It’s been a long wait (thanks Covid) but finally the Fly Fishing Nation film, 4 Weeks of Daylight, is now exclusively available on streaming network Fishing TV where you can watch the full hour-long film (there’s a free 7-day trial should you want to test it). A shorter 17 min version of the film is also part of the IF4 official selection.
Following reports of two phenomenal, lost and completely private Atlantic Salmon fisheries on the northern coast of the Kola Peninsula in Russia, the film tracks a crew of professional fly-fishing pioneers led by our favourite Croatian/German pornstar Stephan Dombaj of Fly Fishing Nation as they put in the hours to determine whether the rumours of these two rivers – southeast of the trophy laden Yokanga and to the northwest of the prolific Ponoi – were true.
To interview Dombaj we roped in Nic Schwerdtfeger, a South African based in Norway who guides for the Norwegian Flyfishers Club on the Gaula river.
Nic: OK, first off, what an amazing adventure you guys were on. Of all the salmon destinations I have yet to fish, I think Kola just got bumped a little higher up the list.
Stephan: The Kola Peninsula is one of the high churches of fly fishing if Salmon fishing is your religion. I know that people get all weird when we say that, but Atlantic Salmon reign supreme – they have no time for this all let’s-collectively-die-after-intercourse-behavior. Such a beta-male flex that is. No, these things are resilient and tough. Kola is an evergreen: Because it’s always been prolific, it has always produced numbers and fish, it’s always been an adventure.
Is the Kola one of the best places to catch Salmon? Yes, without a doubt. Is it one of the best fishing places to fish? I don’t know – very subjective. While I tremendously enjoy the place, I also like the thrill of swinging my fly over that potential monster fish in Northern Norway, or the camaraderie in Scotland the UK and Sweden. Salmon fishing is a bet against the odds, and every place that allows you to quench your thirst for a bit of gambling is epic.
“Atlantic Salmon reign supreme – they have no time for this beta-male flex let’s-collectively-die-after-intercourse-behavior”
Nic: The LIDAR tech and mapping you guys were using in the film, do you see there being a way to utilise this practically for saltwater destinations too?
Stephan: The technology is a combination of a variety of factors. Originally designed to measure depressions in fields for irrigation plans, measuring water depth and bottom structure was one of the many positive side effects. The technology is pretty straight forward on solid ground. Working with water is infinitely more difficult. Surface deflection, reflection, clarity and overall color can affect the reading tremendously.
Wherever you need to track, trace or identify changes in depth – this technology has a space. Wherever one needs to measure aggregation points of sediments, piling up to potential new keys or islets, this technology has a space. Erosion tracking as well. Yes, I am certain, it can be used for a variety of things.
We used this technology to get a grip on a system that was way to large for us to trial and error. Migratory fish swim a river up or down, not the left or to the right. Rivers are restricted in terms of fish movement, as opposed to flats or coastal fisheries. It was crucial to identify potential obstacles and structure that would hold fish in place. This is where the drone technology did us a huge favour. It worked flawlessly. We hot-swapped 12 large batteries on an Inspire 2 per day. The drone flew all day. Gave us updated real time renders of the area, processed the near IR over night. Depth analysis for breakfast. Helicopter flyouts to check the results. Fish to prove that we were right. Perfect.
Nic: Let’s talk numbers, it looked like you guys were there slightly later in the season (judging by the colour of the fish), what are we looking at for fish per rod per week? +-
Stephan: We fished early and late. June/July and September/October. Both rivers do have Osenkas (Fall run Atlantic Salmon). Some of the silver fish in the spring were overwintered Osenkas. Followed by spanking fresh fish, that would color up in early July… the fall was a mixed bag of Old Osenkas from the fall before, Colored summer fish and fresh Osenkas. A wild mixed bag and one of the reasons why the Russian North East Coast is so special. Fresh fish are entering the systems throughout the season (with certain peaks of course). The fish color up faster in low and warm water. That’s why the Osenkas stay silver over winter, because the water is cold. Osenkas means fish that live/swim under the ice.
Depending on the season and the ability of an angler, you would average out on two fish per day. Lucky anglers with the right skillset have had mornings with 10 fish. We have had two guys catching 34 fish in two days… Salmon fishing is like that. Every attempt to average it out will inevitably lead to disappointment. The best of the best will learn what it means to suck… eventually.
Nic: When does the season run?
Stephan: May/June/July: Overwinter Osenka and fresh Summer-run (typically from mid June on)
September/October: Osenka Run
Nic: One thing I wished we found out at the end of the film was if the result of the scouting paid off? It sounds like the fishing was top notch, but do all the other factors tie in to make it a viable option to fish in the future? If that’s the case, what’s the plan for these rivers?
Stephan: The plan was to shoot a sequel. History has shown that the whole thing was turned into a commercial grade operation that has operated their first soft-season in 2021 (delayed because of Covid) The original grand opening in 2020 was completely booked but postponed because of Covid. A lucky few were able to get in and the feedback has been phenomenal. As you can see, the rivers are beautiful and wild… the right size for single and double handed fishing, paired with potentially big fish. The largest fish last season was a 32-24lb cock fish – 115cm caught on a small salmon double in a pool that can be easily covered with a 590.
Nic: I’m a big fan of off the grid, sometimes solo, batshit-crazy adventure fishing missions. What are your 5 items that are ‘make or break’ for a week in the middle-of-nowhere with no electricity, water, etc?
- Sawyer Water Filter.
- Flintstone Firetstarter & a knife (one of those sparkly rods).
- Hatchet … fucking love myself a hatchet.
- Walkie Takie and a Garmin/Spot.
- A shitty little cattle pot with Turkish Mokka powder. Need that.
Nic: I see you guys fished a mix of double and single hander rods. If you were to go back and can only take one single hander setup (rod, reel and line) and one double hander (rod, reel and line) what are you taking?
796-5: A 7weight 9,6ft rod paired with a full single handed spey line and a variety of tips. Killer!
8136-4: A 13,6ft 8weight rod rigged with a Rio Scandi Short and a variety of tips.
All I fish these days.
Nic: When you guys come back to Norwegian Flyfishers Club in the future, what has fishing in the Kola taught you and what will you do differently to fish the Gaula better?
Stephan: We have fished the Kola Peninsula before we have fished NFC, actually… and right after as well. I have a longer history of Salmon fishing than the other guys in the team and when they decided it was time for their first run, we had to do it in Norway. There’s something about catching a fish at NFC and on the Gaula. For the longest time, the NFC beats have been a stronghold for German anglers, so you had to measure yourself against anglers from your home surf and turf.
Again, people will hate me for that, but if you can only catch fish in Russia and Iceland, you are fishing tourist. And there’s nothing wrong about it at all, but if you are serious about your fishing you should strive for more variety and different environments. Russian Salmon do enjoy a fast fly when the temperature is right. Downstream mend and strip. Something gnarly on the surface. Just for the hell of it. I love hitching… I have caught all my fish at NFC during my last July trip on stripped Sunray Shadows when the water temperature just went up from 9 to 10 degrees.
Russia has taught me some things that would have taken me longer to learn in other places, because I have had more time to fish it and subsequently more fish to my rod. In-between working and guiding in 2021, I managed to catch 89 Salmon with about 10 additional fish that I dropped after hookup. That’s including weeks that I didn’t fish and then periods in-between work where I fished 2-3 days straight.
- People often fish the end of the fly line, not the fly. Fish the fly… Important one
- A tide-fresh fish loves a fast fly. I have had fish on hitch flies when the water temperature was just 4 degrees. These fish came in with the tide and were covered with long tail sealice. The ocean is always colder than the river up there… and they came in hot.
- Don’t bore a fish with a fly. If you know that there is a fish and you don’t get a reaction, change the fly or speed. Don’t bother educating the fish what he doesn’t want to take.
- Don’t let your fly hang in there, ever… Nothing turns salmon more off than an intimated fly that floats down the river as a result of a slack line presentation. I know a lot of good steelhead anglers that struggled with Atlantics for that very reason. If your leader doesn’t straighten out and you cast straight into a spot, the few seconds the fly sits in the face of a fish without moving away from it can be enough to make it’s fish dick go flaccid for ever. Same goes for an upstream mend… Different in cold water of course.
- You need to surprise a salmon, not convince it. Very true.
- Rest them… Don’t hammer a pool. If you fish the right speed and the right shit, 90% of the fish will fall for it in the first ten cast on the spot. After that, your chances decrease exponentially with every cast.
- All these things that I have learned are garbage without context. Fish a lot, fish even more… eventually you will fish with confidence… and that will catch you a hell of a lot of fish. Stay creative, experiment and try. We are fishing against the odds, so we are bound to lose anyways…
Nic: Obviously both rivers fall under the Kola Reserve. Do you think that the reserve is well managed by Russian authorities? Is there any fish farming in the vicinity? Are the rivers under more threat than others because of their location? I guess I would like to hear about the conservation aspect, since the river is still wild and unfucked with, what is being done to keep it this way? Is the fishery being managed correctly?
Stephan: The Kola Reserve manages three rivers: The Lumbovka, the Kachkovka and the Olenka River. A part of me wishes that the Kola Peninsula was more accessible to a broader audience but the truth is, the logistics render these fisheries into an expensive task to operate. History has shown it a million times over in the area, and most prominently on the other side of the white sea, the Archangelsk region… if people have access to these rivers, they will poach them.
If no one is there to protect them, even if it’s for a selfish reason like catching and releasing Salmon on the fly, people will enter the area and poach them to extinction. The last scouts to fish the Lumbovka river in the early 2000s reported 66 nets in the river and virtually no fish. The removed the nets and they started catching fairly large fish… not many but some.
Now that these rivers are privately owned and managed, they are protected and the fish come back. Every guy that owns or manages an operation, plays an active part in conserving these magnificent fish. Every traveling angler who fishes these places allows these lodges to continue. Everybody wins, because quite frankly… Anglers are the only people who care about wild Salmon in wild rivers. Even if it’s just because they like to catch them, but it’s still better than nothing.
Many lodges collaborate with scientists to preserve the stocks – read up on the Ponoi river field study about the redistribution of Salmon Smolt and Parr that results in a lower mortality rate etc. The Russians are leading the way, the rest of the scientific world is largely reluctant to work with the data though. Again, I might catch fire, but a lot of data that’s been accumulated in Russia is being researched again by western scientists – for egos, names and publications, while the Salmon numbers are on an all-time low…
Nic: Stephan – If you had to marry any of the boys on the trip, how would you propose to Justin Miller?
Stephan: With a bottle of Gin, a pack of Cigarettes. And they lived happily ever after 😉
“Salmon fishing comes with tunnel vision… People do a lot of stupid things when they are horny for fish or girls.”
Nic: Guiding in Norway for Atlantics during our season, we fish a lot at night, especially during the hotter weeks, how did you guys find the ”night” fishing over there? Better than the day? More sketchy because of bears?
Stephan: Same. Night time, if you want to call it a night, is the key when the water drops low. Mainly because direct Sunlight is the worst that can happen. Water levels can be low as long as the temperature doesn’t spike. If that happens, fish the coldest hours. Bears, yes, I respect them but I don’t want them anywhere near. A majestic animal that can chew your face off. Salmon fishing comes with tunnel vision… People do a lot of stupid things when they are horny for fish or girls.
Nic: Yvon Chouinard, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paulo “The Hoff” Hoffmann… Your crew was absolutely top notch. And I really like the way the team was put together. If you had to put together a ”Dream Team” of saltwater anglers to go do an exploratory trip in a remote saltwater location, who is the 5-man team you got?
Keith Rose-Innes, I would rob a bank with him, just because he can make it sound like fun. Needless to say, this guy has seen more GT and saltwater fish than most people on a level where he just gets to enjoy it without the need or tension of ever catching another one to be happy and content. Also the most organised backpack I have ever seen.
I’d take Paulo Hoffmann, not because we fished everywhere together, simply because he’s incredibly talented and a good person. The dude is a stick and a good mixture of talent and luck. I have only seen him stressed once… on a permit trip in Cuba where our guide got his serious voice going and Paulo was on the verge of his first permit. Apart from that, chill.
I’d also take Tobias Park, for the same reason. The guy can fish, he can tell a story, he’s fun to listen to, very little ego, good with the camera and a man that does it for the right reasons.
Cullan Ashby. Talented guide and overall incredible dude with a bright future. A beast on the flats.
Edward Truter, because he’s uploaded a video where he talks about an ingrown toe and how to fix it on location. The guy looks like he spends a lot of time fishing and GT bumming. This level of expedition experience is needed.
Nic: I’ve been following Henrik Mortensen’s activity of late, after he had an unreal week on the Gaula fishing basically only bombers. Did you guys try many dry / riffling techniques in Russia? Success? No bueno?
Stephan: Yes, Hitching and Bombers. Underrated. More of that, but don’t tell anybody… Once they know what’s on, the fish will adapt.
Nic: After a trip like that, it seems like you’re pretty wrecked. I’m fucked after a week of hard guiding, so I know it’s extremely tough work. Where do you guys go to fish just to relax? Just a chill outing to go fish with no goal of creating content?
Stephan: Anything really. With the right crew, it doesn’t matter. We have some real big browns in our backyard in Germany – they are mind-boggling. Perfect thing to get your head straight. After a billion of mosquitos and Borsh for weeks, I usually hang out in south Croatia and watch the sun rise to a Turkish Mokka. I might even grab a rod and catch some fish off the beach or spear an octopus for dinner.
Nic: Fly of the trip?
Stephan: Always the Sunray Shadow.
Nic: Where next? What do you do after a trip like that? What can we expect to see in the future from FFN? More feature length content ?
Stephan: People’s attention spans are shrinking. Featured length films are great but also tedious to edit and watch. More educational content, because I see some IG influencer anglers casting like shit. While you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy fly fishing and it’s totally fine to suck as long as you enjoy it. But if you preach to the masses out there, you better have some substance. No one gives a damn if I catch another fish, or Paulo… or any other girl or guy out there. If I can take something away from their adventure as well, I am willing to listen.
Watch 4 Weeks of Daylight here on Fishing TV. All photos c/o Fly Fishing Nation.