Travels with vodka

Former T&S editor Sandy Leventon leant me a good book last autumn. That I am still reading it, albeit with only five pages to go, is testament to my uselessness in reading books. Sandy thought I’d be interested in Hooked: Fly-fishing through Russia by American journalist Fen Montaigne (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson) and he was not wrong. The book is a travelogue of an early/mid-1990s west to east tour of Russia. Early on, Montaigne visits Murmansk, then travels overland with various more or less enebriated Kola residents to Umba, and thence to Varzuga, where he met the Varzugan legend (who tragically died in a car crash last summer), Sviat Michailovich.

Having fished briefly the Kola and Umba rivers where he had hooked but lost a salmon or two but kept his Kola virginity disappointingly intact, Montaigne was desperate to fish the Varzuga and catch a fish. This is understandable – a Russian fly-fishing travelogue that kicked off with the author fishing three separate salmon rivers on the Kola Peninsula and failing to ‘catch’ would be more than a little bit disappointing.

So he went to meet Sviat Michailovich (Sviat dropped by at the Roxtons lodge during my visit last May but I sadly didn’t get the chance to talk to him before he enigmatically slipped away again, but his looming metaphorical presence was with us throughout the week):

“Since 1987, Michailovich had been the chairman of the Shoots of Communism collective farm of Varzuga, a wildly anachronistic misnomer. For he was lord and master of a small, capitalistic empire that included the farm, five high-seas fishing trawlers, a salmon-processing plant and several salmon camps for foreign fishermen. When people spoke of him they tended to use words like ‘prince’ and ‘fiefdom’. His domain was the Varzuga River on southern Kola, accessible by a bad road.”

Following their meeting Michailovich arranged as a special one-off for Montaigne two days of fishing on the river at a time that must have been late in the season. After a first day in which Montaigne moves a fish he finally gets his chance at what I’m sure was the stretch on the left bank of the river I fished, opposite Lower Varzuga camp, the Larder:

“A salmon leapt into the air where a sandy bluff fell into the Varzuga … I began casting into a pool close to the bank. Ten minutes passed. I kept my casts short in the brisk wind. My fly drifted over a small boulder and I felt a gentle tug. For a split second I thought I had snagged the rock, but then the water boiled and a salmon raced downstream, leapt once and continued on. The reel handle scraped my knuckles. The fish took all my fly-line and had just started to unspool the backing underneath … The salmon leapt twice more but within five minutes Dima had it in his net. A hen, silver with small, black spots, about two feet long, and weighing six or seven pounds …”

Anyway, the particular story of fishing in Russia I wanted to quote from the book before I got sidetracked by salmon paradise on the Kola again took place further into Fen Montaigne’s travels, and much further east. Just a few hundred miles from the Pacific, infact, well between Yakutsk and the Pacific. Montaigne is hitching a lift to a former Stalinist labour camp called Alyaskitovy when he and his driver Anatoly come upon a stalled truck:

“Two men, in soiled, green coats, stumbled up the road, one carrying a bucket of water. Two other men were passed out in the back of the truck amid a heap of clothes, tents, fishing gear and food. A fifth man sat dumbly behind the wheel. All were in various stages of inebriation, which amused Anatoly, since he hadn’t taken a drink in four years. After helping jump-start the engine, Anatoly clambered back into the Zil and drove off.

‘They left Ust Nera on a fishing trip last night, and this is as far as they’ve gotten. They’ll get to their fishing camp later today and won’t even start fishing for a couple of days until they drink all their vodka. They brough two cases of vodka – that’s 24 bottles for five guys, about five bottles apiece. That’s a two-day supply. When the vodka’s gone, they’ll drink some strong tea, do a little fishing, and go home. That’s fishing, Russian style.’”

Remember that intake next time you wake up for the first full day’s fishing in a marginally less than sensible condition following a first-night setting-the-word-to-rights party. Strong tea, anyone?

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About henrygiles

Born to fish forced to work and fish
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