Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The great carp harvest

Fish harvesting is a tradition that goes back to Middle ages. Being a landlocked country, Bohemia nevertheless has great and respected fisheries - vast areas of the countryside, especially in South Bohemia. These were very early on turned from marshes to fertile ponds, some intertwined by elaborate locks and channels. A whole thesis could be written about the history and the personalities involved in this form of landscape transformation and farming, but right now I'd like to stay with my beloved lake/pond Olsina, where I witnessed a harvest today.

The harvest is both a practical and a ritual occasion. It starts at dawn, when, to a fanfare of trumpeters, fishermen in huge waders, with boats, set off along the muddy bottom of the drained pond towards the area which holds remnants of water, and with it all the thousands of fish that sought refuge there while the pond was being drained - the slow draining took two weeks.

These people are called 'the beaters' - rather like pheasant beaters, they hit the water in front of them, making a racket, so as to get the alarmed fish to swim into a narrow channel and from it into an area of deep water by the shore.

Here, as the sun rises higher, the 'netters' pull the boiling mass of fish ever closer to the banks, where there are people scooping them out and into prepared tubs. Each tub is destined for a different fate: much of the fish (a mix of species) will be taken to other ponds and lakes, most carp will be taken to cages in running rivers to 'clean the flesh of the mud' - these are destined for the Christmas tables (another tradition of which I shall no doubt write nearer the date), and a select few prize specimen will go straight to the best restaurants. And what prize specimen these were! Huge, but huge! pikes, enormous catfish, a few eels, some amurs, and even the odd sturgeon whose size most fly-fishermen would only dream of, no doubt.

Once sorted, the fish are then weighed and tipped into a rusty scoop that lifts and tips them into a row of water-containers on top of a lorry. The poor stressed creatures gasp in the air, and one's heart sinks at the rough handling of them, but all this needs to be done fast, precisely so they don't stay out of water for too long.

The spectacle is keenly watched by a crowd of locals, who get their reward for getting up early by being able to buy fresh fish there and then. Some take the unfortunate creatures in plastic bags where they slowly suffocate, but most come prepared with containers so they can tip their carp into a bath at home (blog about the Czechs and their creative uses of baths anon). Meanwhile there is the ever-present sausage, beer and rum stall to keep everyone happy. And below the sluice gate, the locals take a pot luck in fishing for those who got away.

When it's all over, another fanfare and the sluice gate is ceremonially shut so the lake can slowly fill up again - though it will be cleaned out of some of the mud in the meanwhile. But not too drastically - enough small-fry must be left in the lake to grow more harvest in two years time.

I didn't buy a carp. Too soft-hearted, I was both fascinated and repelled by this beautiful dawn-time theatre of cruelty. But I respect the tradition, and I should think any big fish market in the world is just as matter-of-fact about its harvest. I suppose the most precious thing about today's experience was being aware that centuries of ancestors have watched the same spectacle from the same spot, every other year in October, and that people will go on watching it long after I'm gone. The Lake house is truly delivering its treasures.

1 comment:

Philip Wilkinson said...

It was fascinating to see the channels and dips and mud flats on the bottom of the lake - lending themselves in part (or on purpose) to the day's activity.