Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russians' Passionate Winter Pastime You Don't Need a Boat, Fancy Tackle, or Even a Net, but Wear Your Fur Hat Because It's Minus 20 Degrees F

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russians' Passionate Winter Pastime You Don't Need a Boat, Fancy Tackle, or Even a Net, but Wear Your Fur Hat Because It's Minus 20 Degrees F

Article excerpt

ICE-FISHING is so dear to Russians that, in the Soviet days, companies used to provide buses to transport employees to their favorite fishing grounds.

"At times there were several buses, quite a party on the ice!" Mikhail Smirnov recalls. Under a silver moon, he walks on a frozen reservoir 75 miles west of Moscow. He aims to reach, before dawn, the spot where he used to come on the company bus.

Now Mr. Smirnov and the other fishers have to find their own transportation, but they know no deterrent - least of all the weather. With the temperature minus 20 degrees F. on a recent weekday, one could spot at least a dozen men scattered across the lake. "On weekends, there can be as many as 5,000 people on the ice," Smirnov says, "standing by their holes like penguins."

What in North America remains a marginal pastime is in Russia a national passion. "From Murmansk to Vladivostok, wherever there is ice, there are fishermen," Smirnov says. "As soon as the ice is about two inches thick, strong enough to support the weight of an adult, you'll see people on the ice." The biggest catches are during the "first ice" in December and the "last ice" of the April thaw.

The ice fishers begin as summer fishermen, some at the age of 8 or 9. But because of the hardship involved, winter fishing is clearly not a children's game. Most ice fishermen get hooked on the pastime in their 30s.

"For summer fishing, you need a boat, an anchor, a net - a lot of stuff. Here it's one man, one fish. That's real sport!" Vladimir Alexeyenko says with enthusiasm. He's another Muscovite who often comes for several days of fishing. "When I come here," he adds, "I'm completely disconnected from the rest of the world. I don't think about anything."

At such low temperatures it's difficult for anyone to think. There is undeniable romance in standing in the center of a 2.5-square-mile frozen lake - but staring for hours at some dark little circles? The only noises are the thumps of the ice as it cracks deep underneath.

Some fishers come by public transportation from Moscow - one train, two buses, and a good hike in knee-deep snow. Some catch the last train and sleep at the train station; others don't hesitate to pitch their tent on the ice. "All those are fanatics," Smirnov says, shrugging.

NIKOLAI SVESHNIKOV denies he belongs in this category. He's just a fisherman who had to come check his holes when it was minus 20 degrees F. because he had chummed the water with bait the day before, he says. As a bus driver, he has quite a bit of free time, and he lives close by. "What else is there to do in winter here?" he asks.

Not much. In Demidkovo, time seems to have frozen, just as the fish do as soon as they are caught and thrown onto the ice. Ice-fishing has survived. It was an economic necessity for the peasantry in most of northern Europe until a few centuries ago.

Ice fishermen still have a very peasantlike look to them, starting with the valenki: sturdy, often home-made felt boots that have kept generations of Russian feet warm. …

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