The Belousiha River Lodge is a small fishing camp on Russia’s Kola Peninsula. It is a relatively modest camp, which is to say that helicopters aren’t involved in any aspect of its operation and no one wears a coat or tie at the home-cooked meals in the single-room cabin that serves as a lodge.
The camp has exclusive access to a pair of rivers. The Belousiha is a small, tumbling river that fishes best with a single-hand rod, though a switch rod might be better on a couple of the lower pools near tidewater where the river opens up. The mighty Voyrona, the second river the camp fishes, is immense. Long casts with two-handers are required on that water and each season some equally immense salmon are caught there. When a vacancy on a friend’s hosted trip opened up a last-minute opportunity for me to tag along, I cancelled my other summer plans and immediately started googling Russian travel visa applications and rushed my passport off for renewal. I wasn’t sure I could spare the cash, but I wasn’t going to miss a chance to swing flies in Russia.
My only other experience chasing Atlantic Salmon had been on DIY trips to Eastern Canada. When we were there, a friend from Maine and I fished classic North American hairwings and dead drifted Bombers. We fished Cossebooms, Rusty Rats and did particularly well on Blue Charms. I’m sure other patterns would have worked fine, but I like the idea of fishing, and learning from, local patterns. Local flies often have practical as well as geographical significance. They represent regional traditions, philosophy and biology. For a visiting angler, they are better than postcards for recalling specific rivers and the fish that live there.
My steelhead box from home, where I learned to swing flies on tributaries to the Great Lakes, is full of olive sculpins, white baitfish patterns and egg-sucking leeches. Now that I live in Washington, my winter steelhead boxes are full of marabou tubes, intruders and string leeches. Many are tied in colors I never would have used at home. I have separate boxes for summer fishing that are full of hairwings and muddlers.
I wasn’t sure what flies we’d be fishing in Russia. I figured there would be some kind of hairwing wets and expected some Temple Dog style tube flies, too. Instead of trying to guess and tying boxes worth of the wrong things, I opted to travel without any flies at all. I committed to using whatever the guides and locals recommended. They are the experts on their rivers, after all. Rationally, I know I probably could have brought my steelhead boxes and caught a salmon on a Green Butt Skunk or a Hoh Bo Spey, but I wanted to immerse myself in the Russian rivers, all the way down to the fly patterns preferred in camp.
In that same spirit, I opted to sip on vodka instead of whiskey at the end of each fishing day. As they say: When in Rome… Or three hours outside of Murmansk, whichever the case may be.
The flies we used in camp were spare and functional with a distinctly European aesthetic that looked familiar in some ways and subtly foreign to this North American steelheader in others. I imagine anyone who has fished in Scandinavia, Iceland or Scotland might recognize them, but they were, more or less, new to me. Inspired by the patterns, I got into the habit of taking photos with my phone of each fly I fished during my week in the Arctic Circle. I wanted a tying reference in case an opportunity to chase Atlantic Salmon ever came up again. I also wanted to adapt certain elements and patterns into my repertoire back home.
During a recent snow storm that shut down the city of Seattle, I was revisiting the photos on my phone and daydreaming about salmon, sunshine and floating lines. Scrolling through the images, I realized they made a wonderful visual diary of the trip. I thought other fans of anadromous fish and the swung fly might appreciate them, too, so I’ve assembled the photos into a series of blog posts for Swing the Fly. Join me over the course of the next few weeks as I share the patterns from my week on the Kola Peninsula.
First Fly (above)
This was the fly I fished the first morning on the Voroyna. It was exactly what I imagine we’d be using when I looked forward to the trip. Tapered and slinky, I swung it through a long piece of choppy water running along an island on the lower river. A black wing, with jungle cock and a touch of flash, might be the only pattern an angler would ever need. It didn’t get attacked that morning, but I bet this fly would work on any river in the world, for any species of fish. I admired the orange bar of tying thread as a butt and the bare aluminum tube as the body. It is minimal and ruthless. It didn’t catch a salmon.