Last weekend I went fishing in the Danube Delta. Though most people picture Vienna and central Europe when they think of the Danube, it actually flows past Moldova's southwestern border (only for 200 yards, but that's better than nothing!). Moldovans and Romanians call the river "Dunarea" instead of Danube. Sixty miles after passing Moldova, the Danube splits into two branches. The western branch marks the border between Romania and Ukraine while the eastern branch goes through Romania and splits again. For the final sixty miles to the Black Sea, there are three major and hundreds of minor channels. Much of the land in the delta is swampy but much of it was dredged in an attempt to grow crops.
Duane Beard, who works on another USAID contract here, organized the trip with two of his local staff, Christie and Victor. We all met at Noon on Friday, piled our belongings into Duane's Jeep Cherokee and, after a stop at a local fishing tackle shop, headed for the Delta. We drove three hours and crossed into Romania. There was nobody else crossing in our direction and it took about twenty minutes to clear Moldovan customs and immigration and another twenty minutes for Romanian customs and immigration. After another hour of driving on freshly paved, smooth Romanian roads, we arrived at a huge Costco-like store, at least ten times larger than any store in Moldova. We changed some money and used the ATM machine to get some Romanian Lei (35,000 to the dollar) and wandered around the store. We bought some more fishing tackle and some Diet Coke and continued on our way.
Our next stop was a ferry crossing to the right bank of the Danube. But just to confuse us, where we crossed the river flows North. So even though we were going East, we ended up on the Western bank. The river was probably a mile wide where we crossed. We drove for another hour or so, winding up and down many hills not far from the river and Ukraine on the other side. It had been dark for an hour by the time we got to the city of Tulcea, where we met Christie's college friend Laurentsiu, an expert fisherman who would help us find our way. We checked into our rooms on the fifth floor of the hotel, admired the view of the Danube from our balconies and had dinner on a restaurant's terrace, watching the Danube flow by.
Saturday morning we got up early (by may standards, at least), had breakfast at the hotel buffet which included eggs, sausages, pastries, cheese and more but no fruit or juice. After a visit to another fishing tackle shop to get our licenses and some more spinners we found our way to a small ferry. This was just a barge being pulled by a fishing boat.
The other side of the river was quite a contrast from the city of Tulcea. Here we saw nobody but fishermen and one border guard. The road was unpaved and rutted, elevated a few meters to protect it from floods. The land was very flat and it looked swampy. We could see a Ukrainian town in the distance.
We drove down the road, following a small channel. Then we stopped and started fishing around Noon.
We fished for most of the afternoon. At first, nobody caught anything. Laurentsiu and I were less patient than the others so we started walking up the river, looking for more fish. Laurentsiu pointed out fish just below the surface, but they weren't biting. Then we got to an area where there were too many weeds and grasses in the water. After a mile or so we got to a more open area. Before long he had caught three small fish and eventually I caught one myself. After trying without success for a bit longer, I decided I was ready for lunch. So I headed back downstream, rejoined the others and found some cheese, sausage, bread and cookies. Duane, Christie and Victor had switched from spinners to worms and were catching lots of small fish.
After lunch, the more serious fisherman continued catching small fish while I looked around. I noticed a large truck driving down the road with the tail-gate doors of its trailer open. Then they stopped, ran back up the road and retrieved an oxygen tank that had fallen out. Several horse-drawn carts also went down the road.
Lots of fishermen passed us going home on their bicycles. By now it was late afternoon and the mosquitoes were beginning to attack us. The fishermen advised us to head downstream where they were catching more of the small fish. Since Laurentsiu had not returned, we got in the jeep and headed back upstream. When we found him he showed us his big haul of large pike. We decided to ignore the mosquitoes and see what we could do. Before long we had caught several good sized ones.
Then someone told us that the last ferry back to Tulcea was at 7:00, so we reluctantly ended our fishing and jumped back into the jeep. Then we found another ferry, closer than the one we had taken on the way. This one was even smaller but it was ready to go so we drove on. There was a short delay on the other side as the pickup truck in front of us filled with three cows didn't have enough traction to make it up the hill. After three unsuccessful tries passengers from other cars jumped out and pushed by hand.
Christie and Laurentsiu cleaned the fish with help from Laurentsiu's mother while we went to a car wash and back to the hotel. After dinner at a pizzeria I was ready to sleep because we had another early start planned.
The next morning after breakfast we walked a short distance from the hotel to the boat we would take downstream to the village of "Mila 23", so named because it is 23 nautical miles from the Black Sea. Victor and I took the front seat while the others opted for a less windy location.
Shortly before we were ready to cast off, a group of five men arrived and loaded their camping gear and a week's worth of provisions on board. That took almost half an hour. Then they realized they had made an important error: the beer had been packed away below. That mistake was soon rectified and we took off. After an hour the river divided (marked by a small light house) and we continued downstream. We were passed by some big ships, delivering gas and other freight to countries up the Danube.
After another hour or two we turned off the main channel and worked our way through some narrow ones. The weather was cold and windy. It looked like it was going to rain, but it held off until after we had gone to bed.
We continued winding through progressively smaller channels until suddenly we pulled next to the shore and tied the boat to a tree. Then our camping friends unloaded all their gear, throwing much of it from the boat to the shore. We wished them goodbye and resumed our journey.
Soon we saw a few houses by the side of the river and we pulled into a dock. Right behind it was our hotel.
We were cold and hungry and happy that our host offered us a late lunch: fish soup, frog legs, carp and corn bread.
Then the innkeeper found us a small motorboat and driver to take us fishing. Since there were five of us plus the driver, two of us got in a second boat which he towed behind. We went through some narrow passages then arrived at a large lake. Here the two boats separated and tried our luck fishing. Duane caught a good-sized pike but the rest of us got nothing. But it was interesting to see the passages and the lake.
We returned to the hotel. The rest of the group played some poker (for matches) while I explored the village on foot. The village had two rows of houses, one by the river and one right behind. There was a grocery store and a cafe. I found a Russian Jeep (Niva) and two motorcycles but no road. Most people here are fishermen. They make good use of the reeds that grow everywhere, building roofs and fences from them. Many people were coming and going in double-ended rowboats.
Shortly after dark I found my way back to the hotel. We had a fish dinner, including Duane's Pike. We stayed up later talking than we should have since our ferry home would leave at 6 AM. The next morning, after a very early breakfast we headed for the ferry. We arrived at the dock five minutes early and found that the ferry had already left. Fortunately our hostess from the hotel was also planning to take the same ferry and the pilot had agreed to wait for her. She found a phone, called him and before too long the ferry steamed back to the dock. Then we discovered that the reason the ferry had left was that it was full. It was a bigger boat than the one the previous day, complete with seats for twenty five or more people, but they were all full. Fortunately the rain let up and four of us huddled in the bow, using a blanket to try to keep warm.
We were not confident that this bigger boat would fit through some of the narrow channels, but the captain charged ahead and four hours later we sighted Tulcea. After lunch at the Pizzeria we piled into the Jeep and headed home.