Urban Ice Fishing in Astana

By Dmitry Lee

DSC_0364It’s no secret that Kazakhstan’s capital is also one of its coldest cities. Temperatures in Astana can fall as far as minus 50 C, making it the second coldest capital in the world after Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

However, frigid winds and temperatures far below zero aren’t enough to stop some hardy types from spending hours hunched over the ice of the capital’s frozen Yessil River, ice fishing. EdgeKz interviewed two ice fishing enthusiasts recently to understand what drives them to go out in the cold.

Forty-eight-year-old Zhiksen Kumarov is an auto mechanic from Karaganda with 20 years of experience. With an ice screw and a tent, he walks down to the Yessil every weekend in hopes of taking away a large catch to sell.

“The ice fishing season starts when the ice is thick enough, more than 15 centimeters thick – when it is safe to walk on it. There is no certain month or period – it all depends on what kind of winter we are to have,” Kumarov said.

The right spots aren’t hard to find, he said: usually, fishermen go to where there are other ice fishfishermen. “If you are going to a spot for the first time, then you use an ice screw and drill to find the right spot. This is my old-school way of doing it,” he said. “At times, you can drill up to 50 – 60 holes to find the right spot, so the first day is the recon day.”

Kumarov prefers to do things the old fashioned way, he said. “I find it more exciting, and challenging, as opposed to [using] new tech gadgets like a fathometer [an instrument used to determine water depth], for instance. They are about $200 apiece but the batteries die too fast, and I just prefer the more adventurous way of drilling.”

Kumarov goes fishing often with his grown children and friends, and sometimes all by himself. He might travel hundreds of kilometers for two or three days of ice fishing, he said.

“Sometimes we sleep in cars, sometimes in tents, depending on where we go. Other times we settle for motels, but to keep the adrenaline rush, we prefer to stay out in the cold,” he said. With temperatures below minus 30 and minus 40 C, staying out in the cold can be dangerous, especially with northern Kazakhstan’s notorious blizzards. Kumarov’s team uses modern heaters and furnaces that connect to car batteries, plus special sleeping bags and mats to keep them warm.

fishermen in a bagAs for the fish, the cold gets to most of them, too. “We use spoon-bait for predators such as perch, for example. Bream and rudd are active winter biters in Kazakhstan; the rest are very passive due to the cold,” he said.

The most famous ice fishing spot in Kazakhstan is the Kurgalzhyn reservoir, Kumarov said.

“The Kurgalzhyn reservoir is about 160 kilometers from Astana, in the Torgai region. We have been there a few times and fishing there is a great experience.”

But urban ice fishing has its charms as well, he added. “On the Yessil River, fishing is combined with sightseeing of the new and modern capital, Astana,” Kumarov said.

The dubious pleasure of ice fishing isn’t free in Kazakhstan, the auto mechanic noted. “Depending on where you go, permits range from $2 – 3 to about $10.” According to the ice breaker, there is an old saying among fishermen from the Soviet era that for a good bite, after you drill your first hole, you have to hit the bottom of the river with your sinker a few times. That brings good luck every time, he said.ice fisherman red coat

Astana resident Alexander Mineyev was also hanging out on the ice, one frosty Saturday. “There are folks who come here to make petty cash,” he told EdgeKz. “They fish for perch, rudd, bream and whatever else they can catch in the Yessil and sell it to those lazy fishermen who go for bigger fish to the Kurgalzhyn reservoir – where they fish for pike, for instance.”

Mineyev agrees that Kurgalzhyn is popular. “Everybody goes there in the winter. Some people simply don’t have the time to fish on the Yessil because of work, et cetera. By catching small fish for bait on Yessil, you can make about 3,000 – 4,000 tenge ($16.50 – 22) if you sell everything [at the reservoir]. So for a hobby, it does pay pretty good money.”

Mineyev, however, says he’s seen other men catch pike in the Yessil River.

DSC_0351“I didn’t know there were pike until I saw one fisherman pull one out of the Yessil just last year! It was about seven kilograms, near the Chubary district. I guess we don’t need to travel too far to fish for pike, but I don’t think there are enough of them for all the [fishermen] in Astana.”

Mineyev fishes more for fun than for gain, anyway. “I am retired and I have all the time in the world to sit down and fish for myself. Then I travel to the reservoir and fish for bigger fish, so whatever I catch here is only bait. But for me, this is more a hobby, my leisure time away from the city bustle.”

In camouflage gear, his hands bare on the small rod he dangled into the frigid water, Mineyev sat on a curve of the river dotted with small plastic tents in which his brother fishermen hid from the wind and the cold. Tents, blankets and polyethylene film are common ways for ice fishers to keep the chill at bay, but Mineyev doesn’t hold with them.

“I am too old for that,” he said. “I like to feel the real [adventure], and I’m from here, so I’m now immune to the cold in Astana. I believe it makes a man tough. It is a different kind of pleasure, so to speak, for me. So, no, I don’t like using covers or tents.”

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