AT­LANTIC SALMON SNOB

MATT BREUER FOUND A HOME FOR SEV­ERAL SEA­SONS MAN­AG­ING A STO­RIED FISH­ING CAMP ON RUS­SIA’S PONOI RIVER

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By REID BRYANT

Rus­sia’s Ponoi is a jewel of a river in a supremely re­mote place. It’s also where guide Matt Breuer be­came an At­lantic salmon snob.

At­lantic salmon an­glers are, by na­ture, glut­tons for pun­ish­ment. My friend Matt Breuer is not. He is, how­ever, a glut­ton for all sorts of other vices, not the least of which is glut­tony it­self. If there’s a 24-pack of Pabst Blue Rib­bon in your fridge that needs fin­ish­ing, Breuer is your man.

Dur­ing a re­cent visit to my home he vol­un­teered that he’d taken in­ven­tory and found him­self the proud owner of 41 top-shelf fly rods. Forty­one. When pressed, Breuer as­serted with a shrug that “only an ass­hole” would own any fewer than 25. An as­cetic Breuer is not, but a salmon fish­er­man he is — and a very good one at that.

At­lantic salmon an­glers fall into a pe­cu­liar sub­cul­ture of fly fish­ers who, with rare ex­cep­tion, ex­pend ex­tra­or­di­nary amounts of en­ergy not to catch fish. Dis­mal catch rates are al­most a badge of honor, and, oddly, the least suc­cess­ful salmon an­gler is fre­quently con­sid­ered the most stead­fast. In the fire-lit study of a Scot­tish sport­ing es­tate, one ruddy-faced gent might al­low, I went two years on the Tweed with­out

rais­ing a proper fish, where­upon a fel­low sport, quaffing his brandy and ad­just­ing his as­cot, might re­ply with a smug, Ahhh, only two? I went three full sea­sons on the Tay with­out so much as a touch.

But then if ever a heart­break­ing sym­bio­sis ex­isted be­tween preda­tor and prey, the At­lantic salmon fills its role to a T. Salmo salar, like nearly all salmon, boasts the pe­cu­liar­ity of re­fus­ing to feed upon en­ter­ing the spawn­ing cy­cle, when, within cold flow­ing wa­ter, fly an­glers try to catch him. Un­like the Pa­cific salmon, which du­ti­fully per­ishes af­ter the her­culean ef­fort of the run, Salmo salar re­turns to tor­ture the masochis­tic an­gler year af­ter year, shun­ning beau­ti­ful flies that re­sem­ble noth­ing in na­ture but cost a king’s ran­som.

To bas­tardize the oft-em­ployed maxim, most At­lantic salmon fish­ing is fish­ing to its core, as catch­ing only sel­dom en­ters the equa­tion.

So how is it pos­si­ble that my friend Breuer — the bar­rel-chested, bull-necked, glut­ton for glut­tony who squirms like a sec­ond-grader when forced to sit still — came to be an At­lantic salmon an­gler? Well, in a sense, it was a three-stage process. First, he as­sumed that most At­lantic salmon purists were dogged slaves to tra­di­tion who’d sooner be caught with their “plus­fours” ’round their an­kles than go af­ter their quarry with any cow­boy con­vic­tion. Sec­ond, he the­o­rized that if a benev­o­lent God put sil­ver-scaled fish into rivers, then that same God set him upon His good Earth to catch them. Third, he brought his con­vic­tions to bear: Breuer lo­cated the one river on the planet where At­lantics could be caught hand over fist and made him­self a fix­ture on its ragged banks.

Sev­eral years back, af­ter a sto­ried ca­reer guid­ing an­glers on the world’s great rivers, Breuer be­came man­ager of Ryabaga Camp on Rus­sia’s Ponoi River. “Af­ter all,” Breuer told me over din­ner, not long af­ter ink­ing his first con­tract with Ponoi River Com­pany, “only an ass­hole would try to catch an At­lantic salmon where there aren’t any.” His cal­cu­lus was, and re­mains, ir­refutable.

In 2009 Breuer had re­turned from a win­ter spent guid­ing in Tierra Del Fuego, Ar­gentina, made a whirl­wind tour of friends’ couches and fa­vorite bar­rooms, and bor­rowed my big blue duf­fel in prepa­ra­tion for a move to Rus­sia. “I’ll get this back to you,” he said, writ­ing his name and ad­dress in 8-inch let­ters down the side of the bag. “And I’ll send some pic­tures, too. By this time next week I’ll have bro­ken a rod on a 20-pounder — just you wait and see.”

The fact that I’d seen him break rods on 6-inch brook trout was clearly a moot point. I dropped him off at New York’s John F. Kennedy In­ter­na­tional Air­port, where he dis­ap­peared into the queue at the

check-in and, there­after, into the hin­ter­lands of the eastern Kola Penin­sula.

Hick­ory Dicks

The Ponoi River, like its fish, is some­thing of an enigma. It is a broad, shal­low river of cop­pery wa­ter that rises in the sod­den cen­tral Kola, well above the Arc­tic Cir­cle. It cuts a ragged swath nearly due east through a vast un­in­hab­ited tun­dra and at length emp­ties into the White Sea. Each sum­mer and fall, a tremen­dous run of At­lantic salmon en­ters the Ponoi and its ma­jor trib­u­taries to spawn — and to lay waste to a long­stand­ing angling false­hood. It is a fact that the av­er­age Ponoi an­gler lands, in an av­er­age week, more true salmon than many devo­tees catch in a life­time, but such re­sults do not come with­out a cost. It takes an ef­fort nearly as prodi­gious as the fish’s own to mon­i­tor, nur­ture and pro­tect stocks in the Ponoi. It’s a rare jewel of a river in a supremely re­mote place, and a ded­i­cated group of ad­vo­cates has stopped at noth­ing to make it the most boun­ti­ful At­lantic salmon fishery in the world. That said, very few an­glers are lucky enough to fish it, and they do so at great ex­pense.

I have yet to hear of a dis­sat­is­fied cus­tomer. In Breuer’s first sea­son at Ryabaga, be­neath the 24-hour day­light of the Arc­tic sun, he man­aged to break sev­eral rods on tail-walk­ing salmon. None was a be­he­moth, at least not in com­par­i­son to the fa­bled 30-plus-pounders of Nor­way’s Alta or Gaula, but among the numbers were some broad-shoul­dered brawlers push­ing 20. And he caught them in quan­tity. An email Breuer sent that first sea­son was

so rid­dled with vodka-in­duced syn­tax that it was nearly un­read­able, at least all but the cap­i­tal­ized postscript: “CAUGHT TWELVE BE­FORE LUNCH. 15 LB SMALL­EST. WE GOTTA GIT YER ASS OVER HERE.”

It took sev­eral years, but I fi­nally made it, travers­ing the At­lantic in a Fin­nair jet and the north­ern tier of Fin­land’s La­p­land re­gion and onto camp in a rick­ety Mi-8 he­li­copter with a fuel leak. Be­fore the ro­tors quit turn­ing, Breuer shoved a tum­bler of Rus­sian Stan­dard vodka into one of my trem­bling hands and a 10-weight Spey rod into the other, and bounced me down the camp steps to­ward the river.

“I’m not much of a Spey caster yet,” I man­aged as Breuer slapped me on the back and the vodka sloshed down my shirt front. “You think I’ve got it in me to land one of those sil­ver beau­ties?”

Breuer re­sponded with char­ac­ter­is­tic elo­quence. “Land one?! Does a hob­by­horse have a hick­ory dick?”

It ap­peared that the odds were in my fa­vor. Ryabaga is, first and fore­most, a re­mote wilder­ness fish­ing camp. De­spite the world-class kitchen, op­u­lent shower houses and wire­less In­ter­net ser­vice, an­glers come to Ryabaga for the rare prom­ise that they will, al­most with­out ques­tion, tie into an abun­dance of At­lantic salmon. It was clear to me that first af­ter­noon, when Breuer hus­tled me through the Big Tent; filled a plate with rein­deer salami, Stil­ton cheese and cold-smoked salmon; and ex­cit­edly dragged me down to the moor­age, en­cour­ag­ing the other guests not to dally. Bright fish were in the river, af­ter all, and op­por­tu­ni­ties for food and cock­tails when at length the sun dipped lower. I felt some­how that my phys­i­cal body had out­paced my higher func­tions dur­ing the heli ride in, but Breuer was hav­ing none of it. He de­posited me in the bow of a jet­boat, tossed off the lines and gunned upriver. What was left of my Rus­sian Stan­dard jounced out of my glass and dis­ap­peared in a fine, pris­matic mist over the tran­som.

“That will be re­flected in your bill!” Breuer shouted over the whine of the jet, and I couldn’t tell whether he was se­ri­ous. He dropped an­chor at the head of the long Home Pool, un­did a bright tube fly on the rod he’d ear­lier handed me and rigged up an­other for him­self. “Now you get to catch a salmon,” he said by way of in­struc­tion, and in the de­scend­ing si­lence I had no op­tion but to do just that.

Blis­ter­ing Runs

The lower 42 miles of the Ponoi are owned by the Ponoi River Com­pany, which in turn is owned by world-class an­gler Ilya Sher­bovich. He is a self-made man of epic pro­por­tion whose gen­tle man­ner and hum­ble pres­ence be­lie a sin­gle­ness of pur­pose. Upon ac­quir­ing the com­pany and the best of the river, he set out to make Ryabaga a des­ti­na­tion sec­ond to none.

He fit­ted the camp with the finest ameni­ties and es­tab­lished a net­work of river guards to pro­tect his wa­ters from the ram­pant poach­ing that had long ago dec­i­mated the salmon rivers of the Kola. He es­tab­lished a pro­gram of sci­en­tific mon­i­tor­ing to main­tain records of all bright fish en­ter­ing, or re-en­ter­ing, the Ponoi sys­tem. He as­sem­bled the finest in­ter­na­tional guides and Spey cast­ers in the world to serve on his team, un­der the man­age­ment of Breuer and com­pany CEO Steve Estela. Un­will­ing to leave the slight­est de­tail to ques­tion, Sher­bovich com­mit­ted him­self to reg­u­lar site checks, staff eval­u­a­tions and, most im­por­tant, hand­son assess­ment of fishery qual­ity. The lat­ter fre­quently re­quires that his hands be on a Spey rod, of­ten deeply bent against the pull of a spunky salmon. Such qual­ity-con­trol mea­sures seem to suit Sher­bovich just fine. To date I don’t know that any­one more ap­pre­ci­ates the rich­ness of the Ponoi, or works harder in the spirit of its con­ser­va­tion, than Sher­bovich.

On that first night, swing­ing tubes across the head of the Home Pool, I was struck by just how far I felt from my own home. The Kola is a raw and rugged place that ap­pears newly hatched and scrubbed bare. Buz­zards and ravens spin in a thin-air sky, and the river glides with epic pa­tience, bro­ken only at points by jut­ting boul­ders. Across the width of it, which nears 500 feet, the sub­tle pres­ence of struc­ture is not at first ap­par­ent. “Hit the win­dows and the seams,” Breuer kept telling me, point­ing to glassy spots that ma­te­ri­al­ized, be­came ob­vi­ous and then quickly braided them­selves back into the weave of the cur­rent. I did my best to swing my fly through the like­li­est spots, but in the end it didn’t re­ally mat­ter.

While I was un­tan­gling a rat’s nest in my run­ning line, my first Ponoi fish nearly jerked the rod from un­der my arm, and I be­came fast to some­thing big and strong and go­ing away. “Trout,” Breuer said, shak­ing his head. “Jerk the line hard, and he’ll come off.”

“Are you kid­ding me?” I worked the fish in, and Breuer hand-landed the big­gest trout of my life, a sea-run brown of 5 or so pounds.

“Strip a lit­tle next time, or you’ll be dink­ing around with those things all day,” he said.

Out across the cur­rent a big, sparkling fish breached, cartwheel­ing into a slow-set­ting sun. Breuer pointed. “That’s what we’re af­ter,” he said. “But if you’re gonna stand there with your mouth hang­ing open, I’ll cover that piece of wa­ter for you from here.”

Be­fore the night was through I’d landed two “proper” salmon of more than 10 pounds. They did all the things I’d been told they would do. There were blis­ter­ing runs and tail-stand­ing ac­ro­bat­ics and sullen, head-shak­ing sulks. With the sec­ond fish to net, Breuer slapped me on the back and said it was time for the hal­lowed first-night din­ner, at which he was a fix­ture. “You got your first salmon out of the way,” he said hap­pily, and I just sat down and tried to make sense of this big bar­ren place in which a cop­pery river was burst­ing with fish.

The rest of my Ponoi week fol­lowed suit.

There was a slow but steady climb to­ward pro­fi­ciency as a Spey caster, and fish that took hard and wouldn’t stick. There was the slab of a 15-pounder that at­tacked a trailed fly just be­hind the out­board while I re­lieved my­self to lee­ward, and the 9-pounder that smoked my reel and took back­ing off the spool that had never seen the light of day. There was the morn­ing when, cast­ing to the river right from the bow of the boat, I be­came help­lessly tan­gled try­ing to cover a big fish that showed twice, just off the bank. Pulling loops of

Scandi head from around my an­kles, my dear friend Breuer, who’d been fish­ing river left, turned an abrupt about-face and shot a snap-t cast just up­stream of my fish.

“Only an ass­hole would let a fish such as that miss the op­por­tu­nity of be­ing in­tro­duced to me,” Breuer de­claimed, strip­ping his fly through the hold­ing wa­ter. He stuck the fish, of course, and brought to net a glo­ri­ous bright buck that pushed 18 pounds.

“Only a what?” guide Pat Bren­nan said un­der his breath. I think even Breuer felt a lit­tle bit bad for poach­ing the big­gest fish of the week.

In the end, the Ponoi River was some­thing of a rev­e­la­tion. There was vodka, of course, and the finest cui­sine and friend­ship and laugh­ter and sto­ries. There was the chance to hob­nob with angling elite: The fra­ter­nity of in­ter­na­tional an­glers, af­ter all, oc­cu­pies some pretty rar­efied air. There was even the pres­ence of a height­ened aware­ness that the ex­pe­ri­ence alone was, for me any­way, so out of the or­di­nary that I couldn’t help but em­brace it whole­heart­edly. But at root it was all about the fish.

These fish, these sin­gu­lar and beau­ti­ful fish that I’d al­ways con­sid­ered scarcer than hen’s teeth, were, at the start of each day, a fore­gone con­clu­sion. On the Ponoi it’s not about whether salmon will be caught. It’s about when and how many and whether the guide will be able to weigh and re­lease one fish fast enough to get his net un­der an­other. It’s that good.

On the fi­nal day, with a low ceil­ing drop­ping in and the heli pi­lots champ­ing for de­par­ture, Breuer es­corted me to the pad. He slapped me on the back, tou­sled my hair and ap­peared, in his in­domitable way, a lit­tle sad to see me go. We shook hands, and as he chucked my duf­fel (with his name and ad­dress still inked on it) up into the cabin, he of­fered these part­ing thoughts: “Only an ass­hole would land a sit­u­a­tion this good and for­get to share it with his best friend,” to which I had no re­sponse.

But if I ever hit the lot­tery, or win a Pulitzer, or find a 12-pack of Pabst in my fridge that needs fin­ish­ing, Breuer will be my first call. Had I the means, I’d spon­sor him a week on the world’s finest At­lantic salmon river, but then, of course, I’d be the ass­hole.

He’d al­ready be there.

Postscript

Af­ter sev­eral years liv­ing, guid­ing and fish­ing the Ponoi, Matt Breuer re­turned to the wa­ters of Mon­tana, where he rows a boat through the heat of sum­mer on the Madi­son, Yel­low­stone and Fire­hole rivers. Spoiled by his years in Rus­sia, Breuer now gives lit­tle more than a shrug to a 5-pound Mon­tana brown. He off­sets his small fish months with win­ters spent in Guyana. There he guides for ara­paima, the world’s largest fresh­wa­ter species of scaled fish, in the tepid jun­gle wa­ters of the Rewa and Rupu­nuni wa­ter­sheds. A bit of his heart, how­ever, re­mains in the eastern Kola, where his legacy and his con­vic­tion in the Ponoi live on.

The au­thor gazes at Rus­sia’s vast, des­o­late Kola Penin­sula, one of the great places on Earth for At­lantic salmon.

Mi-8 he­li­copters are the work­horse ve­hi­cles of the Rus­sian tun­dra, fer­ry­ing Ponoi an­glers to places few ever see and leav­ing them with their si­lence.

Guide Matt Breuer in all his glory. The Ryabaga guide team on the Ponoi boasts sev­eral of the world’s finest Spey cast­ers.

Sit­u­ated within the Arc­tic Cir­cle, the Ponoi sees a sum­mer sea­son il­lu­mi­nated by mid­night sun. Ded­i­cated an­glers fish into the wee hours, and the salmon tend to in­dulge them.

Matt Breuer has largely hung up his spey tackle and moved back to Mon­tana, but memories of Salmo salar are hard to shake.

Call of the Ponoi: blis­ter­ing runs, tail-stand­ing ac­ro­bat­ics and sullen, head-shak­ing sulks.

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