A Chopper to Salmonids’ Heaven

Kamchatka is one of those places that linger halfway between legend and reality, being so far off the Western world, confined in an extremely wild peninsula at the far Eastern edge of Siberia. Local small communities are clustered in a handful of tiny towns facing the sea on the Southern border, whereas the rest is covered in virgin woods, pure-water streams and a whole bunch of majestic volcanoes towering over this pristine land.

The transportation involved in getting there is not exactly a cakewalk: flying from Europe you are probably looking at just a couple of layovers, as the tiny airstrip in Petropavlovsk is connected basically just to Russian minor cities nearby and thank God to Moscow. If you fly from somewhere closer and you don’t wanna detour all the way to Moscow then brace yourself and prepare to be temporarily hosted in some very Soviet Union-like hubs that would get you into the proper mood.

Once you reach Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky it seems like travelling back in time some decades, the baggage carousel being enclosed in a tensile structure, the small town’s sings reading in a very old-styled Cyrillic and the smokey 40-year-old cars cruising by. Half our drive with a nice and talkative local guy (no English whatsoever) takes us to the town’s heliport, where we load all our gear and take off towards the designated point on the Opala river.

The helicopter ride itself can get you an accurate idea of the features of this stunning place: forests, streams, volcanoes and not a human settlement in sight. Bears running in the wilderness. Yes, bears. Something that the guides warned us – better – told us about before taking off. Just take it easy, no sudden movements and blow in the tiny whistles you were given, you would scare them away, they don’t like the sound of it. It seemed part of a staged act to add some extra allure to the trip but well noted anyway.

The helicopter drops us by a river turn in the middle of a clearing encircled by the woods, we unload the cargo and start setting camp for the night (meaning half of the group casting already as the sun was setting). Half hour of fishing and we already count several Dolly Varden, a couple of Steelhead and a King Salmon landed in the dark right after dinner is over in the common tent. The excitement and the anticipation for the days ahead are unstoppable.

In the morning everybody is up and fishing by 5.30, another King Salmon shows up and we soon pack everything and load the rafts to drift down the river.

We drift basically for the whole day with just a quick lunch break on the river bank. Casting from the raft towards the structures is fairly complicated as the drifting is quite fast: short casts to keep the spoon or the spinner working in the current, just few seconds in the strike zone, avoiding any snags as this would mean instant line breakage, no way to paddle upstream. The river is just swarming with fish, we can see big schools of trout scattering as the rafts drift over them.

Late afternoon our drift ends up into a wide meander, we manage to unload everything and set camp right before sunset. We light a fire, grab a hot drink and sit down to watch the sun setting, facing the majestic river flowing by, through some little islands in the middle, everyone laying down in his head his own strategy for the next day. The rest of the evening is fresh salmon sashimi and soup for dinner, fishing talks by the fire and some vodka to get warm as the wind picks up.

We wake up to a cloudy and cold morning around 6am, gear up, have a quick breakfast and hit water soon. We can wade our way to all those islands, there is just one deeper point we shall avoid where two branches of the river merge. That is the first spot we approach, silently, with just the sound of the water flowing by our waist. Once we manage to adjust our casts according to the speed of the current, the fish start going for our spoons big time, chasing down orange, pink and red.

After-spawning salmon, spotted dolly varden and steelhead that put up some remarkable fighting in the current, as we wade our way back to camp for lunch. In the afternoon we move elsewhere to fish the shallows surrounding the islands, where fish are smaller but we can sight fish in 60-80cm depth. The first day gets us acquainted with the area, as we will stay here for the next couple of days before drifting all the way to the river mouth in the Sea of Okhotsk.

When we get back to camp, after dinner, we sit down on some logs by the fire, sipping some vodka out of copper cups and talk fishing when we get our first sight of a local small bear, watching curiously at these people gathered around a fire some 20 meters away. He walks off soon but it takes just minutes for everybody to get ahold of their whistles, forgotten in the tents.

The next couple of days we remain on that meander and we walk in couples to different spots both upstream and downstream, scouting around the islands for dolly varden and steelhead and casting in the current for salmon. Everyday we would see majestic bears cruising around in the water or on some island banks chewing up on some salmon, aware but apparently uninterested in our presence. Back to camp watching sunset before dinner, we would see them moving around in spots were we fished maybe just half our back, and we would just stare at them in awe.

On a sunny day it is time to pack and make the last long drift towards the river mouth. All of us had so many fish in just three days that no one was so eager to cast from the rafts. The sun feels warm and we manage to finally shake off the moist we could feel on our clothes, someone takes some layers off and just chills on the raft, sun in the face, as the view slowly changes around us: the river grows larger and slower, deeper, always with crystal-clear water, and the vegetation switches to verdant fields of just grass. The Opala volcano covered in snow towers over us in the distance, watching us calmly floating down the river.

After a whole day of drifting we stop and set camp for the night just one km away from the sea, close to the first human settlement seen in days (a house with an old hermit that moved away from society years back, supposedly guarding that stretch of the river so distant and so untouched). We are quite worn off by the days just passed and we need to rest before embarking on a 12-hour ride back to Petropavlovsk on an old and uncomfortable military truck. We have not showered in 5 days.

The last dinner together sees us indulging in more vodka we should, to wash away the tiredness and to celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime fishing experience. We go back to our tents tipsy and happy. At 7am we are loading everything onto the truck, everybody bids farewell to the river in his own, intimate way and we are off. The ride is annoyingly bumpy and cuts across remote and stuck-in-soviet-time villages that linger in stillness and boredom, formed by grey and run-down buildings mostly uninhabited.

It takes 11 hours to reach our accommodation in Petropavlovsk where we can finally take a shower, switch our mobile phones on and connect to the wi-fi, getting back to our familiar world. The sound of notifications flowing in after days of inactivity reminded us of the peaceful and naive days just spent on the bank, completely off the screen, amazed by the overwhelming nature thriving around us.

We are lucky enough to have experienced one of the last pristine fishing heavens on Earth, we hope we impacted it as little as possible.