- By: Kirk Deeter
- Photography by: Tim Romano
Lilla Rowcliffe sees a promising seam on the other side of the river, where she’s quite sure a massive Argentine sea-run brown trout is holding. She reads water as well as (or better than) any angler on the planet, having fished the world over, from above the Arctic Circle, to the jungles of India, to here, amidst the iron-gray whorls and austral sweeps of Tierra del Fuego’s fabled Rio Grande.
In this particular situation, however, Lilla knows she cannot wade across the river on her own. So she hitches a piggyback ride on the broad shoulders of her guide, who ferries her through the chop, then sets her gingerly on a gravel bar. Once there, as his hand vise-grips her wading belt to keep her steady in the bucking current, she snaps her Spey rod to attention, unfurls a crisp cast, mends the line and, with a flash of poetic justice, hooks and eventually lands that chrome sea-trout she had anticipated. Lilla is 87 years old.
While Lilla’s story may be amazing, the even more interesting backstory revolves around the guide. Those shoulders and that hand that held the wading belt belong to Max Mamaev, a soft-spoken, ever-smiling Russian who may, in fact, be the best fly-fishing guide in the world, though most American anglers have never heard of him.
Part of the reason for this relative anonymity is that Max specializes in waters that scant few anglers are privileged enough to fish: on Russia’s Ponoi River, as head guide at The Ponoi River Company’s Ryabaga Camp from May into October; and from January to April, nearly 10,000 miles to the south, as head guide at the equally elite Kau Tapen Lodge, on the Rio Grande in Argentina. Mamaev is no flash in the pan. Now 46, he’s been guiding the Ponoi for 19 years, the Rio Grande for 16.
I had the rare opportunity to fish with Mamaev on both rivers this year. When I asked (early on) what attracted him to, and kept him in, the guiding world, he deadpanned, “Guiding is the work I hate to do the least.”
But with a little deeper reflection he added, “I genuinely love to fish. When I have a break in the guiding seasons and I go home to St. Petersburg, I spend many of those days fishing (mainly for perch). Now I find I like to fish through others. I like the challenge of figuring out how to get people to catch the fish of their dreams.”
While the rivers he guides are legendary for offering shots at “lifetime fish,” connecting the dots is never as easy as it sounds. The Ponoi can be Atlantic salmon nirvana, pulsing with runs of bright fish. There, anglers can hook dozens of leapers in a single week, and skate flies to induce takes that will haunt their dreams for years after. But weather and water conditions can shut down the bite on a whim.
In Argentina, the big browns in the Rio Grande will indeed eat your fly (at least sometimes). But the trick can be getting that fly in front of the fish through a 30-mile-per-hour crosswind with a Spey rod.
High-dollar clients don’t pay for excuses. They expect results. And Mamaev has an uncanny knack of being able to deliver them—or at least coach his sports into delivering for themselves—no matter what. That’s no small feat, considering he chases wild, migratory fish, and the client base can include anyone from world-class Spey casters to complete newbies who have seldom held a fly rod at all, let alone a two-hander. As Max described, it’s the anglers who are convinced they’re the former, when in truth they are closer in skill to the latter, who often present the greatest challenge.
Max’s prowess is so profound that he is often the subject of après-fishing cocktail conversations at other well-appointed lodges around the world. To wit, Mamaev’s name brought the following remarks one recent evening at Raudholar Lodge, in the Laxàrdalur (Salmon River Valley), in northern Iceland: “Having fished many places around the world with many different guides, it’s easy for me to say that Max is number one. In fact, I’m not sure who number two would be,” said Peter Buchanan, former CEO of First Boston.
“The thing about Max is that you know when you go out on the water with him, you are going to catch fish, at least most days, even when the conditions aren’t at all favorable,” added Cheryll Patty Buchanan. “And if you don’t catch fish on a guide day with Max, you are at least sure that there weren’t any fish to be caught there at all.”
“Fishing with Max is considered the treat of your week, the day you most look forward to when you arrive at the lodge and look at the guiding schedule,” added Dr. Eliot Herman, a professor of plant metabolism at the University of Arizona. “I caught the largest Atlantic salmon of my life when Max was guiding me on the Ponoi, and I know many anglers will say that they caught their best fish ever when Max was guiding them.”
Over the course of watching him work FIRSTHAND on the Rio Grande in January, then on the Ponoi in June, it was immediately apparent to me that Mamaev operates leagues beyond the average 20-something American trout bum whose guiding bona fides include a CPR certification card, a rubberized long-handle net and a semi-useful liberal arts degree from a small Midwestern college.
Mamaev is the ultimate innovator, and he learned most of his lessons through trial and error. His roots in angling are more humble than most. Mamaev grew up in the Soviet Union, when his native St. Petersburg was Leningrad. As Leningrad was hardly a mecca for sport-fishing tackle, Mamaev had to improvise to chase a fledgling passion. For example, he fashioned his first set of waders from a chemical warfare military suit.
“We always considered Max the ‘magic man’ for his ability to come up with things and systems that helped people cast and catch fish,” explained Oliver White, now the owner of Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas, and formerly a guide with Mamaev at Kau Tapen. “Max was messing with line tapers, and patching together shooting heads and sinking tips, long before the flyline companies started making production lines and kits like they do now.
“I remember one season when we ran out of a particularly hot fly pattern, and then the guides ran out of the hooks to tie them on,” White added. “We knew we wouldn’t get another shipment of flies or hooks for days or weeks, so Max took some large streamer hooks, and used gloves and long-nose pliers to stick the hooks into the gas flame under the hot-water heater in the guide shack behind the lodge. He broke the temper of the hooks, then reshaped them into the size we needed to make those flies.”
Mamaev is also a patient and pragmatic teacher, able to convey advice in three languages (Russian, English and Spanish). Another trademark is poise, even in the chaos that often follows hooking a 20-pound trout or salmon. He’s firm and direct, but never harsh. Most important, he can home in on the slightest, most subtle adjustments, be that ironing out a small hitch in your “Snap-T,” teaching you a new knot or repositioning your presentation by a foot or two to cover more productive water.
I found myself frustrated late one evening on the Rio Grande, having made hundreds of casts with nary a tug, when Mamaev fixed a problem that I had covering runs and swinging flies.
“You move too slow,” Max said. “You want to cover a run methodically. If you go too fast, you will blow through the fish and spook them. But if you move too slowly, your fly sweeps back and forth, and they eventually see or at least feel it coming. You want your fly to just appear, so the fish has to react and strike.”
He pointed to a rock at the tail of the pool.
“I am sure there is a fish in front of that rock, and you can catch it from here.”
“Tell you what, Max: I’d like to see you catch that fish,” I said. “Please show me.”
As taking the rod can be considered a cardinal sin among many guides, Mamaev hesitated and smiled. I insisted.
Then he wound up one cast, shot the line across the run and swung the fly in front of the rock. And hooked (then landed) the trout. It weighed 14 pounds.
He didn’t have to say anything as he released the fish and handed me back my rod. He just smiled. I had learned the greatest asset a fishing guide can have is the ability to earn unconditional trust.
I will never doubt Max Mamaev. And if ever you have the opportunity to fish with him—which I would rate as an experience equal to or above catching the fish you’ve traveled to the far reaches of the world to cast to—you, too, will know exactly why not to doubt.
Kirk Deeter is the editor of Trout Magazine and an editor-at-large for Field & Stream.