The tide turns on an icy tradition

  • 2009-03-05
  • By Kate McIntosh

THE WAITING GAME: Latvian ice fishing enthusiasts say that the sport, one of the most popular winter pastimes, is in their blood.

RIGA - The crouched figures of Latvia's ice fishing enthusiasts are a ubiquitous site across the country's frigid winter landscape.
Fishermen seated atop padded metal cases 's which also store their equipment and catch 's their lines hovering just above a small drilled hole, crowd the country's icy rivers and waterways in winter months.
With a large coastline hugging the Baltic Sea, fishing has enjoyed unparalleled popularity in Latvia for centuries.

In February Latvia was runner up in the World Ice Fishing Championships, finishing behind the Ukraine by just a single point.
Eleven countries, including the U.S., competed for the prestigious title, which took place in Poland's picturesque Augustow region.

However, ice fishing enthusiasts approached by The Baltic Times at popular fishing site Lielupe were at a loss to explain the sport's attraction in Latvia, except to say it was part of a deeply ingrained national culture.
"Why does the motorcyclist like to motorcycle? He just does, and that's how we feel," said one.
Coastal fishing traditions developed over time as a result of the historical interaction between the land and sea.

In the picturesque fishing villages lining Latvia's sea and coastal zone 's an area stretching some 497 kilometers along the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga 's these ancient traditions still remain alive.
Today there are an estimated 300,000 registered fishermen in Latvia, although fishing for pleasure has replaced necessity.

Fishing is increasingly practiced as a recreational pursuit rather than as the survival mechanism it once was.
Long-time Riga fisherman Arnis Osuroks said the rise of cheap, convenient supermarket bought fish, along with the relatively high cost of modern equipment, had changed the nature of fishing.
"You need to have the right equipment; food for the fish, bait. All of that's comparably expensive, so why would you bother if you can get it cheaper at the supermarket," he said.

Pike and perch remain the most common prize for local fishermen.
Depending on the size and species of fish, enthusiasts use a variety of metal lures, as well as live bait, to attract their catch.

The size and variety of a catch is largely dependent on the ocean's currents.
"The current affects the behavior of fish. When it is changing from the influence of the sea there is greater probability of catching something," said Riga fishing enthusiast Sergey Kocafana.
The migration of fish from the sea to the country's waterways is monitored and tracked by a word-of-mouth messenger service, which also serves to pass on the predicted locations of prime fishing spots.
Despite the skill and knowledge involved in the sport, Kocafana said success was also dependant on luck.
"Of course you have to have some gift, but there is also luck involved," he said.

"Some people fish all their lives without much success. You need to know the basis; you have to learn how different fish behave, what they like, where they go; their characteristics and behavior, without that it's not possible."


For all its popularity, there remains a perilous side to this winter pastime, with the sport claiming the lives of several fishermen each year. It is an all too common story to hear of fishermen who have fallen through the ice.
Yet fishermen TBT spoke to were largely dismissive of the dangers, saying a few simple precautions could prevent accidents.

A minimum ice thickness of 10 centimeters is needed to support the weight of an average human.
Fishermen use a large stick to measure ice thickness and are generally adept at reading conditions and weather patterns.
"You need to look at the weather. When was the ice created? Is it fresh? What is the temperature? It's very important to have an overview of what is happening," said Kocafana.

Riga fisherman Janis Kalnins said due to the solitary nature of the sport, it was important for individual fishermen to assess conditions and avoid taking unnecessary risks.
"In the end it's always up to you. No one else is going to take care of you out there," he said.
Nevertheless, Kalnins said he regularly warned inexperienced fishermen who risked their lives by walking across thin ice or who did not have the correct equipment.


The popular tradition of fishing was to emerge a survivor of the austere Soviet regime.
Latvia's communist authorities were said to be keen fishermen and thus maintained and encouraged the sport.
During Soviet times it was common for fishermen to queue for long periods to collect their quota of bait at one of just two fishing outlets.
Today fishing is big business.

In Riga alone there is upward of 50 fishing related specialty stores selling state-of-the-art equipment including lures, clothing and live bait, which is comparable in price to red caviar.
"In Soviet times there was limited equipment available. It was more simple back then. Fishermen would catch worms for themselves; they were more creative. Now we have development in all areas. It's more of a business now," explains Osuroks, restaurant manager at the exclusive Riga dining establishment Vincent's.
During Soviet times Latvia was a major exporter of fish products to Russia, with commercial fishing fleets regularly plying domestic and foreign seaways.

"Russia was a big market, but they didn't have such resources to meet demand and so Latvia became an important exporter," said Osuroks.
"When we stopped this relationship we also lost this market," he added.
With the European market already saturated by cheaper, imported fish, there remains little demand for Latvian fish products.

As a result several fish processing plants have closed or have severely decreased production levels.
Nevertheless, the popularity of fishing amongst Latvians remains increasingly strong.
As Osuroks explains, "It is in our blood; our genes."