Into the planks at the top of the steps leading down from the helicopter landing to the Ryabaga Camp are carved the words “Stairway to Heaven”. The letters are filled in with alluvial sand blown by the Arctic winds. It is midsummer now, but only six weeks ago the river below was clogged with ice. The stunted silver birches have just got their leaves. The first frosts will arrive in late August. The river will freeze again at the end of November. The sun won’t rise in late December. For an earthly paradise this is an unlikely spot, and yet it might be as close as salmon anglers will ever come.
The river at the foot of the steps is the Ponoi, the longest and most easterly on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, and in the first week of the 2010 season 906 salmon were landed by 17 rods. The sheer number of salmon in the Ponoi is hard to overstate – the annual total is estimated at more than 60,000 – and some of my fellow anglers, those quickest at stringing up a rod, could land one in the hour before dinner. I start down the steps after them.
There has been a camp where the Ryabaga River meets the Ponoi for nearly 20 seasons now. After two summers of exploratory trips, the first was fully operational in 1992. Since then, other camps have opened on the peninsula, including two more on the Ponoi itself, but Ryabaga has the certainty of the established brand, the original and best. It can accommodate up to 20 rods a week on 60km of river from late May to early October, a longer stretch of water and a longer season than anywhere else on the Kola, thanks to the particular ecology of the river.
The Ponoi has two runs of salmon. The summer run enters the system in late June, quickening the river for a month with a pulse of “bright” fish averaging 8lb to 9lb. Then the majority of the fish arrive from early August, with plenty weighing 20lb and over. What is peculiar about these autumn fish is that they usually don’t spawn in the year they enter the river, so many of the salmon we’ll catch will have been there for 10 months already. I wonder what condition such fish would be in.
My answer comes after dinner. I have been assigned a boat partner – Geoffrey Mitchell, a QC from Edinburgh – and together we take a stroll down to the Home Pool. This must be one of the most productive pieces of salmon water in the world, and, of the seven anglers we can see, two are playing fish. The nearest to us brings a 14lb cock fish to the shallows, one of last autumn’s run. It is becoming coloured, with rusty spots over its gill plate and an olive back, but it is still fat and had fought hard.
On a river this size, the most practical way of fishing is from a boat. There is certainly plenty of wading that can be done, but at summer water levels the salmon are to be found right across the width of the river – and where Daniel Podolsky, our guide, drops the anchor on an oily glide near the mouth of the Purnache tributary, that is very wide indeed.
We fish both sides of the boat, with Daniel letting out a little rope after each cast. It has been five years since I last fished for salmon, and judging by Daniel’s reaction, it shows in my Spey casting. Meanwhile, Geoffrey is casting with control and a minimum of effort in an awkward upstream wind, and he has landed four fish before I have even hooked into my first. By the afternoon, I have caught up with him somewhat, but then he does something that renders all competition nugatory for the rest of the week.
We are on the penultimate drop of the day, and nearing the end of that too. I see a splash out of the corner of my eye and Geoffrey raises his rod slowly into another fish. This salmon is behaving in the same way as the others we have caught during the day, offering sturdy resistance rather than setting off immediately on extravagant runs, and we have no reason to suspect that it is any larger. Geoffrey has taken his eye off the fish for a moment, when it gives a sideways splash at the surface and turns. It is very big. Daniel and I both gasp.
In one uninterrupted run, it takes Geoffrey deep into the backing line. Daniel realises we will have to give chase. He starts the outboard, slips the anchor rope, and backs us downstream, Geoffrey reeling as fast as he can. The fish comes to the surface again, and we can see just how big it is – and fresh, bright silver.
Daniel somehow manages to hold the boat midstream on the engine in those last nervy moments before the net, when a fish is almost caught and often lost. Geoffrey blanches as it shakes its head, but guides it alongside for Daniel to net. Even before it is weighed, Geoffrey knows he has just caught the largest salmon of his life, and at 24lb it turns out to be the biggest of the season so far. In fact, it is one of the largest summer-run salmon ever caught on the Ponoi. It is also our 11th fish of the day.
Any day when two anglers fishing together catch 10 or more salmon has to be considered exceptional, though on the Ponoi that’s far from extraordinary. But could we make it into double figures two days in a row? We fish Falls Creek beat with young American guide Pat Brennan and land five each. Three days? With Argentine Tommy Sordelli on Gold Beach, six apiece. Four? Kolovai with the Dane Mads Pedersen, 6-4 to Geoffrey.
Mads has coached us in “snake-roll” casting (used when a downstream wind is blowing) and, wanting to practise some more, that evening I tear myself away from the conviviality of the dining tent and go down to the Home Pool. It’s not easy – after a sauna and an apéritif, an excellent dinner and several toasts in Russian Standard vodka – to forego the warmth of my tent and its wood-burning stove, put my waders back on and tramp down to the river but, in the golden twilight, I have the water to myself and land five salmon before midnight.
The fifth day we’re with Sergei Bistrov on Tomba beat, a part of the river he calls “a crack in the earth”, fishing below the high banks, under cliffs or steep bluffs of loose stone above which eagles soar. Birches cover the slopes, from the line that marks the top of the ice in spring, up to where the winds are too strong and trees creep along the ground. In the strip of bank between water and trees, among frost-cut blocks of rock, the butterworts, violas and wild chives are racing into flower. By the end of the morning I’ve caught five fish and in the afternoon Geoffrey takes three grilse from one spot, bringing our score to 10.
We fall down on the last day, on Hourglass with head guide Max Mamaev. No one knows the river as well as Max, but even fishing with him it feels as though the Ponoi has yet to be fully explored. The long, straight reach that Max calls Dead Reindeer was a case in point, 300m of uninterruptedly fishy water, but we only fish the top section, where a sloping shelf of rock projects from the shore. Casting into the riffle created by the promontory, Geoffrey catches two fine salmon. We end the day stuck on eight, though numbers have stopped mattering to us.
But the numbers are important, nonetheless. They make everything possible. They give the dedicated salmon angler and debutant alike so much experience of catching salmon that how one fishes for them cannot but improve. I came away from every day feeling that I had learnt something, and if I had feared before the trip that catching too many fish would spoil me for anywhere else, by the end I felt so much more confident of both hooking and landing salmon that now I am eager to put the lessons learned into practice under British conditions.
On the last night, camp manager Matt Breuer decrees that a drinks party will be held on the shingle at the mouth of the Ryabaga. Everyone in the camp is there, despite a passing shower. The sun comes out at midnight, throwing a rainbow across the river, and I realise how much I want to be boarding a boat again in the morning. Climbing those steps back up to the helicopter landing instead will feel like an expulsion from paradise. When the moment comes, after a lot of vodka and a little sleep, it’s more like a road to hell than a stairway to heaven.