Bryan Smith is leading a team of whitewater kayakers on a month-long expedition to Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Funded by National Geographic’s Expeditions Council, the team will be attempting several source-to-sea first descents of previously un-run rivers, plus working with a diverse team of scientists, NGOs, and locals to help show how important Kamchatka’s river ecosystems are for the long-term survival of wild salmon. Robert Bart with the expedition team sent this dispatch.
I have stood on the banks of hundreds of rivers around the world, heard the roaring whitewater, peered into sheer walled canyons, and wondered if I was ever going to make it off the river. The river is a place I know and understand.
Yet as I stood on the banks of the Zhupanova river in western Kamchatka, I was at a loss to figure out what I should do. The rapid in front of me was small, just a riffle really, and downstream, I could see flat water until it meandered out of sight around the next bend. But here I was feeling as helpless as a guppie and glued to every word our guide was telling us.
“You see the water pouring over the gravel bar, and how it merges with the faster current? Right there is where you want to put your fly. Let it drift down in the fast water and I can almost guarantee you will get a hit.”
I may be a class-5 river man, but as a fly-fishing nymph, I was feeling a bit out of my element. Luckily, I was on the Zhupanova River, where the fish outnumber the people 100,000 to 1, and the rainbow trout grow into 10-pound monsters reaching more than 30 inches in length.
After two source-to-sea descents in Kamchatka, we had switched gears and met up with legendary fly-fishing guide and all-around good guy Ryan Peterson of The Fly Shop for a five-day trip down the Zhupanova River.
As kayakers we can typically look at a rapid and understand exactly where the water is moving and what our line should be through it. As a fly-fishing guide, Ryan could look at what to us appeared to be a still pool and see fish hiding behind underwater rocks, which create tiny rippling eddies for fish to rest in.
Learning to fish from Ryan was incredible because we both understood how to talk about rivers, but were each coming fat them from different perspectives.
A shallow gravel bar on a bend in the river creates an eddy on the inside of the bend. Fish called Dolly Varden like to wait in the shallow, fast-moving water for food to drop over the rocks. As a fisherman, when you find a bar where Dollies are hanging out, you can catch 15-inch fish all day long. Rainbows like faster water with big boulders that create mid-current eddies. Pink and Sockeye salmon make there way up the banks using small eddies to migrate upstream.
As we floated with the current we learned to look at the river as fishermen, not kayakers. We learned to cast a wet fly, and even ventured into the dark arts of spin casting when we needed to catch a dozen Dollies for dinner.
While I am not sure I will trade chasing whitewater for fish, I can understand the lure er, the allure!
On our second full day of fishing, Jeff hooked a massive ten-pound 30-inch rainbow trout. As he frantically raced down the bank trying not to fall on the slime-covered rocks and splashing water all over himself in a desperate attempt to keep the tip of his rod up and reel in the monster, I began to see how the perfect rapid and the perfect fish could satisfy the same intrinsic need in both kayakers and fishermen.
Hear Fitz Cahall and the team discuss the science behind the Kamchatka Project expedition in their latest podcast on Outdoor Research’s Verticulture site.
Photos courtesy Bryan Smith and Reel Water Productions