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This past July, a friend and I spent five days fly fishing for "Russian" brown trout and whitefish in northeastern Finland as an add-on trip to an international conference I was attending. Although some unusual weather made the fishing a little strenuous, we found this to be a unique fishery that offers the opportunity for some truly large fish in a remarkable setting.
I began my initial preparations for this trip last July when I learned I would be attending a conference in Finland. One of the first things I did was look at a book called World’s Greatest Flyfishing Locations, which was published in 1991 by Random House. Unfortunately, it is no longer in print, but a chapter of it describes a town in east-central Finland called Kuusamo as a place to fly fish for migratory brown trout in the four to nine-pound range. Throughout the summer, these trout migrate from a 400-foot-deep lake in Russia called Paanajarvi into the Oulankajoki, or "Oulanka River," as well as the Kitka River and the Kuusinki River. Thus they are called Russian brown trout. Kuusamo itself is a town of only 15,000, but it is a major tourist destination. During the winter the principal attraction is a downhill skiing resort, one of the largest in Finland. A year-round attraction is Oulanka National Park, the largest of three national parks in the area, which offers spectacular hiking, plus fishing in the summer.
I then "surfed the Web" and was able to obtain a great deal of information about travel and fishing throughout Finland. One useful link is www.travel.fi. One of the recommended contacts was the national sport fishermen’s federation, called SUKL (*). When I called SUKL and asked for a fly fishing guide in Kuusamo, they referred me to Tero Ronkainen (*), who made all the arrangements for our trip.
From the beginning, Ronkainen warned us that the fishing would be strenuous and that Russian brown trout are a difficult target, with a typical catch of one fish in three days during good weather. We settled on a plan to spend three days fishing for Russian browns and two days enjoying more traditional fly fishing for trout, grayling and whitefish, the latter an indigenous salmonid.
Our first evening of fishing took place on the Kitka River within Oulanka National Park. Getting there involved a three-mile hike along the Bear Ring, one of the most famous trails in Finland. The hike included crossing two suspension bridges. The scenery was truly spectacular. It was necessary that we hike below the waterfall at Jyrava, which blocks the migration of the Russian browns. We then worked our way upriver, fishing the principal holding water.
We fished until 4 a.m. in the light of the midnight sun and our total catch was one fish each on size 6 flies. Both were resident browns of no more than 12 inches, with no Russian browns. There were many fishermen out that evening, mainly on the far bank which was easier to reach. Later, Ronkainen learned that no Russian browns were reported caught in the Kitka that evening.
One reason for our lack of success was the fact that the river was running one to two feet above normal due to an exceptionally high snowfall in the upper regions of the Kitka watershed. The river has a strong flow and the banks are steep in some areas. I had used a 10-foot single-handed seven-weight with a sinking tip. My friend used a nine-foot eight-weight. Casting with a single-handed rod was do-able, but Spey casting with a long rod would have been better. Wading was difficult due to the high water, so cleats and a wading staff would have been helpful.
On our second evening we drove for about 45 minutes to Ronkainen’s hometown and fished for grayling on a section of the Jokilampi where it flowed through his family’s property. This small stream was running about two feet below normal but we each caught three or four fish of about 12 inches during the three hours we were there. We both used a five-weight with floating line.
We then drove to a nearby lake called Sukkajari to fish for whitefish. This proved to be among the most difficult dry fly fishing either of us had ever experienced. The whitefish take is very gentle and quick and the rise form is no bigger than that of a minnow, even though the fish may weigh one to two pounds. The mouth is also very tender, which means the fish must be hooked instantaneously. The best strategy is to cast near a rise, remove all the slack and try to anticipate the rise. I never did hook a fish, despite dozens of rises, but my friend landed three small fish. Ronkainen said on one’s first time out it is not unusual to miss 100 rises before hooking a fish.
On the third evening I was finally able to land a Russian brown trout. We had chosen to fish the lower Kuusinkijoki only a half-mile above the Russian border; it is a beautiful river that resembles the Madison. We only had to hike in a short way and the river was about two feet below normal, so it was easy to cross and fish the far bank as well. I caught the Russian brown at around 8:30 p.m. while I was fishing a long pool from the far bank with the water flowing from my left. I was casting with my left hand, using a seven-weight outfit with a sinking tip. The trout took one of Ronkainen’s flies, a size 6 black bodied Muddler tied with olive antron instead of deer hair.
On the next night my friend landed and released a fresh, six to seven-pound Russian brown on the lower Kitka just above its confluence with the Oulanka, and only a few miles from the border. We had to hike in about 1 1/2 miles, including a steep drop of about a quarter-mile at the end. The water flowed from our left and again there was cover up to the bank, making overhand casting difficult with a single-handed rod. We had to either cast left-handed or roll cast. We mainly fished two long and deep pools using our seven and eight-weight outfits with a sinking tip. Ronkainen also fished that day with a 13-foot Spey rod, with which he had no difficulty reaching all the water. My friend’s Russian brown took one of Ronkainen’s flies, a size 4 antron Muddler, all black with a pink throat. We caught no other fish.
On our fifth and final evening we opted for a day of traditional trout fishing on the upper Kitka, well above the falls at Jyrava. We geared up with our five-weight outfits and after a short drive we took a leisurely mile-long hike to the river. Like the lower river where we had fished for the Russian browns, this was big water. There was a steady rain and no hatches. Even though we were fishing for regular trout, we would have done better with our seven or eight-weight outfits. We each caught only one small whitefish during the first half of the evening.
After a 6 p.m. lunch we moved further upstream to a short stretch of the Kitka which connects two of the lakes along its stretch. Here my friend caught two browns of about 12 inches on a black Muddler, fished down and across. There are some very large brown trout of at least seven pounds in this stretch, and they were holding in the center of the river. We saw one caught by a spin fisherman and others rolling. They would have been much easier to reach with a Spey rod.
In summary, it seems that we beat the odds on this trip. According to Ronkainen, the Kitkajoki and the Kuusinkijoki each give up only about 350 fish during a season, and he had thought we would have only a five to 10 percent chance of each landing a Russian brown in three days of fishing. One factor in our success was certainly Tero Ronkainen himself. Although only 30 years old, Ronkainen is one of the premier fly fishermen in all of Finland. He began tying and fishing when he was only 10 years old. He has authored five books on fly fishing, including an exhaustive fishing guide to the Kuusamo region and the definitive book of fly tying patterns for Russian brown trout.
Ronkainen has been guiding for 11 years. In fact, he was one of the pioneering guides on the Kola Peninsula, having logged some 450 hours in a Russian helicopter. He stopped guiding nearly full time on the Kola after the 1995 season because of all the conflicts and unpleasantness now well-known to my fellow Angling Report subscribers.
Ronkainen now focuses on Finland and Norway, and he is the principal guide for package tours to Finland arranged through Denise Simone at Get Lost Tours (*). Over the three days before meeting us he had guided a party booked through Get Lost Tours for salmon fishing on the Teno River, which forms the boundary with Norway in northwestern Finland. When Ronkainen guides on the Teno he stays with his father-in-law, a lifelong Atlantic salmon fisherman.
Fishing with Ronkainen was a terrific experience. He was highly personable, always friendly and supportive, and immensely knowledgeable. He made the arrangements for our accommodations, but gave us a choice between staying in a hotel in Kuusamo or a cottage in a rural campground village called Juuma close to the Kitka River. We chose the latter, which proved to be a fortuitous decision because, like most sea trout, the Russian brown trout are light-shy and most of the fishing is done overnight under the midnight sun. On each of our five fishing days we would rise around 11 a.m., and after breakfast one of us would cook the dinner meal while the other prepared the pack lunch. We would put the dinner meal in the fridge to have on our return. Ronkainen would pick us up around 3 p.m. and we would return around 1 a.m. We would then have dinner and retire. It would have been difficult to obtain breakfast at noon or dinner at 3 a.m. in a regular hotel!
Our cottage was brand new and beautifully situated on a lake that was actually a stretch of the upper Kitka. The campground included a little cafe/store, although we made little use of it due to our hours. Instead, we simply purchased five days’ worth of supplies at a supermarket with Ronkainen on the afternoon of our arrival after he met us at the Kuusamo airport and took us to lunch at a local hotel.
Ronkainen also provided each of us with a backpack for carrying our supplies when hiking in to the Kitka and other spots, but good hiking shoes are a must. He also drove us about 120 miles to make our departing flight on our last morning. The total cost of our trip (exclusive of airfare) was $1,510 for five days of fishing for the two of us. Roundtrip airfare from New York to Kuusamo on FinnAir (*) costs about $1,100, per person, with a stop in Helsinki.
Our only disappointment was the lack of opportunities for traditional trout fishing. The unusual high temperatures and out-of-season water levels virtually ruined this for us. Had the conditions been average, this part of the trip should have also been outstanding. Overall, for those in moderately good shape, I highly recommend the trip. – John Lachin.