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.