When it happened, on the way back home, I was still daydreaming, replaying over and again in my mind the capture of a semilegendary behemoth of a fish I had been pursuing off and on for 17 years.
At about 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, the pilot of our Aeroflot L410 had an abrupt change of mind halfway down the mix of mud and loose stones that passed for an airstrip at the Collective Farm Poliny Osipenko. And the dream shattered in the ugliest way.
We had stopped to refuel there, and an unexpected crowd of heavily laden country folk had clambered aboard to join our small group of Americans, who had been fishing far to the north in the dense forest of the Khabarovsk region of Russia's Far East.
We thought we had a private charter, but somebody had been a little overenterprising and had sold off all the extra seats. And then some. Come takeoff time, the L410, a high-wing turboprop plane, reacted to its unexpected load like an abused mule. It picked up speed sluggishly. Then the port-side wheel lost traction in the mud and the captain hit everything he could to abort. He had already retracted the nose wheel. Then the port wheel collapsed. The plane bounced violently down the strip, much like a flat stone skipping on the water. It came to a sliding, shuddering halt 10 yards from the first of the thick-trunked trees.
October 13, 1991
We bolted from the wreck, but there was no explosion. Minutes later, still panting in the ramshackle hut that served as Poliny Osipenko's terminal building, I turned to Ruslan Galliulin, the student from Moscow University who had been interpreting for us. He was white-faced and looked ready to cry.
"Hey," I said, "come on. We're O.K. We haven't even lost our baggage."
But Galliulin was inconsolable. "The bastards," he was muttering. "The bloody, bloody bastards."
We had been in the wilderness a week with no radio. And, a day late, Galliulin had just learned that the tanks of the reactionary junta were rolling through the streets of Moscow.
I took the first steps on the road to this strange moment back in the early '70s, when the cold war was still in its deep-frozen stage. It had all begun in one of the laboratories in the labyrinthine depths of the British Natural History Museum on London's Cromwell Road. I had gone there to meet Dr. Alwyne Wheeler, an ichthyologist of international repute, because I had become obsessed with an exotic species and I needed his expertise and his connections.
To Wheeler, the fish in question was Hucho hucho hucho; to me it was the huchen, or Danube salmon—though for years the Danube had been too dirty to support it in most of its course. As I had hoped he would, Wheeler worked a piece of magic for me. Through a colleague at a university, he finagled me permission to fish in eastern Czechoslovakia on the Polish border. And I duly caught, and released, my Danube salmon (SI, March 3, 1975). As with many magical experiences, though, there was a drawback. In this case it came in the form of some casual words from Dr. Karol Hensel, the Czech scientist who accompanied me on my trip. The previous year, Hensel said, he had been in Mongolia on a zoological survey and had camped on the banks of one of the rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, which is said to be the world's deepest body of fresh water.
At night, Hensel said, he heard heavy splashings. He went down and threw out small, dead fish on heavy cord lines. In the morning on the lines were five big huchen, and each one was more than a yard long! They were not the Czech Hucho hucho hucho, a char, but an Asian species that he knew very little of, Hucho hucho taimen. He thought that in Mongolia taimen could reach 150 pounds. But no one tries to catch them, because fish is not in the Mongolian diet and fishing has no part in their culture.
I stared at the plump, innocent face of Hensel as he made his devastating announcement. In that instant he had replaced a cured obsession with a new one. He would never know how often, across two decades, the image of a mighty silver-gray and crimson char would swim up unbidden out of my subconscious.
At first my hopes were high. I knew, of course, that the Mongolian People's Republic, formerly Outer Mongolia, permitted occasional hunting trips, and that it had an embassy in London, where I then lived. So I headed for the embassy the minute I returned from Czechoslovakia.
I needn't have rushed. If you ever saw the movie Goldfinger, you will recall Oddjob, the malevolent manservant who menaced James Bond with his lethal, steel-rimmed bowler. What you probably don't know, though, is that back in the '70s he was moonlighting as doorman at the Mongolian embassy in London. It was Oddjob, I swear, who opened the door when I rang the bell.
"Write a letter," said Oddjob in response to my questions, slamming the door.
I wrote numerous letters, to no avail. I wrote to officials in Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital, to no avail. I received a letter from a travel writer, suggesting that I go to Moscow and try to get a visa from the embassy there. Not having that kind of time, I had to confess to myself that the great taimen of Central Asia, the greatest fish of what may be the final frontier for angling, was permanently locked in the Impossible Dream mode as far as I was concerned.
Then came 1990 and Mongolia's first free elections. Although the Communist party came away with a convincing victory, it was clear that the party would have to continue to listen to opposition voices. The changing political climate made the fishing trip to Mongolia a real prospect.
My quest for the taimen was slated to become a tangible matter rather than an enduring figment. At least I thought that was what was to happen. The surreal adventure began with a 30-hour trip to Beijing and a daylong stopover there, the high point of which was a visit to the Ming dynasty tombs—overrun with T-shirt vendors and the air loud with, I swear it, the voice of Tom Jones bellowing, in English, his plans to lie beneath "the green, green grass of home."
What followed was a 27-hour train ride across the Gobi Desert, which might have been interesting (wild camels, etc.) had I not been lumped in with seven American born-again Christians from someplace in Georgia, who, when they weren't lustily singing hymns and making plans to convert the Mongolian nation in the 14 days before their visas expired, solicitously inquired as to the state of my spiritual health.
Despite these omens, I felt that I was ahead of the game. The next morning, as dawn broke over the Gobi, I realized I had reached Mongolia, and that rivers full of monster taimen were not much farther ahead.
Well, a bit farther, I learned after I checked into the Ulan Bator Hotel and met the outfitter's local agent. Like as far away as a 12-hour ride the next morning in a UAZ, a Soviet jeep. It was then that I made a major mistake. I suggested to the agent that we might haul a few beers up to camp for the guides and staff.
Uh, vodka was what they mostly drank, the agent said.
So, fine, I said, a few bottles of that, then.
Cases would be better, said the agent. I was a little taken aback, but the local stuff was cheap, at least, about a dollar a bottle. I didn't know then that Genghis Khan vodka is perhaps the only liquor in the world that truly lives up to its namesake, leaving its partakers thoroughly sacked. And that it comes with foil caps that can't be resealed.
We set out on the 260-mile trip. Six times we were hauled out of the mud by passing trucks; we had neglected to bring even a shovel. Toward the end of the long day, though, we crossed a bridge over the Geroo. It was a big, burly river that surely held monster taimen. Only it was bank-high, with logs swirling down it, the water the color of hot chocolate. "Too flooded to fish," the agent said superfluously. "We're going higher up. To the Khuder."
The Khuder, though clear, was a brook compared with the Geroo. And slowly the truth filtered out. This was no taimen river, though there might be the odd taimen in it. The fish I was after were in the big rivers at lower altitudes. And those were all unfishable for the time being.
Not that fishing mattered. The minute the guides saw the cases of vodka coming out of the UAZ, mine was a lost cause. Every night after that, in my yurt, or felt tent, I listened to the carousing into the small hours, knowing the thankless task that lay ahead of me—dragging a guide and the jeep driver out of bed so that I could get an hour or two of fishing before the long, long lunch hour set in, followed by siesta time, followed by cocktail hour. In the end I would manage three days of fishing out of 17 on the road.
I did see my first taimen. That was when, thoroughly defeated, I was back in Ulan Bator spending another long travel delay at the State Central Museum. There, in a glass case, was an actual taimen. It was a tad dried up, but it still looked big and mean, 50 or 60 pounds. I aimed my camera at it, but—the final blow—the flash failed to go off.
On the long trip back home I fought the feeling that perhaps I was fated never to capture a taimen, even on film.
But this past summer, a new factor was fed into whatever mysterious computer fate was using to direct my search for a big taimen. Alaska Airlines began a service in through the back door of the U.S.S.R., from Anchorage over the Kamchatka Peninsula to Khabarovsk, in the eastern part of the Russian Republic, near the Chinese border, a mere six hours of flying time from Anchorage.
From there, I was told, one of the Russian "private enterprise" companies that had blossomed under perestroika could haul me, by plane and helicopter, 775 miles north to a forest camp on the Maymakan, a real taimen river. After my experiences of a year earlier, though, I was a bit gun-shy. I would believe in my taimen when I hooked it. And, straight off, bad omens began to appear again.
Out of Anchorage we had to make an emergency refueling stop at a Soviet military base. Quickly the plane filled with rumors that it was from this airfield that the fighters had scrambled to shoot down Korean Air Lines' flight 007 back in 1983. As if to confirm this, as soon as we landed, we were treated to the sight of a squadron of shiny new MiG-29s coming in to land. My 1991 taimen expedition might have ended right then and there had we not restrained a somewhat naive German who wanted to make a home video of the ominous-looking aircraft. Glasnost or not, the Russians weren't quite ready for that.
Without further drama my three companions—Jerry Ivy and Jerry Jergins of Seattle, and Jergins's 32-year-old son, Jeronimo, from New Braunfels, Texas—and I made it to our jumping-off point, which was the city of Khabarovsk, on the Amur River close to the Chinese border. Khabarovsk (pop. 600,000) is one of those big Russian cities that almost no one in the West has heard of. But it did have a couple of tackle shops. There were more customers than goods when Jerry, Jerry, Jeronimo and I visited. "Heh, heh, heh. Look at those Russian reels!" we smugly told one another. There was just one model, a single-action device that came in two sizes and each cost 20 cents. And—nudge, nudge—check out those Russian spoons, heavy and made out of some dull metal, so crude compared with the chrome-finished beauty of our own seven-dollar lures, which we had schlepped from the U.S. by the boxful. But the spoons cost only eight cents, so we bought some as conversation pieces for when we got home.
The next day, we headed north, pausing to refuel at Poliny Osipenko, which, our interpreter Galliulin dutifully told us, was named for a famous Russian woman pilot who had fatally crashed there while attempting to set a Moscow-to-Khabarovsk record.
That was still on my mind when a freight-hauling helicopter took over as our transport for the penultimate leg of our journey, to an islet in the Maymakan. From there, guides were waiting in outboard-equipped boats to ferry us across to the camp's log cabins on the mainland.
They made quite a group. There was 29-year-old Aleksandr Mushnikov, my personal taimen coach, whom I learned to call Sash. And Lenya Gudiarov, who was assigned to Jeronimo. Looking after Ivy was Aleksandr Koshetev, Sash II, who, with his lank black hair and drooping bandit's mustache, looked as if he had just come out of a Louisiana bayou. He proved to be an official of the Khabarovsk Historical Society. The most senior of the guides, and, mysteriously, the least handy with a boat, was Ivan Naumov, soon to be known as Crash Gordon for obvious reasons and, later, as Gordon the Warden when it was discovered that he owed his ranking on this trip to his bureaucratic position high in the district's fish and wildlife service.
The countryside was equally exotic. Even though the lofty mountain ridges that shadowed our camp held snow leopards and the even rarer Marco Polo sheep, and marched like petrified surf north to the Arctic Sea, in the taiga's brief summer the temperature could, and often did, head into the 90's.
The first morning we fished, however, a mist hung on the river, and it was chilly. Sash used the outboard to take the two of us upstream for some 45 minutes. The plan was to drift back silently, using paddles when needed, to cover each pool.
Somehow we communicated, even though Sash's minimal English was better than my Russian. Key words in our bilingual shorthand were cast, which was self-explanatory; smoke, which meant, Let's take a break, and didn't necessarily involve cigarettes; and lunch, meaning, It's time we were out of here. Sash also had an extensive vocabulary of hand signals, which were precise enough to convey to me how spooky the taimen were and just how he wanted me to fish.
That was in the deep holes, and the trick was to cast cross-river above the pool, so that the spoon would tumble down into it. Then you would raise the rod and let the current carry the lure, fluttering, through the depths. The Big Mak, as we had come to call the Maymakan, was big water, right enough. It was still running off from midsummer flooding, high and vodka-clear over glacier-ground stones, so clear that it looked barren.
It was not barren, though. Five-and six-pound lenok—a troutlike species—hit often enough to set my heart pounding on false alarms. And even before the sun burned through the mist, I spotted my first live taimen. Or, to be precise, Sash spotted it, after he had climbed a dead spruce that hung out over the water and directed me where to look.
It was a big fish, 25 or 30 pounds, a dark shadow finning lazily in a smooth glide at the tail of a pool. I cast so that my lure would swing across its nose. But the clear water fooled me as to its pace and strength: The spoon flickered beyond and behind the taimen, and "Nyet, nyet, nyet!" yelled Sash from the tree.
Even when I got the distance right, the taimen ignored the spoon. For 20 minutes I laid siege to it in vain, working my way through most of the lures recommended by the Seattle-based trip outfitters. "Sash," I said, "you try." He didn't understand, so "Smoke," I said, pointing to myself, though I don't, and "Cast!" pointing at him.
He got the message and got his gear from the boat. It consisted of one of those funny single-action reels and a short steel rod—the Russians were probably still working their way through the German tank antennae acquired at the Battle of Kursk in 1943. Later I would find that he could toss a spoon 200 feet, accurately, with that stuff, but this time, possibly because he was nervous, he dropped the spoon right on the taimen's nose, and the fish swam off, slowly, like an affronted duchess.
"Nyet!" I shouted at the departing fish. "Nyet, nyet, nyet!"
Sash tripped and fell on the bank, laughing helplessly at my desperation. Later, through Galliulin, he explained that it was common to sight a taimen this way but that they would rarely take. If you could see them, he reckoned, they could see you. The taimen you caught, he said, was the one that came out of nowhere.
This information came at lunch, real lunch. By then Sash was entitled to pontificate, because he had guided me to the first taimen I ever caught. And, true enough, it had hit sight unseen, before the mist lifted and shortly after we quit on the fish Sash had spotted.
If that sounds like an abrupt and downbeat way of putting it, well, by lunchtime I realized that, though in a strict sense my quest was satisfied, in reality the grail still shimmered just out of reach.
Sure, my first taimen had been a pretty fish, and it had fought like a snow leopard. I had even rejoiced over it at first. But it was no monster, just 20 pounds or so. And the obsession I had with the species was that it was a breed of monsters. To exorcise my fixation, I needed to catch a taimen of the size I had heard about, more like three times the weight of the morning's fish.
But though at first it seemed my chances were good, once that first day's mist burned off, so did the taimen fishing. Jerry, in spite of Crash Gordon's efforts-he roared into every pool with the motor at full throttle, careening into rocks and boughs without changing expression-took a nice fish the second day, but that was it.
If, on the penultimate day of our week-long trip, Sash hadn't noticed a twist of brown paper in my tackle box, I might have gone home with my ache still unassuaged. But see it he did, and he unwrapped one of those eight-cent Russian spoons I had bought as a conversation piece. He signaled me to tie it on.
It was two pools later that Sash shouted "Hokay!" instead of "Nyet!" when I cast, thereby expanding his English vocabulary 25% at a stroke. But all that I had done was hook an underwater log. I had been hung up on a lot of logs that week, and at this point I turned and shrugged at Sash, indicating that we should get in the boat to try to retrieve the clumsy lure. But Sash was shaking his head wildly and screaming in Russian as the log thumped twice at my rod tip. It caught my attention like two Tyson jabs; then this huge fish in gray-and-crimson livery breached clear of the water.
It was my good fortune that the fish decided to stay and fight it out in the pool instead of heading for the white water below it. The taimen fought in great crashing cartwheels, and when it made for the logs, I used heavy side strain to turn it. I had 17-pound-test line on, and nothing less would have done it.
And then Sash was waist-deep in the Big Mak, with my taimen by the tail. He wrestled it onto the gravel beach and lay embracing it, yelling in triumph. We had left the certified scales back at camp, naturally, but I had a tape measure, and later I would write in my fishing diary, "Maymakan River, Russian Far East, 1:15 p.m., weather bright, 80° plus, taimen 139 centimeters long, girth 65 cms."
Sash and I danced on the beach. Then he estimated the weight for me by holding up his fingers. Ten, then another 10, then eight. Twenty-eight pounds? Ridiculous, I thought. Then I realized he meant kilos. My taimen weighed better than 60 pounds. My quest was over.
I'd been luckier than I'd thought. One tine of the treble hook had almost pulled straight, and the leader was badly frayed where the big fish had hit it again and again with its tail. Only a few more seconds, and I would have lost it.
Later, Galliulin would explain to me why Sash had made me put on the Russian spoon. The American spoons were beautiful, Sash had told Galliulin, but in the midday sunlight they were far too bright. The Russian product was appropriately dull.
That night I ceremoniously retired the spoon as Sergei, the cook, just as ceremoniously served up a fine last dinner centered around breast of wild duck. Ivy was also celebrating. In increasing gloom he had been fishing every hour possible, and he hadn't cheered up when I told him that he symbolized the indomitable spirit of the American sportsman. He didn't want to be a symbol, he said, he wanted to catch a taimen. And that afternoon he had managed it, a 40-pounder.
We still had the next morning, and with the pressure gone, we could indulge our fancies for a few hours before the helicopter came to pick us up. Ivy slept. Jeronimo found a backwater full of northern pike, and his father and I got out fly-fishing outfits and investigated the grayling.
Before we left, the camp watchdogs, Bes, Taiga, Maxim and Dryzhok, put on their own grand finale, treeing—until they were called off—nothing less than a sable, the first one we Westerners had ever seen. And so we headed home in a cocoon of fulfillment that lasted until takeoff time at Poliny Osipenko.
That night, after the near crash and the dire political news, we ate cabbage soup in Poliny Osipenko's tiny hotel and watched, barely comprehending, the bland TV bulletins being put out by the junta, or the Bloody Eight, as Galliulin was calling them. He also cautioned us to lock our doors that night. He needn't have bothered. Poliny Osipenko was a grim sort of place, with posters left over from the Brezhnev days.
By the next morning, though, like the rest of the Soviet Union, Galliulin was grinning with the news of the Yeltsin miracle. He had also had word that somebody was sending a helicopter to pick us up, as the airstrip had been closed during an official inquiry into the crash. Even then, though, the trip would not end without another surreal touch. The crew of the helicopter, true to the emerging spirit of enterprise, had hauled a ton of eggs with them from Khabarovsk.
But nobody in Poliny Opsipenko wanted the eggs enough to buy them—at least they pretended they didn't—and the entrepreneurs were apparently going to end up, so to speak, with egg on their faces. They would either dump their cargo or dump us and take their eggs home. Somebody told us the egg men were asking $500 for the load, and Jerry Jergins said he was seriously thinking of paying it himself and making a present of the eggs to the village. He was too late, though. The crafty villagers had been holding out for a better price, and they closed a deal with the desperate crew. The eggs were unloaded, and at last we left.
That night, in a villa in Khabarovsk, I spoke with an official of the Russian outfitters who warmly congratulated me on my big fish. But he also wanted to know if I had ever come across the great Amur River pike.
"It is like your muskellunge," he said, "but it is possible it reaches 100 pounds. Only, it is very rare, I think. Some think the odds against catching it are about 1,000 to 1 for a fisherman. Would you be interested in trying it?"
I thought of what a similar conversation with Dr. Hensel had done to me all those years before. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to hear about the 100-pound Amur River pike," I said firmly. "I really don't have another 20 years to spare."
He looked at me strangely as I rose to go to bed.