News from Above the Arctic Circle

Yes, yes, it’s been a while; I know. But sometimes it seems like between all the getting onto and off of planes, and into and out of boats, there just really isn’t much time to even write! Oh well. It is what it is. Over the past couple of weeks though there have been a few too many awesome adventures for me to fail in their relation (or, that is, in their relation to my relations). So from this desk where I am seated currently in the town of Naberezhnye Chelny, just West of the Urals, I will describe a recent trip that took me fishing up above the Arctic Circle.  This was in fact, by far, the furthest North that I have been yet in my life. And even closer to the North pole than I got to its southern brother when I landed in Ushuaia, which some of you may remember from the beginning of that long walk back in 2007. But after flying into Murmansk last week, and then driving NE from there another three or so hours, in the end I landed at 69° 3’33″ N, which, let me tell you, is up there. To reach this same latitude in Alaska you’ve got to get way north of the Brooks Range, like, right up into polar bear country.  My destination was Belousiha Lodge, an Atlantic Salmon operation on the Belousiha river, that had invited me up to have a look so that we might consider adding them to our soon to be published Hemispheres Unlimited catalog (look for a post on that upcoming project launch sometime in the next couple of months). I’d been invited up by the editor of Russian Fly Fishing Magazine, Gennady Zarkov, who I had guided down in Rio Pico several years ago and have stayed in touch with since and even written a few articles for here and there. He had been telling me about this lodge for a while, it being one of the few on the Kola that do not require a helicopter flight to access, and yet at the same time controlling the entirety of one of the best rivers in the area. So I thought since I had the time this year I had better get up there and have a look around.
Khadizhat was along on this journey as well, which was nice, since my Russian is unfortunately still far worse than basic and even though the guides at the lodge spoke good English I still had to get there. Get there we did though; and upon arrival we were welcomed warmly by the lodge owner and a very friendly, mostly English speaking staff. The lodge itself somewhat reminds me of Laguna Verde, the place I have been working with for years on Lago Strobel, simple, yet within the context of its spectacular surroundings really quite luxurious and exactly what is called for. Guests sleep in individual two-bed cabins, each with its own woodstove, and also have 24 hour access to the dining room, bathhouse, and sauna, all of which are exceptionally well built and offer amazing views of the valley and river below. We actually got in pretty late, only a couple of hours before dinner was to be served, but those who know me well won’t be surprised that I couldn’t wait, and twenty or so minutes later I was hiking down the canyon with Max, one of the lodge’s younger guides.  And well, it didn’t take long before I was hooked up solid and jogging…The Belousiha is a neat piece of water, with highly varied, classic structure and spectacular surroundings. It flows down from the high country where a couple of lakes form its source, and then into the Voronya River, which in turn enters the Barents Sea just a short distance further North. And it is full, even in August, of Atlantic Salmon. It didn’t take me long at all to get into fish, but it took a bit longer for me to get used to the idea that I was going after them with a five weight.  Salmo salar is really just such a classic fish. Everything from their perfect lines, to their anadromous lifestyles, to the way that their behavior in the rivers changes so drastically from month to month as they play out their yearly freshwater dance. It’s just an awesome species. And I’m into that. But seriously, a five weight? Max just nods. Apparently they fish eights in May and June, and sevens in July, but by August its five weights, twelve foot leaders, and, well, by my standards at least, tiny, tiny little flies…. Ok. I nod. As you can see from the photos though, I also managed to make it work. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Over the rest of the week I explored all the way upstream to the river’s source, and downstream to its confluence with the Voronya, and swung cute little jungle-cock-eyed fully-dressed salmon flies above the noses of fish after fish along the way.  In addition to the Atlantics I also caught my first ever grayling, which was really cool, and discovered that pink salmon, of all things, had been moved here from Kamchatka during the Soviet period! Why? Well, we don’t ask. In the meantime I also saw a ton of awesome country and interesting animals including moose, bears, and mink, plus a really surprising find – the Moor Frog! Who would ever have thought there were amphibians living this far North? Khadizhat actually found this little fellow, and according to what I have learned since she photographed him, they even hibernate somehow through the winters, living several years in their adult form as frogs! Along the way we also gathered and ate a huge variety of wild growing berries and edible mushrooms. The quantity of naturally occurring food throughout the summer months up there is literally astounding. Crowberries, blueberries, cloudberries, lingonberries,.. the list goes on and on, and the mushrooms are quite simply, everywhere.  And you gotta Love a girl who will be out flyfishing in the rain: And on the subject of mushrooms, (edibility in this case debatable), I also encountered my first ever Amanita muscaria, probably the most classic looking mushroom on earth, and also a powerful entheogen with a long and rich history of shamanic use. You simply cannot imagine my delight at having finally come across these amazing little fungi. Last summer I spent many a night sitting around the campfires in Kamchatka discussing Koryak religious practices with Velodya, our native guide, and he told me long and wonderful histories of his peoples’ use of the A. muscaria medicine (known to the Koryaks as “wapac”), as well as how it came to exist on Earth in the first place, having been spat onto the planet’s surface by their deity Vahiyinin (which literally means “Existence”) and then spread around the globe by a Raven who had discovered the mushroom’s powers after it helped him carry an entire whale back to his nest. The species is in fact widely ranging now, and is thought to have been used by lots of different cultures for a wide variety of purposes: all the way from being the pre-battle wind up meal of the Viking berserkers, to having been the “Soma” so widely mentioned throughout the Rig Veda of India, even to being perhaps the origin of the legend of Santa Claus and his red suit and reindeer which has carried itself so deftly into modern western culture today. So, really cool to have seen and been able to photograph this amazing mushroom.  But alas, now it’s back to the ol’ desk job for a while, putting everything together for the Hemispheres project I mentioned at the outset of this post. In the meantime though, everybody send me their news; I would love to hear from each and every one of you! And in the meantime, if anyone is interested in visiting this awesome destination, just drop me a line and I’ll get on it right away!  Otherwise, here’s a few more pictures:

I dare you to translate this word

Humpies?  Really?

Pairing up for the spawn

The numbers of the North

Yes, this is me in my element

And a final parting thought…

And Another Season Ends in Argentina

Well folks,… the fishing season down here,… has officially ended.   And as is always the case after such an event, the non-fishing season,… has fishily begun.  Yes.  Fishily indeed.  It was a great summer overall, low water notwithstanding.  And from the look of the rain and snowfall surrounding this writer’s current point of view here at the big bay window in Trevelin (I know it’s early, but just in the last 24 hours we’ve had over five inches) things are going to be back to normal levels in no time and we’re likely to have plenty of water for next summer. Rance and Travis had some photographers down in March and so I showed them around the Tres Valles venue, which turned out to be a lot of fun.  These are good friends of mine, and also the owners of Patagonia River Guides, whose programs at Estancia Tres Valles and in Trevelin, as well as up in the San Martin/Junin de los Andes region all appear in the Patagonia Unlimited catalogue.  Austin Trayser, Matt Jones, Rance Rathie, Guillermina Etchebarne, and Khadizhat and I had a great time of it those days, fishing and rowing and hiking and setting up shot after shot after shot.   And in the process I even ended up convincing Marcelo Acevedo (one of Rance’s auxiliars and a neighbor of mine from back in the Rio Pico days) of all people that my fishing Icaros actually work.  He had challenged me to try one, in fact, while Rance was nymphing the juncos bank one day as we waited on the lunch truck.  Bright sun, no wind, and no bite happening whatsoever – these were the conditions, that is until the last note of my Icaro – then Wham!  Rod went up and it was on!    Pretty cool really.  “Ahora te creo” Marcello said, “Ahora te creo”.  Other highlights of these few days were my own thirty inch brown, pictured here and now also on the homepage slideshow of Rance and Travis’ website, a lot of really good lunches, and a lot of just kind of lying around in the tall grass looking up at clouds while Austin and Matt messed with the cameras getting set up for a shot.  After the shoot we had several more very nice groups, including my last of the season which was really made up more of friends than clients – Matt Branton and his father Allen.  Even Negra got to tag along on this week’s worth of wading, boating, and getting hooked in the face, although she mostly just got tangled in the stripping.  Matti apparently has a thing about my face; at one point while I was netting a big rainbow for him on Lago Tres he spat Copenhagen all the way across it, and at another point down on La Panisa he buried the size #2 hook of his Great Pumpkin (a big orange articulated streamer fly) in it on his back cast.  God Love the guy though, he did keep catching hogs, and even rowed the boat sometimes!  Once it was over though it was over, and I had to accept that the hour had come to shift gears.  Luckily, there were apples.  Lots and lots of apples. When Trevelin was first settled by the Welsh in the 1880’s they brought more than a couple of apple trees.  At that time the farms which were being developed here were all producing wheat, not cattle, and once the mills were constructed the flour being produced in our region even began to win world fairs.  Once the population began to come in off the estancias and center up more in town though, the apple trees just kind of got left out on the old homesteads.  And since those same old homesteads are the kinds of places I usually hunt quail in the fall, I run across these trees quite often.  So Khadizhat and Caetano (a most excellent neighbor from across the way) went out gathering them, and have been eating and cooking and drying and juicing them ever since.  Khadizhat makes pies and cakes, I make apple sauce and cider, and we’ve both been dehydrating and juicing the living Dickens out of them to the point that I honestly wonder if one might not overdose on apple with such practices.  Alas though, the things are apparently healthy, in whatever quantity, and with the stores that now exist here it looks like we’ll be eating them still for a good long while.  In truth though we’re actually just now getting back to the processing of the harvest that got stashed beneath the stairs, since it got interrupted for a bit with a trip to the Amazon in Peru.  No new country mind you, just some more of the same ol’ same ol’ with our friends up there in the jungle, but this time also a lot more water than we are used to.  The river herself, which off the banks of our usual camp is already a mile and a half wide and normally a hundred and twenty or so feet deep, had come up thirty-plus feet above even her hundred year high-water mark, which totally flooded us out.  It’s truly hard to explain the scale of this river.  Actually, even for a guy like me who spends more days than not on a river of some sort or another, it is hard to even comprehend the Amazon’s scale, much less explain it.  Just to give it a try though for my North American friends who have never been there, we’re talking about a river that is over ten times the size of the MississippiThe area of the watershed itself encompasses more than 40% of the continent of South America.  I mean, seriously.  This is a RIVER.  And for folks like myself the fact that it is home to over two thousand five hundred known species of fish, a total greater than that of the entire Atlantic Ocean, is also of significant interest. Some ichthyologists even estimate that the actual total, if we get to know it, will likely be over six thousand. But anyway, I could go on for hours here…  Our usual camp, as I said, was flooded, and so we traveled inland to one of the old camps that I have spent a lot of time at over the years, and in fact even harvested plants from the property herself that we had been watching grow for a very long time. Plus we spent time in Iquitos proper, and took some nice photos as usual of the stray dogs and locals, not to mention my old adopted son Charlie, the monkey of Belen, who Sunay and I bought/adopted last year.  It was a great trip overall though, and now we are back in Trevelin and looking out at the snow capped and rapidly whitening Andes and wondering what happens next.  So in other words the question now,….

A Month in India with the Mighty Mahseer

India….You know, I would like to have thought that with the year I’d done already prior to this recent trip, a bit of time chasing Mahseer in the Himalaya would be just one more footprint on the path.  I mean –  rivers, flowing water, fish, boats, tents; it’s my usual world, right?  Nope!  India is a whole nother ballgame, and one that I think it would take a good long while to move from the astonishing experience that it is for me to the realm of simple “trip” or “destination”.  After almost a month of travel in India this time (I had been there once before) I still couldn’t really even pretend to understand most of what I saw going on around me every day.  There is just too much of it. And it is far too diverse. Between the dozens of religions/cultures and the hundreds of separate sects and types of environments within those, all of it built into a density of interaction unlike anything else I’ve seen on Earth, the scale of the thing is just too great. Which,… is awesome!  In the truest sense of that word’s definition.Arriving in Delhi it was easy to see that a lot has changed there since I flew in on other business back in the winter of 2002.  That city is on the move, and in an uphill direction, at least in terms of economics and polish.  But like so much about Indian history and culture, it is still a totally confounding set of contrasts that for the most part I can’t even begin to figure out.  So I didn’t hang around there too long trying.  Instead I headed North, and East, until I had reached one of the headwaters of the same river system that forms the Yamuna, which flows through Delhi in a condition that can literally bring a lover of rivers like myself to tearsBut up in the mountains bordering both China and Nepal she is still beautiful, and my bungalow at Misty Dhillon’s lodge was situated directly above a hole full of perfectly visible and excitingly heavy Mahseer.  Bingo, no?  And as such the fishing began, first on rivers, then on a combination of streams and lakes, some of which were on the borders of the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve where the lodge itself sits proudly.  This amazing piece of property offers excellent opportunities for wild tiger observation, as well as some of the best birding I have ever seen anywhere in the world, and to be honest I felt right at home there.Mahseer are really cool fish.  Imagine a cross between a grass carp and a bonefish, but with an appetite and feeding habits more like those of the Muskie or the Taimen.  And they fight!  Even a five pounder can easily take you into the backing for all that you are fishing 16 pound tippet when you hook him.  Misty’s operation is top notch, and I am happy now to announce that we will be adding it to our catalog with the next Patagonia Unlimited website update.  He’s been outfitting for Mahseer now longer than anyone else in the country, and from the quality of the lodging, to the incredible food, to the well thought out array of non-fishing activities which are offered, everything about the operation is impressive and adds up to a top notch experience in a part of the world I think all should experience at least once in their lifetime.  I fished both his lodge and some of the float trip/camping environments, and to be honest there was hardly a difference in comfort between the two, which is to say that the camping trips are extremely well thought out and executed, with all the creature comforts of a top notch accommodation.  Those of you who are interested contact me right away for available dates and details.And now, my friends and family, it is time to make an introduction.  Meet – Khadizhat.  This is a girl who came into my life last June while I was in the Peruvian Amazon, and while how that happened is an interesting enough story in its own right I will save that for the campfire when we are together in person sometime.  Suffice it to say here though, the connection stuck.  By the time I went to Russia things had already gone past the point of commitment, and when we met back up in India the connection and commitment did nothing but continue to grow.  Khadizhat accompanied me on the Mahseer exploration, sleeping in a tent for the first time in her life and adapting herself to the use of a fly rod as though it was the most natural thing she’d ever done, and then when the fishing was over we traveled together seeing sights and experiencing the country in amazing symbiosis.  I figured it was sort of a litmus test, really, the idea of bumming around one of the most difficult places to travel on Earth for a few weeks in the form of a first date; but the test was passed with flying colors, and I have to say that the roots of this relationship run deep.  I expect you’ll be seeing a good deal more of the girl here in the years to come.  But as far as this trip goes suffice it to say that sights were seen, elephants and camels were ridden, ascetics and sadhus where communed with, ceremonies were performed, and a good time was generally had by all involved.  I want to express my enormous gratitude to my new and very good friends Tegbir, Ishneet, and Arjun for all their amazing hospitality, and to say that sooner rather than later I hope to be back in this amazing and stimulating place. Looking out across the Himalaya.Mahseer on the fly.Bidi with a Sudhu.One awesome fishRowing some locals across the riverFor now though I am back in Argentina and ramping up the season.  The fishing has been awesome so far and the water levels are good, so for the next few months I am going to be in my usual spot behind the oars.  Everybody send me an email when you get a chance to let me know how things are going in your part of the world, or better yet, just come down and have a visit.  I hope to be talking with you soon!