x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Russian ice dance to land a rare catch

Millions of Russian men brave freezing temperatures and precariously thin ice for the chance to hoist a few bony perch or carp from the water.

TIMOFEYEVO, RUSSIA // Ivan Pyatkov hunched over a hole he had drilled in the ice, wielding a tiny fibreglass pole with the finesse of a symphony conductor as he gently tugged on the nylon line he had dropped into the frigid water below. "I've been here since daybreak," Mr Pyatkov, 53, said one recent afternoon on snowy, windswept Istrinskoye reservoir, an hour north of Moscow. "I haven't caught any fish yet, though."

Mr Pyatkov is among the millions of Russian men who every winter brave freezing temperatures and often precariously thin ice for the chance to hoist a few bony perch or carp from the water. For many, ice fishing is rarely about the catch. "I get out here as often as I can," said Mr Pyatkov, who was so unfazed by the -20°C temperature that he shunned gloves altogether. "God doesn't count the days you spend fishing against you."

Ice fishermen are likely to invoke the spiritual and redemptive powers of their hobby. "It's soothing for the soul," said Alexander, a thirtysomething resident of a nearby hamlet who declined to give his last name. "Look around at how beautiful it is here. There's fresh air, and you're close to nature." As if on cue, Alexander got a strike on his line, and with a jerk upwards he set the hook in the mouth of his unseen, underwater prey. Alexander lifted his meagre haul on to the ice: a crucian carp about 10cm long. "It's big enough to fry or dry out and snack on with a beer," Alexander said.

Alexander dismissed the stereotype of the Russian ice fisherman with a drill in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other as misguided. "It's bad luck to drink until you're done fishing for the day," he said. Three fisherman 100 metres away appeared to be unaware of this superstition as they passed a flask around with loud, jovial banter. Although ice fishing may at first glance seem to be a languid pursuit, its serious practitioners engage in a kind of ice-dance routine, waltzing between numerous holes they have drilled with augers, enormous metal corkscrews.

Mr Pyatkov had eight lines in the water, and each hole required special attention. Using a metal ladle he gently scooped out ice that had accumulated in the hole and sprinkled a layer of snow on top to insulate the opening from the freezing air. "There's no time to rest," Mr Pyatkov said as he packed a mix of chopped bait fish, or chum, into a metal container and dropped it into the water to attract fish. "You're moving all day. You can't just sit in one spot. You have to move to where the fish are."

Mr Pyatkov said that unlike many Russian ice fishermen, he has never found himself - literally - on dangerously thin ice. Hundreds of ice fisherman in Russia every year either drown or are stranded on drifting ice floes, requiring rescue teams to be called in. One frustrated emergency official in Russia's central Samara region complained about his compatriots' insistence on ice fishing near a hydroelectric station. Late last month, his rescue workers were called in to rescue 60 ice fisherman stranded on a floe that broke off near the plant on the Volga River.

"The area is famous for its abundance of fish," the official, Andrei Derbenev, told the local edition of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. "We have repeatedly warned these fanatics of the dangers of fishing there, but to no avail. Typically the fishermen crowd on to the ice, the electric plant releases water, and the ice begins to melt. They have to call us. We pull them out - and the next year the same thing happens all over again."

On the Istrinskoye reservoir, a cold snap has left an ice barrier 12cm thick atop the water, and snowmobiles weave worry-free between the small tents erected by the fishermen to shield them from frigid winds. The winds had largely died down as the sun crept towards the horizon and Yury Mukhin, a 50-year-old computer engineer from Moscow, checked one of his 15 poles, each rigged with a black flag that springs when a fish hits a line.

"It's an adrenalin rush for me to be out here," Mr Mukhin said between drags on his cigarette. "I don't care so much about the fish." His prize catch was a pike 40cm long, which he proudly took out of a black sports bag. He pointed to a plastic bag filled with tiny crucian carp next to him on the ice. "The pike is for me, and those," he said, "are for my cat." cschreck@thenational.ae