Sunday, 28 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Fishing

Read previous posts in this series: kite-flying, skiing and skating.

I spent all my summers between eleven and nineteen at the Composers' Union resort in Karelia, near the once Finnish town of Sortavala, by the Ladoga lake. The territory was annexed by the Soviet Union after WWII, but all places, villages, rivers, bays, lakes had Finnish names, and in the '60s there were still ruins after burnt-out Finnish houses. The area was so close to the border that you needed a permit; therefore the nature was as pristine as it was under the Finnish government.

The resort had a central building, which was claimed to have been Marshal Mannerheim's hunting lodge. Whether true or not, it was indeed a magnificent manor, with a huge front staircase, elegant sittings rooms and a dining hall with dark roof beams. I have no pictures from my childhood because we didn't have a camera then, and I only found a few pictures on the web. It doesn't match my memory, but it's over forty years ago. 


There were some guest rooms in the building, but most families lived in small cottages within easy walking distance, some with direct access to the waterfront. People would rent a rowing boat for the whole season; some people, including my father, had light motors that allowed us to go further away into the archipelago where we had our very own island. We would bring a picnic and stay for the whole day, cooking over open fire, and very frequently cooking our own catch.

The most common catch was pike, but occasionally you got pike perch and, with luck, salmon. The gear was either casting rod or reel, and my job was rowing. If you have never rowed a boat while someone is casting you have no idea how hard it is, especially in windy weather, and what a risk you are taking by sharing the boat with a loved one. I had no choice, because my father simply gave me orders, but he once set off my mother on a tiny cliff in the middle of a vast water span, to untangle a line. With casting, you have to row smoothly and absolutely silently because the b-y fish hear the slightest splash. You need to watch the direction of the wind and the incoming waves. You need to balance the boat so that the caster doesn't fall overboard. You have to watch out for underwater cliffs and floating logs; you need to steer the boat close enough to the reeds where the fish is, but not too close so that you lose the lure. And when there is fish on the hook, you manipulate the net, and the kind of language you hear if you are clumsy and the fish escapes... yes, it would make a sailor blush.

Every day we would also set up a longline, with live bait, for eel and burbot. It had to be checked and re-baited twice a day, early in the morning before breakfast, and late in the evening. Summer evenings are long and light in Karelia; water surface would be like a mirror, and every sound was carried around for miles.

I miss those days with my father in a boat.

On rare occasions, I was allowed to cast a couple of times, just to practice, and I did catch fish when I had a chance. My father kept a log, giving all fish funny names. 


It was my job to gut and cook the fish. There were several cooking methods which I learned very early, all over open fire, since we didn't have a kitchen. For clear triple fish soup, you first cooked small fry with spices, then strained, added pieces of larger fish, cooked until it fell apart, strained again, and for the last round you only added burbot, particularly the liver, a delicacy to share around (and all the foul language I heard from my father when I wasn't careful enough with the liver and spilled the gall). The soup was thick as glue, and a small cup was enough to make you full. But the best way was to smoke the fish, particularly eel, and as soon as I could be trusted with an axe, I would cleave young alder to line the smoking box, fill it with fish, close the box tight, make an even fire under it, knowing the exact time for every kind and size of fish. Serve it steaming hot, without plates.

I miss those evenings by the fire.

The irony is that Staffan also used to be passionate about fishing, but we never pursued this passion together, although Stockholm archipelago was no worse than Sortavala and very similar. I have asked Staffan repeatedly, and he cannot give a proper answer. It just didn't happen.

We once went shark fishing in Morocco, and we went deep-sea fishing in San Diego when I got terribly seasick; and I had the thrill of fishing piranhas in Brazil, but all that was tourist fishing.

Why do you stop doing something that used to be the gist of life?

1 comment:

ketchum said...

because life moves on to other meanings.