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The situation on the northern salmon rivers of the Kola Peninsula reminds me of my early days casting big salmon and tarpon flies. I used to ding myself off the back of my head so often I developed a bad flinch, ducking my head on each forward power cast with the full expectation of getting hit, but being pleasantly surprised when the fly hissed by harmlessly.

Atlantic salmon anglers have developed just such a flinch when it comes to fishing the northern Kola rivers. Why…? Because, year after year, there have been upsets and confrontations that, collectively, have come to be called the "Kola Wars." Understanding what’s behind all this turmoil is almost impossible, too, because of the stolid demeanor of the Russian people and the often incomprehensible ways of their bureaucrats. However, two constants have emerged to become something of a pattern. First, anglers are still waiting for a single season to pass uneventfully and without a confrontation or the very real threat of one. Second, the common denominator in many of the difficulties seems to be Bill Davies (*) and his organization, Kola Salmon Marketing (*).

Davies, who hails from Arizona, was a key figure in the opening of the Kola’s Atlantic salmon sport fishery in the late 1980’s. The Umba and Varzuga rivers, which flow south from the Kola Peninsula into the White Sea, were the first rivers to be visited by western anglers through Davies’ original operation, Soviet Sports Connection. However, after one year of commercial operation and considerable conflict between various interested parties, Davies withdrew from Soviet Sports Connection to develop rivers on the northern Kola Peninsula with his new company, Kola Salmon Marketing.

Exploratory ventures there indicated superb fishing for large runs of salmon and Davies quickly moved to secure the fishing rights on rivers like the Rynda, Zolotaya, Kharlovka, Sidorovka and Litsa. In 1993, Davies obtained a five year lease for the fishing rights on the Varzina and built the Varzina River camp at a cost of over $200,000. The camp was to be the flagship of his operation.

Unfortunately, despite Davies’ deep rooted connections within various levels of Russian government, things have not gone smoothly for him on this river from the beginning. That first year, for example, Finnish operators managed to secure fishing permits for the Varzina. Davies succeeded in having them evicted, but in 1994 the same thing happened again. This time, the Finnish operator not only exercised his right to fish the Varzina, but legally prevented Davies’ clients from fishing it for most of the season. The somewhat ludicrous situation boiled down to Davies having the fishing rights but the Finns having the actual permits.

This year, the situation basically repeated itself but took an ugly turn. As we reported last month (see pages 3 10), it all started when the Lovozero regional administration put fishing permits for the river up for tender this past February. The administrators later announced that Eero Petterssen (*), a Helsinki entrepreneur involved with the promoters of the Ponoi River on the eastern nose of the Kola Peninsula, had outbid all others and obtained the Varzina permits. Davies could not acknowledge this sale, of course, since doing so would have been interpreted as an admission that he did not actually hold the permits he needed to offer trips to the river. And so the situation remained as anglers from the US and elsewhere began to finalize their 1995 Varzina River fishing plans.

The season opened with Davies and Petterssen both determined to exercise their legally acquired rights. Davies simply opened his Varzina River camp this spring as planned, while Petterssen set up a tent camp on the adjacent Drovdoska River. He began to operate a shuttle service from there to the Varzina by helicopter. Then on June 22 things came to a head.

Eyewitnesses say the trouble started when some of Davies’ clients were stopped on the river by a senior fish inspector who arrived in a helicopter bearing the logo of Petterssen’s organization. The inspector promptly seized the clients’ fishing licenses on the pretext that they had been illegally issued. The anglers were told to return to camp where they were greeted by the head of the Lovozero administration, plus six of his most high ranking bureaucrats and a number of fishing inspectors. Adding to the anxiety of all this was the presence of hooded militia members (a captain and two privates), armed with automatic weapons. The clients were given 24 hours to get out of camp. All traces of the camp were to be removed by August 1 unless it was sold prior to that date.

All of the above is fairly well known by now, as word of the above confrontation has spread like wildfire through the international angling community. What isn’t as well known is what has happened since. For starters, Davies has sued the Governor of the Murmansk region and the head of the Lovozero administration for more than $1 million (US) for damages, lost business and good will. The deadline for a response was July 25, 1995.

Meanwhile, things are equally messed up on other rivers where Davies has his finger in the pie. The Kharlovka River camp, for example, which has been running relatively smoothly over the past two years, is now in turmoil. The problem here is the financial collapse of Davies’ ex partner and the bank’s seizure of all his partner’s assets, including the setup on the Kharlovka. There is talk that a group of former guides at the camp are now plotting to take over the operation themselves.

Over on the Rynda, meanwhile, authorities decided arbitrarily that there would be no fishing within 250 yards of the falls where the camp on that river is situated. Moreover, they decreed that the island pools which are considered the prime beat on the lower river would be reserved for Russian fishing permits. That essentially made the productive downriver pools off limits to camp guests, leaving them to fish the scattered upriver pools. The closest of these is five miles above camp, and the rest are so far away they are accessible only by helicopter. To make matters worse, just when the salmon started to storm into the Rynda big time, the bank foreclosed on Davies in an effort to secure whatever it could of his ex partner’s assets. The camp was subsequently closed.

Mind you, not all the Kola operations are in turmoil. Frontiers’ (*) Ponoi River camp is running smoothly, as are the Varzuga and Kitsa river camps run by Roxton Bailey Robinson in England (*). Flyfish in Kola, a Swedish company (*) reports good results on the Umba. Still, the latest outbreak of trouble is taking its toll on client confidence. Which river is next? Will they all be engulfed soon in bureaucratic warfare? What about all the money that’s tied up in trips booked to Davies’ rivers this year?

The questions go on and on. Ultimately, they lead one to question whether this greatest of all Atlantic salmon fishing opportunities is going to survive at all. Here at The Angling Report, we think it is. Well, maybe we should soften that to we hope it is…. George Gruenefeld.

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