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Russia's Ice Fishermen Get Help From Bottle of Vodka - 2002-05-05

During Russia's long cold winters, people all over the country spend many hours ice fishing. It is a sport just about anybody can do. All you need is a large body of water and really, really cold weather and a bottle of vodka also helps. VOA's Rebecca Santana tried the sport while visiting Russia's Solovki Islands, just south of the Arctic Circle.

Actually getting to the fish is the first step in ice-fishing. You need a large drill that is capable of cutting through ice that is a meter thick.

After that, it is pretty much like any other kind of fishing. Bait the hook, drop it in the water, sit down and wait for the fish to bite. Of course, the pole is only about 15 centimeters long. Ice-fishermen sit huddled around the hole in the ice, which is only about 10 centimeters wide so a long pole isn't necessary.

At this lake the men are going after fish that are as petite as the poles. They're called perch and are only a few centimeters long, in most cases.

One of my fishing companions, Ivan Vlasinko, holds his hands about a meter apart and swears that not too long ago he caught a perch that big. "I caught a fish that long, 40 centimeters, that's the longest this season. My whole life I've caught some even bigger," he said.

But the bragging rights in Russia aren't necessarily over the size of the day's catch. Anyone can reel in a few fish. But not everyone can stay outside in minus 10, minus 20 or even minus 30 degree weather. And stay outside all day. A real fisherman doesn't even wear gloves because it's harder to feel the pull on the line when fish bites.

Of course, Russia is not the only country where ice fishing is popular. But in other countries, such as the United Sates, ice fishermen often drag a wooden shack onto the lake and then fish from inside the shack; they may even build a small fire. But in Russia, the fishermen fish outdoors, sitting on small metal boxes. At the end of the day, the catch goes in the box and gets carried home.

But they have a few methods of keeping warm. A good fire on the shore helps. Most fishermen drill a hole, fish for a while, and then sit by the fire drinking tea.

But there is another liquid vital to keeping warm. Oleg Volkov started ice-fishing five years ago. He divulges the secret to being able to fish for hours. "We have some measures [to protect us] from the cold, such as vodka for example," he said.

This is one sport where drinking is definitely allowed. And since it's Russia, the drink of choice is vodka. But only in moderation. Ice fishing can be a dangerous. Mr. Vlasinko says he's fallen into the water at least ten times during the 15 years he has been fishing.

And there are other dangers. People on the Solovki Islands only ice fish on lakes. But many people in Russia just walk from the shore out onto the ocean when it freezes over. That's fine, as long as the seashore and the ice stay attached. But since there is so much movement in the ocean, the ice frequently breaks off, carrying fishermen out to sea. Some are rescued; some are never seen again.

While many Russians ice fish just for fun, others do it to make money or to feed their families.

Sergei Maximishin is from St. Petersburg, and he's trying ice fishing for the first time while on Solovki. He is sitting on a metal box with his small fishing rod gripped in his freezing hand. On the ice next to him are two small perch he has managed to catch. Despite his success, he does not seem that enthusiastic about his new sport. "To be honest, I don't like it that much. It's really cold!," he said.

Mr. Maximishin believes many men have an ulterior motive for ice fishing. "I think that people who fish in the wintertime, they are running away from their wives. They sit here with their friends, drink vodka and get away from their wives and their children," he observed

Ice fishing on Solovki is almost exclusively a male sport, but the men swear they don't do it to avoid their wives. Mr. Vlasinko says he fishes for relaxation. And Mr. Volkov says he likes being outdoors and he also gets to feed his cat for free.