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The Tugur Chum Eaters
Chasing 90-pound trout in the Russian Far East. An excerpt from the original story, appearing in the Fall 2016 issue of The Drake.
The first thing I noticed was the wood. It was everywhere. Logs sticking up through the gravel, lying on the bottom in the middle of the river, piled up on shore like beached rafts. It looked like a tough place to land a fish—or take a swim. Logjams waited on the outside bends of every corner, the current diving beneath them. Death traps. I took a step backward and thought; maybe I don’t need to wade so deep.
I was fishing a tributary of the Tugur River, a remote watershed 500 miles northwest of the city of Khabarovsk, deep in the Russian Far East. We were after big trout. Really big trout: a race of Siberian taimen that can grow to more than 100 pounds. We’d caught some smaller taimen earlier in the day, and they looked just like those I’d caught in Mongolia and on other Russian rivers, kind of a cross between a bull trout and a musky. But in the Tugur and a handful of other rivers in northeast Russia, the taimen grow large enough to attack and swallow an adult salmon. In late summer they gorge on chums and pinks, propelling them far beyond normal size for the species.
Alexander Abramov, a Russian steel magnate and obsessed taimen fisherman, had invited me and my colleague, Polish spey-fishing guru Mariusz Wroblewski, to the Tugur to find out if giant taimen could be caught on a fly. We had arrived at a private camp the day before, having flown from Portland to Seoul, Korea to Khabarovsk, Russia, followed by a bumpy five-hour drive west to Komsomolsk, a city of 250,000 located on the banks of the vast Amur River. Our plan was to meet Abramov at a small airport the next day.
In the morning, we climbed aboard Abramov’s Mi-8 helicopter for the hour and a half flight northwest to the lodge, over one of the last great wildernesses of the Pacific Rim. I opened a window and clean, cold air pushed against my face. I could see an endless landscape of gentle hills covered with gold, orange, and red: larch, birch, tamarack, and the occasional dark green copse of spruce—the fluorescence of fall colors, before winter swept down from the Siberian north. Now and then we glimpsed untouched rivers spread across their floodplains in a labyrinth of channels. Along their banks were piles of logs, thrown into huge tangles by the high waters of spring.
When we reached the Tugur, Wroblewski and I could see that the river was high. A typhoon had been parked over the valley for four days and a steady downpour had brought it up almost four feet. He looked at me and shouted over the roar of the helicopter, “We’re screwed…the river is in the trees.” Then, after another look: “At least it doesn’t look muddy.”
After loosening up in the sauna, we gathered for a dinner of borsch (beet soup), moose dumplings, smoked salmon, fried grayling, and forest mushrooms. Each course required toasts and vodka shots. We made a plan for the next day: to avoid the high water, we would fly upstream to fish a clear tributary to the Tugur called the Munican.
The next morning the helicopter dropped us on a gravel bar along a clear stream that flowed quickly through a brilliant yellow forest of birch and larch. It was a cold, calm, late fall day, with mist rising off the river. As we landed, a Steller’s sea eagle, with white shoulders and orange beak, almost as big as a condor, flew away from shore. We unloaded our gear and were soon floating downstream, systematically fishing each pool, side channel, and piece of pocket water…
…continued in the Fall 2016 issue of The Drake, at a fly shop near you.
Find out more about the Tugursky Nature Reserve featured in our slideshow below and on Facebook.