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Kolpakova River, Western Russia

Rob Merrill and a happy client

By Rob Merrill, Victor, Idaho

As a guide in Alaska for nine seasons, I always wondered what it would have been like to have visited that wonderful land fifty years earlier when it was still undiscovered.

In the summer of 2000 my dream came true when I was offered a job guiding on the Kolpakova River, situated on the Kamchatka Peninsula, directly west of Alaska.

Located in the far eastern part of the former Soviet Union, this highly guarded militarized zone was closed off to the west in 1917 and reopened in 1990. With roughly the same land mass as the west coast of the United States, Kamchatka has a total population of approximately 350,000 people, and 220,000 of those live in the modern city of Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky or P-K as it is known.

Access to the interior is extremely limited with only one main road (which turns to dirt after about 80 miles), traveling less then half way into the interior. With over 1100 different rivers hosting some of the largest runs of wild Salmon and Steelhead left on the planet, vast numbers of Rainbow Trout, Grayling, and different and exotic Char species, Kamchatka is a fisherman's paradise.

Getting to Kamchatka is a relatively easy affair, especially in today's world of air travel problems. Flights depart from Anchorage, Alaska on Friday mornings. A four and a half hour flight puts you at the international terminal in P-K, where after clearing customs you are greeted by your American host and a interpreter who remains with you during your visit.

Once in Kamchatka, the first thing you notice is how warm and friendly the people are. With so few visitors from American, you do stand out and it can bring out a lot of interest from many of the people. I have had children approach me, eager to put to use the English they are now studying in school. Most Kamchatkans tend to be highly educated, with many of the people possessing college degrees.

Reaching camp is done via a Mi-8 helicopter, the Russian equivalent of the DeHavilland Beaver airplane in Alaska. First produced in 1961, more than 15,000 of these aircraft have rolled off the Moscow assembly line. With it's 16,230 pound payload, economy, reliability, and excellent safety record, the Mi-8 is used worldwide by search and rescue operations and more than 50 different air forces. The one hour and twenty minute flight leaves you breathless as you pass over an incredible and diverse topography of volcanic mountain ranges, endless forests of Birch and Cedar, and countless streams of all sizes, in a wild and pristine wilderness setting.

Upon landing the fisherman are met by the enthusiastic and friendly staff, who after introductions escort you to the camp set on a beautiful, wooded location, just above the banks of the river. Although the camp is located in a extremely remote location it is designed with your comfort in mind. A large central tent serves as the dining room and socializing area. Delicious and plentiful American style breakfasts and traditional Russian dinners are served family style. Lunch is usually a shore side affair, with delicious fresh fish prepared by your guide served along with local breads, vegetables, cheeses, and lunch meats. A comfortable, six man heated yurt serves as home for each two clients during their visit, and a very nice wilderness Russian sauna (banya), and hot shower room help provide some creature comforts. After a nice lunch and a chance to settle in a little, two guests are paired up with a guide with whom they spend the rest of the day with traveling by jet boat to access miles and miles of gorgeous riffles, runs, and pools in search of an incredible variety of different fish species available at different times of the season, all anxious to take your fly.

The Kolpakova River hosts all six Pacific Salmon species. By early June, large runs of King Salmon begin to enter the lower river in good numbers. Fresh fish usually continue to arrive in the lower river through early July. The average King caught on the Kolpakova River is 25 to 30 pounds, however these fish are extremely powerful and can reach weights of 60 pounds or better. Cherry Salmon, not found in North America, are next to arrive. Although not large, these Asian cousins of our pacific Salmon are very aggressive, and fight great! They look like a cross between a Chum, Pink and Sockeye Salmon and are a lot of fun to catch. By the first of July huge numbers of Chum Salmon, Humpies (on even years), and Sockeye Salmon start to flood the lower river and continue moving upriver into August. The first of August brings with it the beginning of the Silver Salmon runs that enter the river in good numbers and continue through September. Besides offering great sport fishing opportunities these Salmon species also provide an invaluable diet of fry, smolt, eggs and flesh to the countless numbers of char species and Rainbow Trout that inhabit the entire river.

Speaking of Char, the Kundza or Large Spotted Siberian Char are available all season long. Not well known by western anglers, these primitive sea run members of the Char family are found only in Asia. They can reach weights of forty pounds or more and reach up to forty inches in length. An extremely powerful fish, once hooked it is akin to having your fly attached to a back of a bus. Three hundred yard long runs are not uncommon and these fish have been known to destroy a 10 weight fly rod. Large schools of both Dolly Varden and Artic Char are also available on a daily basis and when conditions are right they can be caught on a surface fly.

But the main draw for many anglers is the opportunity to catch the beautiful and wild rainbow trout that flourish throughout the entire length of the river. These surface oriented Trout average close to twenty inches and three pounds in weight, but the opportunity to catch larger specimens is a daily proposition. Although fishing streamer patterns is the usual method of targeting these fish, very good hatches of mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies help create excellent dry fishing opportunities any time from June to September. At times a skated mouse pattern can also provide heart stopping explosive action.

Just visiting the Kamchatka peninsula is indeed taking a trip back in time. These rivers host some of the largest runs of wild Salmon and Steelhead left on the planet - vast numbers of Rainbow Trout, Grayling, and different and exotic Char species not found elsewhere make Kamchatka is a fisherman's paradise.

An experience of a life-time for this guide - as well as for those fishermen fortunate enough to find it. ~ Rob Merrill, July 2002

For more information of fishing this region, visit the Russian Rivers website, or contact Rob at

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