White Nights, Red Faces

A historic Arctic outing by U.S. anglers left their Soviet hosts a little embarrassed
October 26, 1987

Just before the end of our Pioneering fishing expedition to the Soviet Union, with a chill rain whipping our camp in the forests of the Kola Peninsula, Alexandr Alexandrovich Ulitin called our group together. "For me, this is a kashmaar," he said. We hardly had to ask our interpreter to confirm that in Russian kashmaar means nightmare. Indeed, Ulitin looked sick with strain—in a month's time, he would find himself in the hospital with an ulcer. The American fishermen he now addressed could scarcely recognize him as the man who had been bubbling with self-confidence only a week earlier.

That had been in Moscow as the champagne corks popped and toasts to "red days and white nights!" were given over and over at the banquet Ulitin hosted for his visitors: Red not only for the U.S.S.R., but also for the red-letter days of Atlantic salmon fishing that awaited us near the Arctic Circle; and white for the midnight sun that would supply enough light to tie on a fly at 4 a.m., should we choose to fish at that hour.

But the real significance of our journey went far beyond a few privileged days of fishing. The Soviet Union was the last unbreached frontier in angling. If you have the means, you've long been free to throw a fly to trout in Tierra del Fuego or troll a marlin lure around the Seychelles. But fish in Russia? Nyet.

For half a century there had been rumors of phenomenal Atlantic salmon runs in the rivers of the Kola Peninsula in the northwestern Soviet Union, but they remained only rumors because outsiders weren't permitted into this vast hinterland to verify the runs. Until, that is, two men of goodwill, a Soviet and an American, happened to meet at a time when the political climate was right. The Soviet, as you might suspect, was Ulitin, 37, the president of the Central Board of Rosokhotrybolovsoyuz, the All-Soviet Society of Hunters and Fishermen. That puts him in charge of 200 million acres of state-preserved hunting grounds, seven million acres of sport-fishing waters and 70 million rubles of revenue ($112 million at the official exchange rate).

The American, Bill Davies, 50, boasted no such governmental clout. His journey to Moscow had begun two years earlier in Mesa, Ariz. Davies is an interior decorator who, in 1985, found himself going through a divorce and a severe mid-life crisis. Oddly enough, he prescribed a trip to the U.S.S.R. as a tonic for himself. And once there, he looked around for a little fishing.

Now, that part of it wasn't at all strange. Davies is an avid fly-fisherman and a past president of the Arizona chapter of Trout Unlimited, the 55,000-member national organization that uses its $2 million annual budget to preserve and restore trout and salmon habitats. Like many anglers before him, Davies discovered that most of the U.S.S.R.'s rivers were closed to foreigners. Unlike his predecessors, he refused to take nyet for an answer. He learned of the existence of Rosokhotrybolovsoyuz and hung around the society's Moscow offices for several days until he was finally ushered into the office of Alexandr Voronsov, the second in command. Voronsov said that the headman, Ulitin, was on vacation.

"Voronsov looked suspicious, nervous," Davies says. "Why did I want to meet Russian fishermen, he asked. So I said to him—it was kind of corny, I know—'I thought us Russian and American anglers should discuss the truly important things, like how to catch fish.' Suddenly Voronsov had a stricken look. He walked around the desk and put his arms around me. Then he left the room. He was back in 10 minutes with a big smile on his face. Ulitin had just returned from his vacation, Voronsov now told me. And he would like to speak to the American."

A year after that meeting, Rosokhotrybolovsoyuz invited a delegation from Trout Unlimited to a conference in Moscow. That get-together, in July 1986, resulted in the signing of an agreement that called for Soviet-American cooperation in angling, including an exchange of information on conservation, a pooling of technical information, casting competitions and exchange visits by angling groups. It seemed that this Soviet-American piscatory dètente could produce nothing but good.

And who knew what spectacular fishing? Moscow decided that in the summer of 1987 the Soviet Union would welcome the historic, first-ever party of American anglers. The group's destination would be an Atlantic salmon river somewhere on the Kola Peninsula.

That was the first surprise. The Kola Peninsula is the Soviet defense equivalent of Nebraska, an area where ICBMs are thought to be garaged. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that as spring moved toward summer this year, there were indications that some debate was going on in the U.S.S.R. over the trip. By late May, no firm date for the visit had been set. Certain "permissions" were still outstanding. Finally, late June was announced as the date. But in mid-June the U.S. party was told it had been cut from 14 individuals to only seven. Then the trip was postponed until July 3 because the salmon run was a little behind schedule. Finally, some good news: Ulitin informed the Americans they would be fishing river called the Kolvitza, where no salmon fishing, sporting or commercial, had been permitted for five years. It was described as an Icelandic-style river, i.e., small, easy to wade and fishable with light gear.

When we saw the river, it was not Icelandic-style at all. In fact the Kolvitza was big and burly, its banks pine-covered, its pools three times the size we had been led to expect and connected by long rapids that threw yellow foam high into the air. It would prove a tough river for the anglers from Trout Unlimited.

Not that the Americans were a bunch of farm-pond worm dunkers. Leading the group was Gardner Grant, chairman of Trout Unlimited's International Committee. There was also his son, Gardner Jr., a Denver lawyer; Jim Ong, who operates a Manhattan photo agency; Bob Kahn, a Philadelphia realtor; and Ernie Alson, an automobile executive from Harrison, N.Y. All were fly-fishermen who had logged years of salmon fishing. But almost all of that time had been spent in Iceland, and the flies they had brought with them were small, their rods short and single-handed.

Myself, I had come from a more catholic salmon-fishing tradition, one that predominates in tough neighborhoods like Norway and Scotland. So when we started fishing early next morning, I sorted through my gear and came up with some artillery designed for the heavy water of a Scottish river in spring spate, which the Kolvitza resembled. On my second cast my spoon was stopped hard as it swung across the river. "Alexandr Alexandrovich Ulitin," I said to myself, "thank you for the first, historic salmon of this first, historic trip."

I swung the fish easily out of the current into the slack water at my feet, where it was netted by my guide, Anatoli Solomatov. It was a salmon all right, but no more than four pounds in weight. We spoke simultaneously.

"Kumja!" said Anatoli.

"Ouananiche!" I said.

We both had used colloquial names, one Russian, the other French-Canadian. This fish was a landlocked salmon, a species indistinguishable zoologically from Atlantic salmon (salmo salar), but one that, eons ago, had adopted an alternative life-style, using a deep lake as its feeding ground rather than the ocean. This one had evidently dropped down from the lake out of which the Kolvitza flowed.

Well pleased, for the moment anyway, Anatoli and I worked downriver. Although the water looked delectable, there was no more action. At a downstream bridge we met the others. They had caught nothing, seen nothing.

Back at camp, Ulitin was waiting. He seemed concerned but by no means despairing that the fish had not yet arrived. He had been assured, he said, that the salmon would be here soon. In the meantime, we could take a tour of a nearby salmon hatchery, and on the lake there were beautiful islands where wild duck nested. In retrospect, I suspect that the president of Rosokhotrybolovsoyuz was already aware that he had a serious problem on his hands.

In succeeding salmonless days I adopted a more pragmatic attitude toward fishing in Mother Russia than did the pioneers from Trout Unlimited, who continued manfully but vainly to flog the Kolvitza. Through our translator, I asked Anatoli about prospects on the headwater lake of the Kolvitza. Without replying, he disappeared into his quarters. Like the rest of the camp staff, Anatoli had been locally recruited. Normally he drove a bulldozer in Kandalashka. But I recognized in him a born outdoorsman, and we had formed a comfortable team, despite our ignorance of each other's language. I learned that Anatoli grew up far to the east, on the shores of Lake Baikal. He had caught huge fish there, he said, and he was also proud of having boxed for three years as a 140-pounder for Dynamo Irkutsk. But he was proudest of all of the trophy he now brought out of his log cabin.

It was the skull of a massive northern pike he had caught in the lake. So, I asked, when do we leave for the pike grounds? Not possible, Anatoli said. The only time for the big pike was when they came out of the depths to spawn in the springtime. Now was the time of the kumja, the landlocked salmon.

Too bad, but Anatoli and I were going to have some fun, and we did. We traveled 10 miles up the lake to Anatoli's favorite spot and found the landlocks, very big fish for the species, up to six or seven pounds. We saw only one other boat, a tiny inflatable with one man aboard. He had rowed his tiny craft for six hours to get there, Anatoli would tell me later.

As the week wore on, Ulitin's pronouncements got more desperate—"God will arrange this, though we aren't too sure about God in these parts," he said at one particularly low moment—and I found myself with more and more companions on my landlock trips.

Finally, a couple of days before our seven-day visit ended, Ulitin called us together and gave us the bad news. According to fishery scientists, the schools of salmon were still 200 miles away in the far northwestern part of the White Sea. Given favorable winds, the run might start in two weeks' time. That was when Alexandr Alexandrovich pronounced this trip a kashmaar.

And a kashmaar it certainly seemed at the time—the sad ending to a very special kind of detente. Things were no better, possibly even worse, when a second Trout Unlimited expedition—virtually a private one for Ted Turner and some members of his family—was launched late in July. Davies was there this time, and so was the salmon run. Six anglers took 60 fish in all. But the fish were small, three-pounders on average, and 40% of them were not Atlantic salmon but Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, the lowly humpback salmon of the Pacific that the Soviets had planted in Kola Peninsula waters in the 1960s and which are now apparently competing with the native Atlantic salmon.

No further trips to the Kolvitza have been scheduled. "Alexandr has taken this failure very personally," Davies said recently in Arizona. "He's a very frustrated man. What happened was that the Kolvitza was not even on his original list of 13 rivers. [Due to the objections of other government agencies] he was turned down flat cold on every single one of those rivers. He was given the Kolvitza and told to take it or leave it."

It was a fact that the Kolvitza hadn't been fished for five years. But that was not quite the whole story. Five years ago the river was closed because the salmon run had been totally depleted by commercial fishing. The Soviets are just now beginning to try to revive it.

"Alexandr has to work within the system," Davies said.

The fight goes on. Ulitin recently contacted Davies and let him know that he has received tentative approval to open up three other Kola Peninsula rivers.

In the meantime, at least one visitor to the Kola has already experienced the universality of fishing and the way that the sport can overcome even the lack of a common language. That was when, out on the lake, Anatoli and I met the solitary angler who had rowed all that way to fish landlocks. When the pace of the fishing eased he had joined us, and together we went ashore to build a fire and brew some tea. We sat there, silently comparing our catches and trading lures, appreciative of our surroundings, the fish and, above all, the uniqueness of our companionship.

FOUR PHOTOSJERRY COOKEDespite the planning of Ulitin (below, left) and Grant, and the posted creel limits, the Americans, like boots, were hung out to dry. PHOTOJERRY COOKEThe Atlantic salmon run fell behind schedule, so the landlocked salmon became the quarry. PHOTOJERRY COOKEThe Americans gathered inside the camp gazebo while their Soviet hosts posed outside. PHOTOJERRY COOKEWhen the talk got around to northern pike, Anatoli proudly showed off his trophy.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)