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Russia’s Sakhalin Island is the place to catch a sub-species of sea-run taimen that exists nowhere else in the world. Honor Roll subscriber Elbert Bivans seems determined to put the place on the world angling map with his second report on the fishing there. Sakhalin Island, you will recall from Bivins’ September 2008 report (Article ID 2217 in our database), is a large, elongated island that juts up into the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan and west of the Kamchatka Peninsula. In Bivins’ previous report, he described catching numerous taimen up to 35 pounds, noting that the fish were fatter and more aggressive, albeit less surface-oriented, than taimen he’d caught elsewhere.

At the end of that first report on Sakhalin, Bivins concluded that he would recommend a trip there only for the adventuresome. “Sakhalin Island needs to be approached with a relaxed and flexible state of mind,” he wrote. Those words, no doubt, became his mantra on a second visit he made to Sakhalin last year.

Bivins tells us he intended to further explore the Poronai River, where his guide told him he had caught taimen up to six feet long and weighing an estimated 100 pounds. He came armed with medium-weight spinning gear and the kind of large saltwater plugs that had proven successful on his first adventure. He also brought a Spey rod and some large saltwater streamers.

Unfortunately, a strong typhoon hit the south end of the island a few days after he arrived, forcing a change in plans. “We had two successful days on an upper section of the Poronai, which was high but still clear until some feeder streams muddied the main river with pipeline-project runoff. The muddy water made the river un-fishable,” he writes. “Using spinning tackle, we hooked about a dozen taimen before the fishing shut down, with most of the fish we landed weighing 10 to 25 pounds. My companion had one on that he and the guide saw clearly and estimated was between 40 and 50 pounds….”

Most of us who have traveled with western outfitters to Russia’s Kola or Kamchatka peninsulas have had small tastes of adventures that can best be described as “Russia being Russia.” Well, the Kola and Kamchatka apparently pale in comparison to what Bivins calls the “Wild, Wild East.” Here, western-style sport fishing is still in its absolute infancy.

“A fishing trip to Sakhalin is an adventure,” Bivins writes. “There is only one large city on the island, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and one main north-south gravel road that runs the length of the island. That road’s in pretty bad shape, so I began my trip by overnight train. Our base camp was a private home in a classic Russian village by the name of Onor. From there, we went by track vehicle to the nearby Poronai. I say track vehicle because it was essentially a tank without a cannon. It could scoot down a dirt road at 40 miles per hour and run over or through just about anything.

“We had planned to spend most of our 10 fishing days on the Poronai, but increasingly muddy water inspired us to make our way north by Toyota truck (Watch out! The Russians drive way too fast for road conditions.) Our goal was to reach some remote lagoons on the Sea of Okhotsk, but mud stopped us and we had to settle for a campsite on the Chamga, one of the many short, clear mountain rivers in that area. There, we had some success with Siberian char (kundzha), cherry salmon and a few ‘golets.’ The latter fish are a type of char. I gather that the smaller northern rivers are more seasonal, so I am not discounting them as a place to look for taimen in the future.

“The Russian outfitter for this trip, Sakhalin Outdoor Club owned by Alexander Dashevsky, has some work to do to meet the standards western anglers want, but he is making changes. Except for me, his western fishing clients to date have almost all been oil company people who want to make short trips to rivers near Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

“Our happy party consisted of two fishermen, two guides (Sasha and Alexey) and a pleasant young interpreter named Yulia. The camping tents and equipment were suitable. If something went wrong, the Russian guides could fix it – I think they could fix anything, anywhere. The camp food was basic, supplemented with a few salmon and pike taken from gill nets in the river. The presence of those gill nets is probably going to make some western anglers uncomfortable. There is wonderful and abundant seafood on the island with scallops as big as baseballs.

“The Russians are still learning Western fishing etiquette. For example, they still leave unburned lunch trash in a fire pit next to the river. Our guides wanted to fish with us – sometimes even fishing ahead of us until I explained to them that guides don’t typically fish with western anglers unless they receive specific permission to do so. Our lunch breaks were sometimes too long for my personal tastes. It’s also clear that the outfitters and guides need to be more prepared with backup options if things don’t go as planned.

“More critically, the taimen on the Poronai are probably in danger of too much fishing pressure. When they land fish, Russian guides simply throw, or kick them, onto the riverbank without regard to the injury they might be causing. Visiting anglers would be advised to bring a Boga Grip or something similar….”

Despite the glitches, Bivins tells us he’s planning to return to Sakhalin, possibly as early as this fall when the weather is more stable. “With all of the problems of accessing Kamchatka by air, and with some of the disappointing stories I’ve heard from Mongolia and the difficulties associated with access there, I think Sakhalin could become an attractive alternate fishing destination,” Bivins concludes. “It’s not too difficult to access. It’s a clean, almost-virgin area. And it has a variety of big fish, with taimen as the main attraction. The chance to experience a Russian village is an added bonus. I would be glad to provide necessary details to any fellow subscribers who are seriously interested in visiting Sakhalin. Our cost was about $5,000 each for two weeks, inclusive of everything but airfare. Alexander Dashevshy is a fluent English speaker. He has a website in the works and, in the meantime, can be contacted by email.”
(Postscript: Bivins’ e-mail address is: [email protected].)

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