Beyond fish soup: the hidden joys of ice fishing

  • 2012-02-29
  • By Emily Kernot

ICE-CYCLE: One way to get to your favorite fishing spot quicker is by biking on the river or lake.

RIGA - Above the Lielupe River the sky is clear. Thermometers sit at a steady -16°C. Breezes puff, stirring up the light snow, and everywhere you look people suspend their hopes on a piece of nylon, a hook and some worms. Ice fishing season is again in full swing.
A short distance from Guntis Liberts’ feet sits a small pile of ruff and perch. Fish Soup is on the menu tonight. And probably for the rest of the week, judging from the way he repeatedly puts his line down and reels it back, catch attached. It reminds me of a story…

A fisherman was returning to shore with a giant pike he’d caught earlier that day. On the way to his vehicle he came across a second fisherman clutching a long string with a dozen smelt hanging from it. The second fisherman looked the pike up and down, turned to the first fisherman and said, “Only caught one today, huh?”
Fishing will always have a competitive element no matter the primary reason for doing it. One battle noticeably emerging on Latvian ice this season is the one between sexes.

“You know, more and more women are fishing,” said Agita Ozolina, a fisherwoman with six winters’ experience. “I think one reason is they understand their husbands won’t give up fishing, so if they want to be with them they start.”
Her initiation to the sport started with a Christmas gift from her husband.
“I don’t know why, but, of course, it was a special suit for fishing in winter. I think he just knew my character and wanted me to go with him. I was waiting for the cold and ice because the winter was very like the one this year. But then the day came and we went to the river Venta.”

She said her first time on the ice was blessed with beginner’s luck.
“There were a lot of men on Venta that day but nobody could catch anything. Then I caught my first fish. I was so excited. Fishermen usually call it ‘fortune of the new born fisherman.’ A lot of men tried to bore holes around me, but nobody caught anything. Of course, I was very happy.”

From that moment on she felt different about her new-found hobby.
“Something had changed in my mind. Before that if I had seen the fishermen during the week standing and fishing I thought, ‘They don’t have a job; they don’t like to be at home; they have problems at home; they don’t have anything to eat.’ But it wasn’t that - they just like doing it,” she said.
“And I noticed I felt relaxed. All my bad thoughts had gone. After a busy week teaching I try to go somewhere and just be with me. I can’t see the fish. I can just try to understand its thoughts, wishes. I usually wonder who is cleverer – me or the fish? I like this feeling.”

But like any recreational pursuit, ice fishing comes with risks. The Baltic States’ season generally starts in December and ends in March, coinciding with spring. With the arrival of warmer weather ice sheets covering lakes, rivers and the sea, thins, and chances of falling through increase. This is sometimes called standing on “rotten” or “bad” ice. Each fisher has their own safety standards, though most abide by the rule that the ice must be five centimetres thick at a very minimum.

Ilgvars Lans, 24, started fishing with his grandfather when he was five-years-old at Lake Lubans and the Aiviekste River. He has experienced the fear of ice breaking beneath his feet but it hasn’t put him off heading out again.
“It was not very deep and I successfully got out on my own. I was dripping wet and very cold though…I realised you can’t act presumptuously. You can’t go ice fishing with inadequate clothing and you must follow the thickness of the ice.”
Fishers on the coast line face the danger of ice breaking off and floating out to sea. An incident of this type happened in February this year to three men fishing at Jurmala. They were helped by State Fire and Rescue Service specialists and safely brought to shore unharmed. Others have not been so fortunate.

In the past five years, from 2008 – 2012, Latvian statistics show there were 25 total related water deaths during winter months (December – February) and 21 for March.
“I never go on the ice if I don’t feel safe,” Agita said. “I rely on my husband because he has more experience in fishing. We never go if it is less than 10 centimetres thick. There are a lot of people who try to go on the ice if it is just four to five centimetres thick, but not us. If it is written that the ice is 10 and more, we go there. Then we make a hole and just measure the thickness with a finger.”

Some blame the deaths on a different type of liquid. Namely vodka. Where this may have been true a decade or more ago, many fishermen now say it’s not worth taking a chance with drink-driving laws or the safety of themselves and others.
Guntis agrees. “I don’t drink when I fish because I drive here. Sometimes people use something like vodka to keep warm, but it’s not wise. When you are drunk you do not feel the cold and you can easily freeze. You can fall asleep and if you fall in the water...”

“I have never drunk vodka on the ice,” Agita said, “But I have seen a lot of people doing it. But you know it’s not as often as it was some time ago. It’s because a lot of people are drivers and it’s too expensive to drive a car and drink. But if you know you are going to spend two days at Lake Peipus you can do it. Just for good company, just for warming up. We always take hot tea and sandwiches with us.”

Popular fishing spots in Latvia include the mouth of the rivers Lielupe and Venta, Liepaja lake and canal, Jugla and Kisezers lakes, Bullupe estuary, the Daugava river in downtown Riga and the Gulf. In Lithuania, Nemunas delta, the coast near Palanga, Kurshskaya Spit and national park lakes at Zhemaitia and Aukshaitia are favourite haunts. In Estonia, Lake Peipus is spoken of in reverent tones constantly.

“We visited Lake Peipus several times last year. I know, we are crazy. It takes us five hours one way, but it is something magical, something incredible. We leave the house at 1am. We are at the lake at about 6am, then fish till 3 p.m. and home again. When we return we are so tired and don’t want to go anywhere. But at the end of the week we are ready to go there again,” Agita said.

Anyone fishing in the Baltic States must purchase an angler’s permit specific to the country. However children under 16, pensioners over 65 and individuals with special needs do not need a permit to fish. There are also circumstances where a different licence is required to fish at a particular location, such as a private lake or for a specific species.
 “If you go to Lake Peipus you have to buy a special licence in Estonia. If we go to Ventspils we don’t need anything except the licence in Latvia. It costs 10 lats a year. If you go to Liepaja to look for stintes, small but very tasty fish, you have to buy a licence which costs one to four lats a day.”

Guntis pulls a small rectangular container from his pocket, pops the top and threads another fat wax worm onto a hook. Lowering the line through 45 centimetres of ice and down a further four meters of water, it rests over his finger, which he calmly flicks every few seconds to produce what is known as the jig effect. This particular bait costs around 50 lats a kilogram, but he estimates only 10 grams is used to catch each fish.

Agita said: “If you would ask me how much money you need to go fishing I’d answer it’s not cheap. I think one car we have for fishing but another is for the equipment. Every year we buy new lines, baits and lures.”
Out on the ice you never know what the day will bring. Smelt, roach, trout, pike and other species. It’s a game. It’s a sport. It’s a competition. It’s a pastime. It is different for every person.

“There is enough water and fish for all enthusiasts,” Ilgvars said. “I fish because it is my hobby and I love to be close to nature. For me, every day out fishing is successful, regardless of how great the catch has been.”