Ice Fishing in America

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Sergey Sakhno, left, and Ihor Yantukhovskyy with their catch of the day. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.

By Stephen J. Kotz

Round Pond was snow covered and frozen solid Saturday morning. The lead gray sky and heavy air promised more snow, as two men, one dressed in tan Carhartt coveralls, the other in navy blue Arctic Cat snowmobile bibs and a lined denim jacket, used a hand auger to drill through the foot-thick ice and set their ice-fishing rigs.

Ihor Yantukhovskyy and Sergey Sakhno are both from the Ukraine—“He is from the west and I am from the east, yet we are still friends,” Mr. Sakhno announced—although they live in Calverton now.

Through thick accents and limited English, they said they had come to the pond on the southern edge of Sag Harbor not only to try to catch some fish, but more importantly keep alive a tradition from the old country. “My father was an expert,” said Mr. Sakhno, who did the lion’s share of the talking on Saturday.

He recounted how his father would wrap himself in blankets and sit behind a makeshift plastic lean-to to cut the bitter cold wind on the Dnieper River in the dead of winter. As the weather warmed and the river began to cast off its heavy coat of ice, he would jump from ice floe to ice floe to find a stable section, where he continued his fishing. “I wasn’t brave enough to go to the middle of the river with him,” Mr. Sakhno said.

One learns soon enough that there’s not a whole lot to discuss when it comes to ice fishing. You cut a few holes in the ice, drop in a line with a baited hook or two, and wait until your feet start to grow cold despite the woolen socks and heavy boots you made certain to wear that morning.

The quiet was occasionally interrupted by the rumble of ice shifting underfoot. It sounds like underwater thunder, but Mr. Yantukhovskyy said there was no cause for alarm. “This is good, deep ice,” he said.

Mr. Yantukhovskyy and Mr. Sakhno had already drilled a half dozen or more holes through that ice, some close to shore in the shallower portion of the pond, others in deeper water toward the center. “Drilling one hole is fun,” Mr. Sakhno said. “Drilling a dozen is hard work.”

After clearing away the slushy water, they placed caps made out of cross-sections of small buoys over the holes, with one side painted red so that when a fish tugged on the line, it would flip over and be visible from across the ice. On others they used sticks with small flags that would wiggle when a fish was caught.

For bait, they used minnows to entice pickerel and good, old earthworms for the occasional yellow perch that came their way. The weighted their line and allowed the bait to float a foot or two off the bottom, waiting for a hungry fish to come by. Today, the shallow holes were drawing more fish. No knowing why. That’s just fishing.

Mr. Sakhno insisted that by drilling holes, ice fishermen save far more fish than they could possibly catch by helping introduce much needed oxygen into the water, which can be depleted during harsh winters like this one.

The two anglers grabbed a cigarette and shared bits of sausage sandwiches. After their lunch, as if to affirm they are acclimated to their new country, they each poured a small shot of bourbon—not vodka—and made a toast to world peace.

As a young man, Mr. Sakhno, now 56, had a plum assignment in the Soviet army—serving on Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s honor guard at the Kremlin. “My mother got to see me on television every week,” he said proudly, mimicking how he stood at attention with the other guards, head turned to the side and looking slightly upward to greet visiting dignitaries from President Giscard d’Estaing of France to Saddam Hussein of Iraq. “We were drilled beforehand,” he said, “for some, it was ‘We are very happy to see you’ for others, it was, ‘We are tolerating you.’”

When Perestroika, the reform movement started by Mikhail Gorbachev, took hold, both Mr. Sakhno who was trained as a fiber optics engineer and Mr. Yantukhovskyy, a civil engineer, took the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. But there was no work in their chosen fields. Mr. Sakhno now makes his living as a home contractor; Mr. Yantukhovskyy is a welder.

But they both said they are happy to be here and proudly announce that they are citizens. Mr. Sakhno suggests that the many advantages life in the United States offers are too often lost on those born here.

One of the buoys started to bounce on the ice like popping corn. Mr. Yantukhovskyy began to retrieve a fish, but it broke free. Minutes later, another buoy started to bounce. Mr. Sakhno carefully pulled in a pickerel that he added to the day’s catch of perhaps 10 fish. They said they would use the fish heads for soup and fry the tiny fillets.

As snow flurries began, Mr. Yantukhovskyy said it was time go. The talking ended and the two men gathered up their scattered gear from across the deserted pond.

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