How to

11 August 2016

Net Fishing Beneath the Ice

In the winter months, when the sea and lakes are frozen over with a thick layer of ice, fishermen need to think a little outside the box for their fishing techniques. One way that fish can be caught from under the ice is to feed a net underneath the ice layer, through chipping holes.

This is hardly a new problem: fishermen all over the world have dealt with this for thousands of years. While new techniques and machines have been developed more recently, many fishing communities choose to keep the traditional methods alive.

This is partially because modern augur machines, say, are powerful and can cut through ice very quickly, but that is their one and only function. Survival-oriented folk have learned that is it not smart to be carting a tool around that only does one job. The taaq, for instance, is little more than a heavy chisel on the end of a pole, but it can be used for all sorts of tasks, and thus is preferable to an ice hole cutting machine.

To fish under ice, you essentially need to pick two holes through the ice and run a rope with the net attached across. These can be any length, but depend on how you choose to feed the rope across.  There are a few different methods currently used to do this.

In parts of China, such as the Chagan Lake in the Jilin province, fishermen are still practising a technique that has been passed down through many generations. Huge nets, which can sometimes be kilometres long, are fed through hundreds of holes picked in the ice. These holes form a circle, and allow the net to be lowered below the surface. One larger hole is dug to pull the fish out of the water.

The load of fish caught is so massive that horses are used to turn a wheel and heave the net out of the water. The fishers are proud of the method that connects them to their ancestors and also focuses on sustainability, and ensuring the future of fishing on the lake.

Shan Junguo, the head of the Chagan Lake Fishing Group, explains:

‘We monitor all the fish that's caught. The less mature ones must be set free to keep the overall fishing environment for future generations.’

The nets have been specifically designed so that only the larger fish are caught, while smaller, young fish swim through.

Their sustainable approach and ancient methods are clearly serving them well, as fishermen on the Chagan Lake broke their own Guinness World Record of fish caught in a single net in 2009 with a staggering with 168.5 tons (371,500 lbs) of fish. Their former record of 104,500kg (230,400 lbs) of fish was set in 2005.

Watching the nets being hauled out at Chagan is an impressive spectacle, which attracts plenty of tourists every year.  

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Another method popularly used by Canadian fishers is to feed the net through a series of holes in a line. This diagram shows a typical layout, with sizes of holes.

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The two outer holes are made larger than those in between, since the net is actually pulled through these. The smaller holes are used to lay the net, as they enable fishers to pass a pole under the ice attached to a rope. A taaq or other tool can be used to help push the pole along to the final hole.

Jiggers are used by ice fishers all over the world today, though they have been used by Inuit fishers for generations to conquer the net dropping difficulty. A jigger, also known as a prairie ice jigger, is a low-density board with levers, which is lowered into a hole in the ice, and crawls along under the surface to a second hole. It does this by use of a clever mechanism, which uses levers to convert a backward pull on a rope into forward thrust.

They are low-density, so they float and keep contact with the underside of the ice layer, and are usually brightly coloured so that their position can be seen through the ice. Jiggers can save time and work digging, as they only require two holes to be picked.

A more unusual technique employed by some marine biologists in Antarctica is to have divers swim from one hole to the next, carrying a rope. Their method includes driving a snowmobile in a straight line from one hole to the other, the tracks of which act as a visual guide for the divers. This is because the thinned ice lets in more light from the surface, and can therefore be seen from below as a lighter colour.

The divers report an unnerving blackness and silence when performing this task, and it certainly sounds like a frightening experience. The visibility is so low that they have to rely on the strip of light above and the reading on their depth gauge to ensure they are swimming in the right direction. They say it is a big relief to see the sunlight from the second hole shining down, signalling that they should begin their ascent back towards the open air.

As they need the fish they catch to be alive, unlike many fishermen, they need to work quickly to remove the fish from the nets, often having to detangle them with numb fingers. In the freezing temperatures, there is a danger of fish freezing immediately on contact with the air. Thus the scientists transfer the fish quickly into buckets of water to keep them at a safe temperature.

Regardless of technique, nets under ice have to be retrieved at least once a day, as otherwise fish freeze and die in the net, rotting and attracting scavengers. This is a nightmare for commercial fishers and biologists alike, for whom rotten fish are totally useless and represent a waste of valuable resources.

Naomi Pyburn

Naomi is an English graduate with an itch to write. Her free time is spent blogging, reading feminist writing, cycling, cooking and managing her food Instagram account. Her not-so secret talent is the ability to nap anywhere.