Autumn Ponoi salmon

After a truly incredible week in Russia last season, Tarquin Millington-Drake argues that the autumn-run salmon on the Ponoi are in a league of their own.

After a very busy summer with so many interesting opportunities and people to meet, I was short on energy. However, there was one last project I had committed to. Having wavered, I headed to Russia to help with the autumn filming of various information chapters about the fishing on the Ponoi. This was my 20th year on Ponoi and would be my second visit of the season. There is something about the autumn fish that just gets under the skin and lures you back year after year.

The week before, I had received a message from my mate ‘Lucky Peter' who was a guest fishing that week. It read as follows: “Quick update before breakfast. Fishing very exciting. Lots of bright fish in the system and very powerful. Quality of fish is amazing. Many sea-liced with full, long tails. A 12-pounder will take you through the backing twice or more and necessitate a 100yd walk to get it to the net. Many fish in high teens and a couple of 20s for the team. I estimate we are around 450 on day four. I personally landed 13 yesterday. We hooked 27 and got 22 to the net. It's like June numbers, only the power and beauty of fall run. Looks very promising for you next week. Travel safe. LP”

This was music to all ears as LP does not, and never needs to, exaggerate.

Saturday morning came and as we headed to the airport, the team were given the news of a new record for week 14. 703 fish had been landed to 19 Rods (one sadly had to drop out at the last moment), an average of 37 fish per Rod. They had some nice stable weather and rumour had it, similar weather was forecast for our week.

I will not bore you with a blow-by-blow account, but suffice to say, there were 21 Rods (a special favour allowed an old client to fish his own boat) with 932 fish landed in total – an average of 44 fish per Rod, making this week among the very best autumn weeks ever on the Ponoi. Having been very involved with the record years of 2002 and 2003, I am absolutely delighted that it seems those incredible days are returning. I had expected them sooner as all the scientific signs are perfect, and I am over the moon for the new owners who had yet to see the Ponoi really on fire. But on fire it certainly is now.

I had a chance to chat with the two scientists in camp and they confirmed that the river is in perfect shape and the current sea temperatures are excellent for salmon going to sea. Interestingly, there is a huge run of rather unique grilse diluting the bigger salmon and it is these fish that are swelling the numbers. I asked the scientists if this huge run of one sea-winter fish this year would likely mean a massive run of two sea-winter fish next year and they grinned and nodded! 2013 might be the all-time record year on Ponoi. In Norway, if we get a good grilse year, we hope for a good salmon year two years hence. It seems to work that way. Watch this space.

Although I would spend much of the week fishing, I was not part of the 21-Rod team. Rather, I was there to add much of the detail to our filming efforts, as well as to try and capture the essence of the autumn fishing. We spent most mornings working and recording the narration for each section (the banya or sauna acted as an excellent sound studio), which meant maximising time on the river when we could.

The grilse and small salmon were spectacular. They were the fattest fish I have ever seen, averaging in the region of 6 or 7lb. They were like bonito or small yellowfin tuna, most with sea-lice and strong as anything. The majority took me into the backing, jumped and were a real handful. But it was not the grilse we had come to film as they are not representative of the typical autumn run – in a normal year the grilse show up in late September and are not quite as fat. We were there to film the classic autumn fish which average between 10 and 12lb – the real standard fish is an 11lb hen or a 14 or 15lb cock. These fish are truly spectacular.

Before I continue with some pretty bold declarations, I feel I need to set out my stall for the basis of what I have to say. This year I fished Norway, Iceland, Canada and Russia. I have fished all the Russian rivers in their prime over the years, except for the Umba, but specifically Kharlovka, East Litsa, Rynda, Varzina and Yokanga.

I have fished in Norway since 1989, 22 of those years on the best of the best, a river aptly famous for strong, very large fish. I have fished Iceland since 1989, fishing something like 17 different rivers over the years. I have also fished some wonderful rivers in Canada over the past 20 or more years, and have also fished a fair bit in Scotland. I know that there are many who have done a great deal more than me, but I hope you will agree that I am in a position to have a fairly creditable opinion when it comes to Atlantic salmon.

I am not going to tell you that an 11lb autumn-run Ponoi fish is stronger than a 30lb salmon – how could it be? But I will stick my neck out and claim that such a Ponoi fish is unquestionably the strongest, most acrobatic and fastest salmon of any I have caught. Unless you go to the Ponoi and hook these incredible fish in decent water conditions (by which I mean clear and of a reasonable temperature), you will never understand why I, and those who make the pilgrimage each year, have such high regard for these fish.

In Norway, when we catch a fish, I guess because of their size and the fact that catching one is a real event which involves and requires teamwork, effort and thought, the occasion is celebrated. Time is taken to have a drink, toast the fish and just think about it for a while and reflect before resuming fishing. I believe we should do the same with these extraordinary autumn Ponoi fish, because catching them is a real event.

Very few just come to the net, most tear off, cartwheeling and rattling yards of backing off the reel and are then seen jumping again in the distance. Almost without fail, you are left in utter disbelief when you realise the relatively diminutive size of the fish that has caused such a fuss. These fish don't just punch above their weight, they are a law unto themselves, each one an event to be savoured. I truly believe that no salmon fisherman's world is complete until they've experienced the autumn run on the Ponoi.

During the course of the week, fishing a 14ft, 9 weight rod, an intermediate line and bright flies such as Green Highlanders, Max's special tubes, Micky Finns and Ally's shrimps – big flies tied on plastic for the most part – I landed 49 fish, all wading beautiful fly water. I spent quite a bit of time running down the riverbank after these fish whilst chuckling away to myself. One fish on Friday afternoon was my 100th fish of the season – It took hard, jumped a few times and then tore off downstream as if it would never stop. It got so far away and I was so out of touch with it, I actually picked some wild blueberries as I walked the few hundreds yards after it. They were delicious! I finally landed the fish and just sat beside it, cradling it in the water marvelling at its beauty and strength. She was about 11lb and had taken the fly deeply. There was no blood so I cut the line and left the hook and she went on her way. It was the end to my salmon fishing year.

I adore my time in Norway, one of the most historical and exciting rivers to be a part of; I am fascinated by the intimacy and visual experience that is Iceland which always draws me back; and I have to say that wading the Ponoi in the autumn for these incredible fish must be added to my list of ‘must have' salmon fishing drugs. They don't need to be big, they don't even need to be 15 or 20lb, they are just something that has to be experienced to be believed and deserve to be among the most revered and respected Atlantic salmon strain out there.

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