Arctic char in remotest Russia
Far in the north of Russia flow the rivers of the Taymyr peninsula.Tarquin Millington-Drake tells the story of an eastern adventure to find the giant Arctic char.
If you go to Wikipedia and look up musk ox, under Habitat and Range, it says: "The last known musk ox population outside North America lived on the Taymyr Peninsula of Siberia, and died out about 2,000 years ago". This statement sums up well how little is known of this wilderness region where we were headed in search of giant Arctic char, and where we were to see numerous musk ox.
The expedition was mounted by a Russian friend who invited myself, and my fishing partner Peter, and Stevie from Argentina, to join him on a wild expedition to the Taymyr Peninsula in August of 2006. The objective was to try and find, and catch, huge char that were rumoured to inhabit the rivers of the Taymyr, Russia's, and indeed the world's, northern-most continental peninsula, seeking the ultimate goal of a 44lb fish.
Our journey began in Moscow with a huge traditional Russian dinner where the outpost town of Khatanga was toasted countless times in a vodka-driven storm of enthusiasm. Khatanga was the focus of our attention because that was the destination of our chartered plane: it was also somewhere we could identify because we could actually find it on a map.
Five and a half hours flying time from Moscow, we landed at Khatanga, where two MTV Mi-8 helicopters were waiting for us. There was one for our team of six (three Russians and three soft foreigners) and one for our gear. There was no lodge, there was nothing but remote wilderness, so everything had to be taken with us. Even the helicopter fuel had to be 'positioned' during the winter planning stages for this expedition.
The first leg of our journey took us to an outpost on Lake Taymyr. There were a few buildings where ex-convicts (or current, we were not sure which) worked netting the lake for char and refuelling the occasional passing helicopter. We were excited to be at this windswept place for we had been promised sight of a big char to top up our enthusiasm, if that was possible. The fish that we were shown was frozen and about 14lb. While it was a fine specimen, it was not what we were looking for, but the locals confirmed that there were huge char in the rivers. We chuckled as we left this bizarre place nicknaming it Ice Station Zebra.
From Ice Station Zebra we headed 45 minutes north and landed at a river called Ugalnya or 'Black Cliff' river. There it was a case of get changed into your waders in the middle of the tundra! Our first stop was a bust - no fish at all, so we flew further up river and found some better-looking water. There we learned that the char like to hold in quiet water, down river from what we would know as a salmon pool. There were no large specimens here, but some fish to about 5lb, which we were pleased with. The following day we flew further up river and there we found oodles of good-sized char from 8 to 16lb. As we learned later, these were Lake Taymyr char and were in spawning colours, though still appropriate to catch. That evening we went looking for water similar to where we had had so much success and enjoyed equal results. We were getting the hang of these fish so focus was beginning to turn to finding the really big ones.
After a couple of days on the Ugalnya, we decided to break camp and head to pastures new. Our focus was on a huge river called the Shrenk, where we had heard the big fish might be found. We landed and soon concluded that we had no clue where to start. We fished one vast pool with fly and spinner and had no luck with either. The map was pulled out and we examined where the huge fish might go if they used the Shrenk as a highway. The river that caught our eye was the Mammoth, named after the pre-historic mammals that lived in this area. The map showed cliffs or waterfalls, which we thought might stop the fish.
Arriving on the Mammoth is what I imagine arriving on the moon must be like. Light-coloured rocky cliffs with all the nooks and crannies filled with round boulders. It was wild. We chucked a spinner in the pool and hooked a char, which gave us belief. I always like to get above the river so I can see if anything reacts to my fly with a bird's-eye view, so I climbed up on to one of the outcrops and cast down into the river. About eight 10lb char came flying after my fly. "Guys, I think I've found some'', was the cry from what later became known as the pulpit. We enjoyed an amazing afternoon of fishing, catching many, filming them chase the fly with no hook. We decided that we should camp here in this desolate place and use the 'char-quarium' as our base so that if our expeditions were a bust or we could not fly due to weather, we could always come 'home' to some amusing fishing. We learned after the trip that we were the first people to catch char on this river. People did not know that char run the Mammoth.
Finding ourselves slightly bereft of ideas for where the huge fish were to be found, our attention turned to sea-run char. Everything we had caught to date were lake-run fish and I believe that the lake is where the huge char must come from. For these we headed further north to a river called the Kolomitseva. It was a very pretty river. We tried one spot and had no luck other than one lovely fresh 10lb fish I hooked on a skated fly and lost. This spurred us to look again and we tried one more place. It was a stunning salmon pool on a long bend. We were all drawn to the beautiful water but Peter headed to the last run down into some very still water, which went as far as the eye could see. He caught a couple of nice sea-run fish so we decided we would all try. It was sea-run char heaven - we all caught some stunning fresh, green-backed fish with pink spots up to about 12lb. Some days later, we decided to return to the Kolomitseva having endured some less successful missions, the most memorable in horrendous weather to the Stone river, which runs in to the Laptev sea, the furthest we went at 76 degrees north. We experienced just as good fishing but even more fun. It was a rare, still day and the fish would follow the fly with a big bow-wave for an entire cast all the way to your feet where some manoeuvring of the fly might induce a take. The most amusing instance was two bow waves passing each within a foot of each other, one chasing a fly towards one bank and the other chasing a fly to the other.
We were now 11 days into our expedition with two more to go. Two weeks of camping in the tundra with no shower, no WC, pretty basic eating (our camp dog had been lost on a reindeer hunt to find us some meat as opposed to the constant supply of fish), living in a two-man pup tent, but we were still in good spirits. I awoke during the night; the wind was howling and the noise on the tent was not that of rain. I opened the flap to a white out. All our gear was buried in snow - the whole place was white! One of my favourite moments was filming Peter do the same, his language cannot be repeated here! We had a problem, we were caught in an arctic cyclone, low on food with no flying and it was -10 degrees. The local team told us that if the seagull colony, which lived on the peaks of the rocks around us, left, then this was winter and we might be really stuck. Within hours there was barely a seagull to be seen!
We sat there the whole day when suddenly a cry went up and we were told to jump in the chopper. There was an opportunity to fly and we had to take it. We left the second chopper there with the crew and the equipment. We could only get as far as Ice Station Zebra where we ended up grateful to stay the night on the floor of the convict dormitory having laughed at the place just a few days before. The next day was spent anxiously waiting to see if the crew would get out which they did late the following day. The day was spent photographing more musk ox along the banks of Lake Taymyr when the weather was not completely howling.
Our last night on the Taymyr Peninsula was spent in the Red Square Hotel in Khatanga celebrating our safe return. It had been a wild and extraordinary adventure like no other. A privilege to have seen such a remote place and to have fished rivers that have barely been fished and are unlikely to ever be fished with any regularity. We did not find the legendary char, but we had hardly scratched the surface of that vast wilderness, and I dare say that somewhere those mighty fish swim completely undisturbed.
Tarquin Millington-Drake is managing director of Frontiers International Travel. It is possible mount a similar expedition to the Taymyr through Frontiers but with major planning and at vast expense due to the logistics. Frontiers do have other fine Arctic char options in Greenland, Iceland and Canada. For further details tel. 01285 741340 or see www.frontierstrvl.co.uk