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 détente 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.