Fishing Lines: Hoodwinked by the Russians

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The Independent Online
A LIST of amusing Russians would probably rival for brevity the famed roll-call of famous Belgians. But some years ago, I was one of six hard-nosed pressmen who were totally hoodwinked by a quite wonderful Soviet practical joke.

We were part of an advance party to assess the potential of Russian fishing. (Answer: probably the best in the world, but that's another story.) After several days in Georgia, we arrived back at Rostov airport and prepared to board a plane for Leningrad. Our luggage was weighed and, because we were carrying every sort of tackle since we had not known what to expect, it was significantly above the 20kg limit.

OurIntourist guide Mikhael took us to one side, looking very severe. 'I'm afraid that the airline is insisting you pay for the excess baggage,' he said. 'You have to understand that it is very bureaucratic. We will probably be able to get the money back eventually.'

How much? 'The official rate is dollars 50 per kilo, but because you are guests of the Russian government, they will lower it to dollars 30 a kilo.'

We couldn't believe it. 'Put it on our bill and send it to Gorbachev,' we joked. But it soon became apparent that he was not joking. We were all facing bills totalling hundreds of dollars. In vain, we protested that we had been invited to the Soviet Union as government guests to assess the fishing. In vain, we threatened dire publicity. In vain, we demanded the airport manager, and berated him in O-level Russian. (Haranguing someone is not as effective if you have to keep looking up every other word in a Berlitz Russian for Travellers.) But they were implacable. Rules were rules.

We had already experienced Soviet bureaucracy at first hand. Stan Piecha from the Sun had spent eight hours the previous day to get an international line so he could phone his paper. (They didn't use the story.) And though we had wanted to fish from dawn to dusk, the organisers had insisted that we returned for three proper meals at set times. It was like being 10 years old again.

Credit-card payment was refused. It had to be cash, and dollars at that. We had a few hundred pounds, which could be exchanged at a ruinous rate, but there was still a huge shortfall. What could we do? We put ourselves at Mikhael's mercy, but to no avail. He was a decent chap, but hidebound by the system. 'Well, you could leave much of it behind in the customs store, but security is not very good,' he warned.

We pooled our cash, sorted what was vital and what we could afford to lose, wore what we could and stuffed our pockets to save as much as possible. But much would still have to go into storage, and probably disappear forever. We asked Mikhael to do what he could.

His face then beamed a Mr Happy grin, and to our total amazement, he started laughing. 'Tricked you there, didn't I?' he said. It had all been a jape on his part, in which the airport officials had collaborated. We had been completely suckered.

Later, we were to gain some small revenge when I superglued a brick inside his suitcase and hid a very dead bream in his shaving bag for the journey from Leningrad back to Moscow. But that, too, is another story. The point of this ramble, apart from highlighting the fact that even grim-faced Russians have a wicked sense of humour, is that anglers always carry far too much tackle.

Every holiday, my wife and I engage in frank discussion about whether it is better to take a 50lb-class rod and reel or a change of clothes for the children. At dinner parties, she is fond of relating how, on arriving in the Maldives and finding our luggage hadn't arrived, I was boundlessly angry. But it wasn't because we were without clothes. I was furious because I had rods (she had been detailed to carry them on to the plane) but no reels or tackle.

This problem of excess baggage, whether travelling abroad or simply fishing a local lake, is exacerbated by a mistaken belief that fishing quality is in inverse proportion to its proximity. It's a load of tosh. The best spot is often right by the car park. But anglers insist on hauling a mountain of gear miles along a river, in the fallacy that the further you travel and the more you suffer in hauling gear, the better and bigger the fish will be.

However, an invention by a Whitstable company may have overcome this problem. I'll tell you all about it next week.