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How do I describe the trip of a lifetime?
As the author John Kauffman said in his book, “You come to the place on its terms.” The Kamchatka fisheries are so wild, so immense, that aside from what we do know—which is a robust fishery of huge, healthy rainbow trout—there are still several rainbow trout subspecies that have not yet even been identified due to the remote location and lack of public access. The potential of this land is truly untapped.
My son Tim and I travelled together to Kamchatka in search of adventure and incredible fishing. We stayed at the Zenzur Lodge (theflyshop.com/kamchatka) which sits on a stone, birch-forested hillside over the Zhupanova River. The lodge is 10 miles above the river gorge on the edge of Kronotsky Volcano National Park.
Our goal was the giant Russian rainbow trout, known to be the largest fresh water trout in the world, but in our time on the Zhupanova we would also see a large number of huge sea run Dolly Varden Char; Silver Salmon, often called Coho Salmon; Chum, or what the native Alaskan’s called dog fish; and a fish unique to just this area of the earth called a Super Kundzha—also a member of the char family. In addition to our travel days, we had six full days of world-class fly-fishing.
The flight from Houston to Anchorage seemed to take too long, so it was a wise move to have booked the flights in first-class—also making sure that my Marxist son appreciated the trappings of free enterprise.
We had a night of little sleep at the Millennium Hotel in Alaska followed by a departure at oh dark thirty the next morning on Yakutia Airlines to the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula—a landmass larger than California. Our arrival was soon followed by the usual Russian hassles, “Your papers please.” Then waiting an hour to get through customs, then waiting for luggage, and then waiting again for the MI-8 helicopter for six hours at this weird, former military base now owned by the Russian company that owns the lodge we are using.
Upon arrival, the lodge was bigger than I expected, and other than Tim and me, there was only one other fisherman. The other three open spots did not get filled that week. Our other lodge mate was a really nice guy who said he was a journalist from Santa Fe, NM named Jack (more on the ever humble Jack later).
The first full day of fishing was up river about 15 miles with the only American fishing guide named Greg Kennedy, from The Fly Shop in Redding, CA. He is first class, really knowledgeable, a great instructor, and very patient with old men like me and young fly fisherman learning the trade like Tim.
We fish streamer patterns mostly. Tim had a white flesh pattern fly and I used a purple egg sucking leach pattern, also known as the lawyer fly (apologies to my attorney friends). Despite the water being a touch off-colored due to a recent storm, we both managed to catch about 20 fish each; including the largest silver salmon I have ever seen and a 24-inch rainbow trout. Tim also caught the biggest rainbow of his life measuring 23 inches (but they get bigger as the week goes on).
During the day we saw five brown bears and had a nice lunch riverside cooking a salmon caught only five minutes earlier, incredible! I asked Greg why don’t we eat the rainbow trout, and he said, “Are you kidding, they are my business partners, they are the reason you guys come here!”
We returned back to camp at 6pm to indulge in our new routine, which included an hour sitting in the natural hot springs inside a cabin (remember, we’re at the foot of a volcano, with geo thermal activity all around), drinking 12-year old Scotch on ice, and discussing the day. This is followed by another over-the-top meal at the lodge. They feed us way too much; fish at every meal, pork, sausage, cheese, bread, caviar, organic vegetables, and Russian beer, if so inclined. Then it’s shower and off to bed.
On day two we fished with the Russian fly fishing guide, Nazar Garchenko, a seven-year veteran on this water with knowledge of fly-fishing that would match some of the best Alaskan guides I have met. But Nazar is a peg above the competition, because he owns the coolest dog in the world; a breed of husky called Leika in Russia, whose name was Kuchuk. Kuchuk never met a brown bear he liked, and he barks and nips at them to scare them off like a sheepherder dog on steroids. Kuchuck is my hero, plus he really loves people and was very friendly with both Tim and me.
I did not think it could happen, but it did, each day was better than the previous. I would give you the boring details that only a crazy fly fisherman like me would enjoy, but let me give you the highlights instead:
It turns out that Jack the reporter was holding out on us. Humility is a very rare trait in a fisherman, but not good ol’ Jack. First, he caught the largest rainbow of the entire season! He caught not only one, but two 33-inch rainbow trout! Then Greg asked him whom he wrote for besides the newspaper and he said some TV shows. Then we all figured it out, “You are that Jack! Jack Handey, the writer and co-producer of Saturday Night Live fame. Damn Jack, you wrote Deep Thoughts!” For those unfamiliar with the brief, often ridiculous deadpan one-liners of Jacks that scrolled up the screen to a backdrop of over-the-top spa music back in SNL’s heyday, I have to share four of my favorites:
If I ever get real rich, I hope I’m not real mean to poor people, like I am now.
If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is “God is crying.” And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is “Probably because of something you did.”
I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.
To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there’s no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other.
He also wrote five books and was a regular writer for the New Yorker magazine. Quite the resumé.
Aside from Jack’s successes, we all had one hell of a week. Tim was able to sight cast to a 24-inch rainbow in gin clear water (his newest record), and I caught about six trout on a top water using a mouse pattern.
The number of bear encounters was up to ten or twelve a day. Like people, we learn to read their body language and can tell if there is trouble on the horizon or just routine salmon on the menu. Jack saw a couple small families with two or three cubs.
One day, Nazar was surprised by a bear and yelled for Kuchuk, without time for the dog to find him, he fired off a flash bang (giant fire cracker) and the bear ran away with Kochuk hot on his trail. Tim had to back down into the river to allow the bear and dog to run by him, about 15 feet away, YIKES! While hiding down in the river, Tim proceeded to catch another 25-inch rainbow trout—his new and final record trout of the trip. I immediately joined him, and landed a nice 21-inch rainbow by the time he reeled in the 25-inch brute. It made for a great “double-up picture”.
Fishing on the final day, Tim got tired and went to take a nap in the boat while Greg and I fished one more spot. After a while, I yelled at Tim to wake up and get the camera. I had just hooked into 30-inch rainbow trout. Not only was it 30 inches long, but it also had a girth of 18 inches. What a fantastic fight it was too; with over ten jumps in the air and Tim managed to take some fantastic pictures.
The final night included a campfire with more food, more Vodka, and Nazar even broke out his guitar. He sang some traditional Russian songs; sad songs. Tim did some Beatles tunes and some of his own songs, and then we broke into the blues. It was a night to remember.
My final thoughts: This was an incredible experience to share with my son. We got to romp around on what can only be described as one of the most beautiful places on God’s green earth, and we shared this amazing fishery with great guides and great company. I guess, if I had to describe the trip of a lifetime, that it would go something like that.
The cost of the week-long Zendzur Hot Springs Lodge package is $6,995.00 USD per person.