I have been fishing since I was five years old and spent my childhood catching trout in Oregon. During my college years, I was a commercial fisherman in Alaska during the summers, catching salmon. Since then, I’ve gone on many fishing trips for salmon and trout in Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps being fixated on waterways is not surprising, considering my last name.
Here in the European part of Russia, west of the Urals, I haven’t done much fishing. In this neck of the woods, most of the rivers and lakes are overfished. The closer to Moscow, the worse it gets. Let me be clear, excellent fishing can be found in many parts of Russia, the further away from the big cities, the better. I’ve often looked at travelling to a distant, untouched fishing spot in Siberia and the Far East. It can be costly, involving a guide and a helicopter. After weighing the options, I’ve always ended up going back to the US to fish.
In Russia, more needs to be done to fully manage its fishing resources by stocking fish, controlling the number of fishermen on a given waterway at one time, enforcing the issuance of licenses, preventing illegal fishing, stopping fishing during the off-season, limiting the amount of fish that can be taken home and requiring catch and release. Many neighboring countries are in better shape. Belorussia’s fishing resources are well run. Poland’s rivers are full of trout and Finland’s fishing infrastructure is second to none, attracting fishermen from all over, especially from Russia. There is no reason why fishing in Russia could not become a lucrative opportunity for tourism. Russia is rich in pristine wilderness, lakes and rivers. Sadly, the mindset in Russia about fishing is affected by the immense size of the country and by politics. Russia’s natural resources are often seen as being limitless with plenty of fish to go around. For many Russians, fishing without any outside control is seen as a last bastion of freedom. Cracking down on fishermen has political implications. So far, the fishermen have mostly been left alone to fish unabated.
We have a fishing hole in the Volga near our dacha in Tverskaya Oblast. It is an excellent spot, well known in the area. I’ve never been able to catch anything except one thin pike. The problem, they say, is that I don’t have the ‘know how’ to fish. ‘Know how’ often boils down to taking the advantage away from the fish. Many fishermen in Russia throw feed into the river such as fish eggs, larvae and breadcrumbs. At entire science surrounds this process, discussed at length on TV shows and fishing websites. Fish cannot say no to a free meal. Once they are lured in, the fishing begins, using bait. Many bait fishermen use several fishing poles at once. More often than not, everything caught is kept, no matter how big or small.
Fishing with lures is popular in Russia. Lures here have treble hooks which, needless to say, are barbed. Some of the lures are massive. Once a fish is hooked, the chances of releasing them in one piece are negligible. The treble hooks usually damage the mouths and gills of the fish, often making it impossible to return the fish to the river unharmed.
A neighbor of mine has a sure-fire method to catch fish. He uses a device shaped like a small boat, about 40 centimeters long, with a fixed rudder designed to steer it away from the shore. A rope tied to the boat allows my neighbor to situate it above a prime fishing spot in the middle of the river. A lure is attached to a fishing line that trails behind the boat. The lure dances around at one place until a fish is caught. This method lands big lunkers like clockwork. These big, breeding fish are much needed to keep the river healthy. My neighbor doesn’t care. The concept of catch and release is foreign to him. His priority is fishcakes.
Many of the fish in the Volga have a strong river taste. Often, they are used to make soup. Another way to improve the flavor is to convert them into fishcakes, using mashed potatoes, eggs, breadcrumbs, onions, pepper, salt and other ingredients. The fishcakes are generously fried in oil. A shot of vodka or a cold beer finishes the job.
Nets are often left in one spot for several days to catch fish illegally. I hesitate to call these people fishermen. Thief is a better word. Every year I find a net in an eddy near our dacha. I’ve pulled several nets out of the Volga and released the fish, always at the same location. It’s a losing battle. Nets can be found all over Russia. The practice is widespread and won’t be stopped unless more well-paid fisheries agents are sent out to patrol Russia’s waterways.
A harmful practice known as electrofishing is widespread in Russia and not enough is being done to stop it. A transformer is used to run up to 1000 volts of electricity into a lake or river. The electrical current attracts fish within a 10-meter radius or more. When the fish reach the source of the electrical current, they are paralyzed and caught. All the fish effected by this method are killed off.
A pristine river named the Derzha is situated near Zubtsov, in Tverskaya Oblast in a picture-perfect series of ravines. The Derzha has fast, clean water, deep pools and a winding riverbed. It once was home to a rich array of trout, grayling, pike, perch and other species of fish. Today, it is almost completely devoid of aquatic life. Every year, electrofishing is used to wipe out most of the fish population. The Derzha can be reached fairly easily with an off-road vehicle, sealing its fate.
There are signs of hope. A new law was introduced in January. It says the maximum catch is 5 kilograms per day, a lot of fish, but at least a limit is being introduced. Let us see whether this new law will be provided with teeth, backed up by many more fisheries agents to patrol the lakes and rivers, cracking down on illegal fishermen. Maybe something will change after Russia revises its constitution.
A growing number of Russians have embraced catch and release. Some have taken up fly fishing. I’ve heard that 2-3000 fly fishermen exist in Russia. Some of the fly fishermen are stocking remote rivers at their own expense with trout and grayling. Strictly speaking, this practice is prohibited. A private individual is not allowed to stock a publicly owned waterway with fish. The species being stocked are native to Russian waters and are being returned to their original habitat. Sometimes, in Russia, bending the rules is the only way to get anything done.
I know one fly-fishing club in Moscow with seven members. They have found rivers with healthy stocks of a certain kind of fish that are almost impossible to catch except by fly fishing. After being sworn to secrecy about its location, I visited a healthy river last week with three members of the club, led by its chairman, all equipped with the finest gear. After using my SUV for its intended purpose by driving through rough terrain (not that rough, really, just muddy) we reached the river. We stomped through thick underbrush and a bog to get to the prime fishing spot. The bugs were out in force. When we were done fishing, it poured down rain. It was fantastic. I caught two pike and the fly fishermen caught several fish. We released them in good form, using barbless hooks and handling the fish with wet hands, to protect their skin. It was the first time I’ve seen fishermen in Russia respect the fish, and the river they came from, so fully. And that is what is needed, respect.
Daniel Brooks, copyright, 15 June 2020