Travel around Finland in winter and you will often see an astonishing sight: a frozen lake or Baltic bay dotted with dark squatting figures, whatever the weather. Half a million Finns can't be wrong; ice-fishing must be fun.
The ardent ice-angler will stay out from early morning till darkness again descends at the end of the brief winter day, and a catch of no more than a couple of sprat-sized roach will be enough to satisfy him. Week after week from the first hard frosts at the turn of November and December for as long as the ice bears his weight. When the ice in the southern part of the country thaws, the most devoted practitioners of the art migrate to the northernmost regions, where the ice cover remains thick until as late as May.
Competitions all winter
The popularity of ice-fishing has inspired the interest of businesspeople - surprise, surprise! - and they nowadays sponsor countless competitions. There are several every weekend during the winter, and quite a few on weekdays as well, for example for retired persons. The entry fees for the major competitions are pretty substantial, but so are the prizes: a million markkas (Euro 168,000) cash, a Mercedes or a trip around the world. No one has yet managed to catch the tagged fish that would bring them a million in the biggest competition, but several have collected a nice consolation prize of 100,000 (Euro 16,818).
The biggest competitions attract as many as 20,000 hopefuls, who squat almost side-by-side on the ice of a lake. The sport certainly has its knacks, because one person can haul in quite a bag in the course of 4-5 hours, whereas the other right beside him gets nothing. The winning bag in a competition is usually in or around five kilos, but catches of over 20 kilos have been recorded. The only species fished for in Finnish competitions is perch.
"An ice-fisherman develops a sixth sense with time," says Sami Kainulainen of the Finnish Recreational Fishermen's Central Association. "He has to be able to get into the world of fish and know their ways. It takes more than a new thermal suit and gear to make an ice-fisherman." He is a master of the art himself, holding more than ten Finnish championship medals in team and individual events and a couple of world championship team medals as well.
Kainulainen says the discipline suits anyone who enjoys being outdoors. The best way to learn its secrets is under the guidance of an experienced hand, although "some old fishermen can be right foxes". Ice-fishing costs little compared with many other hobbies. You need clothing that is both light and able to keep out the wind and cold, a proper backpack, a drill to get through the ice and a short rod with reel, line and lures. Not counting the clothes, the gear costs a few hundred markkas.
Unlike other fishing, ice-fishing is one of the so-called everyman's rights, which in Finland and Scandinavia are enshrined in both customary and statutory law and entitle everyone to enjoy certain benefits of the natural environment without restriction or charge. All EU citizens nowadays enjoy the same everyman's rights as Nordic citizens.
"You always have to be careful when you go out on the ice", Kainulainen points out. He has plunged through it himself once, an experience that is not pleasant. In the early part of the winter, five centimetres (two inches) of ice is enough to bear a man's weight, but when the sun has been doing its work in spring, even ice 40 centimetres (16 inches) thick can fail. That makes it all the more essential for beginners to have experienced company.
"Ice-fishing calms the mind like no other activity. People go out onto the ice in search of tranquillity and to have a nice day; the catch is of secondary importance. It is a good form of outdoor exercise, with just enough physical exertion, especially if you walk in virgin snow. In early spring, I like to go alone to a small forest lake and listen to the clucking of a black grouse while I survey the nature all around me. There's nothing to beat it."