Kundzha: The Unsung Heroes of Kamchatka

By now you’ve seen the photos, viewed the videos, and watched the latest viral drone footage of those epic mouse devouring rainbow trout of the Kamchatka Peninsula. With 17 active volcanoes and the major mode of transportation being a post Cold War MI-8 helicopter, there may be no more exciting, undoubtedly no more remote locale on the globe to experience a pristine ecosystem teeming with gigantic trout, but there is one fish that is a bit unknown that shares these waters within eyesight of Sarah Palin’s backyard: the fish is the Kundzha, they crush flies, and they reach 40 inches long.

They are a member of the Salvelinus genus, closely related to the Arctic Char, Dolly Varden, and Bull Trout that we more commonly know in North American waters, and they are native to the eastern regions of Asia, including Japan, Korea, and Russia. In the Russian Far East, just across the Bering Sea from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, lays the Kamchatka Peninsula, and it is here that this fish, the White-Spotted Char, also known as the Kundzha (koon-ja) lurks. It is a commonly encountered species that lives in many of the rivers that I have had the pleasure of spending months on over the last 9 summer-long seasons, guiding guests into them while primarily searching for rainbow trout. As a resident to the rivers, they are regularly witnessed up to the two-foot mark with the average somewhere around 18-20 inches. They are a voracious creature that, while often duped by dead drifted dry flies and skittered mouse imitations, seems to prefer a life of ambush, attacking out-migrating salmon smolt and similar small fishes that exist in great abundance in these riverine utopias. For that reason, streamers seem to yield the greatest success, and they are exhilarating to catch, frequently exploding on the fly when the angler least expects.

They are uniquely camouflaged in their volcanic rivers, taking on a golden appearance with vibrant yellow fins accented by striking white stripes. As their name alludes, their colorful flanks are adorned with white spots from gill to tail.

You might be thinking, “18-24 inches…what’s so scary about that?” Well, that’s where things start getting interesting. In a select few rivers of the region the Kundzha has adopted a life history strategy that allows them to grow to epic proportions, much greater than that of the popular rainbow trout and residential char, and they pose the potential to stretch the measuring tape well past a yardstick in length, a life that only a body of water as fertile as the ocean can provide. Much like a steelhead, these Kundzha are anadromous, leaving their natal rivers and streams to live off the bounty of the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn and potentially repeat the process. It’s risky business to brave the perils of the journey, but their size promises a greater number of eggs per fish and must aid in their spawning success. They begin to arrive in the latter parts of the brief summers as early as the end of July with numbers increasing into the middle of September. Upon entering the rivers, they display brighter characteristics than the resident form, with hues of purple and turquoise iridescence, and like other anadromous fish gather color as they near their spawning grounds, white spots turning more or a dull pink and bodies shifting a dark gray.

Like most of life and angling destinations, there are no guarantees, but I have witnessed many days a season where 2 guys put around 20 to hand in the 30″ range in a single run. The end of August and early September seem to be the month where that typically happens.

There’s nowhere on the planet better to find such large Kundzha than Kamchatka, and I know somewhere out there, perhaps in some unexplored river, there must be some over the 40″ mark. Yet another reason why Kamchatka should be on every fly anglers bucket list. My search continues.

Come join us this summer and check Kamchatka off your list, although I doubt one trip will be enough.

The Kennedy Brothers run fishing outposts in Kamchatka, Russia. Be sure to check them out on Instagram and on their website. Be sure to book your Kamchatka trip through them for shots at giant rainbow trout and Kundzha.
Photos courtesy of Fish Kennedy Brothers, @fishkennedybrothers on Instagram!


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