The story appears on

Page B2 - B3

March 22, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Ice fishing at Qagan Lake: A 'wowing' spectacle

THE history of ice fishing in Qagan Lake goes back 1,000 years to the Liao Dynasty (907?1125). It was said that Liao Emperor Shengzong (reign 971?1031) was fond of eating "frozen fish."

Every winter, he would pitch his tents on the icy lake, and the ice inside the tents would be scraped thin until the fish could be seen swimming below. In these tents the emperor would discuss affairs of state with his officials.

Whenever they wanted a break, all they had to do was break the thin ice, and they could have a feast of the abundant fish.

Today, ice fishing is a unique aspect of culture at Qagan Lake near Songhua River. It's one of China's 10 largest freshwater lakes and every winter it freezes over. The name "Qagan" means "white" in the Mongol language.

Every winter, the spectacle attracts large crowds of fishmongers and visitors.

The fishing method has evolved from a small-scale "wait-and-catch" method to an elaborate team effort, in which several dozen people together cut and scrape the ice, cast in their nets and pull up the catch. The nets can measure as long as 2,000 meters, and a single net can yield as much as 15 tons of catch.

It was 4:45 on a December morning, and I was driving to the home of fishing foreman Wang Fengge. My car was packed with the equipment we needed to document the whole process of his fishing expedition with his team.

Tian Guilan, Wang's wife, had just cooked us dumplings and a sumptuous dish of braised carp, while Wang sipped his wine with a contented look as he welcomed us.

Wang's home is near the lake, and within minutes of leaving our horse wagon was on the ice. Then I saw three more horse wagons; around them stood a group of burly fishermen in army-issue overcoats and padded cotton hats with large ear flaps. They were awaiting the arrival of their foreman, Wang. The sky was still dark, and visibility was no more than 10 meters.

Wang walked up to the lead horse wagon and climbed on the seat. Brandishing his whip, the driver headed for the center of the lake. I followed the procession of horse-drawn vehicles in my car. In the darkness, all I could hear was the melodious ringing of the horse bells and the sound of hooves hitting the ice.

As we traveled across the ice, we saw a couple of "bumps" built of ice blocks and surrounded by colorful pennants. I found out that these barriers warn people of "green holes" - dangerous areas of thin ice - and were marked with bright yellow stalks of maize. They are much like barriers erected around missing roadway manhole covers, but much larger.

After about an hour, rosy patches appeared on the skyline, and the wagons stopped in front of small, dark structures. All the fishermen jumped down and got to work.

The dark objects turned out to be small cabins made of iron sheets that provided shelter and storage space for two ice ploughs filled with fishing nets. I peered at the temperature gauge inside my car. It read minus 15 degrees Celsius.

I picked up my camera and headed toward the silhouettes scurrying across the ice.

There were four winter fishing teams at Qagan Lake when I arrived; each team comprised 50 to 60 members. The supervisor in charge of the entire operation is called the fishing foreman - that's Wang.

I watched how Wang marked the entry point for the fishing nets. He would indicate the points by driving spikes into the ice in a rectangular shape.

Each spike was topped with a flag. Once the rectangle was marked out, two of his men, the ice drivers, would proceed to carve a hole in the ice.

Being a fishing foreman is no easy job. He must be able to tell by the color of the ice where the fish are located, and ensure a bountiful catch for his team.

Each foreman started out as a junior fisherman, similar to an apprentice, working his way up slowly as his skills improved.

Then there's the net operator, who handles the nets. The best net operators are chosen to be net leaders, who supervise the fishermen in the operations on the ice.

Gourd-shaped outline

At first glance, ice fishing may look like a straightforward manual job, though an enormous one. But it's a complex process with divisions of labor and specialization, teamwork, coordination and experience. In addition to the foreman, there are ice drillers, hook operators, lance twisters, wire liners, wheel-wingers and net operators.

After drilling out the entry area for the nets, the ice drillers divided themselves into two groups; each comprised eight persons deployed on the shorter side of the ice opening.

Following the route indicated by the flags planted by the fishing foreman, they drilled ice holes 40 centimeters in diameter, at 10-meter intervals, until they reached the net outlet.

The outline of the route resembled a gourd: The entry point was the mouth of the gourd, and the net outlet was the base at the bottom of the gourd. The perimeter was around 2,000 meters, which meant 200 ice holes were needed.

Drilling the ice holes required two people working side by side. One would drill the ice, while the other would scoop out the shavings; the driller and scooper would alternate their roles.

The 20-kilogram drill consisted of just the drill bit, a grip and the handle.

I tried working the drill, but the result was only plenty of pain in my arms and hands - and barely a mark on the ice. And yet these fishermen could drill 200 ice holes through the hard ice that was 40 centimeters thick.

After the ice holes were drilled, the hook operator cast two 10-meter-long wooden shafts into the water. Each wooden shaft was attached to the master line at the front of the fishing net.

Both the hook operator and the lance twister then worked together to join the wooden shafts beneath the surface, from one ice hole to another.

In other words, the 2,000-meter-long fishing net must be connected from the entry point all the way to the net outlet.

Also, the hook operator and lance twister must ensure that the net is fully spread out without any entanglement, and that the base of the net drops down all the way to the bottom of the lake. This way, the entire net would float vertically in the water, moving slowly around while holding the fish inside.

When the fishing net initially entered the first ice hole (the entry point), it could be pulled along with just human power, but by the fourth ice hole, a horse was needed to pull the capstan.

As the fishing net moved forward, and the number of ice holes grew, the water resistance increased to the point where four horses were needed to drag the net to the net outlet.

The horse driver, in charge of handling the horses, played a key role in the process.

He did not even get a break for lunch, as he had to drive the horses continually around the capstan on the ice. He could only nibble at a few mouthfuls of dry rations on the job, not daring to slacken his pace even for a bit.

While I was full of admiration for these workers, I was also full of respect for the horses, as they provided both the main means of transport and the labor for the heaviest task: pulling the nets.

While waiting for the horses to pull the capstans, the other fishermen would go to the small cabins for a bite and a few sips of wine. Food comprised mainly dry rations they brought themselves, and any noodles, dumplings or salted fish provided by the fishing foreman.

I chatted with them, and was a little surprised to learn that most of them were not locals. They spoke of the hardship of the winter catch, and how the locals had already left ice fishing in search of more lucrative jobs.

Big chill thrill

Ice fishing is a long and arduous process, with only one haul each day. Finally, at around 4:30pm, four horses pulled the nets out of the net outlet. The net operators dragged the net to the side of the horse wagons.

The ice drillers, now freshly recharged from a good lunch, folded the nets. Another group, the band operators, would detach the nets from each other as they were coming in.

In ice fishing, the best part happens at the end. The first nets that come in contain little or no fish, but as the process goes on, the number increases dramatically.

When the final net is drawn in, fish pour out from the ice hole - an incredible sight! I noticed that the hands of the fishermen were trembling slightly, a clear reflection of their excitement at the big catch.

At the same time, tourists were busy taking pictures and exclaiming at the fish thrashing around in the net. Most of these observers came from the south of the country to witness this spectacular scene.

Another group of people at the net outlet had a very different purpose for coming. These were the fishmongers, who would buy up the catch and sell it. Some wore expensive fur and leather and came in large off-road vehicles, while others wore plain army-issue overcoats and drove small, rattling vans.

At this moment all of them got out of their vehicles and surrounded the fishing net, wearing aprons tied at their waists with intent expressions on their faces.

As the fish started to be pulled from the ice hole, the fishmongers first were able to pick out the larger fish (at least 10kg) and some order was maintained. However, chaos soon ensued as they scrambled to get the biggest fish for themselves.

Larger fish fetch a better price - a big head carp can sell for 60 yuan (US$8.80) a kilo. In the confusion, some visitors picked up the largest fish they could find and posed for the camera.

At this point, even my hand holding the camera was trembling uncontrollably. It was easy to imagine that the Qagan fishermen were likewise overcome by the thrill.

After scooping the fish from the net and dumping them on the ice, the fishermen used large hooks to pierce and kill each fish. They died struggling, their blood staining the ice crimson.

Perplexed, I asked one of the fishermen: why all the blood? Why damage the fish? The fisherman said this was an ancient method of processing the fish. With the blood drained, the flesh would not have the earthy smell associated with freshwater fish.

In addition, the fish would stay fresh, as the icy lake surface acts as a giant freezer in winter. Enlightened, I couldn't help but admire the wisdom of the ancient fishermen.

The day's catch was estimated at around 15 tons. I was told that the record for a single netting was more than 10 times that - 210 tons. That's impressive, but I couldn't help but wonder at the fate of the fish in the lake.

Later I found out that, in order to maintain ecological balance, the fishing companies introduce 1 million fish fry to the lake every year, and that any netted fish below a certain size must be tossed back.

Indeed, I saw a fisherman picking small fish from the net and gently releasing them back into the lake.

Before the trip, I researched Qagan Lake; to my astonishment, it once dried up in the 1950s and 1960s. The indiscriminate exploitation of coal and timber caused the lake area to shrink from more than 400 square kilometers to just 50.

To revive the lake, water was diverted from the nearby Songhua River. Today lush vegetation surrounds the lake, and the fish and bird populations have returned.

At the end of this remarkable day, the setting sun hung low over the ice. Everything once again became silhouettes - fishermen, fishmongers and tourists - and darkness descended.

Next year, the fishermen return for another round of ice fishing, creating another spectacle at Qagan Lake.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend