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To Russia with Love
Or in Search of the Steelhead of the Sopochnaya River

By Ron Gras

†In October of 1996 I had the good fortune to be one of the first fly fishers to fish the Sopochnaya River. The "Soap" as it has become known is located on the West Side of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, just across from the Aleutian Chain of Alaska. A seven and a half hour flight from Seattle puts you in Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky Russia (or P.K.). After clearning customs a two-hour helicopter flight sets you on the banks of the "Soap."

Map of Region

The flight to the river goes through spectacular mountainous country awesome sights of live as well as dormant vocanoes, over Alaska-like Tundra mixed with Paper Birch. The chopper flies low enough to see much wildlife as the Kamchatka Brown Bear, Steller Sea Eagle, and many varieties of birds and waterfowl.

As the chopper winds its way through rolling hills and over rivers you can only imagine what might swim within. Steelhead? Huge Rainbows? Massive Salmon? Who know, most of these rivers have never been fished by anyone you or I know, or any flyfishers. Some of the rivers have only seen native people with spear in hand or possibly nets, and probably not for many years at that.

I was here as part of a three-man exploratory team sent to the Sopochnaya River to photograph and fish for what we had been told was a population of huge Steelhead. Toby Sprinkle (manager of our Russian operations) Scott Howell (one of head guides in Alaska) and myself, (photographer/fisherman) made up the team. We were sent by Kamchatka Fishing Adventures, an American based company which also owns Katmai Lodge in Alaska. Kamchatka Fishing Adventures is involved in a joint venture project with "lyanin Kutkh" (Black Raven) of the Kamchatka Peninsula for purposes of promoting tourism directed at the fly fishing public.

Basically, most of the peopel on the Kamchatka Peninsula live in PK, or its suburb, Yelizova. Yelizova is actually where the airport is located, some 30 kilomters from PK. The remainder of the Kamchatka Peninsula has a few small towns or villages really, and that's it. With a size equalling California and Oregon combined there is quite a bit of room with no people, and no evidence of any. Vast areas of countryside are virtually untouched, unlogged, undammed, unfished!

Unfished, this is what interested us!

The Sopochnaya River, we were told, produced immense Steelhead. Net samples showed this to be true. We heard of Steelhead pushing 40 pounds! Unbelievable you might think, but a possibility we hoped. 30 pound Steelhead are rare enough, but is it possible that there are 40's somewhere?

This is as good a time as any to say the Steelhead of Kamchatka is listed in Russia's Redbook as an endangered species. Recreational and commercial fishing are prohibited. The Russians are smart enough to admit they don't know enough about these fish or how many there are. Instead of harvesting the Steelhead to extinction as we might do in the U.S., (and then wondering where they went,) the Russian government has wisely elected to protect them.

Ongoing scientific studies are being conducted to determine the viability of the Steelhead species; a decision will be based on these studies to allow or not to allow recreational fishing for them in the future. In the meantime any fishing for Steelhead is done under special scientific study permission through the government. At the time we were there, permission came from the Head of Regional Government, Koryak Autonomous district, and Department Head, Ichthyology Department, Moscow State University, Mosow, Russia.

All fishing is done by fly fishing, as this was determined to be the least harmful method of capture, and of course it is catch and release fishing only. Fish caught have scale samples taken, measurements taken, are tagged, and released. A team of biologists at the camp record all data.

On the day of our departure to the "Soap" from P.K. heavy cover moved in and some light rain. We were not able to make our destination, so we spent the night in the village of Ust-harisova. It is a small commerical fishing village to the north of our destination, with no roads in or out. Arrival is by boat or air. The village is basically mud, the streets and surrounding area. Everything is gray, even new vehicles are impossible to tell what color they are . . . gray, so are the houses.

The people however, are very colorful and hospitable. They can't seem to do enough for you, and were delighted to meet Americans. A sumptuous meal was set up for us, sea food from the area, ham, cheese, breads, pickles (always a Russian favorite,) champagne, brandy, and of course lots of vodka. We were at what could be called an Inn, mainly used by pilots coming and going from the area. We spent the night and were anxious for an early departure in the morning.

Steelhead fever was definitely upon us, and it was hard to sleep that night thinking about what adventure lay before us. We were about to become fly fishing pioneers.

Breakfast first, then to the chopper, and off to the "Soap." Breakfast was somewhat normal, except for the ever-present salmon eggs, the Russians love them, and use them like Jam!

Our flight to the "Soap" which took less than an hour, flew over other rivers, Birch forest, and Tundra filled rolling terraine. Finally we spotted the river and the temporary camp that was set up. We landed, unloaded our gear, met the camp people and scientists, and bid farewell to the chopper. The craft and pilot was off to pick up our joint venture partner from "Black Raven" and some of his family and friends for a birthday celebration that night.

The celebration included much vodka and brandy, and lasted most of the night, (did I mention Russians like to party?) and many heavy heads in the morning, mostly ours. The group wished us all well and took off in the chopper mid-morning. Needless to say we were anxious to get fishing.

Here were were babes in the woods so to speak, on a brand new river to us, and very little known about it by any anyone else either. We had two Russian-made boats with propeller driven outboards which looked like something out of the 1950's, two boat handlers, an interpreter, and Toby, Scott and I.

We had fished the river just in front of the camp a bit but didn't do any good. We were told the fishing might be better up river, so up river we went. There were many shallow spots, and needless to say, we used a few shear pins. The jet boats we now use make the going a lot better.

There is a major tributary to the Soap called the Rashoshana, beyond that the Soap started looking like what we were after. After picking some good-looking water, it was time to get serious.

Toby and I were using single-handed rods of 8 and 9 weight, Scott was using a double handed 9 weight. The water is tea colored, we found bright orange, yellow, white, and pink combination flies showed up best, black and purple disappeared.

This is a medium-sized Steelhead river, and the wading is very easy. It is a low gradient flow, with no heavy water. Scott said the river in spots looked a little like the Kispiox in British Columbia. Scott is one of the finest Steelheaders I know, so it was fitting that he hook up first, after a little trial and error, a beautiful hen of about 16 pounds. This was the beginning fo six fantastic days of Steelhead flyfishing. After breakfast each morning we would head off to explore new water, and we were never disappointed. We found fish in every place they should be, and kept reminding each other that we were in Russia, fishing for and catching Steelhead!

Before I get into a me and "Bubba" gone fishin story, let me say that I have been fly fishing Steelhead for 30 years and there are not many places like this - if at all - left in our world. Scott and I hooked 52 Steelhead in six days. Toby got his share, but he was tied up with managerial work most of the time, so his time on the water was limited.

Yes, it's a Steelhead

Before I forget, the river is also loaded with Dolly Varden Char, and White Spotted Siberian Car (known as Kundzha) and some resident Rainbows. All of us fished sinking sink tips of 12 to 15 feet. Several fish grabbed at the fly while we were pulling them out of the water, so we knew these fish could be taken on dry flies, though possibly not as consistently as with wets.

We didn't get the big 40 pounder, or even a 30, but I'll tell you this, one of these days I'll bet somebody will. If it happens anywhere in this world it most likely will happen on the west side of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Kamchatka Fishing Adventures is looking at its third fishing season this coming fall, the season runs September and October. We have jet boats, American guides with lots of Steelhead experience, a beautiful tent camp, with 15 x 15 ft. wall tents with heaters, Banya or Sauna if you prefer, great food, (a lot of it fresh from the Sea of Okhotsk,) like mountains of King Crab, and of course plenty of wonderful Russian vodka.

Fo more information on this Steelhead paradise, contact me at 360-752-0025 or email me. ~ Ron Gras

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