A winter sport anglers die for

Russia: On the Baltic coast, hardy fishermen risk drowning each time they venture on the ice.

February 06, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - The wind was blowing, and the snow was blinding. That was when, last weekend, a village-size piece of the annual ice shelf in the Gulf of Finland broke free from shore, carrying about 200 terrified ice fishermen with it more than a mile into open water.

Then the floe split in half, frightening the fishermen all the more.

The icebreaker Semyon Dezhnev arrived to rescue most of the hapless anglers just in time. The rest were plucked from the ice by helicopter.

All in all, it was a typical winter weekend on the Baltic coast, where ice fishermen are passionate enough about their punishing sport to risk drowning each time they venture onto the ice.

Every winter, the open waters of the gulf and of nearby Lake Ladoga freeze over, creating shelves of ice that stretch miles from shore. The platforms form an irresistible lure for tens of thousands of anglers who trek to the water's edge on foot, by bicycle, even in cars.

Storms, unseasonably mild weather and icebreakers can shatter the ice. Huge floes break free without warning and float into deep water. Any fisherman unlucky enough to be on such a floe may find himself clinging to smaller and smaller fragments, until he disappears beneath the waves. Abut 60 fishermen drown a year, rescue professionals say.

On Friday, the day before the ice began to break apart, the sun blazed above the gulf's northern shore. The ice sheet stretched to the horizon. The temperature hovered around 10 degrees as fishermen marched out of the trees along the snowy shoreline, carrying their ice drills like shoulder arms and dragging tackle boxes on aluminum skis.

Alexei Giryakov made the 2 1/2 -hour trip that morning from St. Petersburg by train and bus with three neighbors and a couple of bottles of vodka. He recalled last year, when he found himself drifting out into the gulf in a storm, his floe rolling with the waves. For four hours, he watched and felt the ice break up beneath him. Finally, a helicopter appeared through the squall and he clambered aboard.

Now, he stays within a mile of shore, never venturing to the black ice at the water's edge. "We're still risking our lives," he said.

`A primeval instinct'

Why ice fish?

"We just like to relax, to breathe fresh air," said Anatoly Rolov, 67, who used to work as a mechanic in a St. Petersburg factory. "We can meet with our comrades, talk about fishing, about life, about everything."

On Friday, Rolov fished alone. His blue eyes blazed in the bright sun. He warded off the cold with layers of clothes, a worn leather coat, fur hat and thick boots. Sitting on his tackle box, his boots planted on the ice, he leaned over every few minutes to scoop out the ice clogging the hole he had drilled.

His hands were so cold he had trouble baiting his hook with mosquito larvae. On a good day, he might catch a dozen smelts - each fish only 4 or 5 inches long.

A few wealthy fishermen drive luxury cars out on the ice and bring fancy tackle. Once in a while cars plunge to the bottom. But Rolov is more typical of the fishermen here - a pensioner with little but time.

Georgy Tsagareshvilli, a former construction engineer at a Soviet research center, fished nearby. Now, he said, tossing aside his cigarette butt, "I'm guarding a damn parking lot."

His sport has become increasingly perilous. Winters are warmer and the ice is thinner. "When you get out on the ice," Tsagareshvilli said, "you have to keep your ears pricked" for the sickening sound of the shelf cracking. Still, he comes to the gulf whenever he can.

"It's a primeval instinct," he said, leaning forward and lowering his voice as if to disclose a state secret. "The first men were hunters. There is this collective urge to fish. As you leave the city, you become a hunter again."

The rescue pilot

In the past decade, Vadim Bazikin, a 42-year-old helicopter pilot who owns a private charter service, has rescued about 2,500 fishermen from the St. Petersburg area. Though not a fisherman himself, Bazikin has come to know the fraternity pretty well; he has picked up one man six times.

"Maybe you have already noticed the fact that fishing is a sort of poetry, but with a line in your hands," he said.

Bazikin's charter service charges handsome fees to take foreign anglers to remote rivers, fly United Nations officials around Sierra Leone and pluck monuments that need renovation from the tops of buildings in St. Petersburg.

But he is on call 24 hours a day during the ice fishing season. When the call comes, he and his crew head for the ice.

They're never sure what they will find. Sometimes it's a lone fisherman with a cell phone. Sometimes it's a mob. Two years ago, Bazikin arrived at a drifting floe to find 800 fishermen clamoring to escape. With the helicopter loaded and people hanging from the landing gear, he ferried load after load across a half-mile of open water, his aircraft skimming the waves.

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