The legend “Stairway to Heaven” is carved into the steep steps that lead from the helicopter landing area on the tundra to the Ryabaga Camp on Russia’s Ponoi River, one of the world’s most celebrated Atlantic salmon fisheries. The scene as you descend the stairway is inspiring - steep, birch-blanketed banks slant down to a wide ribbon of blue that bends out of view in the distance. The red roofs of the camp poke up from the valley below. This slice of heaven comes at a rather lofty price - prime weeks can eclipse $15,000 per person, and that’s before one has traveled to Murmansk. Yet, a large percentage of guests are return visitors, having trekked to this remote region of northwestern Russia’s Kola Peninsula 20, 30, even 50 times.
The angling appeal of Atlantic salmon dates back hundreds of years and was popularized at least in part by British royals, who plied the rivers of Scotland for the silvery game fish. This helped earn the pastime the moniker “sport of kings.” Nobles in Norway also fished for Salmo salar, its scientific name.
Atlantic-salmon angling has always had more than a sniff of exclusivity about it, though most who do it will insist that the appeal goes beyond snobbery. Born in the river, Atlantic salmon spend several years in fresh water before heading to the north Atlantic, where they feed and grow for one to three years before returning to their natal river to spawn and either die or return to the sea for another cycle. Fish don’t feed upon reaching the river, but they can be enticed to take a fly, possibly out of curiosity or territorial aggression. (No salmon has ever spoken on the record to reveal its motives.) Once hooked, Atlantic salmon are prone to tremendous leaps and powerful cross-river runs, enough to leave a lucky angler shaking with joy and wonder.
Atlantic salmon can eclipse 50 pounds on some rivers, though fish between eight and 20 pounds are more common. Capable anglers casting flies for a week on the Miramichi in New Brunswick or the Tweed in Scotland could expect to hook a handful of fish. The sport’s challenge is part of its charm.
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By the 1980s, returns of Atlantic salmon had gone into steep decline in Britain and Canada, thanks to upticks in commercial harvest at sea and pollution/habitat degradation in and around the salmon’s natal rivers. Rumors of incredible numbers of salmon in the Kola Peninsula’s rivers had been circulating in the angling community for some time, but many barriers - among them, a heavy military presence, as the peninsula was home to much of the then-Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet - had discouraged any exploration. By 1990, several angling pioneers, including Gary Loomis and Mike Fitzgerald Sr., had negotiated an angling detente of sorts, allowing foreign sport fishers to visit. The Ponoi was among the first to welcome anglers.
Here, at peak times of the run, anglers could anticipate eight or 10 fish in a day - and sometimes more. Numbers like these continue to draw anglers to the Ryabaga Camp on the Ponoi, though the spirit of the camp seems to keep people coming back.
The camp has come a long way since it was first carved out of the forest at the confluence of the Ryabaga and Ponoi rivers in 1991. Tidy cabins with en suite bathrooms and electric heat have replaced canvas tents warmed with wood-burning stoves; four-stroke, 60-horsepower Mercury outboards have supplanted the Russian-made engines that were maddeningly prone to breaking down. But given that Ryabaga rests 300 kilometers from the nearest road, the only way in from Murmansk is by Mi-8 helicopter. Perhaps better suited for transporting goods than people, the Mi-8 is not the world’s most comfortable conveyance . . . but the creature comforts drastically improve after the two-hour flight. Cocktails and meals are taken in the “Big Tent,” a canvas Quonset hut that’s heated with potbelly stoves and equipped with a full bar and a fly shop in case guests have overlooked any fishing gear. There’s a nicely appointed sauna on the premises (and a more rustic banya favored by the camp’s fishing guides), a massage therapist and a staff of 40 (for up to 20 guests) that includes mechanics, guides, and kitchen and camp staff - all the personnel necessary to keep what amounts to a small village running in the middle of the tundra.
Much of the staff is Russian, though there are a smattering of guides from Argentina, Ireland and Scotland, heightening Ryabaga’s international flavor.
The fishing day begins with a hearty breakfast of eggs to order, fresh pastries and oatmeal in the Big Tent. By 8:45, guests slip into their waders, and ATVs arrive to spirit them to the boats, where guides await. (This door-to-boat service can greatly extend one’s salmon-fishing career; one guest during my visit, who had wonderful results, was in her mid-70s and had an artificial leg.) A guide and the anglers (two to a boat) then speed off to one of 10 “beats” (sections of river). The Ponoi River Company, which operates Ryabaga Camp, has exclusive rights to 75 kilometers of the lower Ponoi; guests will not encounter any anglers beyond other Ryabaga guests in the course of their week. The Ponoi is a large river, in some places more than 200 meters wide. To reach the best lies, much of the casting is done from the boat. Two-handed spey rods, which enable longer casts with less effort, are the favored weapons; fly patterns in orange are preferred, as they show up well in the Ponoi’s peat-tinged waters. (Many anglers opt for tube flies designed by head guide Max Mamaev.) The guide anchors the boat, which provides a stable casting platform, at the top of a promising spot. One angler casts from the back of the boat to the right, the other from the front of the boat to the left. After several casts, the guide lets out a few meters of anchor line so anglers can cover new water. Optimally, the cast is at a 45-degree angle downstream. Once the fly lands, the angler may simply let it swing in the current, or slowly strip in line to impart motion. When a fish grabs the fly, the angler must resist the temptation to lift the rod until feeling the weight of the fish; if one sets the hook prematurely, the fish will be gone.
The numbers of fish that return to the Ponoi - estimated at nearly 50,000 a year - and the low fishing pressure add up to not only excellent fishing but excellent catching for experts and beginners alike. “My husband is a passionate salmon angler,” said Olga Johnson, a first-time visitor from Edinburgh, Scotland, with limited salmon-fishing experience. “I came along for the adventure, but didn’t expect to catch a fish,” she continued. “That first morning, my fly was dangling below the boat, and I was stripping in line to make another cast. There was a gentle tug. I remembered not to lift the rod, and soon the fish was off. Our guide, Andrei Federov, gave great pointers as I fought the fish. I didn’t think I would bring it in, but I did. It was 14 pounds, and we released it. It was magic.” (Ryabaga embraces a catch-and-release ethos, unless a fish is fatally hooked. Fish catches are carefully noted, and fish are tagged before their release so that scientists can monitor the health of the salmon population.)
Olga went on to catch five more fish that day - including two more that morning before her husband, Keith, landed his first. Her total for the week was 24 fish, more than most ardent anglers could expect to catch in a year in Scotland or New Brunswick. (The total catch for the week was 776 fish among 20 guests, an average of nearly 40 salmon per angler.)
At dinner on the day she landed her first salmon, Olga was brought a dish holding a salmon’s adipose fin, along with a slice of lemon and a shot of vodka - a traditional offering at Ryabaga for celebrating a guest’s first salmon. Amid cheers from guests and guides, she partook of her special appetizer.
Visitors to Ryabaga Camp take different approaches to angling. Some who simply cannot get enough fishing will avail themselves of the Home Pool, a reliable stretch of river in front of the property, before breakfast and after dinner. “I can’t walk out my door at home and fish for Atlantic salmon,” reasoned Laurence Lock, who was visiting from Hertfordshire, England. Others, like François Brocard of London, embraced the totality of the experience, opting to prepare a leisurely gourmet meal at one of the lunch tents set up along the river and wash down his handiwork with a glass or two of wine.
Most guests agree that a special element of the experience is the chance to socialize with the guides and other staff members, some of whom have been at Ryabaga since 1991. For Len Smith, an angler from Stonehaven, Scotland, who visited for the 53rd time during my stay in mid-June, Ryabaga is like a second home. “I feel Ryabaga is part of me,” he said, after landing 17 salmon in one day.
On the evening of the summer solstice, guests were served a four-course dinner typical of Ryabaga offerings: Ukha (a Russian fish soup), citrus salad, medallions of reindeer and chocolate biscuits. After such a hearty meal and a few glasses of Argentine Malbec, it was tempting to return to my cabin. But the idea of fishing near midnight was too attractive to resist. I wadered up and strolled down to the Home Pool. Thick clouds obscured the sun, which hovered atop the horizon; in late spring and early summer, it never quite sets. A bright salmon leapt clear of the water downstream as I peeled off line at the top of the pool and began working my way down - cast, swing, two steps, cast and swing. Eventually, I was joined by several other anglers, flanking me at 50-yard intervals. The angler below me, John Sievwright, pointed upstream. The clouds had parted enough to expose some rays of sunlight, which illuminated the sky in a dreamy, pinkish orange worthy of artist Maxfield Parrish. It was mirrored in wisps of clouds above the ridge downstream.
I was jolted back to the river by a loud splash. Sievwright was fast to a bright salmon. It raced downstream and leapt clear of the river several more times before Sievwright led it to the bank for a quick photo. The heavens to the west seemed to brighten a bit more as he held up his catch.
Santella, the author of both “Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die” and “Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die,” lives in Portland, Ore.
If you go
How to get there
Most guests fly into Helsinki and then take a chartered flight (arranged by the lodge’s exclusive booking agent, Frontiers, 800-245-1950; frontierstravel.com) to Murmansk. From Murmansk, the Ponoi River Company’s helicopter flies you to the lodge.
Where to stay
Ponoi River Company’s Ryabaga Camp
A seven-night, six-day fly-fishing package - which includes the helicopter flight from and to Murmansk, nightly accommodation, all meals and wine/vodka with dinner - ranges from $6,690 to $15,490 per person, depending on dates. The season runs from late May to early October. The Helsinki/Murmansk/Helsinki charter flight costs $1,250.
What to bring
You should pack nine- or 10-weight spey rods, with both floating and sink-tip lines, and a variety of clothing, as temperatures in the Arctic Circle can range widely. Waders, wading shoes and rods are available for rent. The Ryabaga Fly Shop has a selection of proven flies for purchase.