Imagine the silver beauty and the fighting spirit of Atlantic salmon. The complex, unpredictable life-history of sea trout. Combined with the ferocious take and the sheer body mass of a predatory taimen. Then you get an idea what fishing for Sakhalin taimen, the silver of the Russian Far East, is about. I am pleased to introduce this fish to the readers of this magazine.
Because in many respects it forms a missing link between the fishery for Atlantic salmon and for huchen, a big predatory non-anadromous salmonid in my home country of Austria that is also called Danube salmon.
Sakhalin taimen, also called Japanese huchen or sea-run taimen, is one of the least-known salmonid species. This fish shares many characters with huchen and taimen: the body has a slender shape and is decorated exclusively with black dots on the body.
It features a huge adipose fin, larger than in char, trout and salmon. A big mouth has developed in response to the predatory feeding habits. But an ecological feature is unique – all members of the true huchen live exclusively in fresh water, whereas Sakhalin taimen (Parahucho perryi) is anadromous. But the similar look is misleading – genetics has shown that this species is in fact more closely related to trout and salmon than to huchen and Siberian taimen.
How to distinguish a sea-run taimen from huchen or Siberian taimen? First, the mouth of Parahucho is big, but by far not as huge as the Siberian taimen’s.
The jaws reach just behind the back of the eye, but they are broader and give the fish an even stronger bite. Second, the dense pigmentation of Parahucho is strongly concentrated on the front third of the body, particularly the head.
Third, the scales of Parahucho are bigger, which causes a coarser look compared to the finer-scaled true Hucho species. Last but not least, a characteristic that we fishermen appreciate, unlike Siberian taimen that tend to get more slender at advanced age, big Sakhalin taimen usually grow increasingly robust.
Historically they were caught up to 50 kg, but nowadays a 10 kg fish is a trophy and a 20 kg fish a leviathan.
Sea-run taimen occurs not only on Sakhalin, an almost 1000 km long Island that today is most renowned for enormous supplies of oil and gas, but also on the Russian mainland along the Sea of Japan and even the northern part of Japan.
Nowadays, most of the original area is lost for the species. While in Japan forest clearance and intensified land use are the main reasons for a drastic drop, in the Russian Far East it is simply overfishing.
Sakhalin taimen can choose between spawning, rearing and overwintering habitats in the rivers and the feeding and summer habitats in the lower parts of rivers, bays and the open sea several times a year and many times in their lives, which gives their two-legged enemies too many chances to capture them.
The current status of sea-run taimen leads to the question of whether fishing for such an endangered species is ethically sound. If you are interested in a rendezvous with this wonderful fish, visit the Koppi River Lodge on the Russian mainland, where still a good Sakhalin taimen fishery still exists – as well as for several other beautiful species such as white-Spotted char and big cherry salmon – in a most fascinating setting.
Steve and I have been floating a river in northern Sakhalin for several days, stopping to sample with our fly-rods every suspicious pool on the way.
Our trip in October was a wet, cold and stormy experience, and only the hope for fresh, silver Sakhalin taimen ascending to their winter lies in the river allowed us to withstand the adverse conditions. In spite of Grizzly bear tracks and dead pink salmon with bear bites all along the shore, camping in the Taiga was free of nightmares.
Unlike their American counterparts, Russian bears (except in some protected areas like parts of Kamchatka) are intensively hunted and live in constant fear of man. Usually, they avoid encounters. On this trip, we heard several fleeing bears, breaking sticks in their panic retreat to the underbrush.
Only two or three days from our end-point, the place where the river crosses the road along the coast of Sakhalin, we set up our camp on a big gravel bar. I casually cast my streamer to the opposite side, a long and deep undercut bank. I plan to make only a few swings, since the pool downstream looks more attractive and easy to read.
But on the third cast, the line tightens quickly just after the fly touches the water, not more than one foot from the opposite bank. I feel a tug that is stronger than any I have felt before on this trip, and the shaking of the whatever on the other end of the line dispels my doubts: B i g f i s h o n !
Sea-run taimen – like many other migratory fish – are very strong fighters, but in this case I don’t want to risk a long battle – a lot of wood in the river carries a too-big risk to loose this long-awaited prey.
Happily, I can pull the fish to the gravel bar at my feet in just a few minutes. Here it lies – a bright, meter-long, silver Parahucho with dense, black dots on the head. A feast for our eyes and a more than adequate reward for the long and burdensome journey!
In preparation of the trip, I had figured that any catch of a big Sakhalin taimen would be a surprise, since the species is nowadays rare and the remaining stocks are in decline. Like any fishing trip for migratory salmonids, being at the right place at the right time and confident fishing are the key to success – even more so for such a rare species.
Fly-fishing for sea-run taimen is still a rather new and uncommon sport, so few experiences about successful patterns have been gained. Unlike salmon, Sakhalin taimen don’t stop feeding during their fresh water life. In fact, some adult individuals even remain in the rivers year-round.
Thus – any imitations of freshwater food items, like minnows, salmon parr, or in some cases even mice, can be successful patterns. A different strategy is to imitate marine food items, hoping that this triggers predatory instincts in recall of their feeding experience in the sea.
I like to use bucktail streamers, because this material gets soft in the water and gives a moving fly with a very “fishy” look, while being easy to cast even in large sizes. Long but slender, articulated marabou streamers resembling a swimming lamprey also worked well.
A Bavarian pattern, the so-called “Huchenwaschl”, a big cone head tubefly that could be mistaken for a squid, also brought success. Sinking speed, snagging, ease of casting, size and lightness in relation to the turbidity of the water are probably more important than the exact pattern.
In some places, e. g. river estuaries, fly-fishing in brackish or even salt water can be successful. But usually you will be fishing in the lower course of a river. Search for Sakhalin taimen in running water the way you would fish for big brown trout.
Usually they hold in places with less current than classic Atlantic salmon lies. Deep pools and places with good cover by overhanging or sunken wood are hot spots. Present your fly in a way that suits your pattern and let it sink into the required depth. Pull a fleeing fish or lamprey imitation in short strips, but vary it with slow wet fly swings. I don’t know for sure which method is best, but you will see – some will convince this extraordinary salmonid to strike.
I hope you enjoyed the beauty of this interesting fish. A species that will disappear from the planet within the next decades if no adequate management and protection is not implemented soon. The silver of the Far East definitely deserves a brighter future from a conservationist’s as well as from a fisherman’s point of view.
By Clemens Ratschan
Contents NEW ZEALANDSOUTH ISLANDFEBRUARY 2012WEST OTAGO NEW ZEALAND New Zealand’s South Island is practically uninhabited; today, in an overpopulated
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