THE PONOI RIVER COMPANY
The Ponoi has long been famous for its outstanding operation in one of the most logistically complex parts of the world, and for the incredible Atlantic salmon fishing that has produced an average of over 6500 fish for each of the last five years. With an on-site staff of 32, ably managed by Roderic Hall, the Ponoi River Camp has drawn admirers from all over the world for the level of comfort, staff work ethic and professionalism that has been achieved hundreds of miles into the Russian tundra.
The Ponoi is located just above the Arctic Circle, at a latitude of approximately 67 degrees north. It flows roughly from west to east entering the Barents Sea on the south-east coast of the Kola Peninsula. The river is easily identifiable on any map since it is the largest on the peninsula. The length of the river is over 250 miles (400 km), and it originates in a large tundra plateau, which acts as a reservoir, tending to buffer sudden fluctuations in water levels. From the camp at the confluence of the Ryabaga River and the Ponoi, you'll be fishing a stretch of river about 50 miles (80 km) long to a point relatively near where the river enters the Barents Sea, plus a very good tributary, the Purnache. The Ponoi is a big river, varying from 200 to more than 500 feet wide (60-150 m), but with gentle gradient and easy flow.
The emergence of salmon fishing on Russia's Kola Peninsula has, for many, introduced, rekindled or enhanced the enjoyment of one of the most traditional types of fly fishing - that for Atlantic salmon. In a few short years the Ponoi has grown from an unknown to being recognised as one of the great Atlantic salmon rivers in the world today. Consistent across a long season, massive and improving runs, and with the aggressive nature of the fish, the Ponoi provides Atlantic salmon fishing in two of its purest forms: floating-line fishing and excellent opportunities to fish skated dry flies. It is rare to use anything more than a mild sink-tip whatever the time of year, only unusual or extreme conditions would require this.
For the well-seasoned salmon fisher or for the beginner, there is no better choice. The catch statistics reported in this site attest to this fact. These take into account guests from 10 to 91 years old, and from first-time fly fishermen to those who had "seen and done it all before". While there is no doubt that the Ponoi will challenge and duly reward the experienced and aggressive Atlantic salmon angler, we must also emphasize that there is simply no better place to learn to fly fish for Atlantic salmon and to build confidence and develop long-term skills from real-life encounters with these great game fish.
The Ponoi is fly fishing only and catch-and-release. It is a big but shallow, gentle gradient river with greatly varying character, providing the opportunity to fish the way you like under different conditions - wading, bank casting or boat fishing. Most of the fishing is with floating line, and it is a superior river for skated-fly fishing for Atlantic salmon. Depending on personal preference, both single- and double-handed rods are used effectively here as well as a cross-section of traditional Atlantic salmon fly patterns. Frontiers provides comprehensive pre-trip information to each registrant, outlining clothing and tackle suggestions as well as other important details.
Wide-body 17 foot (5.5m) riverboats with 55-hp Jet Mariner or 40hp Jet Mercury are used to transport rods to closer beats and provide a stable casting platform when anchored and dropped through pools.
You will have about eight hours of guided fishing daily, and the big home pool right in front of Ryabaga camp is always available for those who want to extend their fishing day. This terrific pool has produced as many as 200 salmon in a fishing week.
Did you know... ?
The Ponoi River, Ryabaga Camp
The incomparable Ponoi River is rightly proclaimed the most productive Atlantic salmon river in the world today. It is where the Shackleton management team cut their teeth; in the trenches with the crew creating a camp in the wilderness, as well as out on the river guiding. It is one of the few rivers left where catch statistics are recorded in thousands, and where even its slowest week's numbers might exceed an entire season's catch on certain Canadian or Scottish rivers. The prolific numbers at Ponoi are further complemented by the ever-increasing average size -- close to 40 percent of our annual catch is now over 10 pounds with fish caught every week in the 20 pound-plus range.
The Ponoi offers something special for salmon fishermen of every age and ability -- there is no better place to learn Atlantic salmon fishing and no better river to challenge and reward the expert angler. Want to catch fifty on a skated fly? Ponoi is the place. It's the best dry-fly salmon river we have ever seen. Physical limitations? They can be well accommodated and you don't have to walk far or wade if you prefer not to. And for those who are energetic and want to maximize fishing time, Ponoi has a spectacular Home Pool that is a real pleasure to fish and can be enjoyed "round the clock" (unlike Canada, Iceland or Scotland where fishing hours are strictly adhered to). You can literally lose yourself on the river under the midnight sun through most of the season.
But there is more to the Ponoi legend than great fishing. Shackleton's Ponoi River Company and leading outdoors travel agents, Frontiers, have created a unique wilderness tent-camp facility of the highest standard that has won both accolades from returning guests and the envy of most other Kola competitors. It is a logistically complex part of the world in which to operate but it happens seamlessly and efficiently at Ponoi. The staff is legendary too, with a work and service ethic that is unparalleled. Indeed, some guests return just to experience the buzz, the magical atmosphere and the "feel-good factor" that abounds at the Ryabaga Camp.
The highly skilled and bilingual international guide pool; the Western jet-boats; the supply lines of fresh produce, top meats and resulting gourmet cuisine; the warm hospitality of the domestic staff; our efficient teams in Helsinki and Murmansk, who are professional problem solvers; the annual improvements and upgrades to the camp; the insights and encouraging information about the river gained from an ongoing scientific project; the fully-stocked tackle shop; the full-time presence of a doctor and nurse in the camp; the massage therapist: these are just a very few of the many aspects that truly set the Ponoi experience apart.
At Ponoi, we strive to provide a gourmet dining experience featuring continental cuisine, seasonal produce from around the camp such as our salmon, wild mushrooms and blueberries, and some Russian flavours as well. We work with the freshest and best quality ingredients and overcome huge logistical challenges to serve outstanding meals in an arctic tundra environment. Most people are impressed and overwhelmed by the meal service on Ponoi and here is what you can typically expect:
Breakfast: Your choice of freshly brewed coffee (made from beans ground in camp), hot chocolate or tea is available in the dining tent from 6:30 a.m. onwards. Breakfast is served at 8:00 a.m. and consists of fresh fruit, juice, a selection of freshly baked breakfast pastries (scones, pain au chocolat, banana nut bread), hot cereal, eggs, bacon, ham, sausages, etc.
Lunch: Lunches are served picnic-style on the banks of the river or, during inclement weather, in one of the convenient river tents located on each beat. Those fishing the beats closest to the camp have the option of returning to the warmth of the Big Tent. Lunch consists of hot soup, homemade bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and a selection of chicken, turkey, roast beef, ham, etc. The sandwich makings will be complemented by a variety of salads, which include salmon salad, pasta salad, couscous, or coleslaw. Fresh fruit, candy bars and homemade cookies, baked daily, provide a "sweet touch." Each day you may order a selection of soft drinks as well as coffee, tea and any other beverage of choice.
Dinner: The evening meal begins with a selection of hors d'oeuvres, which will be served through the cocktail hour in the Big Tent and often features fresh salmon served as Sushi, homemade gravadlax and piroshki. The evening meal is a seated four or five-course affair, which begins with homemade soup followed by a fresh salad. On several nights, salmon is featured in addition to a main entrée, which may include lamb, reindeer tenderloin, chicken, filet of beef and other delicacies. These are completed by a selection of fresh vegetables, pasta, potatoes or rice. Freshly baked bread is always served. Desert is a highlight of dinner at the Ponoi ranging from homemade ice cream, to crème brulee and other fine deserts. A selection of red and white wines, and soft drinks are offered, followed by coffee and tea. And of course, a meal in Russia would not be complete without a toast of Vodka.
In summary, the culinary tradition at the Ponoi is almost as famous as the fishing itself, and each year we strive to fine tune the menu, introduce new creative touches, obtain the freshest possible ingredients and perfect our presentation.
The camp now consists of about thirty two staff, twenty Russians and twelve westerners. Our Russian staff has been with us almost since the start and although some have come and gone, we are extremely proud to have a fabulous team. We have five highly-skilled mechanics, five very experienced guides (some of whom guide in Argentina in the winter), two chefs (now highly trained with experience abroad as well as in camp), five long-serving camp staff, our massage expert, as well as our regular flight crews some of whom have become family - literally! Our western staff comprises seven guides, two chefs and the manager and assistant manager.
The Ponoi System
Of the many great rivers on the Kola Peninsula, perhaps the greatest is the Ponoi River. On a river that combines a prolific catch record with an ever increasing average size, Ryabaga Camp on the Ponoi has gained a huge number of loyal fly fishing guests who return each year to a place which has become an integral, inspiring and essential part of their year. The Ponoi River Company, operator of the Ryabaga Camp, controls the fishing rights on the entire Purnache tributary which runs almost due east (runs SWW>NEE) to meet the Ponoi main-stem. The Ponoi River boasts two prolific runs of salmon, of good average size, with bright fish entering the system throughout the season. One of the world's finest salmon waters, catches in past years have been as high as 14,500 fish to 316 rods over the course of an 18 week season. The Kola Peninsula itself is one of the true remaining wilderness areas on earth, and the forested Ponoi valley is set amidst the vast spaces and deep colours of an Arctic-circle landscape.
For many years this pristine fishery has been ably managed by the Ponoi River Company, with the main Ryabaga camp located at the confluence of the Ryabaga tributary with the Ponoi River, some 48kms from the river mouth. The guests of Ryabaga camp enjoy fishing on 67kms of water, more than can ever be covered in a week. However, this impressive stretch of river is not all that the Ponoi has to offer, and 2004 sees the inception of a new camp on the Ponoi main stem, fishing untouched water in the stunning scenery of the lower river at the Brevyeni tributary, beyond the range of Ryabaga Camp but no longer beyond the realms of possibility.
The Purnache River
The dream of many for the last decade will become a reality for a few in 2004 and following seasons. An entire private river for just four rods, the Purnache River is the secret gem of the Ponoi. The Purnache is large enough to test the most proficient caster to cover some of the pools properly, yet intimate enough to dibble a 'bomber' in the white water at the head of a pool and watch a fresh salmon attack from under your rod tip!
With over 20 miles of prime fly fishing water the Purnache river runs into the Ponoi less than two miles up river from the famous Ryabaga camp and has generally been fished by its guests or staff from time to time. In years past we have fished certain pools by helicopter and raft and others by walking and it is truly a dream river and a delight to fish. For the UK based fisherman imagine the Naver or the Cassley all to yourself with endless pools most of which have yet to be named. There is every kind of pool that one could expect from a rocky medium sized river. Cliff Pools such as Red Cliffs and Eagles nest and shingle pools such as White Spot and Seraphan. There are also countless runs and wonderful tails.
The Purnache is the ultimate attractive salmon river with plenty of fish and good sized ones too. Many of the larger Ponoi fish use the Purnache as one of their primary spawning tributaries so to catch fish up to 15lbs or even 20lbs is not uncommon. The salmon in Purnache tend be part of three very distinct runs.
Firstly, there are salmon that constitute the 'Fall' or Autumn run which begins arriving in August and keeps coming until the river freezes in late October or early November. When the ice breaks in the spring (May) and the water temperature rises, these salmon emerge from their static state and are joined by the remainder of the Autumn run which arrived at the estuary after the river had frozen and waited at sea until the spring thaw. As the thaw happens they emerge still bright silver, fat and strong and course up river. These salmon tend to be a good average size (8-20lbs) and become very aggressive as the water gradually warms.
Secondly, the Spring grilse run. The breaking of the ice and the arrival of spring generally heralds the arrival of a strong run of fresh grilse. Covered in sea-lice, these energetic, aggressive and scrappy fish chase and attack the dry fly like no other salmon and will be found often in the very fast water between pools and in the tail of the white water at the head of pools.
Lastly, the Spring/Summer hen salmon run. The Ponoi main-stem and Purnache tributary both enjoy a late spring run of large hen salmon, generally between 7 and 15lbs. These are elegantly proportioned fish that take and fight well.
The Ponoi River Company will operate a very small personal and private camp for four rods, with just three staff, (a manageress and two guides) looking after the four guests and camp. The camp will be simple but comfortable with good food and always with the attention of detail that Ponoi River Company has become famous for.
The Fishing Week
The fishing week is based around seven nights accommodation at the Purnache Camp and six full days of fly fishing. Guests will travel to Murmansk, the northernmost city of any size on the Kola Peninsula. From Murmansk, guests will transfer onto the Mi8 helicopter for the trip east to the Camp. After approximately 1hr 50minutes the Mi8 will touch down at the Purnache camp and guests will be welcomed by the Purnache guide team. The Head Guide will then explain how the week will work in terms of fishing, meals, camp facilities and so on.
The six fishing days will generally consist of two days of walked fishing, two days of floating down to your beat in a raft and being picked up by helicopter, and two days of being dropped by helicopter in the morning and floating back in the evening but this will vary according to conditions and where the fish are and every effort will be made to ensure six greats days of fishing, full of adventure and, we hope, salmon!
First thing on the morning of the seventh day, the guides will wake the guests for breakfast and load the newly arrived Mi8 helicopter with bags and rod tubes ready for the trip back to Murmansk. Guests will leave camp immediately after breakfast and travel back to Murmansk and their international flights back home usually able to reach the European city of their choice that day.
The Ponoi at Brevyeni
Expansive river that it is, the Ponoi varies greatly in character in its descent towards the sea, from gently sloping banks of pine and slick glides to towering cliffs, riffled runs and dramatic pools divided by rapids. It is at Brevyeni that the river is wildest - huge bends presided over by rock faces and stands of birch; steep sided canyons that join the main flow in calms of green shadow and pebble beaches that can be waded for hours. There is a wealth of exciting fly-water offering every imaginable kind of lie and structure, well-paced and of good depth. Shallow sections of rapids lie between classic pools and gravel bars, making it possible to successfully fish a variety of line types and flies, including the heart-stopping dry-fly action that has become a renowned aspect of the Ponoi fly fishing.
Best of all, it is at Brevyeni where the greatest concentrations of running fish can be found - pods of salmon pass through this part of the lower river in dense accumulations before diffusing into the length of the upper river, and the chance is here for once-in-a-lifetime days. The guide team of Ryabaga camp, who have spent time test-fishing Brevyeni in the past, recall days where the river was silvered by leaping fish as far as the eye could see and when the fishing exceeded their highest expectations. Access to this wild corner of the Kola Peninsula becomes a reality for the first time in 2004.
The Ponoi river is host to two distinct runs of Atlantic salmon, which enter the river at different times of the season, meaning that there are always good numbers of fresh fish running upriver towards a rendezvous with a well-presented fly. The first of these salmon start making their way upriver immediately after the winter ice breaks in early May, having been waiting in the estuary through the frozen months. This run is made up of many good-sized fish interspersed with pods of feisty grilse, using every available lie in the lower river as the fish make their way slowly upriver through the early-season water.
This run is followed in June and July by a run of pristine summer salmon - usually large hen fish and eager sea-liced grilse that chase a dry-fly for yards across the surface in the warmer water. These mid-season fish continue to fill the river throughout the summer months, until the first days of August, when the yellowing leaves and brisker mornings herald the arrival of the Ponoi autumn run.
Usually starting in early August, the autumn-run salmon continue to enter the river in good numbers until the Ponoi freezes over after the season's end. Generally of a high average size (8-20lbs+), these fish are extremely active and aggressive, wolfing down big tube flies and leaping continuously in their passage upstream. They are renowned for their muscular shape and hard fight.
The camp at Brevyeni is uniquely placed to have access to these runs of salmon as they make their first travels up from the estuary, often in dense concentrations, fresh from sea-feeding, sea-liced and hungry for your fly.
The camp at Brevyeni is to have its emphasis on high-quality fishing, good food and amenities in an exclusive camp setting, catering for a maximum of six rods. Brevyeni Camp will not have all the luxuries of Ryabaga but it will enjoy the excellent standard of service, and staff experience that has made the Ponoi River Company world-renowned in its field. Located amidst beautiful scenery on the river, the camp will be a supreme place to relax after the day's fishing is complete.
Guests will be accommodated in spacious American-made walled tents with permanent wooden platform floors, equipped with twin beds with mattresses, premium arctic sleeping bags with flannel liners and down pillows. These are the same tents featured at our Ryabaga camp and will be equipped with a woodstove. There will be a shower facility with 24-hour hot water supply and "long-drop" lavatory facilities.
The camp staff will consist of three fishing guides, a manageress, a chef and a helper, thus ensuring almost one-on-one personalized service, warm hospitality and attention to detail.
The Fishing Week
The Saturday-Saturday fishing week is based around seven nights' accommodation at Brevyeni, and six full days of guided fishing. Guests will arrive Helsinki on Friday, overnight, and then travel via Finnair's non-stop jet service to Murmansk, the northernmost city of any size on the Kola Peninsula, and the point of entry into Russia. After clearing customs formalities, guests will fly via Mi-8 helicopter east to the Camp, a flight of about 2-1/2 hours including brief supply stops, Jonathan and Sarah Boulton and their team will welcome you and explain how the week will work in terms of fishing meals, camp facilities and so on.
Fishing through the week can be done from either boat or bank, or a combination of both depending on what you prefer and the water conditions at the time. The experienced, English-speaking guide team will make every effort to tailor the fishing to suit your tastes, and are able to offer instruction in all aspects of salmon fishing, including Spey casting. There will be one guide and jet boat per two fishermen. Lunch will be served on the river each day, either on the bank or in a riverside tent depending on the weather.
On the morning of the seventh day, after an early breakfast, guests depart the camp and travel back to Murmansk via helicopter with ongoing flight connections to Helsinki and their final destination. Usually, guests are able to reach the European or American city of their choice that same day.
Equipment & Clothing
In the early season it is often the sunk-line and tube-fly that fish best, to a double-handed rod of 14-16 feet. However this is by no means the rule, and fish can be taken using most methods, including single-handed rods and dry flies as the water warms. In the autumn-run weeks at the end of the season the fish respond well to bright flies fished fast on intermediate or floating lines. A recommended general-purpose outfit might be a fourteen foot double-handed rod and multi-tip flyline (The Rio WindcutterTM is excellent) with 200 yards of backing and a selection of flies in various sizes, including tube-flies.
Throughout the weeks at Brevyeni there are likely to be sudden swings in the conditions you will encounter while fishing. Often dramatic changes occur during a 12-hour period that will involve adding or subtracting several layers of clothing. It is important to ensure your layering system accommodates all the extremes that you will encounter at the time of your visit. Extremes of cold may be encountered at the beginning and the end of the season, and at any other time temperatures can range from 30 to 90ºF (-1 to 32ºC). Rain is possible at any time.
What makes the Ponoi unique among all Russian Rivers?
The best time to go
Choosing when to go is dependent upon your personal objectives and fishing budget; costs correlate roughly to catch statistics. There are pluses and minuses to each week at Ponoi depending on weather trends, numbers of fish, fish quality, water heights and temperatures etc, and in the tundra these are difficult to predict.
The first five weeks of the season are when we see the largest number of fish caught. These are during some of the famous white nights with twenty-four hours of daylight. During this period, grilse run with the salmon although salmon-to-grilse ratio is about 2:1. Water and air temperatures can be colder and water levels higher so the river may not have as much feature as slightly later on in the season. The catch statistics range from 20 to 35 fish per rod per week and sometimes much higher.
The middle weeks of the season provide good value, the warmest weather, and tend to be the most productive for those who enjoy dry-fly fishing. Water levels are lower and wading and bank casting much easier and more interesting. These weeks produce 16 to 22 fish per rod on average, but many people have caught 40 or more. From late June, a new run of fish enters the river that we know as the true summer run. It consists of 9 to 14lbs mint-bright hen fish with some larger males. With them also run some more grilse. These are fantastic fish and are free-takers.
During the autumn run the numbers remain about even in the 20 to 30 fish per rod range but these are some of the largest salmon. The run begins in the very first days of August at the same time mosquitoes begin to disappear. By September, nearly half the catch is 10 to 20 lbs-plus, bright and fit with only a handful of grilse showing. As with salmon fishing anywhere, weekly results are greatly influenced by prevailing weather conditions. The Ponoi fishes reliably well throughout the season and, quite honestly, we feel there is no poor time to fish this river compared to any other Atlantic salmon river anywhere.
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