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.