Steamboat Springs Steve Henderson had heard the stories about Atlantic salmon -- about expert fishermen who had gone to Scotland and been told they were lucky to have felt the tug of a big fish on the end of their line, and never mind that they never really had a solid hookup. Now, Henderson, a veteran trout fishing guide based in Steamboat Springs, has his own Atlantic salmon stories to tell -- stories of fishing Russia's Ponoi River and landing 41 sleek salmon in a week of fishing.
"If you want to have fun catching Atlantic salmon all day, go there," Henderson said. "The Ponoi doesn't have the biggest fish, but I think it must have more Atlantic salmon than almost any river in the world. In Iceland and Canada, you fish for a week and you're lucky to catch one or two fish. There were 20 people in camp (on the Ponoi) and they landed (and released) 650 fish in a week."
Henderson doesn't hesitate to reveal the location of his fishing hole of dreams -- it's not that easy to get to Russia's Kola Peninsula. First, catch a flight to the modern city of Helsinki, Finland. Next, catch a flight to the Russian naval port of Murmansk. The final leg is covered in a lumbering old military helicopter. The last stop is fishing paradise.
Henderson was invited to fill in a last-minute opening among a group of friends who had booked a trip to the Ponoi last August. He was treated to gourmet meals in one of the world's most remote locations, well above the Arctic Circle on the same latitude as northern Finland and Sweden.
The first thing anglers need to know about Atlantic salmon, Henderson said, is that their spawning runs up freshwater rivers are completely different from those of Pacific salmon, in Alaska, for example.
Pacific salmon make spawning dashes up rivers en masse and die at the end of the ritual. The life cycle of Atlantic salmon is very different and more like that of steelhead trout.
"Atlantic salmon aren't even closely related to Pacific salmon," Henderson said. "They spend the first six months to two years of their lives in the river and then about two years at sea."
Rivers on Russia's Kola Peninsula, including the Ponoi, experience multiple salmon runs during a year.
Unlike the mad dash of Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon tend to filter into the rivers gradually, Henderson said. And they do not die when they finish spawning. Salmon just back from the sea are easily identifiable by their silver coloration. Fish that have been back in the river for a couple of years take on a bronze cast.
Another bonus for anglers is that Atlantic salmon, although they are unable to digest food during the spawning run, will aggressively hit streamer patterns.
"They'll hit hard and they'll hit it deep," Henderson said. "Leaping is their trademark. Some of them just went crazy."
Fly fishermen in Alaska are often reduced to drifting patterns that resemble egg sacks to get a strike.
The fish Henderson caught ranged from 7 to 14 pounds. One man from Scotland landed fish weighing 26 and 24 pounds, the upper end from the Ponoi. Other rivers on the peninsula offer bigger fish, but not in the same volume as the Ponoi, he said. On the way home, he met an angler in Murmansk who had landed fish weighing 36 and 32 pounds, as well as a pair in the 20-pound class. But the man had to settle for eight fish in an entire week of hard fishing, while Henderson netted 41 salmon.
Most of the fishing is done from drift boats and the international guides that gather on the Kola Peninsula favor the two-handed spey method of casting with giant 14-foot rods. Henderson said he had to learn this new method of casting, but he quickly saw its advantages. The big rods allow anglers to pick up 80 feet of line in an accentuated roll cast motion and quickly place it back in the water. The technique allows a fisherman to cover far more water than if he reeled his line all the way back in and began false casting in the style most familiar to Western fly fishers.
Life in the Ryabaga Camp was an exercise in rustic luxury, Henderson said. The staff included a gourmet chef from Montana. They also had a pastry chef who supplied fresh bread every day.
"It was the best bread I've ever had in my life," Henderson said.
Every evening at dinner, the tables were stocked with a fresh bottle of Stolichnaya for every four anglers.
The airfare to Murmansk cost about $2,000 and camp fees, which include virtually everything else but tips, range from $3,900 to $6,900.
It was an expensive trip but possibly the trip of a lifetime.
"If I won the lottery, I'd go every year," Henderson said, smiling. "Maybe next time I'd go to the Kamchatka Peninsula."