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That's a Dandy. Photo by author.

Tip-Toeing Through Russia

By Justin Miller

Despite the whole universe seeming to conspire against me, I made it to Russia for steelhead season this fall. Even better, I made it back home, although my mother and sister had their doubts. It wasn’t easy, to say the least. But I wanted to be there, and I felt it was important that I be there. Obviously, I do not in any way support the invasion of Ukraine. But I also don’t blame my friends in Russia for their government’s decisions.

I’m the only American who made the journey this year. I’m also the only one who tried, which wasn’t a surprise. This season, only Russian anglers visited the Kamchatka Steelhead Project—an initiative started twenty-eight years ago to protect Asia’s only population of these special fish. They kept the program alive and helped us maintain an anti-poaching force on the rivers, in order to protect the last healthy runs of wild steelhead left on Earth.

Looks cozy for those cold Russian nights. Photo by author.

Make no mistake, I was plenty skeptical myself about the odds of pulling this off in September. I wasn’t breaking any laws. While no airlines have offered direct flights from the US to Russia since March, it is perfectly legal to make a connection there from another country, and plenty of non-North American-based airlines will sell you a ticket. I made my connection through Turkey, but I still needed tickets to fly within Russia once I get there, which I couldn’t buy.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Aeroflot—Russia’s largest airline by far—flew to more than fifty countries. But since March 8, 2022, it flies in only Russia and Belarus, and a ticket could only be purchased on the Aeroflot website with a credit card issued inside the Russian Federation. None of the airline booking agents I work with in the US could even see Aeroflot flights in their systems. So my Russian friend—the outfitter running our steelhead camps—had to buy my plane tickets for me and I had to bring a pile of cash with me to pay him back.

Another problem was that my old Russian visa expired on August 31st, and I assumed that getting a new one was going to be an insurmountable obstacle. But this turned out to be one of the easiest pieces of the puzzle. The Russian consulate issued me a new three-year, multiple-entry visa in under a week. (I guess it’s easier when there’s no one else waiting in line.) Even while going through customs in Moscow, officials didn’t bat an eye. Nobody treated me strangely at all. Ultimately, the act of entering Russia wasn’t as difficult as I thought. The trouble came after that.

Once inside, sanctions made it nearly impossible to do anything or go anywhere. US credit and ATM cards don’t work in Russia. In fact, I was told that my accounts would be frozen if I even attempted to use them. As any American who’s traveled to Cuba can tell you, not being able to use a credit card can be a serious issue: When you are out of cash, you are out of money, period.

And of course my luggage didn’t make it over with me, lost in Istanbul for the entire month. So I ran out of cash quickly, paying first for my flights, then for a pair of waders, a set of long johns, and a couple pairs of Underroos. I had to beg or borrow for everything else. I arrived in Petropavlovsk (on the Kamchatka Peninsula) on Sept. 23—two days after Putin had announced the mobilization of 300,000 Russian civilians to the front lines of the war. The process of rounding them all up was in full swing when I arrived, and I saw many military personnel carriers hauling kids down to the registration offices to get them checked in for duty.

The US State Department responded the next day, raising its Travel Advisory for American citizens in Russia to Level Four (there is no Level Five). “Do not travel to Russia,” the statement read. “U.S. citizens residing or travelling in Russia should depart Russia immediately.” By this time, my crew and I were already loading a chopper for the forest. Our philosophy: “Come and get us.” Nobody on the trip believed in the war. Nobody supported it, and nobody was going to go terrorize their neighbors for bullshit their government said they did or didn’t do.

But it was still scary stuff. A few of our guys got called up. Their girlfriends were calling and telling them that soldiers had come to their homes looking for them. They weren’t about to go home and get drafted. One of my friends in town, who wasn’t in camp with us in the fall, was so worried that he fled Russia and got an apartment in Turkey. He is still there. Another guy who was with me in camp said there were no young men left in his village at all—every one of them had either fled or were conscripted. One women said every night out in town was “like a bachelorette party these days, only far less joyful.” Multiple friends had been arrested for participating in anti-war protests.

A Ripper Magoo of a Russian steelhead. Photo by author

Needless to say, it was dodgy as hell over there, with everybody kind of tip-toeing around, trying to fly under the radar, trying not to get sent to prison, or the war. Then there was me, trying not to get arrested or deported. It is heartbreaking to see so many Russian’s lives being upended by something they want no part of. Not to mention what Ukraine is going through—being attacked for no reason at all. But I am glad I was there with my crew, making sure they know that I will never turn my back on them, and that they will never be my enemy. Those guys are my brothers.

Incidentally, we did catch a few really nice steelhead. But the fishing felt so small in comparison to what was happening in Ukraine and throughout the rest of Russia. Nevertheless, standing in a river swinging flies for dimers has a way of calming the mind and sending positive energy into the universe. And the universe needs more positive energy right now.

A lot must change before we’ll be operating the steelhead program in Russia for Americans and other foreign anglers. No one in their right mind would do what I did this fall to get there and back. This is extremely difficult for me to accept, but that’s the reality. I am confident that we will return to some semblance of normalcy in the coming years, but it will take some time. Nothing is going to change until the war is over and there is some change in Russia’s leadership.

But the moment the coast is clear, I hope Steelhead Nation joins me and my friends again, protecting the last stronghold of wild steelhead on Earth.

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Justin Miller
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