RIGA - When most people hear the term ice fishing, they imagine a few gruff old men sitting for hours over a hole in the ice and warming themselves every so often with a bottle of whisky while they wait for a bite. But when it comes to ice fishing as a sport, this image couldn't be farther from the truth.
"It's a very active sport," said Janis Stikuts, president of the Latvian Angling Sports Federation. "The fishermen are always running around the ice and drilling to find a good spot. Time is short. They only have three hours to catch as many fish as they can. They must use every second."
Stikuts, who in his 40 years of fishing has mastered all areas of the sport - from angling to ice fishing - is now a head organizer of the Ice Fishing World Championship. Organized by the LASF and The Latvian Trade Sport Association, the championship will commemorate its 10th year this February in Riga. Thirty countries will participate in the two-day competition, which is to be held on Lake Dunezers and Lake Baltezers, just outside the capital.
In only its third year of participation, team Latvia already boasts a second place title as well as the world's current ice fishing champion. For a country in which ice swallows up the land, rivers and lakes for five dark months of the year, this comes as little surprise. Recreationally, ice fishing has long been a national winter pastime, but only now are Latvians realizing that their freezing Baltic winters have bred some of the finest ice fishermen in the world.
During the 2002 world championships that were also held in Riga, Latvia came in second next to Finland. With a total catch weight of 3,765 grams, Latvia's Peteris Lideris took gold in the individual competition and the title of ice fishing world champion. Yet, the glory of conquering the world in ice fishing seems not to have fazed Lideris.
"It actually feels quite normal," Lideris said. "Of course it feels very good, but it's not like being a champion of hockey or tennis. In principal, ice fishing is a hobby for me. Now I fish competitively, but I still feel that it's my hobby because I get so much enjoyment out of it."
Lideris represents one of the five members (including one female) that make up a qualifying ice fishing team. The team also includes a back up fisherman, a coach (captain) and one delegation leader. All fishermen must be Confederation of Sports Fishing members to legally participate in the championship.
The Ice Fishing World Championship is a competition of Mormyshka fishing, the traditionally Russian technique that uses a line with a 0.6 - 0.12-millimeter diameter and a single 2-4 millimeter hook. For those of us that aren't Mormyshka experts, this means that the fishing "poles" look more like toothpicks, while the line could be mistaken for dental floss. To first time observers, the disproportionate appearance between the giant fishermen hunched over their Tom Thumb sized tackle looks quite comical.
"The hole in the ice is very small too - less than 15 centimeters in diameter," Stikuts said.
On average, if team members are in a "good spot" they will feel a bite every 10 to 50 seconds, according to Stikuts. Other times there will be nothing. This is when ice fishing suddenly turns into a sweat inducing sport. Guided by his knowledge of the lake and advice from the team captain, the fisherman must hastily abandon his fruitless hole and run in search of a better spot.
"In three hours, I think approximately 40-50 holes are drilled," said Stikuts. "The team must know about the lake conditions, the weather conditions, the fish and their behavior - there are so many components that come together."
Although luck does play its part, Lideris emphasized that training, technique and knowledge of conditions are far more important factors.
"I had three years of training so I was prepared. You must train on the ice and you must also train at the fitness club so you're in good shape to always be running," he said.
As for dangers of falling through the ice, Stikuts has never once seen a team member encounter such perils.
Both Lideris and Stikuts are hopeful that being on home territory again this year, Latvia will take gold in both the team and individual competitions.
"It's going to be competitive this year because all of the teams have improved, but we have the advantage of knowing our lakes," Lideris said.