with wine, beer and coffee shared with up to 16 guests of various nationalities repesented by England, Russia, Spain and Switzerland on our week. Lunch was carried in a large backpack by our guide along the day’s river hike and included hot soup with several side dishes. Alex also was tasked with toting my daily supply of democracy juice, Coca Cola and firing up the backpack stove for several daily coffee breaks. Communication is incredibly limited if nonexistent at the camp as we found out trying to find out what happened to our banished comrades. But, lack of cell phones and internet only adds to the attraction of the camp which has an almost endless supply of support staff including a camp doctor. So, my brothers and sisters of the spey addiction. I can promise you that such an amazing land exists on the Kola peninsula. These rivers are not just the stuff of legend like Sasquatch, Nessie or Valhalla but do flow freely just East of Finland. To quote the classic western movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance “When the legend becomes fact...print the legend”. Once in a blue moon, they are one in the same even in the East.


Charlie Chambers
Gorge Fly Shop Contributor

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