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Chronicals of Lake Narocz by Mieczyslaw Lisiewicz

This long out of print autobiographical work by this Polish author is reproduced here in full. I have transcribed the work and present it here for all to read. Copyright remains the property of the owners whoever and wherever they are. If anyone who is reading this has any historical facts, documents, maps or photographs about Narocz I would be very grateful if you would contact me, Alan at Landschaft I hope readers enjoy, as I have, the tales from this forgotten corner of the world.

Chapter IV: All the Fishes' Fault


Miadziol, Kupa, Nieslucz, Zanarocz, Mikolec, Miadziol, Naroczanka river, Wilja river


Perhaps the most lyrical chapter in the book - about the author and his wife enjoying time fishing on the lake.

Lisiewicz acquires a canoe that was to serve him for three years and begins his appreticeship as a fisherman and comments wryly on the inadequacy of his gear - that had not undegone the peasant rituals that ensure a successful catch. He is taken to an area where old barbed wire from the war was supposed to hide big fish away from the ntes - for the lake is trawled. His guide relates how skulls are drawn from the deeps by the nets - of the German or Russian dead from the war. The guide explains how the fishing areas are identified by line of site with shoreline features. Their day is unsuccesful but the gide promises pike fishing on the Naroczanka river that outlets from Lake Narocz, a tributary of the River Wilja.

The author relates: "After the first partition of Poland it was the boundary between Russia and the Polish Republic".

There follows a wonderfully vivid passage about the pike fishing expedition on the river, of hooking a big specimen and relising thelanding net had been left behind and the fisk was lost. And idylic memories are related of other later trips in the canoe.

Further reading

None - rhetorical chapter.

Chapter IV: The Text

THE master of all the hostel's boats, Mikolaj chose a canoe for us. She was chosen on a lucky day, and by a master's hand. Picked out "from among thousands," the little craft was to serve us faithfully through three whole years. In course of time she became entirely our own property, received a mast, sails and a rudder, was provided with various improve-ments in the form of a keel, and more than once, like a real sailing-boat, crossed the whole width of the lake. Her gun-wales were white, the water-line marked in red paint.

I cannot recall her without gratitude for her faithful com-panionship on the long trips fishing or exploring. She was for us a patient handmaiden, taking us to church in Miadziol, to Kupa to dance, or to the Scouts' gathering at Nieslucz.

Even to-day (though her gunwales and floorboards are rotted, and her pine frame is mouldering away), leaning over her, one immediately notices a slight fishy smell; if one seeks well in the bilge one is sure to find an old tin can which has once held worms, for this was formerly an essential part of her equipment.

We were determined to go fishing. On the very first day I began to inquire about the lie of the land, the local customs, and the best sort of tackle' for use here. In reality a new arrival at any fishing place is left to rely entirely on his own intuition. The experienced fisherman will never give away to a beginner the "fat" places where the fish take. If asked, he will very kindly, in the most obliging fashion, point out depths and potholes which he himself is most careful to avoid. He has tried them more than once, craftily not accept-ing any dissuasion. He knows for certain that not even the tail of a roach is to be found there, but wishes to discourage the newcomer from careering about the lake, scaring away his own quarry.

The life of a fisherman is not all a bed of roses. Yes! One must find one's own path in its unhospitable byways, never trusting anyone, but relying on one's own experience. Fishing is just like learning to ride a horse: any fool can stay in the saddle after 10 hours' practice, but a man will really begin to ride after 10 years. The initiation of a fisherman does not last quite so long. He can count on his first important fish after about the first three years. At the beginning he must be content with old boots, sardine tins, and, from time to time, a consolation prize in the form of a tiddler, a spiny roach, or at best a baby perch, which in spite of its parents' warnings has wandered from the depths to the shore to meet its fate.

In the Narocz the water near the shore seemed suspiciously clear. No fish will take in such waters. They told me then that fish were only to be found in the deeps.

We were shown these deep waters. Our guide was a certain Moses, a local fisherman. One should not be deceived by his name; the local people, who belong to the Orthodox Church, are very fond of such Old Testament names. In the course of years, in which I came to know many of the peasants, I found in their names a short survey of the great men of the Bible from Abraham to Melchizedech, from Aaron to Ezekiel.

Before we moved off, Moses looked over our rods, and made a wry face. "Sir!" he remarked uncertainly, "it's a weak-looking thing, that rod."

It was an English fishing tackle of well-known make. I assured Moses that it would hold a whale, if only we could find one. Moses only nodded and pretended to believe, me. He still had his doubts. The little rod looked strange, untried, apparently English. But what did they know, these English ? Could one be sure that the wood was cut, with a new, blooded knife, from a bush near an antheap? Was the silk line (Burns & Company) woven by a pregnant woman in a place where the sun can never shine? Most certainly the patent hooks were not bent to the accompaniment of secret whispered charms, from wire which had been passed three times through a fire of alder-wood.

However, in spite ot his doubts, he took us over half a mile from the shore, where in two fathoms of water rested the "Spanish riders." Barbed wire tangled round trestles, pleasant reminders of war, which were swept here across the lake by ice. Among this wire, safe from all nets, were sup-posed to exist some famous perch.

"Are they really big? What is the average weight?" I asked. "It'll be up to half a pud." Last week they pulled out under that there island a perch of a whole pud. Maybe more."

"As big as that? I never knew of a perch that size. What did they do with it?"

"Threw it back, 'cos there were bones in the net too."

"What bones?"

"Human, sir, German maybe Russian."


My wife shifted uneasily. She had had perch for lunch.

"Are the perch here always found together with human bones?" she asked after a moment.

"Sometimes without bones, and sometimes with bones too," informed Moses.

We sailed on. I had with me a large reserve of stouter and finer lines and casts, several stones and a plummet. The stones were to serve as anchors, and the plummet just in case. . . .

When we were at last far enough from the shore, Moses began to fidget restlessly. He took soundings every other minute, first to port then to starboard, then rowed a bit, stopped, went forward into the bows, returned to the stern. In aword, showed most unusual activity.

"What's the matter?" I asked at last.

"We are on the cast, and there's no wire," he explained. Cast, a word borrowed from the vocabulary of hunters, has here a different meaning. It consists of three or four imagin-ary straight lines coming from the shores and crossing each other on the lake. Every deep place on the Narocz,and there are 186 ot them, has its cast. One particular cast, called "on the wires," or "Korowiennaja," has its own, like this: from the lake one must have the hostel before one, slightly to the left, on the right should be found the border of the forest above Zanarocz, on the left the triangular tower at Mikolec in a line with the red roof of the Miadziol church. A cast is something like the sailors' triangulation. One needs the brain of an Einstein to know by heart the casts of all these 186, and yet among the local fisher folk there are those who know them all.

Although there could be no doubt that we were "on the cast," no trace of wire could be found on the lake bed. Luckily not far from us sailed another boat, carrying hay from Naroczanka simply one great haystack moving over the water. Moses cupped his hands to his mouth and gave a long bellow something like this :

"Aahaukuutuaahaukuudu saakaa." Then quickly brought his hand to his ear and listened.

Silence. I could see that in the hayboat the oarsmen had stopped rowing.

Moses again raised his hands to his mouth. "Aahaukuudu saakaa."

Now from far away over the water flew the answer. I could almost see the voice moving over the watery space, how it skipped from ripple to ripple, ran, hurried, and at last, panting, arrived. A whisper yet no whisper, a moan yet not a moan, exactly like the twittering of a small bird. "Ssss trrrhrumsiipslip." I did not understand one word, but Moses smiled with satisfaction.

"They say it is here. Here for certain."

Again he betook himself to work; began to take soundings, threw out the line, leaned over the gunwales. Preoccupied with his search for the wire he never noticed that the sun was already beginning to move slowly down the western sky, and the greenish silver shades of the evening breeze were flitting over the ripples. My wife and I, leaning against the gunwale, began to dream.

The regular rocking of the boat began to send us to sleep. Bit by bit we had cast off all possible clothing, for although the sun was setting the heat was still terrific.

From Moses the sweat ran in rivers. After all, he was wearing a thick cloth jacket, high boots, and a collar buttoned round his neck. Nevertheless he moved about tirelessly, taking soundings, rowing, gazing, testing.

"Aren't you hot, Moses?" asked my wife.

"Aye, warm."

"Why don't you take off your coat?"

"Oh! I couldn't do that. I must have at least two shirts under my jacket."

"Two! Why two?"

"So that no one can say 'Moses goes about in only a shirt.' "

Meanwhile the fish were making great play about our boat. Shoals of roach leapt from the water and gathered in crowds just below the surface, splashing merrily with their tails. It was sufficient to throw a bit of wood into the water imme-diately there collected round it a lively, boisterous, gleaming, excited, leaping crowd. And still there was no wire.

Moses cursed and swore that this was the first time in his life that such a thing had happened, but it was all the same to us. Anyway the trip was pleasant, little breeze, small waves, and the glowing sun was invigorating. A bluish haze began to hide the edges of the lake, sure sign of lasting good weather. The fish still leapt gaily. It was a pleasure to watch.

At last the boat came to a stop, the trailing line dragged against something on the lake floor. Moses shouted, "There's the wire!" We had reached the spot we had been seeking Now we were obliged to rouse ourselves from the lazy half-sleep, the pleasant doze in the pale-blue atmosphere. We pre-pared our rods. Three lines sank beneath the waves, three faces tensed in anticipation. Nor had we long to wait. Suddenly something tugged hard, and the line began to run through my fingers. Almost instantaneously Moses and my wife began to-struggle with their rods. In a moment, groan-ing from the effort, we pulled out three perch each the size of my little finger.

We threw these base spoils back into the water. Again we cast our lines, only to catch, in a moment, even smaller perch. Obviously the fry from the whole lake had taken a fancy to this place "on the wires," and was now maliciously playing on our nerves. It is generally known that where one finds little perch there are no larger ones. After half an hour of this sort of blind-man's buff we left the unprofitable depths.

On the way back, Moses, to make up for the day's dis-appointment, offered to take us pike fishing on the Naroczanka some day soon.

"There are certainly pike there," he asserted.

"Big ones?"

"Sir, such big ones! Sometimes it is difficult to pull them out of the water. And the bream-like cartwheels, the barbels as big as trees."

Several days were spent in expectation, till one evening Moses appeared at the hostel and announced that to-morrow was the day. We did not sleep well that night. Our dreams were all of fish, flat, long, moustached, and tailed, which, chuckling in human voices, swam round us as we sat in the canoe.

I rose at dawn, and spent the early morning hours on the jetty near the hostel, catching fat gudgeon. These more than any other fish, are acceptable to the pike, who though he is stupid, and on principle will take anything that glitters, can at times prove very particular. For instance, he turns up his nose at bony fish, and will not touch those with spiny fins.

In this case it seemed fitting to accommodate him.

After breakfast we embarked, and sped on our way by all the many dwellers in the hostel, moved off to the south round the headland on the Naroczanka river.

The Naroczanka is an outlet from the lake. Down her bed flows the lake's surplus water, escaping to the river Wilja. The Naroczanka is not just a river like any other. After the first partition of Poland it was the boundary between Russia and the Polish Republic. Around its mouth, or rather the opening bv which it leaves the lake, the west winds have piled up huge banks of sand,-forming shoals. To sail through these calls for great craftsmanship, without which one is certain to run aground, and be obliged to pull the boat off again. We had to do this several times.

In the gateway to the river, a narrow passage between two dark-emerald walls of reeds, the water is so thick, from the river-bed to the very surface, with tangled weeds, that a boat can move forward only with difficulty. At each stroke, the oars either throw into the air heavy masses of the dirty water-weeds, or slide powerlessly over them. But such toil is of short duration, and is copiously rewarded. Further on, the river-bed becomes wide, dark, and circuitous. The water flows slowly, without visible banks, in an even, lazy stream. The banks are marked only by reeds, beyond which lie wide water-logged meadows of grass, rushes, and slimy weeds. Between these meadows and the Uzia forest on the horizon can be seen groves and coombs of birches and small dwarfed spruces. From all around, from the reeds and meadows, come to one's ears mysterious undertones, croakings, splashes, squeaks, and sometimes, above all these scattered, vague sounds, the deep booming of a heron. Echoes whisper in the green aisles of the reeds, where the marsh fowl, feeling the presence of man, call a warning to one another. The hisses and quacks approach and recede, entice and bewilder the ear, and at the sound of an oar striking the water a little harder than usual, cease as suddenly as if a wireless set were switched off. Then there is nothing to be heard at all, except the thin whine of a mosquito, or the heavy buzz of a droning beetle trying its wings.

The Naroczanka's stream is deep and clear. It flows over a bed alternately dark and light. The water trickles between a variety of weeds, creating in its depths an enchanted land, a jungle of seaweed and monstrous heads of greenish "cabbages," with pliant leaves waving in the streams of water.

Frail forests of thick growing, rambling brownish leaves squirm on the river-bed, and long, slimy ropes of the under-water creepers wave round the boat's gunwales. Everywhere one sees abundant growth, which though beautiful is as strange and repellent as the furry legs of the widow-spider. One gazes fearfully into the seductive depths, whose clean clay beds seem to lie under one's very hands so clear, transparent, and inviting. But let some rash soul try to fathom them! Immediately the deeps will cover him and the hidden current suck him down amongst the tangled tree trunks, which were drowned here long ago, and to-day have planted their roots and branches deep in the river ooze.

Sailing farther down the river, one may come upon pot-holes which are quiet, dark and opaque. Only the sun's slant-ing beams penetrate to depths unreached by the eye of man, amongst the slimy posts of the bridge of water-fairies. In just such potholes the flat-headed pike lurk under the logs resting on the bottom.

We tied up to the reeds near one such pothole, coaxing the boat well in among the rushes and sweet flag, leaving one gunwale nearest the deep water, so as to have an easy cast over as wide an area as possible.

The tackle for pike-fishing consists of a long line and a rod and reel. An experienced fisherman will carefully try the balance of these, choosing those that will not tire the hands. Attached to the line are several small floats and one larger one. The latter serves to uphold the bait, a small lively fish on a hook, while the smaller ones keep the line affoat on the surface of the water. All this is thrown from the shoulder, with a good swing, so that the end may fall somewhere in midstream and drift down with the current not too fast, nor too slowly but at just the speed which will encourage the swift-finned plunderer to attack. He darts like an arrow from his lair by the mudbanks and grabs the gudgeon in his needle-toothed jaws. Even then the cunning thief will hold and test his prey a long while before, in the fashion of the pike, he turns the little fish's head towards his gaping maw, to swallow it whole. The pike's every move is shown by the float, the motion of which the fisherman watches, waiting patiently. If he strikes too soon, well -

The line was out, and our wait began.

There was no waiting. Scarcely had the large float reached the water when it sank. The pike, in his usual way, began to try the bait. Several times the float reappeared on the surface, and our hearts beat anxiously, for we knew that the greenish body lay just below the water. Piercing little eyes looked on all sides for anything suspicious that might mean danger. At last the big float disappeared for good, and slowly, incredibly slowly, the others followed it down. When the last had sunk into the depths, I pulled with all my might. I felt a resistance - the rod bent.

"Got it! Got it!" shrieked my wife.

"Got it! Got it!" roared Moses.

I pulled carefully, so that the line should be taut, and the pike could not bite it through. The creatures can do that! Nevertheless strange things began to happen. Normally a fish fights in fits and starts, darting sideways or downwards. Somehow this one didn't. True there was a strain on the line, but hard and suspiciously even. I felt none of the well-known tugging. Anyway there was something heavy on the hook. Old boots and bullybeef cans don't usually take bait! Besides, if I just relaxed the reel the line immediately began to run out, obviously being dragged downwards. Definitely a fish!

I decided to brake the line, then slowly began to reel in, at any moment the quarry should appear.

"The net. Give me the net," I shouted.

What was the good? The net still lay, deserted in bar-barous fashion, under the tall pine by the hostel landing place. However much it wished, it could not come alone at its master's call. It had no legs, and five miles of woods and water separated us. My wife, searching the boat for it, made a furious bustle, while I struggled with the rod. We had to manage somehow. At last the pike appeared.

He was a beautiful sight, weighing at least four pounds. One could see him perfectly through the clear water. He was behaving with great dignity. The golden scales and black stripes, marks of his aristocratic descent, glittered in the sun when he turned on his side, as a tired fish usually does. He held the bait in the jaws of his great flattened head, and his bulging eyes looked at us stubbornly. He reminded one of a dog with a bone. Nevertheless he allowed himself to be pulled in without-resistance.

When I at last hauled him to the very gunwales, he shook the bait a couple of times, just as a dog would shake a bone, then (though most unwillingly) opened his jaws and let go. Still he waited! Seeing that the gudgeon escaped, he threw himself on it again, though, when I slackened the line, did not take it but just sniffed at it; such a scamp, there's no other expression.

Moses couldn't bear it. Furiously he seized an oar, to belabour the brigand's shoulders, but the pike didn't wait. With dumb reproach in his eyes I'll swear that was what his look meant he waved his tail, turned his back on us, and swam back to his native deeps.

And that was all we saw of him.

With empty hands we returned home late in the evening, and stole up to our room to avoid questions.

Much more water had flowed down the Wilja and Naroczanka before we began our pleasant fishing trips along the shores of the Pale Lake to the famous islands and to a certain secret bay guarded by a pair of fish-eagles. In the gloaming one heard the loud splashes of the evening dance of every kind of fish. More than once we were drenched by rain, more than once a storm caught us; for instance when we escaped half-dead, deserting the canoe, half-swimming, half-floundering ashore, anything to find a tree to shelter us from the pelting of hailstones as big as pigeons' eggs. More than once on such excursions on the Naroczanka, which we later rediscovered, we were forced to sit for hours under a tree in some frightful bog, waiting for the weather to take pity on us. More than one night was spent in a haystack on the marshes, till dawn woke us with the loud gaggle of teal flying overhead. Then we took our revenge for the first disappointments on rudd, perch, and dace. But we had no inclination for pike. They had disgusted us completely.