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Text by Igor Zhigarev








A while back now, 2003, the fates decreed that I should pop over to Atirau, on the Caspian, in Western Kazakhstan. Business trip. I stayed for five years.
I didn’t know much about Western Kakzakhstan; less about Atirau. About the only thing I knew was that the Caspian was nearby and that there are sturgeon in the Caspian. I suppose that’s two things... It wasn’t difficult to picture myself there, in my rich imagination, the kind that a lot of fishermen seem to have, at the helm.. my motor-yacht... pro fishing tackle... a mighty sturgeon, powerful, noble, slowly, imperceptibly tiring... a good fight, a struggle I was slowly winning... bringing him in closer to me and the gaff.
Things didn’t quite work out like that. For a start, you can’t get to the Caspian by land; which is a bit odd considering that it’s entirely surrounded by land, but never mind. And then, there’d be  no hope of doing any fishing even if you could get there because not only is fishing against the law, it’s also prohibited, forbidden, zapreshcheno and even verboten. Unless you have permission, of course. But even when you get permission, you need a special boat to get you down the river into the sea.
So I gave up on the idea. Fortunately, there is fishing not too far from Atirau, on the other side, away from the sea. There’s a river, not very wide, but quite long and quite deep: the Ural. Probably not many fish there, I thought to myself, tiddlers probably. But worth trying anyway. To my delight, it was worth trying: fish a-plenty, and not tiddlers.
On my first weekend I tried fishing in the town with an ordinary rod and bread as bait. I got a few silver bream about the size of my hand, which, where I come from, is a good catch. I wouldn’t say I exactly boasted about this back at the office on the Monday, but I didn’t hide the fact that I was really quite pleased with myself. People nodded and smiled approvingly: politeness, I suppose... except for one of the drivers, who told me there was nothing to be proud of in my haul: 10-kilo fish, he said, are commonplace in the Ural, and although a 20-kilo fish isn’t bad, you can catch fish up to 100 kilos in weight. And more.
That set me off, and the desire was born within me, the consuming desire, to go after wild carp. Or maybe catfish. The driver, who turned out to be very informative, gave me all the gen I needed. I made my preparations.
At that time there weren’t really any fishermen’s shops in Atirau, not proper fishermen’s shops where you could get everything you needed in one go. So I went to the local market, where spindly old men were selling rods and floats labelled with the names of the fish they were supposed to catch. Which certainly made choosing the gear a little simpler. After buying a few rods and lures, and some earthworms for bait, I reckoned I was ready. I think I could have hauled a whale out of the Ural at that point.
Early on Sunday morning with the town 25 kilometers to my south, I found what looked like an ideal spot, and the first cast didn’t disappoint: I had a bite. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the gear I had bought was not going to be up to the job. The line wasn’t strong enough: I could feel something heavy and powerful at the end of it, but couldn’t bring the carp  - I was sure it was a carp -  up. After a brief glimpse of  the flank of a huge fish, the line broke. Seven times my line snapped that day. Hooks broke as well when they snagged on the bottom.
So I went home empty-handed that day... although I was still pleased and not really downcast or discouraged at all. The main thing was that I now knew there were decent fish to he had here.
The following weekend, after a little reading on local fishing methods, I caught my first wild carp, all 6 kilograms of him; on freshwater mussels instead of bread. I caught bigger ones later, 10 kilograms, 12 even; but you never forget your first time...
In winter, as soon as the Ural ices over, and often before it is completely covered, the first extreme fishermen go out onto the ice and start fishing. At the beginning of the season they stay close to the banks. It’s a good time to fish actually: Caspian roach, pike perch and sickle fish abound, although you have to wait for summer if you want carp or catfish.
Fishing the Ural has its share of challenges. It’s not easy to find a good pitch free of snags, some natural, but some, like the submerged nets the poachers use, man-made. In places these nets partition off huge areas. Bait’s not always easy to get hold of. In summer it’s not so difficult: you can use mussels, frog, grasshoppers and worms; but in winter the only available bait is earthworms, and they’re not easy to find, so you have to go and by them at the market from local old women. And when I say local old women, I mean every word. Odd really... And then in spring and autumn there’s the problem of getting there, because the soil, a very cleggy, clayey soil, is virtually impassable. Slithery and sticky at the same time. Nasty stuff...
Mind you, in winter and summer (the latter beginning in May and ending in October) it’s a joy.
Over the past five years I’ve had my brushes with fate. I remember once, with an 11-kilo carp still putting up a fight occasionally but more or less home, I allowed a second hook on the same line (and I have no idea how I managed this) to embed itself into my knee. It went in quite deep. You might say the two of us had been hooked on the same line. Anyway, as I said, the carp hadn’t completely surrendered yet, so every time he made a dive away from me and towards what he thought of as safety, the hook went a little deeper into my knee. In the end I got the carp out on the bank; cut the line; and then after sterilizing a scalpel I happened to have to hand, cut the hook out. The hook broke anyway, and I had to use tweezers to get the barb out. Good fish though.
Early one morning we found a catfish two meters long, must have weighed all of 80 kilos, lying quiet in the shallows hard by the bank. It was as wide as me. It was so still, I thought for a moment it was dead. Anyway, too big to hook it and get it out with rod and line, so I had a think about what to do, and in the end got in the water and, preparatory to lifting him up and out of the water by his gills, lay down full-length on top of him. So ever so gently and smoothly, serenely you might have said, he turned and glided down away from the bank towards the depths. There was nothing I could do except let go, swim back to the bank, haul myself out.

So it’s a fine place, the Ural, for fishing. My advice? Go now: the paochers are doing an excellent job of overfishing, and there’s no knowing how long it will take them to empty the river for good. Make hay while the sun shines.

Discovery Kazakhstan
Travel guide#1/2008

Discovery Kyrgyzstan Travel guide #10/2008


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