Far East Steelhead Expedition
Kamchatka and its Steelhead Live Up To Their Reputation. And More.
By Pat Hoglund
Austere and lonely, the landscape on the Kamchatka Peninsula stares quietly back at you from 500 feet in the air. It is barren tundra ground with small patches of pine trees and the occasional white birch that gives an otherwise impersonal terrain a hint of character. As the Mi8 helicopter continues flying northwest, small glassy ribbons reflect sunlight and eventually materialize into long, slow meandering blades of water that give the terrain below its first real personality. Staring down out of the small window, my mind wanders as I imagine steelhead filling the reflective veins of water below. The rivers and their inhabitants are the reason I have traveled 9,852 miles and flown through 19 different time zones.
The helicopter, a massive orange beast originally designed to carry Soviet Union combat troops, lumbers its way to a modest camp where a series of wall tents sit atop a high bank overlooking the Kvachina River. Including a two-person film crew from Felt Soul Media, the pilot and flight engineer, and our Russian group leader, there are seven anglers and we are tightly packed into the orange bird. Every inch of available space is stuffed full of fly rods, clothes, video equipment, sleeping bags, food, water, beer and enough vodka to last us 10 days.
The landing is precise and smooth. The helicopter’s wheels sink softly into the tundra and the abrupt jolt I was expecting never comes. The 10 of us who are departing eagerly wait to step outside. When the door opens it will be the beginning of our own personal steelhead expedition. The sun illuminates the faces of my fellow steelhead comrades and each of us can’t help but wonder what the next 10 days will bring. We are all part of the Kamchatka Steelhead Project in some fashion, and we have all traveled great distances to come here. Kent Brodie from Billings. Rob Toth from San Francisco. Ivan Ramirez from Anchorage. John Vickers from Seal Rock. Pat Laskowski from Portland. Mara Zimmerman from Olympia. Travis Rummel from Denver. Grayson Shaffer from Albuquerque. And me, from Portland. We are all here for the pure adrenaline rush of catching steelhead on the fly, at the same time to participate in and document the science that defines the Kamchatka Steelhead Project. The anticipation is palpable. There isn’t a person here who cannot wait to string up a fly rod and see what’s swimming in the nearby rivers. We are, after all, standing on the edge of Asia staring down the throat of the world’s finest steelhead fishing.
Having just loaded our provisions into the helicopter two hours before, we reverse the process. Boxes of food, cases of water, vegetables, meats, cheeses, eggs, you name it, it is unloaded from the helicopter and set aside to be taken to camp. It is change over day. The previous group—eight fishermen that spent the past 10 days doing exactly what our group is getting ready to do—is waiting to leave. They are saying their goodbyes to the guides, biologists, and camp helpers. They are happy and their conversations are animated. They are recounting what many are saying were the 10 best days of steelhead fishing they’ve ever experienced. Rumblings of a 39 steelhead day circulates through our group. I quickly do the math in my head. Eight anglers. Thirty-nine steelhead. That’s a little less than five per person. In a single day. The bar has been set and it is lofty. With numbers like that, expectations run high and understandably so. Each person has traveled a long way, spent a considerable amount of money, and committed the better part of two weeks of personal time to be here. Given what is riding on this Far East Steelhead Expedition, the high expectations are understandable. We can only hope for a five-steelhead-day on a swung fly.
Shaped much like a Native American arrowhead, the Kamchatka Peninsula is located on the far eastern shore of Russia where access is by air and sea only. Roughly the size of California, it is just over 140,000 square miles in area and stretches 750 miles south into a point where it pokes into the Pacific Ocean. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is the largest city on the peninsula with a population of 170,000. Stretching north to south down the middle of the peninsula is the Sredinnyy mountain range, home to 22 active volcanoes. From these mountains flow literally hundreds of rivers, responsible for 25 percent of the world’s salmon population. The Kamchatka Peninsula has the highest concentration of grizzly bears anywhere in the world (four bears per 60 square miles). It is stark and barren land, but with 110 inches of rainfall annually the tundra is lush and fertile. Crashing into the eastern shore of the peninsula are both the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Sea of Okhotsk lies between the peninsula and Siberia. After leaving their natal river, these steelhead co-mingle with other North American steelhead in the eastern Pacific. It is here that they spend most of their lives growing to sizes that will make a devoted steelheader weak in his knees. Scientists have documented 10 rivers with steelhead populations, all located on the west coast of the peninsula. These are the only known steelhead on this continent, which is reason enough for many people to travel to Asia and check this off of the steelhead bucket list.
Steelhead were first documented here in 1742, according to scientific literature. Dr. Ksenya Aleksandrovna Savvaitova began the first modern-day studies in the 1970s. Story has it that she backpacked in from a neighboring community and began studying the steelhead here. Her first expedition took her to Utkholok, Kvachina and Snotalvayam rivers. She also documented substantial populations farther south in the Utka, Prympta and Bryumka rivers.
Pete Soverel, founder of the Wild Salmon Center, and Serge Karpovich, a retired CIA operative, made contact with Savvaitova in 1993. Together, they developed a collaborative scientific project melding sponsoring anglers and the Russian scientific community to resume study of Kamchatka steelhead. Soverel cobbled together sufficient funding to conduct the first joint field work in 1994.
Soverel and Savvaitova’s vision was to create a program where anglers traveled to Russia to fly fish for steelhead, at the same time conduct research with the help of Russian scientists. Instead of capturing steelhead with nets, Soverel convinced the Russian government that anglers could catch steelhead while fly fishing — a non-lethal capture method appropriate to the protected Russian steelhead. Once the necessary biological information was collected, each steelhead would be released back into the river. A brilliant idea, it was. Given that the Kamchatka Peninsula represents the last truly unspoiled region where wild steelhead live and thrive, it is the ideal scientific environment to learn more about them. Eventually, Soverel and Savvaitova were able to secure approval from both the U.S. and Russian governments to include the now named Kamchatka Steelhead Project as an approved scientific program included in the US-Russia Agreement on the Environment.
Soverel wrote about it extensively in the Spring 1995 issue of Wild Steelhead & Atlantic Salmon. I remember reading Soverel’s article and thinking that it would be a dream to fish here. It was a fleeting thought at the time, and I never thought I’d find myself retracing his footsteps. But here I am, 21 years removed from the first Kamchatka steelhead expedition, ready to experience what Soverel and many other steelhead fishermen have done before me.
Soverel’s original expedition was considerably different than what awaits steelheaders today. When we arrive the camp is up and running. It’s been all systems go for over 20 days making it easy to assimilate into camp life. The logistics of running a camp here can be mind-boggling given that it takes a small army to successfully pull off three 10-day sessions. The first session begins in mid-September, followed by the middle session, eventually ending with the third session in late October. My group was here for the third and final session.
Soverel, through Wild Salmon Rivers, and Moscow State University’s Russian Academy of Sciences, coordinate the entire operation (field logistics, scientific program and so on). The Fly Shop in Redding, Calif., which operates one of the largest travel fly fishing services in the world, coordinates fund-raising and finding sponsoring anglers. The Fly Shop seconds Justin Miller to Wild Salmon Rivers to act as angling program director in the field. He is, as well, the head guide. Miller and the Moscow State University scientist are jointly responsible for running the program.
Miller is a veritable steelhead bum from the get-go and his enthusiasm is contagious. He has help from Anatoly Turushev, the Russian outfitter. The two make the camp go and they do it beautifully. Anatoly handles the logistics in Russia, and Miller handles everything in the states. Together they run a modest, but highly efficient steelhead camp waiting for anglers.
Prior to the first group setting foot on Russian soil, Miller and several others used decommissioned army tanks to transport wall tents, generators, satellite dishes, wood stoves and enough supplies to set up the camp. Eventually inflatable rubber jet boats, motors, food, water, and everything else needed to ensure the camp is operational, is flown in on helicopters. When guests arrive there is a bathroom complete with a hot water heater for two showers, and two flush toilets. The mess hall is a 20 X 60 permanent structure that is divided into a dining area with a cook station at the rear. There’s a large wooden table that seats 12 people, and a wood stove for heat. Two 4,600 watt generators power the entire camp, and there is satellite internet service.
Cabins are comprised of nine wall tents with wood floors. A wooden plank boardwalk connects each one. Each cabin has a cot, a wood stove to keep you warm, lights and electrical outlets. There are three camp helpers, a cook, and at least one biologist from Moscow State University. Along with Miller, Ryan Peterson and Jordan Brodie work as U.S. fishing guides, while Sasha Andryuktiin is the one fishing guide from Russia. Sasha is also the Russian “brigadier” – responsible for day-to-day operations of the camp.
Breakfast and dinner is served daily in the mess hall, while sack lunches are eaten on the river. Dinners primarily consist of meat and potatoes; breakfasts are porridge and fried eggs with cheese and meat; lunches are sandwiches. Given there’s little to no refrigeration in camp, the choice of meals is limited, which is to be expected. One thing is certain, you do not go hungry.
After morning coffee and breakfast we’d step into our waders, pull our fly rods from the rack, and depending on what beat we were scheduled for, either walk down the wood staircase to the Kvachina River or climb aboard an ATV with Sasha and drive a mile and a half across the tundra where you walk in and wade to fish the Snotalvayam River.
Throughout the ’70s, and years leading up to Soverel’s initial exploration, steelhead were listed as a “threatened” species in the Russian Red Book of Rare and Disappearing Species. The steelhead rivers were heavily poached and the steelhead runs were in danger of becoming extinct. Estimates put the poaching take at 2,000 steelhead annually from both the Snotalvayam and Kvachina rivers. Subsequently, with the introduction of the KSP, populations have rebounded dramatically with current populations in each river between 6,000 and 10,000 adult steelhead demonstrating that steelhead are a very resilient species capable of rapidly rebounding in abundance and diversity.
Soverel’s idea to use anglers to fund the research and help with the field work is brilliant. When you agree to fish here, you become an official sponsor of the KSP. Steelhead are still considered endangered in Russia, but by participating in the KSP you are legally allowed to fish for steelhead. It is the only way to legally fish for steelhead in Russia. Today, the program operates under strict guidance from the Russian Federal Government, the Wild Salmon Rivers (dba Conservation Angler), Moscow State University, the Russian Academy of Sciences and The Fly Shop. To fish here you must make arrangements through The Fly Shop.
Every steelhead landed becomes a lesson in biology. Scale samples are removed with tweezers and placed into a small envelope. Each steelhead’s length and girth is recorded, then your guide inserts a numbered floy tag behind the dorsal fin. Along with the sex of each fish, and where it was caught, all the information is brought back to camp where it is entered into a database. The data are used to help determine the overall abundance of steelhead populations, learn about each steelhead’s life history, its female parentage and document the different life histories of the various, river-specific steelhead and the life history population structure.
Studies have shown there are six different phenotypes, or life history types, of steelhead along Kamchatka’s west coast. While it would be easy to assume that all Kamchatka steelhead are similar, that is not the case. By collecting scale samples, and in some instances otoliths (ear bones), scientists are able to determine there are upwards of 19 different life history variations of Onchorynchus mykiss (rainbow) in different rivers. For example, all O. mykiss in the Snotalvayam are anadromous while the Kvachina supports a substantial population of non-anadromous rainbow trout along with the anadromous population – all of which are part of a single, homogenous breeding population.
There are three anadromous life history forms: one that migrates directly to the ocean as two- and three-year old juveniles which spend several years; another that spends a summer at sea, returns to freshwater to overwinter and then migrates back to the ocean where it stays several years; and finally an anadromous half-pounder species. There are three riverine/estuarine species; riverine/estuarine, estuarine and a resident species. In essence, each river has its own distinct population structure for O. mykiss. The anadromous steelhead that most steelhead anglers are familiar are present in at least a dozen or so rivers on Kamchatka’s west coast.
During our stay we fished the Snotalvayam and Kvachina rivers. Both have what could be referred to as robust steelhead runs. Using sonar and mark-tag capture methods, biologists estimate the Kvachina has between 6,000 and 8,000 steelhead returning annually, and the Snatolvayam’s run fluctuates between 5,000 and 7,000 steelhead. The nearby Utkholok River, which is slated to be fished in 2016’s expeditions, has between 11,000 and 15,000 steelhead returning annually.
Steelhead return in late August with the peak migration taking place in late September and early October. Using underwater sonar it is estimated between 150 and 250 steelhead enter each river daily. Even into November when the rivers freeze over, steelhead continue to return, and actually overwinter. As the water temperatures drop, the number of steelhead entering the rivers increases. In September and October the interplay between river and sea temperatures is a key factor influencing run timing. During the peak migration periods it is not unusual for the river temperatures to be significantly lower than the ocean temperatures. This is particularly important because of the proximity to the ocean (less than five miles). In the tidal stretches of these rivers the water in the bottom of the river is the warmer seawater causing the steelhead to stay in the lower tidally influenced portion of the rivers. It’s at that time a freshet causes the steelhead to migrate into the upper river. Rain raises river temperatures and the steelhead respond accordingly.
Later in the season, meanwhile, the sea temperatures drop causing the steelhead to migrate in large numbers. (Steelhead cannot survive in saltwater below 39 degrees Fahrenheit). How this relates to fishing is simple: As the seawater temperatures drop the number of steelhead entering the rivers increases. The flip side is that they’re less aggressive, but with more steelhead in the river catch rates stay consistent throughout the season.
Which brings me back to the group that landed 39 steelhead in one day. To put that in perspective, it is rare you will find a river that yields that many steelhead in a single day, on a consistent basis. To compare, our group’s highest steelhead tally for one day was 29 steelhead landed. For seven days of fishing (our trip was cut short three days due to weather) we landed a total of 175 steelhead. On average that’s 25 steelhead in seven days per person (about three per day per angler on average). There were days when the rivers fished better than others, which was directly related to river conditions. There were 420 steelhead landed in all three sessions. Taking into account there were 20 sponsors you’re looking at about 21 steelhead per angler. As you would expect, some anglers landed more than others which is likely due to a variety of circumstances: conditions, ability, and being in the right place at the right time. An average day for me was three steelhead landed; my best day I landed six. It is not uncommon to hook three steelhead for every one landed.
Steelhead are steelhead are steelhead, right? I would say that is mostly accurate. Certainly steelhead in Kamchatka behave much like steelhead in North America. When it comes to size, however, the similarities end. Kamchatka steelhead are some of the largest fish you’ll encounter. Length notwithstanding, these are the girthiest steelhead I know of. To put this in perspective, two of the largest steelhead I caught were both 36 inches long, and 20 inches in girth. Normally a 36-inch steelhead back home would have a girth in the neighborhood of 14 or 15 inches. Here in Kamchatka they are disproportionately fatter. This is part of what makes them so special.
Steelhead here have evolved over thousands of years. As a species they’ve adapted to the environment. It is believed that these steelhead were at one point resident rainbow trout, but because of the environmental conditions they were forced to go to sea to survive. The rivers here are considered a simple river system lacking the food source needed to support a year-round trout population. Instead of going extinct steelhead the rainbow trout migrated to the sea, thus evolving into anadromous fish. And to further perpetuate their species they gorged on the sea’s bounty to the point where they returned as overly large steelhead. Males came back bigger, stronger and more fertile. Females, meanwhile, returned with sacs laden with eggs. Interestingly, the rivers with steelhead runs are tannin stained, which means they warm sooner each spring. That allows the steelhead to spawn and hatch earlier and avoid the onslaught of the salmon runs, which would normally destroy the steelhead’s spawning beds. It was Mother Nature’s way of ensuring the species survived, perpetuated itself and ultimately thrived.
The Kvachina and the Snotalvayam rivers are small in comparison to most steelhead rivers I’ve fished. They are no more than 50 yards across and except for a few places, no deeper than five feet. The gradient is very mild, which is no surprise considering that these rivers flow through the tundra on their way to the Sea of Okhotsk. What the rivers lack in personality, they make up for in steelhead.
Both rivers are heavily influenced by tides. I’ve caught many steelhead with sea lice attached, but never have I seen sea lice with tails that extend beyond a three-quarters of an inch. That’s how fresh some of these fish were. Each high tide cycle would bring new fish into the river, and it was apparent when a batch of fresh fish arrived as the water seemed to come alive with activity. Anticipation intensified as the steelhead waked V’s in the shallower water.
Flows hover around a couple hundred cubic feet per second. The water is so slow moving and shallow, it goes against what most people know about steelhead fishing. There are very few riffles and runs, and pools lack any kind of definition. We fished runs here that we’d pass up at home. But the slow, deep pools are where these steelhead live. Presenting your fly to these steelhead was much like anywhere you swing flies for steelhead. Cast downstream and across and let your fly swing. The grabs are jaw jarring that immediately send your heart into your throat.
Of all the steelhead I landed while fishing in Russia, it will hard for me to forget a hen I encountered. Along with her size and strength, the take was unforgettable. Fishing a run called “Corner Pocket” my fly dropped into the meat of the run. Without warning the rod was practically jerked from my hands and a massive hen traveled from top to bottom in a split second. She did everything in her power to throw the hook. She jumped. She rolled. She raced upstream and downstream. My 6-weight strained under her weight and the current. Eventually she succumbed and laying at my feet was the largest female steelhead I have personally ever landed. She measured 36 inches long and was 20 inches in girth. Estimates put her just shy of 20 pounds, and she fought like it. She was everything I had hoped for in a steelhead. Big, strong, beautiful and 100 percent wild.
You would be correct to assume that steelhead here behave like any other steelhead. It makes no difference if they’re in Oregon or British Columbia, steelhead will eat the same flies in similar conditions. Despite the number of steelhead in the rivers, there were no gimmes. You still have to present your fly properly. It’s no different in Asia than it is in Oregon. Therein lies one of the biggest paradoxes of steelhead fishing in Russia. These rivers are stuffed full of fish and it would be easy to assume that fishing would be like shooting fish in a barrel. You quickly learn that you still have to do everything correctly in order for them to grab your fly. Poor casts mean a lousy swing. A lousy swing means your fly gets passed up. Fishing too heavy a tip, or too light a tip, and the fly doesn’t pass through the correct zone. Or simply a steelhead isn’t in the mood to strike. That happens a lot. I can recall countless runs where I watched steelhead roll below me. I would count the steps I needed to take to reach it, and when I did, and I laid out a good cast that swung nicely and I didn’t get a grab. Which is to remind anyone who travels to far away places to fish, it’s still fishing.
It is entirely possible to fish a single-hand fly rod, but most everyone who fishes here throws a two-hander. I brought my 13-foot G. Loomis 7/8 NRX and my 1266 DNA Thomas & Thomas. Because of the water conditions (they were low) I mostly fished an Airflo Skagit head with a floating Mow Tip with a 4-foot section of T4. I fished a 36- to 48-inch leader (15-pound Maxima). I also fished a Scandi head with a 12-foot polyleader when the conditions called for it. Flies varied, but I had my best success on a purple Sylvinator with a pink head. For whatever reason that fly worked best on the Snotalvayam and accounted for my best day (hooked 9, landed 6). It’s easy to get caught up in fly patterns (at least it is for me) but success is largely due to presentation and being in the right place at the right time.
The weather this time of year fluctuates between 30 and 50 degrees. There were a few days the sun made an appearance, but it was cold and windy most of the time. We had hoped for rain to bring more fish in, but the rain didn’t come so we settled for gray, overcast days. Good waders, boots and raingear is a necessity in Kamchatka. Of which I had plenty. A shout out to Patagonia, who outfitted Pat Laskowski and me from head to toe in their world-class gear.
Traveling to Russia in the fall is no small undertaking. I boarded a flight from Portland to Los Angeles, and then hopped aboard a 12-hour flight to Moscow. Another 12-hour flight had me in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Once there I met up with our group, and we all hopped aboard a bus and traveled to seven hours to Esso, a small community located in the middle of the peninsula. After an overnight stay our group climbed aboard the Mi8 helicopter and flew 90 minutes into camp. As anyone would agree, it requires a mindset to endure the travel. And that is a question one has a tendency to constantly ask one’s self. Was it worth it?
By his own admission Pat Laskowski is not a hard-core steelhead fisherman. Prior to this trip he’d never caught a steelhead on a fly, and quite frankly was green to steelhead fly fishing.
“Largely I was just struck by the adventure of crossing three-quarters of the globe in a place that I never even imagined that I’d visit, let alone get a chance to fish,” he said. It was the third morning of our trip, and he was sitting in the mess hall waiting for breakfast. He was drinking tea and feeling satisfied. Two days prior he officially joined the steelhead fraternity after landing his first steelhead, a wild buck that weighed 10 pounds. In the days that followed he had become proficient at catching steelhead on a two-handed fly rod. “Having just caught my first steelhead on a fly I don’t have the comparison of other rivers, but the sheer experience of fishing here has been nothing short of remarkable.”
Laskowski’s perspective is unique. He comes at it with fresh eyes and an attitude that is anything but jaded.
“Not only is the country, the scenery and the fishing everything I anticipated, but you find all the people you meet here in camp are drawn by the same desire and sense of adventure. And to fish in Russia makes it so enjoyable. These are really cool, really great people.”
John Vickers comes at this trip from a completely different perspective. He’s what you might refer to as a seasoned traveler. He lives in Seal Rock, a small coastal town in Oregon. He’s in the heart of Oregon’s steelhead country with rivers like the Nestucca, Alsea and Siletz at his beckon call. Yet despite the backyard opportunity, Vickers often finds himself fishing faraway places. He’s traveled to Argentina to fish for sea-run browns in Tierra Del Fuego, fished for Atlantic salmon on Ponoi River on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, and the past several years he’s swung flies for king salmon on the Hoodoo River in Alaska.
“Have my expectations been met?” He’s repeating the question just asked of him. “Absolutely they have been met. I was hoping to catch steelhead in a new place, and I have.”
Thanks to the satellite Internet connection we learned of an impending storm bearing down on our camp. That forced us to leave three days early, which wasn’t ideal but the possibility of being stranded for extended period forced Miller, Peterson and Anatoly to make the call to leave early.
Knowing it was our last day in Kamchatka I was forced to look at my steelhead trip from a different perspective. That morning I caught two steelhead and was feeling completely satisfied. Laskowski had yet to hook a steelhead and the day was coming to a close. It looked as though he might not catch another steelhead and I know he desperately wanted to end his trip with at least one more steelhead. Miller shouted down to him, repositioning him in the run.
“Start at the grass clump and bomb your cast to the opposite bank.” He was fishing in Cabin, one of the deepest runs on the lower Kvachina. Miller and I were talking when we heard Laskowski say aloud, “Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.”
With each syllable his words were measured and intense. He was reminding himself not to pull the fly away from a steelhead that was slowly and methodically eating his Intruder. It was a mistake he did not want to repeat.
After the fly was firmly embedded the river exploded. Miller and I watched a dime-bright steelhead race downstream. Laskowski’s rod was arced. His reel was screaming. A short while later, he landed it on the gravel bar and it rested in a couple inches of water. I watched while he and Justin tagged it, took scale samples and measured it. Twenty-nine inches long, 16 inches around. It was your typical 10-pound steelhead. Nothing overly exciting about her size, but she represented everything that is good about steelhead fishing in Russia.
As he released it, she doddled in the shallow water before getting her bearing. She slowly swam to safety and her dorsal fin created a wake that followed her to the opposite shore. A minute later I knew she was resting at the bottom of the run where the water was quiet and peaceful. Knowing it would likely be the last Kamchatka steelhead I would see in my lifetime I imprinted the scene in my mind’s eye. It was a bittersweet ending to my journey and it came at the hands of a good friend. It was fitting knowing that she would eventually make her way into the upper river where she would lay her eggs in a redd, and in all likelihood, survive the winter. As I write this I am imagining that her metabolism has dropped to a comatose state waiting for spring when the water will warm and give her renewed life. She will return to the ocean and repeat her journey. I imagine someone from this coming year will tell himself to wait, and she’ll again will pull line from his reel, and race toward the sea, only to be corralled where she will obediently allow herself to be tagged, forfeit some scales, and then find herself back in the comforts of the river where she will again spend another winter waiting for the warming spring days to release her to the ocean.
It is the perpetuating lifecycle and the mystery that truly defines this species. And it is that which calls steelhead fishermen to travel to faraway places leaving us in awe of how truly special they are. They are strong, steel-willed, curious and aggressive. They have a personality that is rarely seen in any other species of fish. The more we think we know about them, the more we realize we don’t know as much as we once thought. Steelhead continue to surprise and impress. What’s most unique is that they are a reminder that when left to their own devices they will thrive in wild places and no place is that more evident than in Kamchatka.