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  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
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Francois Desvoys was not having the trip of a lifetime.

The young French martial-arts expert and gym teacher had saved up to accompany legendary salmon angler Pierre Affre to a river some contend represents the best chance for a truly big salmon: the bronze-tinted Kola, near Murmansk in Russia, and namesake of the remote peninsula east of Finland.

Each year many 20-, some 30- and even a few 40-pounders are landed there, and encounters with 50- to 60-pounders are related in the hushed tones of salmon devotees. An old brakinier (Russian for poacher) whom everyone regards as reliable swore that he had seen a behemoth well over 70 pounds.

Francois felt he was ready “fer ze beeg one.” He arrived in Murmansk unscathed, his baggage did not. No fishing rods, waders, flies, clothes, not even a toothbrush. Camp manager Frank Larsen came through with the necessary gear. Francois set out the next day with high hopes.

“Dommage!” All to no avail. He had flogged the water all day under the increasingly desperate tutelage of his non-French-speaking guide, Alexei, without so much as a tap.

Although the midnight sun shone brightly, in the cabin of Francois there was only doom and gloom. To intensify that pain, the fishing had been good on other beats, topped off by a magnificent 33-pounder that had come to the hand of Icelander Petr Hans Petursson, with an even bigger one lost by his partner, Siggie.

My greeter, Syeva, and i pull off the highway in the eerie, amber-gray light of the overcast Arctic midsummer night and enter the forest. The lodge is quite impressive, well lit, comfortable, roomy and best of all functional, with its covered verandah high over the river where cigar-smoking, scotch-sipping anglers relax, laugh, scratch and trade lies all the while watching the midnight patrol—those who haven’t had their fill put in two more hours on one of the river’s best pools. For once the lodge builders got it right.

In the morning, a slim, well-built young man with the face of a French paratrooper emerges from the cabin opposite me. It is my partner, Francois, and he is working hard to keep up his spirits. He is brushed aside by the diminutive but irrepressible Pierre Affre—whom I have not seen for about 12 years—leaping to grab my hand. I remember reading an article about him in Sports Illustrated more than 30 years ago, written by William Humphrey. He called Pierre the best Atlantic salmon fisher in the world. Pierre, who is even more ADD than I am, is attempting to catch up in mere seconds, running through a machine-gun volley of common acquaintances, living and dead: Jack Hemingway, Sacha Tolstoi, Nick Lyons, Roger . . . faster than I can process them. And he is, I reflect, speaking in his second language. “Thees ees eet. The Cascahd. Do not use anything else until you try eet.” He presses one into my palm, a lovely, double-hook black-and-gold number.

I wonder about our beat, Laparskaya. The first part is riffly, bouldery fast water and Alexei places me there; I wade up to where the seam peels away to form a chute, and almost go for a ride: The current is unexpectedly swift, the bottom unsteady.

I finally get my feet set and prepare to cast. A couple of deep breaths as the reassuring pull of the current on my waders calms me. I look around at the tall pines and shimmering birches lining the shore. Barring the arboreal species, this river, the clear tinted water, the riffles, the breadth could be New Brunswick’s Miramichi.

Nothing is happening in Francois’ raft below me. Stepping downstream after each cast, on my 10th a salmon splashes, lunging for the fly, and misses. This startles Alexei, who is well positioned to watch the performance. I put the fly back to the fish. Nothing. I change to a tiny Blue Charm. Another jarring rise and this time a slight pluck. I am determined to release line next time but nothing happens. I change to a Green Highlander—another rise, throwing the fly even as I release the 18-inch coil of line in my hand. No cigar. Three more rises with no takes. I rest the pool while pondering my fly box, deep in thought, not realizing that my guide, Syeva, is approaching in a raft to join me. Too late. He has crossed where the fish lies. Game over.

We head down Laparskaya to a rather dismal looking village with at least one house on the riverbank—a decrepit ruin—that suggests a former grandeur, but the place smacks of shattered dreams and hopelessness, reminiscent of a Canadian Indian reserve. There is a footbridge to whose pylons we see the remnants of a net attached; Alexei cuts it away just as a posse of Mohawk-coiffed, camo-wearing, sour-looking males resembling extras from the movie Road Warrior makes its way over the footbridge, glancing our way. But there is no confrontation. We fish past the bridge from the gravel bar, then after a shore lunch on a verdant bank brimming with wild flowers, we anchor on the edge of a great stillwater.

I make many casts with no result. Francois has given up and is chatting with Alexei (I’m not certain how, since he speaks no Russian, Alexei no French). Then I see a fish rise. They are here, and I recall the stillwaters my English friend, Ted Hughes, and I fished on the River Grimersta, on the Hebridean isle of Harris and Lewis. We’d cast single-hand rods with a Muddler Minnow as a dropper on a six-inch piece of mono, and a tiny wet fly on the terminal end of the leader 18 inches below. Casting short into the pondlike deadwater, we stripped in very slowly, then lifted the rod and line, sending the fly to the surface just before we cast again. That’s when the fish would strike.

I decide to do the same here. I set up, watched by a dubious Syeva. On my first cast, I get a pluck, but come up empty. On my second another more vicious take. On my third another take. This exasperating sequence repeats itself for some time. Then the pool goes dead.

On the way home I try to cheer up Francois, who is being brave but clearly wondering whether this trip is going to move from misfortune to disaster. The feeling is exacerbated when we learn the fishing has been good elsewhere. Dana Sturn has had a career day on the Reindeer beat, hooking 11 and landing six fish into the teens.

At 9:00 p.m., after a hearty meal, Francois and I are rowed across the river, which is bathed in warm evening sunshine. Salmon are rolling the length of the pool. I can hear the gang chatting, the clink of glasses on the verandah as we unfurl our lines in the still evening air. This is my favorite time on the river, but the stillness brings hordes of mosquitoes. I don’t like to use DEET, which is anathema to fly lines—and, some say, a long life—but Francois is frantic. They threaten not only to suck him dry of blood but to suffocate him by going up his nose.

I have a grab on a Cascade wet fly almost immediately, but the fish is gone before I can set up. I wade down toward a lodge awash in sun, watching swallows plunder insects, and terns cavorting along the river. I am approaching the end of the pool, as well as my 11:30 pickup time.

Since I am catching no fish, I shall please myself. I put on a #4 Montana Stone dry fly with a burgundy body given me years ago by legendary steelheader Harry Lemire. I am enjoying the evening once again, the rhythm of casting, following the fly swimming cheerfully around downstream and lifting the line to make the figure eight. Francois has, however, given up trying to fish and is vigorously swatting mosquitoes, obscured by a dark cloud that may be bugs or merely pathetic fallacy. As I shrug, I am shaken out of my reverie by a heavy take and I am into a salmon heading downstream. Finally! Ten turns of my reel and he is off. Darn! I have blown my first encounter, so I check my hook, file it and cast again right below the lodge. Again I am into a fish that cartwheels downstream. About a 10-pounder. I reassure Francois that tomorrow is his day. He is not so certain; his luggage has not arrived.

The next morning we have the monica pools, perhaps the loveliest, most generous beat on the river, and I decide I won’t even throw until Francois has landed a fish. I needn’t have worried. One nanosecond after we get to the beat, he cuts across the backwater, casts and is into a fish. Not a big fish, but a bright salmon, and the relief on his face is monumental. Too soon to relax, however. He roars back into the pool, casting furiously, and suddenly disappears. He has walked off the edge into a deep hole, and is being swept downstream. But he is a strong swimmer, and within 100 feet he is pulled from the river by a frantic Alexei, who immediately strips off his clothes and offers his trousers and waders to Francois.

Francois can do no wrong. Before I even get a take, he has landed four more fish. And it is definitely not my day, though I lose one grilse and have several takes in the heavy current where the stillwater accelerates into the V of the throat of Lower Monica. We move several hundred yards up the stillwater and above it, into the straight run that spills down the rapids. On the left bank, Francois takes another fish.

By the time we return to camp, Francois has landed eight salmon. I have landed none, and looking in the mirror I confront an even more goat-like visage than usual. That night we are back on Home Pool, and it is still Francois’ day, as he lands the first two fish. I fatalistically accept my lot and go back to a dry fly. Ignition! I am fast to a fine 10-pounder that is applauded by a few in the gallery, and as I land my salmon I feel my forehead clear of any capric protrusions. Water temperature is 61.3 Fahrenheit. I am sticking with the dry fly, I tell myself. “Tomorrow is your day,” Francois reassures me.

Net Beat is the end of a long, broad stillwater; its tailout pours over a lip that becomes a Class IV rapid a kilometer long. Unfortunately, the sun is beating down by the time we get there and though we flog the lip, no fish rise to our flies. Francois goes out in the raft with Alexei while I cast from shore. They soon give up in the blistering heat. I spot a fish come over the lip. “Cast there,” I shout to Francois. He lays it out perfectly, and it is still his day. The fish takes and he lands the only salmon of the morning.

Intrepid head guide Sergei runs the raft through daunting rapids while I discreetly walk the path. The bottom is a riffly area that soon becomes another stillwater; we anchor among the rocks, but nothing seems to be moving as I make short casts and watch my line unfurl among the boulders. I suggest I try my dry fly and Sergei, at wits’ end, says “Why not?” I am immediately into a fish, then another and another. It is a bonanza on the dry. Fish after fish strafes my fly. Within an hour I have landed four salmon, lost several more, had countless takes. The anxiety has washed away. I can enjoy the river, Sergei’s witty company and Russia itself, my fragile manhood restored.

Back at camp, reports are that it has not been a banner day, but then again, I was the only one who attempted a dry fly. Francois and I go out again that evening, and he immediately hooks a 12-pounder that he quickly brings to shore. He heads way up above me to the foot of the rapids. Everyone else has gone to bed early for a change, so we have the river to ourselves and though Francois is wearing a full-head mosquito net the bugs don’t appear too bad tonight. I still have on the same old dry fly. And it works. As I work my way down I hook and land a couple of small fish. The only thing lacking is a truly big fish. Perhaps I should switch to a Cascade or Green Highlander wet, but what the hell, I enjoy watching my dry fly and it is the only one that has paid off. I choose to finish the last 50 yards of the run with Harry’s Burgundy Stone.

My fly skitters downstream, then . . . a fugue state: A huge bow wave materializes at my fly and an immense form rises and comes down on it. Within seconds I am into my backing. I cannot follow for, at the bottom of the Home Pool, the water deepens. But now a chrome-plated, impossibly heavy-bodied fish, shimmering in the evening sun, tailwalks up the pool. It is the largest Atlantic salmon I have ever hooked, ever seen, well more than 30 pounds, perhaps 40. Returning to earth, I begin shouting to Francois (thereby, I find out the next morning, rather uncouthly rousing most of the camp from their slumber). I definitely want a photo of this one, and we are in a trough. There is no beach to land him on, no net. After his eighth leap, the fish starts to slow down. I begin winching him upstream out of the very deep water. Ideally, I should be alongside him, but I can’t wade down to him. Finally he begins to come in. I can see his four-foot-plus length through the clear water. Francois is still some distance away. I begin leading the great salmon slowly to shore. Thirty feet from the bank, he shakes his head violently and is gone. Francois has just arrived: “Ehor, Je suis désolé, I am so sorry.”

“No problem, Francois, the only thing missing is a photo. I can live with that.”

The week produced 254 salmon landed, many more hooked. The best of the season so far. But the next week, I learned when I got back home, produced more than 500, a record for the river.

Ehor Boyanowsky wrote North America’s first modern-day article on double-hand rods, for this magazine in the late 1980s. He served as a director and president of British Columbia’s Steelhead Society for 26 years. He divides time between a home near Horseshoe Bay and a cabin on the Thompson River. His steelhead/Atlantic salmon fishing memoir of weeks spent on the Dean River and in the United Kingdom, with British poet laureate Ted Hughes (Savage Gods, Silver Ghosts), was shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize.