If you throw an ordinary float rod, baited with a small worm, into any Central Asian lowland water body, then the first fish that falls on this tackle will most likely be roach. True, our roach is not quite ordinary, but the Aral (in Latin – Rutilus rutilus aralensis). How it differs from European roach, scientists-ichthyologists know better, but I personally will not distinguish one from the other. The Aral roach is found in rivers, lakes, canals, in the smallest irrigation ditches of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basins and in the muddy water of the endless Zerafshan. Before the drying up of the Aral Sea, roach lived in it and was there a commercial fish, and in the huge salt lake Aydarkul it is still caught on an industrial scale.
The Aral roach is a very flexible species, easily adapting to any habitat. The largest sizes are reached by anadromous and semi-anadromous forms of roach associated with the system of large steppe lakes – Aydarkul, Arnasay, or the low-lying reservoirs of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Moreover, weighty roach from these reservoirs can travel through canals, collectors and the smallest irrigation canals flowing into these reservoirs, for tens and hundreds of kilometers.
According to our ichthyological science, the maximum weight of local roach is 1.2 kg with a length of up to 40 cm. Not often, but kilogram specimens are still caught in the nets of fishermen who hunt on large steppe lakes. Large roach are sometimes caught in the Chardarya reservoir on the Syrdarya. The fish that constantly inhabit the middle reaches and lower reaches of rivers are usually smaller: fish from 50 to 200 grams are caught on the bait. Quite dwarf roach live in swamps overgrown with reeds or dry collectors with salt water. There is no roach only in mountain reservoirs and mountain rivers, even in their low-lying part: this fish does not like fast and cold water.
Roach is very similar to rudd, and my good friend, a professional ichthyologist, taught me to distinguish between these fish. First of all, this is the mouth: in roach, its mouth is directed forward and downward, in rudd it is always upward. In roach, the body is rounded and elongated, in rudd it is compressed from the sides and shorter. The body of the roach is almost always covered with mucus, and the rudd has rough scales, on which the mucus is not felt at all.
Least of all, its coloring helps in recognizing the roach – it very much depends on the reservoir where this fish lives. If the reservoir is transparent and overgrown with algae, then the roach living there is colored very brightly: the fins are orange, the eyes are orange to red, the scales have a lilac tint with darkening towards the back. But in the murky waters of irrigation canals and rivers, the color of the roach is inexpressive, silvery-gray, whitish, of the same tone from the abdomen to the back, even the fins and eyes are not colored at all or have a barely noticeable yellowish tint. An inexperienced fisherman does not immediately recognize the beautiful roach in this nondescript-looking fish.
BREAK ON THE RAFT
In all fairness, the Asian float enthusiasts’ interest in catching white fish has a very short history. Until recently, there were a lot of solid and prestigious prey, for example, weighty carp or a decent-sized crucian carp. Roach, rudd, small shemaya, local dace, swine-footed fish, rattlers and other linen (and there are several more types of it) belonged to the category of “trash” fish and were ignored even by novice fishermen. In our area, the phrase “to get off the roach” did not at all mean exciting fishing and an impressive catch. It meant that simply no “standing” fish is caught and one has to be content with roach.
But times have changed, and now even advanced floaters do not consider special hunting for large roach to be shameful. If we are talking about a period of low activity of peaceful fish (late autumn, winter), then for many, roach sometimes becomes the only lifesaver that does not allow getting bored without a favorite activity in the so-called dead time. In the past winter-spring season, I and my fishing comrades had to “get off the roach” at least twice. Moreover, these fishing trips remained in the memory not as wasted time, but as the most pleasant memories, although initially no one was going to fish for roach.
The first such fishing took place at the end of December. I asked for a company of avid hunters who were going to hunt on Aydarkul. On this huge steppe salt lake, which rarely freezes even in relatively cold winters, countless different waterfowl gather for wintering. I am not interested in hunting, but I am very interested in Aydarkul pike perch. There is no competition for him here: due to the high salinity of the water in the middle and western parts of the lake, our usual Asian predators – snakeheads, asps, catfish and pikes – are practically not found. But pike perch grow there to an impressive size, and for such handsome men it is not a sin to go at least half a thousand kilometers.
The trip turned out to be more difficult than originally anticipated. Instead of seven or eight hours, they drove for more than twelve, in the dark they lost their bearings twice on the tangled steppe roads – each time the shepherds showed the road, it is not clear how they orientate themselves in these monotonous landscapes. Despite the fact that we found ourselves in the trailer of the fishing brigade that sheltered us well after midnight, at dawn everyone went about their business: the hunters went hunting, and I went to the lake for pike perch. He quickly went down the steep bank to the water. Its proximity was guessed only by the sound of the breaking wave, and the lake itself seemed to dissolve into fog. I fished exclusively on a jig with silicone. Usually, this bait did not fail in winter, but this time it did not even feel the poke. And the place seemed very promising, and the depth was decent, and the bottom was clear of algae, which is almost an exception in our lakes, but there are no pike perch.
After lunch, we explored the bay of the lake by boat, found several excellent longitudinal grooves, where God himself ordered the pike perch to be – but it was not there either. The fishermen were finally upset when in the evening they brought a catch shaken out of kilometers of their nets. There were very few and medium-sized pike perch there, but it was full of roach and weighty crucians. Looking at this mountain of fish, an idea was born: why not fish at least roach, since there is not a lot of pike perch this time? But there is nothing to catch it: it does not bite on bread in winter, and we have not heard of worms here – they are not found in sandy salty soil. But one of the gamekeepers suggested a way out – to try to catch pieces of small intestines from gutted game. Without delay, I went with a flashlight to an impromptu street kitchen, where the necessary “component” was extracted from the trash can, from which I immediately cut off thirty centimeters of “bait”. No wonder I was in such a hurry – by the morning the contents of the bucket were completely emptied by jackals, which are found in many coastal reeds and which often revolve around housing in the hope of profitable something.
In the morning, I slowly remade one of my spinning rods into the most primitive donkey: at the end of the braid there is a 30-gram Cheburashka, and thirty centimeters higher – a leash with a hook of the seventh Soviet number, baited with a square of a bird’s gut. I didn’t think too much about choosing a place, I threw the tackle right into the clearing, clean of algae, along which the boats of the fishing brigade moored to the shore. The choice of the place was, albeit spontaneous, but it turned out to be correct: when trying to throw the tackle slightly to the left or to the right, the sinker fell into the seaweed carpet and had to be freed from there by repeated sharp twitching. The bites began immediately, but were rare. True, the roach took a decent amount, 200-300 grams. She pecked very confidently, no expressionless jabs and twitching – the thin tip of the rod, after a couple of quick nods, immediately bent into an arc. Striking – and at the end you can feel the pleasant resistance of a decent fish.
By noon, when the fog cleared, it got a little warmer and even the sun appeared, the biting became almost continuous, and the huge cage rented to me by the fishermen began to fill up quickly. In general, when I was called for dinner, I pulled it out of the water with noticeable difficulty and lifted it to the steep bank. Even the fishermen were surprised by the catch, but they got almost all of it, since a couple of dozen roach was enough for a rich ear.
In early March, just before the women’s holiday, a familiar spinning player called and told a terribly true story he heard at the fish market: Syrdarya water went to Arnasai, and with it huge pike perch and pike, which the storytellers themselves allegedly traded. In general, in a day, four inveterate spinners were rushing at full speed towards the famous Asian fishing Eldorado – to Arnasai. Arnasay is currently a chain of lakes of various sizes, connected by numerous channels. These channels are from a couple of tens of meters to a couple of kilometers wide, but it is in them that the bulk of the Arnasai predator is concentrated – pike perch, catfish asp and pike. True, in the lower reaches, where we were heading, the water is already too salty, and only pike perch and catfish can withstand it. Because of the coolness, only pike perch could be our potential prey, so everyone was determined to catch this predator.
We left late, traditionally wandered along puzzling steppe roads, so we got to the desired channel in the dark. There were no special signs of activity of either pike perch or peaceful fish – silence, not a single splash was heard. To calm their conscience, they threw away the wobblers and even set them on fire a little, but, having not earned a single bite, they decided to leave this business until morning. As it turned out, not everyone in the company was “pure spinningists”. One of us grabbed a couple of folk spinning rods, converted into ordinary donks, and a jar of worms. So the bites on these donks began immediately. In pitch darkness and at a decent depth, weighty Aral roaches were excellent at picking up worms. The catch was so fascinating that everyone scattered around the tents almost by morning.
As it turned out later, the night roach catch was the main achievement for the whole fishing and formed the basis of the traditional fishing menu – fragrant fish soup and excellent hot smoked balychki. Neither in the morning nor in the afternoon did the pike-perch peck, although we, the spinning fishermen, were very active and fished not only our channel, but we were not too lazy to go to some of the neighboring ones. And our colleague, “split off” from the spinningists, showed ingenuity in the daytime: when the roach stopped taking from the coast, he anchored on a boat in the middle of the channel and began to successfully catch it with vertical bottoms from a ten-meter depth.
A couple of weeks later it got warmer, and the long-awaited pike perch went. But, as it became clear, it was long-awaited only for a few spinning players. Most of the fishing companies, which were based in camps on both sides of the channel, came to the distant steppe lake specially for the Aral roach. For these companies, the Aral roach is a very worthwhile fish. And the silvery fish did not let the fishermen down, allowing them to “come off the roach” in the most precise sense of this expression.