Monday, January 21, 2013

Occupy Kola

It was nice knowing you

This is a long one with some sort of "message", so please bear with me...

Last June, I went to Russia with a friend of mine who fishes on the Kola peninsula every other year. Usually he fishes south shore rivers like the Varzuga and its tributary, the Kitsa. His Russian buddy convinced him to try for bigger fish and to give the Kola River a shot this time (the north shore/Barents sea salmon are consistently larger than the south shore/White sea fish). Fewer but bigger fish is pretty much always okay with me, so I was onboard.

Because we were fishing with Russian friends, the trip was a lot more affordable than if we chose to stay at a lodge. I'm a professional jazz musician...which is certainly not a great way to pay for the privilege to fish for Atlantic salmon. When I have plenty of time, I'm usually low on money. When I have some money, I'm usually short on time. It was the first week of June, which is usually a great time to work. I turned down plenty of gigs to go on this trip. When would I have this great opportunity again though? With that in mind, I saved my pennies, booked my plane ticket, got my vaccinations, practiced my two-handed casting and started tying flies like crazy.

To make a long story not quite as long, this trip was not without its fair share of frustrations. If I had it to do over again, I would have studied the Russian language far in advance of the trip. That was something that could have been done on my end to make the trip run smoother. That said, there were plenty of things that were out of our control.
There are three (fairly large) fishable sectors on the Kola River. Kola-1 and Kola-2 are the lower parts of the river. Kola-3 is the upper sector, which includes the Kola's main tributary, the Kitza River (known as a BIG fish river). We stayed in the village of Shonguy. The village itself left much to be desired, but at least our flat was clean and comfortable.

Kola River @ Shonguy - pretty "wild," but not in the
same way we typically use the term

Shonguy is in the Kola-2 sector. This is where we saw all the nefarious stuff that the Kola River is (in)famous for. The trash didn't really bother me. The Naugatuck River (in Connecticut) has conditioned me to ignore it. There was rampant poaching in Kola-2. I can't tell you how disheartining it is to be fishing a pool, only to see a pair of clowns dressed in fatigues put a net across the entire width of a run. We did see some fishing inspectors, but not many. In my experience, they pretty much turned a blind eye to poaching in Kola-2. Fishing was not very productive in this sector.

Fortunately for us, my buddy had some friends from St. Petersburg who were in town. Kostantine, Boris, Alexey, Yuri and Dr. Sergey really saved the trip for us. With their help, we were able to get Kola-3 fishing permits from the chief fishing inspector (which wasn't exactly an easy task). Kola-3 was the place to fish. It was a more wild setting and, due to catch and release laws and a higher license price, was far less heavily fished. 

We had to work for our fish. We hiked 7 miles, two days in a row, on train tracks with trains coming every 10-15 minutes. There were a few close calls! The water we fished was worth the extra time and effort, however. We mainly focused on the area around Kettle Pool. There is a camp on the other side of the river with a few guests there at the time (more on that in a minute). We fished the Kitza one day but, because of early spring and very low water, none of us moved a fish there. The big boys ran early last spring...two weeks before our arrival. Historically, our week is the prime week for really big salmon and improving conditions. The overall most productive spot we fished was below the Kola/Kitza junction. So, it was a lot of work getting to the spots and even getting a license to fish Kola-3, but the fishing was quite good (in Kola-3) despite seasonally poor conditions. 

Relaxing at the Kitza River (now closed to us)

While in Kola-3, I saw some people who were probably fishing without a license, though not that many. I also saw people retain fish which should have been returned. That said, I also saw plenty of fishing inspectors and even saw them bust violators. This area was far better policed than the lower sectors.

I fully realize that we would have caught more salmon and had fewer frustrations if we had ponied up the money for a lodge/outfitter type of trip. I don't have that kind of money, however. Even with airfare from New York, this trip cost me less than a week at a modestly-priced lodge on the Miramichi. Compared to how most of my friends fared in maritime Canada during the salmon-drought of 2012, I did ok and all of my fish were multi sea-winter salmon (no grilse). All things considered, it was worth the money, time, frustrations and income lost to fish this legendary Atlantic salmon river. I had a good time and made some great new friends. When I was offered the chance to go, I jumped on it, figuring I might never have the good fortune to do it again. How right I was...

Fast forward to last week. I saw this Kola River lodge advertisement online. A few items stood out...from my perspective, for both positive and negative reasons. 

"Salmon Junkies are happy to announce that we have taken Kola River* under our management for 2013 and future years. A new ambitious plan from new owner, which involves serious enforced river control and conservation, has been presented for Salmon Junkies and we have decided to give it our full support. With enforced control, we now believe that the future of Kola River looks brighter than ever for the salmon and all our guests."

*this is the camp across the river from one of the areas we fished in Kola-3


"The new ‘Sheriff in Town’ implemented a new protection plan in 2012 providing a strong and enforced river management system for the 35 km of prime fishing water on the Kola.  We at Salmon Junkies plan to support the new ownership."

-Sounds good to me so far...

"Salmon Junkies has signed a long term contract that guarantees management by 9 private security guards.  Controls will be in place from Lake Pulozero on the Kola and the St Petersburg Highway on the Kitsa down to the Junction Pool. We are therefore confident that illegal fishing activity will be minimized, perhaps eradicated, on the 35 km plus stretch of the river where Salmon Junkies will enjoy full exclusivity."

 -I like that first part, but "full exclusivity"?? Under this new "regime," some of the best parts of our trip would have been off-limits to us (3 days of fishing and plenty of salmon lost and landed in our group in this particular area)

"Our price, at only Euro 4450 per rod from Murmansk, is half to one third of other Northern rivers."

-$6,000/week (not including airfare) is probably a fair price for this trip, however, that is more than double what I spent, including airfare! 

Would I have caught more than twice what I caught on my trip? Probably...I certainly wouldn't have eaten up so much fishing time by walking several miles to get to pools, not to mention all the time it took to procure Kola-3 day tickets (which was a fairly substantial amount of time...thank goodness for 24 hours of daylight). Also, it would have been nice to have a guide with a raft to cover water more quickly and efficiently. It doesn't matter though...I can't afford to pay that kind of money for a fishing trip, even if the $6K included airfare. I am happy with my Kola trip, however modest it was. It was something that I would have never done otherwise and it's an experience I'll always cherish. 

The part that bothers me most about the above is the "full exclusivity" part. Isn't this sport exclusive enough? I can understand paying security to keep poachers and illegal fishermen out, but law-abiding, licensed fishermen too? Just so your sports can fish without seeing anyone but their own? Are you saying that not even paying, law abiding Russian fishermen (such as my friends) can fish there anymore? I certainly hope this is not the case. 

The "sport of kings"...I'm not begrudging those who can pay upwards of $8,000 a week to go fishing. By all means, do it! I'd love to experience an "exclusive" lodge or private salmon club once in my life, but I probably never will.  The notion of keeping the public out and privatizing water is what bothers me, especially in a place that was recently open to the public. As far as sport fishing goes, I guess it has always been this way. It's a catch-22...make the rivers open to everyone and there would probably be no fish left and/or they'd be obnoxiously crowded. Buy the rights to water, protect it, but then the affluent are the only ones who can enjoy it. 

Despite what some might say to the contrary, our coldwater fishing in Connecticut is pretty poor compared to a lot of places in the world. We are dependent on hatcheries for the vast majority of our trout fishing and 100% of our salmon fishing. The salmonids who actually belong here are either long gone or are hanging on by a thread. That said, we can fish pretty much anywhere we want for a one-time annual payment of $28, which is a real bargain. Everyone is equal as long as you pay your $28. As far as fishing for hatchery fish goes, it's not so bad here, especially for a paltry $28. I'm able to fish a lot more often than most of my friends abroad do. I suppose that's the tradeoff.

It just seems like a drag that the one north shore Kola river I might actually have a shot at visiting again might not be worth rolling the dice for. I would certainly hate to go all that way and be excluded from fishing any water above the Kitza/Kola junction. With other north shore rivers going as high as $25K/week (Kharlovka), it's not like there are many other opportunities for big, spring fish in Russia. 

As far fishing for wild Atlantic salmon in general goes, I suppose I could change careers, but I love playing music more. If I had to choose, it would be music. I will continue to search for places like the Kola was for us in 2012, even if it means headaches, hassles and more work to catch salmon and save a few bucks. Fortunately, I have some like-minded friends who might be willing to make this journey with me. 

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