For this installment of F3T Behind the Lens, we sat down with the braintrust behind River Tigers. A collaboration between Wild Salmon Center, Yonder, and Maser Films, River explores the Russian Far East in search of a a mythical 55-kilogram (120-pound) trout. The unlikely trio of anglers—a billionaire Russian businessman, an American fly fisherman, and a Russian scientist—is lured to the wild Tugur River to learn about the fabled taimen and unlock the river’s secrets in order to save it. Follow along for our interview with responses from the production side–Adam Bagger and Andy Maser of Yonder and Maser films, respectively–and Wild Salmon Center (WSC).
Flylords: What are River Tigers?
WSC: Taimen are the largest salmonids in the world. They can live over 30 years and reach 6 feet in length and over 100 pounds in weight. Their native habitat spans the Japanese island of Hokkaido, north to Russia’s Sakhalin and Kuril Islands and inland to far eastern mainland Russia, Mongolia, China, and the Korean peninsula. Of the five species of Eurasian taimen, only Sakhalin taimen are anadromous, making seasonal migrations out into the salt, but generally staying nearshore. They’re known to hunt in packs, feeding on adult Pacific salmon, even muskrats and ducks. Due to their voracious appetite and their place at the top of the food chain, taimen are sometimes called “river wolves” or “river tigers.”
Flylords: The film highlights a very interesting trio of characters. Who are they?
Adam and Andy: Guido Rahr is a fly fisherman and conservationist, who was the first executive director of the Wild Salmon Center, starting in 1998, and now leads the organization as CEO. His longtime collaborator in Russia, Mikhail Skopets, is a fisheries scientist who has spent decades traveling deep in the Russian Far East, exploring new salmon rivers and mapping out conservation priorities for WSC. Alexander Abramov is a Russian steel magnate and obsessed fisherman who bought the fishing lease to the Tugur River–one of Russia’s last great Siberian taimen rivers — in 2002.
Flylords: Wild Salmon Center is renowned for its work on protecting wild salmon in the North Pacific. Tell us about the fascination with Russia’s Far East?
WSC: The Russian Far East contains some of the world’s most diverse, productive, and healthy river and ocean ecosystems, and it is a global priority for wild salmon conservation. Its three main salmon-producing regions – Khabarovsk, Sakhalin Island, and the Kamchatka Peninsula – account for a third of the Pacific Rim’s wild salmon. And over the last century, these true salmon strongholds have remained relatively intact, largely buffered from development threats. In Khabarovsk, WSC and partners at Khabarovsk Wildlife Fund are working on a network of protected areas totaling over 3.5 million acres — 50% larger than Yellowstone National Park — that would constitute a durable stronghold for Siberian taimen, as well as other species of salmon and trout.
Flylords: How did the film become an idea and then a reality?
WSC: In 2019, Random House published Stronghold, by Tucker Malarkey, about Rahr’s life story. The book featured Abramov and Skopets as well and culminated in a tense chapter about Rahr and Skopets trying to answer Abramov’s challenge to catch a giant Tugur taimen on the fly as winter descended. As the book was headed to print, we started talking with Andy and Adam about shooting a film that could complement the book by giving people an on-the-ground look at this unique place on Earth — including its massive taimen. They first traveled over with Guido in June 2019 and then returned in the fall that year, to capture the Tugur on film.
Flylords: River Tigers takes place on the Tugur River, known for its remoteness and stories of massive duck-eating fish. Tell us about the river’s history and near-collapse.
Adam & Andy: The Tugur River is the world’s greatest stronghold for Siberian taimen. It flows through the Tuguro-Chumikanskiy region of Khabarovskyi Krai (territory) and into the Sea of Okhotsk, providing habitat for over 20 species of fish—from taimen to chum, pink salmon, lenok and grayling—as well as brown bears, foxes, Blakiston’s fish owl, osprey, Steller’s sea lions and white-tailed eagles.
But the Tugur is also the site of a massive poaching epidemic in the recent past. In the early 2000s, poachers were hauling up to 25 tons a season off the river, by netting whole runs of chum salmon and slitting the hens open for their eggs. Starting in 2002, lease holder Alexander Abramov worked with local government and police to patrol the river year-round and kick the poachers out. The chum runs–key food source for the taimen–have returned. In 2020, after decades of advocacy by Wild Salmon Center and other partners, the Governor of Khabarovsk announced the creation of a new, one-million-acre nature reserve on the Tugur, providing taimen with another level of legal protection from poaching and other threats.
Flylords: Outside of rampant poaching, do these salmonids of the Far East face other serious threats?
Adam & Andy: In addition to rampant poaching, taimen face growing threats from climate change, habitat loss, unsustainable sportfishing pressure, mining, damming, road construction, and extractive industries like logging and mining. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that approximately 70 percent of taimen populations in the Russian Far East have either been extirpated or experienced significant declines.
Flylords: How can Taimen inform salmon conservation?
WSC: Taimen serve as a bellwether for ecological change. Because taimen reach maturity later and live longer than other salmonids, they are more sensitive to changes in their environment and serve as an important indicator of the health of the great rivers of Asia and Europe. Basically, if a watershed has a thriving taimen population, it means that there is a healthy river food web with abundant prey fish and intact habitat.
Flylords: What makes the Tugur River different from productive salmon Rivers in the United States or Canada?
WSC: The Tugur, like roughly half of taimen watersheds in the Russian Far East, is buffered by roadless expanses of larch, Korean pine, northern hardwoods, and spruce. Though pressure is mounting, so far logging, damming, and agriculture have yet to reshape this watershed, and as a result the Tugur stills flows wild and braided—in contrast with the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, most of which require significant restoration work after a century-plus of human development. As a salmon stronghold, the Tugur represents one of our last, best chances to protect truly intact salmon habitat.
Flylords: Does the work and research in the Far East have any implications for recovering salmonids in North America?
WSC: Because taimen are not a commercially harvested species, they’ve been poorly studied until recently. There is still much to learn about taimen reproduction, behavior, and life histories. For example, in Russia, Wild Salmon Center scientists are just beginning to appreciate how much taimen depend on healthy salmon populations for prey.
Flylords: Russia is almost always the subject of some world news story–let’s leave it at that. I’m almost certain this project was a logistical nightmare, from the potential political hurdles to the challenges of filming in the remote Russian Far East. Tell us about some of the challenges you all had to overcome in order to complete this project.
Adam & Andy: Politics between the U.S. and Russia are certainly a little tense these days, so just getting past Customs in Khabarovsk was a challenge. A favorite moment had to be the look that the Customs lady behind the glass both gave us before she picked up the phone to summon an officer, who took us all to separate rooms for questioning and fingerprints. And then again, the look when they realized we packed 12 cases of crazy camera equipment, including a professional drone. It felt like a minor miracle that we (and our stuff) even made it into the country.
And then from there, we traveled by unimproved road for hours to a remote airstrip in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where we boarded a massive Russian MI-8 chopper to Alexander Abramov’s private fishing lodge in the heart of the vast Konin wilderness. That private chopper is the only way in or out.
Filming on location in the middle of nowhere came with its own set of logistical challenges — namely persistent torrential rain — but thankfully we had plenty of helpers on the ground (all of whom were strangely named Sergei…?). After each wet and frigid day of filming, we were treated with stately amenities back at the lodge, complete with banya (sauna), bottomless vodka, and freshly harvested chum salmon caviar.
And once we made it through all of that, upon our return to Russian civilization, a member of our team was apprehended and questioned by the FSB. “What are those Amerikantsy’s up to?!” Luckily for us, we were able to make it onto our flight out with the footage and equipment intact. Thankfully, we also left secret backup hard drives with our Russian fixers, just in case.
Flylords: Everyone reading this, is now thinking “Ok how the **** did they catch one of these fish?” Well, how does a fly fisher go about targeting and landing one of these dinosaurs?
Adam: The flies are typically 6 to 10-inch unweighted streamers tied on tubes with 3/0 hooks. Taimen seem to love to eat grayling, so a go-to streamer is one like Guido’s Grayling that matches the gray and yellow of the common grayling species in Russia. But there are conditions where gaudy streamers in black and red, chartreuse, or bright orange are more effective, especially in higher, more tannic water when clarity is not ideal. We also discovered that taimen can be surface-oriented, and they’ll aggressively strike custom foam poppers fished dry, like classic largemouth bass poppers on steroids.
Also, follow along with the film tour @flyfishingfilmtour on Instagram.
For more on the Wild Salmon Center and how you can help, click here!