China keeps centuries-old ice fishing tradition alive
At around 5 a.m., The fisherman pulled on a thick cotton-padded jacket before he rushed to Chagan Lake, one of China’s largest freshwater lakes, with the temperature sitting at a bone-chilling minus 30 degrees Celsius.
Accompanying the fisherman was a herd of galloping horses, which can help him pull heavily laden nets of fish out of the frozen lake in Songyuan City, northeast China’s Jilin Province.
For centuries, fishermen and women living by Chagan Lake have kept alive the tradition of ice fishing — hand-drilling holes through the thick ice and lowering nets into the frosty waters to catch fish. The technique has been listed as a national-level form of intangible cultural heritage.
The winter fishing-themed tourist festival opened at Chagan Lake, marking the beginning of the golden season for winter fishing. Over 20 activities such as skiing competitions, nature watching and an ice dragon boat contest will be held during the annual festival.
How do they put nets under the ice?
Kuvyatuq is the Yup’ik word for the type of fishing that involves setting a net under the ice. The net is a mesh made of nylon or other filaments. A weighted rope, called a leadline, holds the bottom of the net in place so that it does not float to the surface. A long ice pick is an essential tool used to chop holes in the ice. People make their own picks by sharpening the end of a metal pipe, or by straightening out a tire iron and welding it onto a pipe.
The first step involves chopping a series of holes into the ice. These holes are lined up perpendicular to the current so that the river will flow through the net and intercept fish as they swim upriver. A long cord is tied to a long wooden pole. One person pushes the pole and the cord through the first hole into the water under the ice. They push the pole until it reaches the next hole where another person grabs it and keeps pushing it towards the next hole. Like a gigantic needle through river and ice, the pole and cord make their way to the last hole where they are hauled up onto the ice.
The end of the cord is detached from the pole and attached to the net. At the first hole, a person pulls on the other end of the cord while the person at the last hole feeds the net into the water until it is completely stretched under the ice. On both ends, the top and the bottom of the net are tied to tall 20-foot vertical poles that are then driven into the bottom of the river. The net is set. A covering of ice and snow on the holes insulates them from freezing completely shut. The middle holes are left to freeze over.
Throughout the winter season, “checking net” is a regular, sometimes daily journey to the river to see if the nets have caught anything. Everyone takes turns using a homemade ice pick and shovel to remove any ice that’s built up around the hole.
When ice is clear at the first hole, the youths walk over to the second hole to clear away snow and ice. They detach the end of the net from the pole and attach a long line to the other end of the net. Tucker pulls up the net at the first hole, which drags the line at the other end down into the water and keeps it connected to the pole. The net is long, between 10 and 15 fathoms (60–90 feet).
In the net, they find gleaming silver-scaled sheefish. This large whitefish is prized especially for making akutaq, a traditional frozen dessert of flaked fish, fat, and berries. The net also caught glistening, smooth-skinned lush fish, also known as burbot.
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