Fishing Russia

Walleye? Look again.
Patrick Sebile, the internationally known angler and lure designer, displays a zander, prized for its food value throughout Europe and western Asia. But Russia's freshwater anglers also regard it as their most challenging quarry.
"Zander" was the target species when Russia's top angling talent gathered in November for the fifth annual Zander Troffee tournament on the Volga and Akhtuba rivers, several hours drive north of Astrakhan.
Rybolov Elite, Russia's premier fishing magazine operated and hosted the tournament. Sportfishing is riding a wave of popularity in Russia today. Editor Andrey Golovanov welcomed the competitors.
The zander, a.k.a. "sudak" in Russian, is the slightly larger Euro-Asian cousin to the walleye. It looks, fights and, for the most part, eats and acts very similarly to its popular North American relative.
Zander Troffee is the richest angling tournament in Russia. This year, it presented a top prize of 825,000 rubles (about $27,500).
Russia's sportfishing community mourned the passing of Oskar Sobolev six years ago. He remains a legend among the nation's passionate anglers. Zander Troffee is held in his honor.
Sobolev was one of the first sportsmen to call public attention to the impact of fishing pressure on gamefish quality and numbers in Russia.
Tournament regulations required the release of all fish under the minimum length limit of 65 centimeters (25.6 inches) to raise conservation awareness. Russian anglers generally fish for food as much as for fun. Mandatory release of fish less than 65 cm in length has earned the tournament "catch-and-release" billing. (Note: most Russian fishing boats do not have livewells.)
It takes years if not generations to develop a conservation awareness that permeates the majority of the angling populous. More Russian anglers are voluntarily releasing small zander and other "predator" fish today to plant the seed of a collective conservation consciousness.
A "one hook per lure" rule was in effect. (Treble hooks permitted.)
Andrey Chulanov caught this fish in the first hour of competition. It lost 310 grams (0.68 pounds) between its initial capture and the evening weigh-in.
Northern pike earned no points or recognition during the tournament. Still, the species is the most popular game fish in Russia. Pike range throughout the entire Volga River basin. This one was taken on a Sebile Koolie Minnow LL (long lip).
Rybolov Elite captured on-the-water video footage and hired one of Russia's leading producers for TV coverage of the event. Alexander "Sacha" Davidov piloted the camera boat for Vitaly (video cameraman) and Anton Rasstegaev.
Alexander Davidov is one of the top anglers in Russia and a premier guide in the Volga River basin. He has earned a reputation as a "trolling specialist."
The Volga River is the largest river in Russia and often compared to our Mississippi River. The Volga runs through the southwest arm of Russia, an area that lies between the Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
The tournament launched from Uspekh lodge on the Akhtuba River (also translated "Achtuba"), a distributary of the Volga. (A "distributary branches off from a primary body of water; a "tributary" feeds one.) The rivers run roughly parallel and create an expansive and very fertile delta at the mouth of the Caspian Sea, known for its outstanding perch and pike fishing.
We welcomed the fair weather that followed this sunrise over the Akhtuba River the second day of the tournament. Cold weather comes early in Russia, even at this southerly location, which sits at roughly the same latitude as Duluth, Minnesota.
Gimme a double! Like walleye, zander are schooling fish. During high activity periods, double hook-ups came readily. But action often shut down suddenly and remained slow for hours.
I fished with Patrick Sebile (right), founder of Sebile Innovative Fishing. Sebile is known on five continents for his record fish catches and lure designs. The Frabill SnoSuits proved their worth as the week progressed and the weather turned wet and cold.
Big zander are plentiful on the Volga and Akhtuba rivers. But the hawgs don't come easily. Top zander anglers are held in high regard by the Russian fishing community.
The team of Constantine Kiyarov and Andrey Chulanov led the fifth annual Zander Troffee tournament from the opening hour and registered an 18.46 kg total for a first place finish.
Dmitiriy Zyuzin and Pavel Sudakov kept the heat on the leaders and captured second place.
Tournament strategies boiled down to 1) covering water and hunting for concentrations of active fish or 2) camping on a prime hole and waiting for big fish to become active and vulnerable. Chulanov and Kiyarov worked a single productive hole throughout the tournament.
Marat Arifulin, owner of Uspekh Lodge, and Andrey Golovanov, editor of Ryboloov Elite, hosted the awards ceremony.
Thanks to milder than normal November temperatures in the region, Wels catfish were a bonus to Volga River anglers during the tournament and earned special award recognition.
Wels catfish are highly sought predators that attack lures far more readily than North American catfish species. Russian anglers regard the sight of a Wels specimen of 100 pounds or more attacking a topwater bait in August as one of the most exciting experiences in freshwater fishing.
The camp record zander - over 22 pounds - hangs in the Uspekh lodge dining and recreation area alongside Marat's hunting trophies and photos.
The Zander Troffee format placed a "sheriff" (on right, with video camera) with each competing team to assure compliance with tournament rules and to capture and verify the fight and catch with video footage.
Marat Arifulin built the tournament's host lodge and its 19 visitor cabins. He named it "Uspekh," which means "Success" in Russian. It was his radio communication "call sign" when he worked on a border patrol unit in the Russian military. He holds a 49-year lease on the land from the Russian government.
Marat is a renowned big game hunter. Uspekh's central dining and recreation hall holds dozens of photos and mounts from his hunts.
Marat had this elaborate rock structure built to protect the lodge and dock area from Akhtuba floodwaters.
Marat's wife, Irina, competed in the tournament. Here she is trolling on the tournament's "training" day, a.k.a. "prefishing" in American tournament parlance.
Russian women are renowned for their pulchritude. Has an ice fishing hat ever looked this good?
A day late and 60,000 rubles short! Zhora caught this 7.9-kilo (17.38 pounds) zander within earshot of our boat the morning following the tournament.
Zhora's fish would have captured "big fish" honors and a 60,000-ruble ($2,000) check the evening before. Notice the FBI cap.
The amiable Sebile offered his own consolation prize for the fish--a handful of Sebile deep-diving Koolie Minnow LL baits for trolling. Russia has become Sebile's Number Two selling market behind the U.S.
During Soviet rule, sportsman's lodges held ratings based on the quality of the facilities, much like hotels are rated worldwide today. Only government leaders had access to "five-star" lodges. Many hunting and fishing lodges that were state-owned during the Soviet era are now privately owned and operated. High quality private lodges are proliferating today across Russia.
All of Andrey Chulanov's fish came on a six-inch Lunker City Shaker soft swimbait, limetreuse color (#174). Andrey's tackle included Daiwa Certate 3000 and Shimano Twin Power 2500 reels, Black Hole Short Gun rods ranging from 2 meters, 40 cm to 2 meters, 65 cm - around 7.9 to 8.7 feet. He also won the inaugural Zander Troffee tournament.
Virtually unheard of among Russian fishermen during the U.S.S.R. era, motor trolling has caught on rapidly in Russia over the past 15 years.
Mark Dobrusin, public relations director for Rybolov Elite, displays some of the deep diving trolling lures used for zander in the Volga basin. Popular baits include the Mann's Stretch- Plus, Rapala DT series baits, and Sebile's Koolie Minnow LL and Rattsler baits. Zander Troffee anglers trolled to depths of 12.5 meters (41 feet) during the tournament.
The globe-trotting Patrick Sebile's angling credits prior to this trip to Russia included 340 record catches and 640 species caught. This "berch" (sander volgensis) is a little known member of the perch family. Though not a hybrid, it has characteristics of both yellow perch and zander. The catch marked species # 641 for the lure maker.
Anton Rasstegaev, "reporter in chief" for Rybolov Elite magazine, holds an Asp (called "Zerekh" in Russian), a species that delights anglers with its vicious strikes and eagerness to attack fast-moving lures. Anton was a friend and critical communications link during the trip. The tri-lingual Russian was our translator as dialogue on topics ranging from fishing to history to politics frequently translated from English to French to Russian…and back again.
The Volga and Akhtuba rivers yield trophy zander regularly, but fishing pressure make this already wary predator even tougher to catch today.
Like walleye, zander hole up in depressions and behind logs and other current breaks but will move up onto flats and shoals to feed.
This is one of two rigs that Patrick Sebile conjured for a down-deep jigging delivery of his Soft Magic Swimmer to zander positioned in holes and behind logs and deadfall. It proved to be one of the more productive presentations during the tournament and the days that followed.
Like Patrick Sebile, Janis Stikuts, the founder of Salmo Lures, was a celebrity among the Russian anglers.
Anton referred to this fish I am holding as an "Amur." It resembles the silver carp, one of the Asian carp species that have posed widespread problems in the Mississippi River drainage since their accidental introduction. The silver carp's native range is in eastern Asia from the Amur River in Russia to the Pearl River in China. Is it an invader in the Volga watershed now, too?
Andre Golovanov (center), editor of Rybolov Elite, toasted the "Americans" -- this writer and Patrick Sebile - for our "meeting at the Elbe," a symbolic reference to the historic meeting of Soviet and American troops on April 25, 1945, that led to Germany's surrender within a week. Here we are in the lobby of the Hilton Leningrad, a hotel built in Moscow during Joseph Stalin's rule.

As the popularity of sportfishing explodes in Russia, the nation's top anglers pursue the wary cousin of the walleye for top prize money and bragging rights.