Salmon galore on the Ponoi
The Ponoi is a Russian jewel of a salmon river, yet less than 20 years ago it was practically unknown. Tarquin Millington-Drake explains its history.
If you want to catch fish then the bottom line is that you go where the fish are. And there is hardly a more prolific Atlantic salmon river anywhere in the world than the Ponoi, deep in the wilderness of north west Russia's tundra where the water quality is as pure as the fish which spawn there.
But up until Glasnost little was known of it. Then in 1998 the rest of the world suddenly became aware of just what the Kola Peninsula had to offer. And this was only the beginning. There followed the story of the American dentist, the aspiring young English sporting agent and the Russian entrepreneur who together have turned more than sixty miles (hundred kilometres) of the Ponoi into a fishing destination offering 18 weeks sport which is probably without equal. We are talking an average annual catch of 10-11,000 salmon, weighing up to 30lb.
With three previous owners from the west, the Ryabaga camp is now in the safe hands of a Russian. Previously it was run by Frontiers, the American based sport travel agency on behalf of former owners. But it was much more than a typical agency arrangement - the Ponoi River Company was created to run a uniquely dedicated operation.
To wind the clock back almost 40 years, Frontiers itself was created by Pittsburgh dentist Mike Fitzgerald Sr with his school teacher wife Susie in 1969. Keen anglers and travellers they struggled to find information on fishing locations around the world. So they started their own agency. Like the proverbial Topsy, it grew and grew and now employs a staff of 80.
In 1993 they set up a UK arm as many clients were not only coming to these shores but also setting out from here. Enter Tarquin Millington-Drake, their UK managing director. Tarquin, 42, confesses to having been obsessed by both fishing and adventure from an early age. Though born in Australia his family moved to Shepperton where at the age of six he got his first taste of freedom and solitude on a river. "It's incredible when I look back. Shepperton was in the countryside then, and I had access to a boat and engine, and would disappear for the day with the boat and a fishing rod. I would never let my own children do that today. We lived there eleven years and every spare moment was 'gone fishing'." He was initially catching bleak and gudgeon, but more importantly learned the ways of the river - where the pools were, the clear water, the runs, the holes - and he also developed a love of pike. His introduction to fly fishing was unorthodox. "I found an old broken trout rod in the garage. None of the family fished so I taught myself. I had read that you could catch chub on the fly, so I would lay the rod out by the river bank and pull the line and fly out in a straight line, and then lean down, grip the rod and cast into the river. Eventually I got the knack of proper casting and keeping the flyline tight in the air, and caught some good chub. Previously I had taken them on cheddar, stolen from the family fridge. These were wonderfully happy times. I also learned to cook, as I was away early in the morning and looked after myself." In hindsight it also taught him a lot more and paved the way for the life of travel on which he would later embark.
He was 18 when he caught his first salmon on the Machrie river on the Isle of Arran. He studied commercial property at Oxford Poly and went to work for Egertons, an estate agency which had the most enthusiastic sporting lets division of any in London. It was a natural destination for a fishing (and shooting) wanderer. It was a breeding ground of sporting agents. Under the wing of Peter Egerton-Warburton were Christopher Robinson, Peter Baxendale, Tom Hutchinson, and Richard Affleck. "At that time Egertons had the fishing on the Vosso in Norway, which for someone like me was pure paradise."
He got to know legendary African guide Robin Hunt with whom he went on to shoot in various places around the world and introduced him to Ker & Downey, who were opening an office in London. Christopher and Tarquin were invited to run the operation. "At the last minute Christopher pulled out to do his own thing, and there I was, 22 years old, facing the responsibility single handed. I explained the situation to them but Charles Williams and Robin Hurt encouraged me, so I duly found myself behind a desk in Bond Street. I'll be the first to admit that my reasons for wanting to do the job were not career based, but purely because I wanted to fish all over the world" he laughs. "Through Ker & Downey I started doing some work with Frontiers, and in 1991 had the opportunity to visit Norway's Alta river, one of the world's finest Atlantic salmon rivers. It was fantastic."
In 1993 he was invited by Frontiers to open their UK office alongside Ker and Downey in Bond Street, later moving to Albemarle Street. This was to be the beginning of an adventure in itself, for Frontiers had by now become hugely successful. More importantly from 1990 they were organising fishing on the Kola peninsula. Pretty soon they realised that the Ponoi was the river on which to major, offering fresh fish over a four-month season - late-May to early-October. Moreover with its 60 miles of double bank fishing the Ryabaga Camp offered sport for all, from the easy access Home Pool, to boats and tons of wading.
The fishing rights were initially bought by an American, Gary Loomis of Loomis rods fame (who actually acquired all the fishing rights on the peninsula in 1989), but Frontiers client Thorpe McKenzie took up the mantle and then Frontiers themselves. Eventually, in 2006, it was to be sold on to a Russian owner who had been a client for some years and grown to love the Ponoi. "It is without doubt better to have a Russian owner having an involvement in the river" Tarquin explained. "Things work much better. We get on very well.
"I first went there the year before I joined Frontiers. During the nineties it was run by various managers and when one resigned at short notice we were caught cold as there was so much on which we had been dependent - the provision of helicopters, fuel, leases, food etc, the entire logistics of an operation in Russia, two hours by chopper in the middle of nowhere. I felt we should never be put in that position again and as a consequence in 1999 I took on full responsibility to run the operation. Over the next 18 months we breathed new life into the camp and new investment, starting with 40' and 20' shipping containers from the USA, full of equipment, boats, engines etc. I was there almost full time until we found our own manager. I knew exactly how I wanted it running." The man on the ground now is Will Casella, who guided in 2004 and took up the manager role working with Tarquin in 2005.
There is staff of over 30 in the camp, looking after groups of between 14 and 20 people, arriving Saturday evening and departing seven days later. "We have the most fantastic crew. Many are Russians who have been with us from the beginning - in the early days they were washer-ups, cleaners, mechanics etc, but now they all speak immaculate English and are incredibly versatile - they are also better educated than us, many with sophisticated degrees or backgrounds in complex careers. We also have an international flavour drawing crew from Argentina, South Africa, England, Scotland, New Zealand France, Sweden and other nations. There is no room for egos and there's an incredible work ethic - the atmosphere is very special. At dinner the crew sit on one table alongside the guests on another. Everyone gets along and the social side of life is what makes the camp for so many guests."
The camp is equipped with American luxury tents (with wooden flooring), sauna, masseuse, doctor and delivers a high standard of cuisine. It appeals to all ages - a couple in their eighties came a few years back and re-booked for two weeks the following year requesting to be buried on the river if the worst came to the worst. Together they caught a record 23 fish from one point on the river without moving an inch, a record that still stands.
Whilst the fishing has always been good on the Ponoi, it has improved dramatically in the last 10 years. Initially the Russian scientific agency would net the mouth on alternate days, as a consequence only half the fish were making it up the river. Eventually an arrangement was negotiated in 1994 to remove the netting completely and start a tagging scheme, which has now become the world's largest of its sort for Atlantic salmon with 1,500 tagged during the early season. An eighth of all Atlantic salmon tagged globally are tagged here in a scheme which is run in conjunction with the Polar Research Institute of Murmansk and the Atlantic Salmon Federation. "An equation based on the number of fished tagged and then recaptured enables the researchers to gauge the number of fish in the river."
The numbers of fish caught in the river pre-2000 averaged 6-7,000 per season, but by 2003 this had shot up to 14,000. The average now is in the order of 11,000 with another upturn expected. So what makes the river so prolific? The answer is relatively straightforward. In its entire 400 kilometre length there is only one small village, no farming, no crops, no industry, no pollution - the river water is as pure as it gets, and runs through a complete wilderness. The conditions could not be more perfect. The river is in fact at full capacity now and fully populated. Fish are plentiful throughout, many weighing in the region of 8lb but running up to 30lb. The autumn run which starts in August consists of tens of thousands of bright silver fish which are still running when guests return after the winter in late May. Mid-June sees the summer run commence with plenty of grilse and big females up to 20lb, Some of the autumn spawning fish stay in the river 20 months before returning to the sea as kelts. A phenomenon that does not exist in the UK.
The lowest average per rod per week is 17 fish across 15 years of records - the most caught in a week was 1,400 or 90 per rod. Russia has never looked so attractive.