A week on the Varzina

Fraser Perry visits the Kola Peninsula in the remote far northwest of Russia

I first heard about the Varzina River in 2010 whilst living abroad in Finland, where the Varzina is revered for the size and number of fish, its consistency, and the special experience the isolated location provides. Allured by the appeal of a remote fishery and wild fish, I finally made the trip a reality in the summer of 2019. The Kola Peninsula is a world-renowned wild brown trout and Atlantic salmon fishery located above the Arctic Circle in far North Western Russia. Within the northern catchment lies the Varzina River alongside other notable rivers including the Litza, Kharlovka and Rynda. The Varzina forms from the stable outflow of cool water from Lake Enozero, one of the largest lakes on the Peninsula. It then flows approximately 25 km north to the Barents Sea, dropping 220 metres from its source. These remote rivers are truly in the wilderness, well away from civilization on the scarcely populated Peninsula. A considerable journey is required to reach such an isolated place. After arriving in the city of Murmansk, Russia’s most northerly port and naval base, a 3-hour drive is required to reach Lovozero air base. From Lovozero, the Varzina Upper Trout Camp is a 45-minute flight away across the taiga and tundra in a MI-8T helicopter. As the flight progresses, the bush tracks beneath disappear into wilderness until you reach the camp situated on the banks of the river. SPECIES The Varzina River supports a healthy population of wild brown trout, belonging to the Atlantic lineage of Salmo trutta. These fish primarily reside in Lake Enozero and enter the Varzina River to feed and spawn in autumn, however, there is a small population of sea-run and resident fish. According to the camp manager, Alexey Chaikovsky, these fish can be distinguished by subtle differences in colouration. Browns with red spots are believed to be resident fish that winter beneath the ice in the Varzina River, whilst those with yellow spots winter in Lake Enozero, and those with partially silver scales are sea runners. Like most other rivers on the Kola Peninsula, the Varzina also supports consistent runs of Atlantic salmon each year. Whilst these fish are typically targeted in the lower reaches at the Varzina Salmon Camp, many salmon reach beats near the Upper Trout Camp from mid-July onwards and can add some variety to the fishing. Although less regarded, Eurasian Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus aplinus) are plentiful in the Varzina and in relatively good sizes of 0.5 to 1 kg. Similarly, northern pike (Esox lucius) are present in the shallow vegetated bays of Lake Enozero and Varzina headwaters as well as numerous small lakes across the tundra. SEASON Situated above the Arctic Circle, winters on the Kola Peninsula are long and summers are short. For the Varzina River, this equates to a relatively short 10 to 12 week fishing season, typically beginning in late June and continuing through to early September, although it varies from year to year. However, what the Varzina lacks in length of season, it makes up for with intensity of activity — prolific hatches, 24 hours of daylight for over a month, and abundant trout feeding actively. During the short-lived summer, the trout enter the river from both the lake and sea to feed heavily and gain condition prior to spawning. In the Land of the Midnight Sun, this creates an incredible opportunity to fish around the clock and to fish evening rises that last for hours. The peak of insect activity occurs in mid-July, with a two to three week window for dry fly fishing during the thickest caddis and mayfly hatches. Be prepared for mosquitoes and sandflies, as these can be savage! As the season progresses, the fishing becomes dominated by streamers, with many of the largest fish of the season, exceeding 70 cm, caught in the later weeks. FISHING The Upper Trout Camp is located in the middle of the trout beats on the Varzina, providing access to a total of 12 km of water upstream and downstream. Although this may not sound like much water for a week’s fishing, the huge size of the pools and numerous lies within require almost a day each to fish properly. With names like ‘Aquarium’ and ‘Wonder-Mile’, the beats at the top of the river were too attractive to overlook despite the long walk to get there. Stephen Williams and I enjoyed two excellent days fishing on these beats, coming across a handful of pools stacked with aggressive browns eager to smash big adult caddis patterns. Straightened hooks, runs into backing and the sight of submarines rising kept us entertained all day! Closer to Camp, the Home Pool proved just as satisfying. The variety of the Home Pool, with its pocket water, numerous runs, back eddies and consistent rises kept us on our toes covering the water. We caught multiple fish out of the lies in this pool, in part due to the movement of fish through the river. Don’t be surprised to share the river with other animals like reindeer, wolverines and even brown bears too. We were fortunate (or unfortunate) to see the latter two, unbothered by our presence. Unlike the brown bears of Eastern Russia, the bears in Varzina do not fish and thankfully didn’t venture too close to the banks. TECHNIQUES Unlike trout in Australia and New Zealand, the trout in Varzina are in their native environment and well camouflaged, hence the fishing generally involves casting to rises and covering prime lies when the fish are feeding. When the activity slows down, streamer fishing is more effective. No Varzina fly box is complete without an ample selection of caddis pupae and adult caddis patterns, as these hatches can dominate the insect activity. The Finnish Supa Pupa pattern is the most favoured by Varzina regulars, however, La Fontaine Sparkle Pupa, Goddard Caddis and Elk Hair Caddis patterns are all suggested for covering the Rhyacophila (free-living caddis) species that predominate. Classic streamers such as black Woolly Buggers and Muddler Minnows worked well for covering leeches and sculpins, although a selection of bright Finnish streamers is also recommended. These include the Super Tinsel, Surf Board and Järpa patterns, all heavily dressed with tinsel and flash. All flies should be tied on quality 2X hooks to hold these strong fish and avoid frustration on the other side of the world. Whilst not too technical, the Varzina is by no means a place for beginners. The river contains complex currents, which require anglers to read the water closely and be on top of their mending. The swift currents demand careful wading amongst the boulders and large stones that line the river. CATCH RATES Catch rates on the Varzina River can be anywhere from 150 to 500 plus fish per group per week, with the average size of browns typically 50 cm and the best above 65 cm. Our discussions with the camp manager suggested that catch rates appear to have more correlation with time spent at the bar than weather or week in the season. The previous group of Finns and Australians at the camp who managed to drink the bar dry and catch over 250 trout is a case in point! Based on my experience and some of the well-travelled anglers I fished with during the week, Varzina’s browns are possibly the strongest fighting brown trout to be caught in the world. These fish are fit, strong and aggressive and require all your skills to bring to the net. CAMP ‘Camp’ is an understatement for the facilities offered at the Varzina Upper Trout Camp. Wooden cabins, a traditional Finnish sauna, hot showers, a drying room, bar and delicious cuisine all make for a very comfortable stay in the Russian wilderness. The Russian hospitality includes hot breakfasts, packed lunches and four course dinners in a dining room covered with photos of trophies, flies and memorabilia that symbolise how celebrated the Varzina is amongst trout anglers globally. The Varzina Upper Trout Camp is operated by Sportfish Russia. Bookings can be made through their Australian booking agent Fly Odyssey.

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