Russian long-lasting love affair with ice fishing

Anya Osipova
On the nearby islands—Russky, Popov—and in some other surrounding areas of Vladivostok, the ice starts forming earlier. So beginning in December, the distinctive figures of fishermen appear in the mornings: they wear warm sheepskin coats, carry drills to cut holes in the ice and haul boxes to sit on. Empty buckets that once held Terraco, a Korean putty, have lately been serving as these makeshift seats.

Vladivostok’s primary winter fish is Pacific smelt (the Russian word, koryushka, has Finnish coast origins, but Vladivostok natives are sure that only the local smelt is genuine). This small silvery fish is typically caught through the ice in ocean bays or in river mouths, where they also go. Russians from the country’s Pacific coast associate smelt with New Year’s as much as they do the fragrance of pine needles, mandarin oranges and Russian salad. Near the shores of Primorye, there are three types of smelt: rainbow smelt (the largest, measuring up to 30 cm); pencil smelt (small-mouthed smelt, a bit smaller); and the so-called pisuch, which is the size of a finger.

Smelt is caught on brass lures (many fishermen make them themselves) or “whip crackers”—rods with a short handle and small hooks. There is other tackle: “combines,” “switches” and more. Fishermen often place a bright object on the end of the hook: a piece of cloth or other material, and occasionally a sea worm. In the Soviet era, smelt fishermen used thread from schoolgirls’ bows, and during perestroika there it was trendy to use finely cut green condoms. Every winter the fishermen think up a new way of catching or baiting, and they discover new “biting” places (where fish willingly come to “bite,” that is, to be caught). They gather on Internet forums to discuss where the fishing is best, which fish prefers which tackle and so on.

A newly caught smelt has a pleasant odour of fresh cucumber. In Vladivostok (as in Russia in general), there is practically no concept of “recreational fishing,” when fish are released back into the water. In Russia, the practice is to take pleasure in eating anything that is caught. Smelt is usually fried (generally whole—with the head and innards—and it is eaten this way) or cured; it makes an excellent snack to accompany beer. In the past, clusters of cured smelt hung in nearly every window in Vladivostok. It is not surprising that the local smelt has won popularity in distant western Russia. In Vladivostok there are even proverbs connected to smelt. Another winter fish is the saffron cod, which is commonly eaten fried. Other fish that are sometimes caught in the winter are flounder (due to its shape, it often gets caught in the ice holes) and voracious goby, which are considered to be suitable food for only cats and seagulls.

A true fisherman is undaunted by the polar weather: having frozen in the first hours, he then gets a “second wind” and stops freezing. Many fishermen even prefer to hold their rods barehanded. The cold and the vodka, which is drunk for prophylactic purposes, give the face of a genuine winter fisherman a characteristic red tint, and his whiskers are covered with frost from his breath.

With the construction of the bridge to Russky Island in 2012, fishing in these areas has become much more popular than it used to be. While in the past the only way to reach Russky Island was by ferry, which depended on the capricious Pacific Ocean weather and often could not hold everyone who wanted to go to the island, people can now make the crossing by car. In the first winter after the bridge opened, traffic jammed the island’s rural roads and frozen bays. In the spring, when the ice thins and the wind starts breaking it, cars often fall under the ice. The seabed around Vladivostok is a veritable underwater parking lot—and a graveyard for unlucky fishermen.

For residents of the Far East, fishing is less a sport or even a livelihood than it is a way of life. The fisherman is quenching the primordial passion of the modern city dweller for nature, for authenticity, which in today’s plastic office life is diminishing. Also diminishing is the smelt population along Vladivostok’s shores. A good catch today is not the same as a good catch was 20-odd years ago. Nevertheless, every winter the ice fields around the city fill with the dark spots of fishermen and the tracks of car tires. One might say that smelt is the national fish of Vladivostok, one of its symbols.

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