Traveler, writer and photographer Gary Christensen shares a story about his recent Kamchatka fly fishing trip on the Ichanga river.
Imagine a place where rainbow trout can exceed 30 inches and weigh over 15 pounds. The average catch regularly lands a 5 to 8 1/2 pound prize that often rivals a large Coho salmon. A fantasy land that is pristine and virtually untouched by human hands, suggestive of Alaska 50 years ago. This place does exist. Let’s visit Kamchatka, Russia, an easy flight less than five hours from Anchorage, Alaska.
Kamchatka is as interesting as it is beautiful. Twenty-nine active volcanoes continuously change the landscape as they periodically spout steam and emit gasses and ash. Another 160 have left their mark and are now deemed extinct. This area of the Pacific Ring of Fire has more volcanoes than any other place in the world.
Getting to Petropavlovks-Kamchatsky and Beyond
Two friends and I had an opportunity to book a fly-fishing trip for the legendary big rainbows on the Ichanga River, Kamchatka. We booked our flights from Anchorage, Alaska to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on Yakutia Airlines. Yakutia Airlines’ schedules weekly flights to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky from mid-July through Labor Day weekend utilizing Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
Once in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and after the weather cleared, we boarded a MI-8 helicopter for our 150 kilometer, 50 minute flight to base camp. The view from above was particularly breathtaking as we flew over lush wilderness, rivers and white capped mountains. Traveling in an MI-8 helicopter is an adventure in itself. These large choppers were initially built in the early 1960’s. They are Russia’s workhorses for transporting people, food, construction materials and everything else that must be delivered to the road less wilderness. These toilers carry a useful load of up to 16,230 pounds.
Just before landing, our local guide Dmitry hinted that we were in for a special surprise but would not reveal the secret – only that we were going to enjoy the full Kamchatka experience. Once at base camp, our gear and people were separated into two groups. Each group was further flown another 50 kilometers to their specific drop points where they would begin their fishing adventure on their respective rivers. The MI-8 whisked us toward the mountains, 50 kilometers away to the head of the Ichanga River. Dmitry is knowingly the only guide who has ever fished and navigated this section of the river. He has only done this twice in previous years. We landed on a small island in the mountains adjacent to the small Ichanga River. We set up camp for the night then enjoyed fishing for a couple of hours before dinner.
Camp on the Ichanga River
Tucked away in the safety of my tent, dreaming about catching legendary rainbow trout on a fly rod, I was suddenly awakened by Alfa, the camp dog, a Siberian Laika Husky. She was in the process of chasing a big brown bear away from camp. Laikas are specially bred and trained to protect camps from bears. I peeked out of my tent and took in a deep breath of fresh air and was delighted to watch the sun rise over the peak of an active volcano. I looked downstream just in time to see a large sow brown bear and her three young cubs scurry away as Alfa rushed them across the river.
As I fully awakened, it took me a moment to realize that this was not just a dream. This was real and only the first day of an epic adventure that would be forever imprinted in our minds. Our camp on the banks of the Ichanga River included my two pals and I, our two guides, Dmitry and Anatoly, our the camp manager Igor and our cook Leo. We were all ready to pursue some of the largest rainbow trout on the planet. I was barely able to control my excitement knowing that soon I would be pursuing mature fish that are smart, healthy and amazingly strong. These fish are known for going ballistic once hooked, nearly jerking the rod from your grip, then head for fast water and nearly spool your reel before you can get them turned.
Fly Fishing on the Ichanga River
Once on the river we discovered the fishing to be very good and the scenery was spectacular. As expected, I was struggling as a beginner fly fisherman and became quite frustrated with myself. My two partners hooked fish after fish while I spent my time untying wind knots, snagging trees and tall grass and breaking off my flies. With Dmitry’s patience and guidance, I finally started being more accurate in my casting. I was able to get my fly under trees and bushes where the big trout spend most of their time.
At this point, I had not put too much thought into why this part of the river was so special. The uniqueness of the river declared itself when we arrived at an area where the water pooled up just before the elevation started to rapidly drop and the river hastened its flow. As soon as we entered the pool, we caught big rainbows with nearly every cast. After catching (and releasing) several trophy sized trout we had lunch and were anxious to start floating again. I soon learned why Dmitry and our other guide Anatoly had been so thorough tying everything down and advising us to hang on tight.
As soon as we rounded a bend in the river the elevation dropped. We were soon crashing through white water rapids with huge boulders and overhanging trees. For the next two hours, Dmitry and Anatoly fought the rapids and obstructions as we dropped hundreds of feet in elevation. As Dmitry flashed me a smile I now knew why this section was seldom fished and became part of his secret.
By the third day I had become much more effective, fighting a dozen fish within the first hour, including a large one over 26 inches. By the end of the day, I had developed a better understanding of this intellectual sport, matching wits with over 30 smart and feisty fish. I began to relax and enjoy my success as it became easier to outwit the big ones. No matter which direction we looked, we could see fish rolling on the surface. Every day we saw hundreds of chum salmon that were in the process of spawning. The chum salmon that were fresh from the ocean were still active hitting our flies and streamers. But none compared to the feeding frenzy of the arctic char when we went by a school of them.
As we drifted further down the river, the scenery gradually changed from mountains with large patches of snow to a valley inhabited by a very high brown bear population. There were trails literally everywhere. Kamchatka has the largest concentration of brown bears in the world with an estimate of over 27,000 bears. Almost every time we turned our head we would either see brown bears crossing the river or trying to catch fish. We saw at least 30 bears floating the Ichanga.
Experience of a Lifetime
For a fisherman this trip was a dream come true and an experience of a lifetime. Both of my friends each caught well over 150 fish during the week. These included rainbow trout, chum salmon, arctic char, a few pink and even some cherry salmon, a new species for me.
At base camp we met up with the other group of fishermen who had booked their trip with Dmitry and had floated the Savan River. They were all experienced fly fishermen who also had amazing stories to tell. Everyone caught trophy size fish. A couple of the more experienced fishermen each caught upwards of 400 fish during the week. The group saw well over 50 large bruins during their adventure. It added to the excitement of the trip and provided additional photo opportunities.
On a wilderness journey like this, the weather conditions can vary drastically day to day. It is important to take quality gear and clothing that holds up to any situation. Water resistance is incredibly important and I relied on my Marmot sleeping bag and Kenetrek waterproof hiking books. I layered my clothing with good rain gear, fleece garments and wool socks. My fly fishing outfitter provides a very good equipment and packing list. It has a specially designed fly/streamer assortment designed for this type of fishing. Our guide Dmitry and his staff are very well equipped, highly professional and have top quality hunting and fishing areas.
Useful Links & Resources:
- Alaska – Russian Far East Flights: Direct, non-stop air service between Alaska and Kamchatka.
- Everything You Need to Know About Russian Visas.
- Check Kamchatka Travel Portal. It provides a wealth of information about many local activities, restaurants, hotels, and more.
Interviews about Kamchatka & The Russian Far East you might like:
- Interview with Secret Compass’ Phil de Berger: Life on an Adventure Expedition in Kamchatka, Russia.
- Interview with Rene Limeres: On Kamchatka, Writing and Fishing.
- Adventures in The Russian Far East: Interview with Vadim Mamontov, Director & Founder of RussiaDiscovery Travel Company
- Alaskan’s Adventures in Kamchatka: Interview with Scott McMurren
- How Was Your Trip to Kamchatka? Traveler Janet Read Answers Our Questions
- Interview with Michael Schneider, Adventurer & Founder of 56th Parallel
- Questions with Martha Madsen: Adventure Travel Specialist on Kamchatka, Russia