Fishin' in Krasnodar, Russia.
Saturdays, Sundays, any evening, a good hunk of this factory food-processing town is on its way to the Kuban River--cane poles, Soviet-made "spinnings," and much more gear, plus a folding basket-net for crayfish, riding Russian shoulders. They've not yet heard of a Lindy rig, have been known to get the "ranger" schnockered in order to make a quick seining sweep with the net stolen from a tennis court--but the same silly, urgent light burns in their eyes, above Mongol cheekbones, as in yours. They intend to catch the biggest pike-perch (walleye without white tail spot) ever, or never, seen.
They take whatever they catch--buffalo (a U.S. import), northern (shchuka), or catfish (som), more than happily. And, as they are rather hungry, they're not into "catch and return." But their banter is familiar. Yesterday, on my way back from teaching at KSU, I heard:
"Where yuh gonna sell the fish?" This from a guy parked in a Fiat, addressing two pole- and lawnchair-lugging sports.
"Dunno. We already drank the profits just in case they aren't bitin'."
Not too foreign a mood, I think?
Selling gamefish? Well, how hard up are you? A long rough bench toward the back of every open-air market is lined with anglers hoping to trade fish for rubles to buy butter and white bread. Bream, perch, pike-perch, sturgeon, and catfish are the barter. I've seen catfish--bright blue they are here--as big as my 110-pound wife. You tell 'em what size steak you want and a section is neatly hacked off with a hand axe, like slicing bologna. You provide the plastic bag to carry home the meat with the same lovely, heavy, lobster-like consistency as the fish you might find in Town'o Maine, Wisconsin. Same air of dragon-slayers among the anglers, too. Same secretive sharing of doubtful fishing strategies. Finally, same realization that they'd be farther ahead working overtime, but bored stiff.
The Kuban is wide, relatively shallow, slow moving. It was given to Ukrainian Cossacks by Catherine the Great to get them to stop raiding the shipping on the Dnieper. River rats need space and can be nasty neighbors when crowded and bored. This took place 250 years ago. Czars, commissars, and most recently, New Russians (mafiosi) have ruled, usually badly. A lot of blood has washed down the Kuban into the Black Sea.
Still, even on the worst of Russian days, some Cossack kid has vivisected a nightcrawler, avoided an overhanging willow branch by employing expert body English, waited, yawned, finally tensed and set the hook. His first pike-perch. A five-pounder. Looked in those oddly mesmerizing, flatly reflecting eyes. Pondered. Shouted. And sailed home two feet off this muddy, bloody Cossack ground.
All fishermen are brothers.
BY RICHARD YATZECK * Illustration by Doug Scbermer
* Richard Yatzeck, Bear Creek Township, Waupaca County, Wisconsin, teaches Russian literature at Lawrence University in Appleton. In 1997 he taught in Krasnodar, Russia, near the Black Sea. He has a collection of outdoor stories in Hunting the Edges, from the University of Wisconsin Press.