The largest king salmon and steelhead in the world live in the streams of the island and I can tell you with absolute certainty that, after seeing what I did last month, this sport will never be the same. The following is a journal of my trip…
Baltavia, Day 1
Getting here is no small feat and Big Fred and I are completely destroyed from traveling 36 straight hours. Since leaving Seattle, we’ve flown on four jets, two puddle jumper planes and an old Russian military chopper. We’ve also sat for 6 hours in an overcrowded bus driven by a lead-footed kid who looked to be no more than 12 years of age and then hitched a ride on rickety and very leaky cod fishing boat…but we’re finally here on Ostrov Novrossiysk (or Novrossiysk Island).
Our hosts and guides are Aleksei “Little Bear” Sidorov, a 6th generation islander and his
best friend, Jacques “Frenchy” Laurent, a French expatriate who came to Ostrov Novrossiysk a decade earlier to paint portraits of the Baltavian countryside and never left. The pair live in separate, tiny clapboard houses on opposite sides of the cobbled main street of Aivazorskosy – a postage stamp-sized town that I’m sure has more letters in its name than citizens within its city limits. The little village clings to a bluff above the smashing surf of Belstov Bay and is about the most desolate and remote looking bit of civilization I’ve ever seen.
Aleksei and Frenchy, however, are warm and gracious hosts and want to celebrate our arrival with a large bottle of Slavyanskaya Rye Vodka, but we’re beat and politely decline.
“But rye vodka does not cause heavy hangover,” says Aleksei. “Good for those with weak stomachs.” And then he points to us and they both laugh. While he and Frenchy consume mostly a liquid meal, Aleksei serves us an uzhin (dinner) of pickled herring and tea and then we sack out.
Rested now, Fred and I are ready to see if the rumors of the giant steelhead are really true. While researching an article online a few years back, I ran into a website that had a low-res picture of a farmer with a pitchfork in one hand and what looked like a steelhead in the 40- to 50-pound class hanging from a tree limb. Unfortunately, the website was all in Russian and I couldn’t read a thing. I wrote down everything that looked like the name of a place and then started trying to work things out from that angle.
I won’t bore you with the details, but after 4 months of web surfing, I found — and got in touch with — Aleksei and he confirmed that his home rivers contained some very large “sea trout” and salmon. It took a long time to set this thing up, but we’re finally here and really fired up to see what the place has to offer.
Our day starts with Frenchy behind the wheel of an old Red Army truck, driving us through an incredibly dense and lush forest on a narrow, muddy road that looks more like a deer trail. After about a 20-mile ride, the trees open to a meadow and we stop at the sheep ranch of a friend of theirs. We borrow 4 yaks from the rancher and ride another 6 miles over a rocky ridge and then down into a lovely river valley.
“Big trouts here,” says a grinning Aleksei. Frenchy nods enthusiastically and points to the river below.
The stream looks like a classic small steelhead river and it kinda reminds us of the Trinity River back home. In such skinny water, however, it’s hard to imagine jumbo steelhead here, but our guides insist. We don’t ponder the question too long and rig up our rods. Frenchy and Aleksei have been getting a big kick out of our fancy gear since we got here. “All you need is good, strong hands,” Little Bear Aleksei is fond of saying. And judging by all the line scars in his mitts, it looks like he’s had his share of run-ins with big fish on handlines in the past.
I rig up a stout float rod and a big pink worm, while Fred busts out a 9-weight and a purple string leech. Aleksei pulls from his backpack a piece of copper pipe with some heavy line wrapped around it and large spoon. While Frenchy sits on a log and has a smoke, the rest of us spread out and go to casting.
My float just settles into its first drift when I hear a happy shout from Aleksei. Something big – really big – has his spoon and is heading very quickly back down towards Belstov Bay. He doesn’t chase the fish but instead digs his heals into the gravel and engages in an epic battle of tug-of-war. I can’t believe the line doesn’t pop, but it hangs in there and Little Bear eventually works the fish back with a steady winding motion. The copper pipe and a couple skilled hands seem to be working as well as any high modulus graphite rod.
In a surprisingly short amount of time, Aleksei’s got the fish in close and then Frenchy calmly flicks his cigarette away, grabs a piece of driftwood and walks knee-deep into the river. Quite unceremoniously, Frenchy kicks the thrashing fish ashore with a swift and powerful blow from his steel-toed boot. A shot across the noggin from the driftwood produces a sickening crack and then the fish settles down.
Though I’ll never get used to the sight of dead wild steelhead on the bank, I’m glad to be getting a prolonged look at this beast. I’ve never seen a steelhead like it – it’s a whale. Fred puts a tape to it and the behemoth measures 44 inches long and has a 26-inch girth. On the Boga, the steelie weighs a little over 38 pounds!
“Good feesh,” says Aleksei. “Make good soup.” And then he produces a scary-big knife, lops the fish in half right behind the dorsal and throws it into a burlap sack.
After witnessing a nearly 40-pound steelhead caught, I’m speechless and almost walking on air as I grab my rod and resume casting. My heart’s in my throat as I cast and I hold my breath through the entire drift as I watch the float bob its way through the run. Nothing. The next cast produces the same result. Fred gets bit on his third swing and has quite a rumble on his hands. The beautifully-colored buck is out of its head and doing cartwheels across the pool. The fish looks huge to me but our guides are laughing.
“Such a small feesh gives you big troubles, comrade,” says Little Bear to Big Fred and then he gives a sly wink to Frenchy, who’s busting a gut.
Eventually, the steelhead leaps into some overhanging branches…the line parts and he is gone. There’s another roar of laughter from the peanut gallery. Frenchy’s giggling so hard he’s crying. “It shall be good fun for us to watch when you get a real feesh on the line,” Aleksei says with a wide grin.
I go over to Fred as he’s retying his leader. “Holy cow, man, that fish had to have been in the low 20’s,” he says. “And that’s small?”
We continue fishing and Frenchy hooks a good fish on a handline that pulls free and I eventually get a nice bobber down and land a chrome 21 pounder. Of course, I don’t let on to our local buddies that this is the largest steelie of my life – they’re already getting a good chuckle about all the photos we’re taking of “such a tiny feesh.”
Throughout the day, we catch a few other steelhead – Fred gets a solid 19 pounder and I intentionally break off a beautiful 16-pound hen to avoid the public ridicule. Frenchy lands a mammoth fish – probably a 25 pounder — but he has it cut in half and bagged before I can get a weight on it. Little Bear caps the afternoon with a spawned-out hen that goes 23 pounds.
The day passes way too quickly and we have to get on the yaks and trek back over the mountain to the truck before darkness sets in. It’s truly been the most incredible day of steelhead fishing I’ve ever witnessed and Aleksei assures us we’ve seen nothing yet.
And oh yea, that night the rye vodka tastes oh, so sweet.
Early this morning, my pounding head suggests that the rye vodka does cause “heavy hangover” despite Little Bear’s assurances to the contrary. After wolfing down a heaping pile of pancake-like bliny and fried ham, I’m feeling like a new man, and soon we’re bouncing down the road in the truck again, this time headed to the north side of the island where Aleksei says the really big fish live.
A two-hour drive puts us on the banks of the Anadyur River, a big, off-colored and impossibly fast-flowing Willamette-sized affair. The river is extremely intimidating, but the huge boils, standing waves and whirlpools suggest that a fish would have to be a large, tough critter to live here. Just looking at the Anadyur makes me wish I’d brought some 4-ounce Slinkies and a surf rod.
“Now we go to small river with big feesh, my friend,” says the ever-jovial Aleksei and with that, we leave the thundering Anadyur behind and take an overgrown road that leads us up a small, clear-running tributary stream. Eventually, Frenchy pulls the truck over and leads us down a path that ends at the river’s edge, just below a set of formidable falls. In the pool below the cataract, Fred immediately spies a roller and points it out. I see another and yet another. Quickly we realize that there are fish breaking the surface everywhere – and they’re big. Make that huge. In fact, most of them look like kings and I’m thinking a big glob of red eggs and a Spin-N-Glo would be handy about now.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to bring bait with us into the country, so I opt for my usual float and pink worm routine while Fred goes with silver/gold Little Cleo. Frenchy and Little Bear sit on the gravel bar behind us and prepare to watch the show. My first cast is met with a solid takedown and I swing and miss. I quickly toss my rig back out into the same general area and the float goes down again. I set the hook and then am totally blown away by the huge head shakes. I’m thinking that this would be the first king I’ve ever caught on a plastic worm – and he’s a big dude, too. The fish methodically heads for the center of the pool and I’m powerless to stop it. The instant I apply a little extra pressure, the leviathan goes airborne and that’s when I get a good broadside view of it. My eyes see it but my brain can’t quite seem to process…
“Steelhead!” shouts Fred, his voice trembling slightly. My vision gets blurry and my legs get shaky. It’s a steelhead, all right – and the biggest one I’ve seen since, well, yesterday. The details of the events that take place over the next 25 minutes are a little sketchy considering I’m having an almost out-of-body type of experience with this fish. When the battle finally ends and I regain semi-consciousness, I’m kneeling on a gravel bar, cradling a steelhead that’s in the mid 40-pound class. Frenchy’s searching for a club and Fred starts snapping pictures like a mad man. Little Bear’s got an “I told you so” grin from ear to ear. Before Frenchy can find a weapon on the bar, I work the fish back into the current and release it. Then it hits me…that was a world record class steelie. Totally amazing!
I’m too worked up to make another cast and, though I don’t smoke, I bum a cigarette off Frenchy and take a seat to watch Fred fish. He immediately hooks a heavy fish on the spoon but it eventually gets off. Three casts later, he’s got another one, which ends up being somewhere in the high 20’s. On his very next throw, the Cleo gets gobbled by a steelhead that bites right through the 20-pound fluorocarbon leader like a barracuda. A few minutes later, Fred’s into another monster, this one looks to be around 32 or 33 pounds.
“Dude, this place is off the charts,” is all he can muster. I can’t take it anymore and get back in the game. It doesn’t take long for the pink worm to find pay dirt again and I’ve got another bruiser on that totally cleans my clock. And then a strange thing happens. The giant, Chinook-sized steelhead quit rolling and the bite goes dead.
“Time to go now, comrades,” says Aleksei. “The feesh not hungry anymore.” Frency’s already halfway up the trail and headed for the truck. Apparently, the boys have seen this before.
The Last DayOur last day comes entirely too soon and Fred and I desperately want to go back to the falls pool, but our hosts insist on showing us some other stuff. First stop is at a wide, fast-flowing river that’s running a cool greenish-blue color. “Big storovoyreka in here,” says Little Bear.
We’re not sure what storo-whatevers are, so he draws a football shape in the air with his finger and then Frenchy adds a gator-chomp type of motion with his arms extended. Still, we have no clue, but our curiosity gets piqued when Frenchy produces a couple of small quail-sized guinea fowl and ties them to our hooks. He points to a deep hole where we should cast and then we heave the tiny chickens out into the swirling glacial currents. Four ounces of lead keeps our baits on the bottom and then we start waiting. And waiting and waiting. Fred keeps looking at his watch and I’m getting edgy. We’re wasting precious time that could be spent chasing the world’s largest steelies.
Our baits have been soaking for about an hour and we’re going nuts. Just when we’re ready to ask the boys to take us somewhere else, my rod goes down hard. Line’s burning off the reel at a rapid clip and I just hang on. After the fish relieves me of a half of spool of line, I jam my thumb onto the revolving spool and drive the hook home.
It’s the first thing I’ve heard Frenchy say the entire trip. He’s already sharpening his knife and, judging by the look in his eyes, Frenchy’s got dinner plans for this fish. “Storovoyreka the best feesh to eat in all of Baltavia,” says Little Bear. “Frenchy’s favorite, too!”
Whatever it is one the other end of my line is a powerful, stubborn critter and we go toe-to-toe for a solid 20 minutes before I gain a single yard of line back. Slowly, the chicken-eating beast starts to tire and I start to make some headway. Just as the leader comes into view, the fish takes off for the other side of the river again and I’m right back to where I started. The power of this thing is impressive and both Fred and I really want to see what the heck it looks like. The fight reaches 45 minutes in length and I’m wondering if I’m gonna give up before the fish does. At the one-hour mark, however, I’ve got him close enough for Frenchy to wade out and grab.
When he comes ashore, the thing blows us away – it’s the goofiest-looking fish we’ve ever seen. It’s kinda got a deep, carp-shaped body that’s neon green and blue with a crazy 2-foot long beak-like mouth. We unofficially dub it a “blue meanie.” After a quick photo, Frenchy goes to town on the thing with a stout tree branch and knife and soon the alien fish is reduced to a heaping pile of green fillets. Mission accomplished, okay, boys let’s go find some steelies!
A few miles up the road is a clearwater tributary and it is here Aleksei says we’ll catch steelhead and something called rainbow salmon. In the first pool, we hook a couple small fish on spoons that look exactly like jack Chinook – except they have this wild color pattern to them. Their bellies are bright red and their flanks look almost like holograms. The 2- to 4-pouned rainbow kings are cool but after a few of them, we’re itching for something bigger. We hike down to the mouth of the stream to a beautiful flat just above where it flows into the blue river.
It looks like a bunch of rainbow kings have just come in, as the place is alive with rollers. Mixed in, we also see some bigger Chinook come up now and then but no steelies. Still armed with spoons, we start working the run and are getting bit about every third cast. Most of the biters are the small, vividly colored kings but we also catch a couple nice “regular” salmon in the 30- to 40-pound bracket over the next hour. With the afternoon waning, we accept the fact that lunker steelies are probably out of the question now and simply try to enjoy our last hours in paradise. Heck, we’re catching a bunch of fish – nothing wrong with that.
Frenchy and Aleksei are also catching plenty of fish with handlines and have a pretty good pile of carcasses going on the bank behind them. When Frenchy loses his one and only lure to a foul-hooked king, I dig around in my box and find an old K15 Kwikfish and tie it on for him and show him how we fish the plugs back home. Soon, he’s happily sitting on a rock at the head of the slot, slowly backing the throbbing plug down into the school. I walk back downstream to get my rod and turn just in time see him jolt upright and set the hook. Something heavy takes off downstream and Frenchy’s having trouble stopping it. He wades back to shore and starts running down the bank, following the fish. Seeing that his pal is having trouble, Aleksei stops fishing and sprints downstream to help. The pair disappear around the corner and we don’t see them again until just before sunset.
In the meantime, I notice Big Fred’s still working on a fish he hooked about a half hour before. The big king is hanging tough and burns right back to the center of the river every time Fred gets it close. “There’s something different about this fish,” he says. “But I can’t quite put my finger on it.” The pair is locked in an epic battle and it’s an intense scene to watch. From downstream we hear an excited roar, and moments later, our Russian pals emerge from around the bend carrying a Fiat-sized Chinook.
Fred’s fish still has some fight left to it and takes off on another line-melting run and then flips a U turn and starts speeding back toward us. The big guy is reeling like a madman to catch up. The fish streaks right past our feet and we catch a quick glimpse of it as it goes by. It reminds me of a Keani king — except for the big red stripe down its side.
“No freakin way…” Fred’s voice trails off. “That can’t be a steelhead.” But I assure him it is. The fight rages on for another 15 minutes but Fred is finally able to wear the fish down. When it gets close, he backs up the bank and I pounce on the colossal trout. We wrestle in the shallows for a moment and the fish gets a good lick in with its tail across my jaw. It feels like somebody’s whacked me with an oar blade. I’m seeing major stars, but I hang on. Fred jumps in to help and we eventually get the fish under control. After several photos, we escort the fish out into three feet of water and then hang it by its lower jaw on the Boga…the steelie weighs a mind-blowing 54 pounds – and that’s with the tail in the water. We nurse the world’s biggest steelhead back to health and watch it swim off in silence.
We wade ashore to have a look at Frenchy’s king, which bottoms out the 60-pound scale without any trouble at all. Back in town, we hang the fish at the local butcher’s shop and it pulls the needle to 58.8 kilos – or 125 pounds!
Okay, so now it’s time for me to come clean. Take a look at the calendar. Yep, you guessed it…
Did I get ya??