Around Plaun da Lej, two very different hunters are at home. Both love fish, both love Lake Sils. But only one regularly turns from hunter to hunted – in winter, when ice fishing enthusiasts head out onto the frozen lake.
A scraping sound, as if from a giant kitchen grater, is echoing up the mountainsides above Lake Sils. Antonio Walther is busy boring a small hole by hand through the 60 centimetres of ice that cover the lake. He makes one last turn – and the auger is through. Water laps over the edges of the hole onto the surface of the ice.
Antonio is a fisherman. Not any fisherman, but one known well in the valley – either as president of the local angling club, or because he serves king crabs from Alaska in his restaurant, or because he can be something of a rebel.
Normally, the colourful jackets of the ice fishing enthusiasts on Lake Sils can be spotted from far away, but today there is no one else to be seen. A good day for the angler, a bad day for the fish. Last night, a snowstorm – possibly the last of the season – swept through the valley and covered the frozen lake with sparkling white snowflakes. It is March and the ice fishing season, which began in mid-January, is approaching its end.
The day on the frozen lake begins as the first rays of sunshine climb over the mountain ridge. Antonio Walther sets off from his restaurant, the Murtaröl in the hamlet of Plaun da Lej, straight out onto the lake. He is pulling a sledge, which he has harnessed around his waist. Once, his three children would ride in it when he went cross-country skiing; today it carries a fishing rod, manual ice auger, slotted spoon, shovel, camping stool and bait. “Only thing that’s missing is schnapps,” he says with a broad grin, adding that he did not bring it today as it does not always go down well with the media.
What is going well, however, is the ice
fishing. For a period of two years, anglers
were allowed to fish on the frozen
lake as part of a pilot project. The
goal was to curb the population of an
invasive species of fish while protecting
native stocks. The scheme proved so
successful that in 2019, the authorities
permitted ice fishing on the lake for
the next five years: a success for local
tourism and for Antonio, too. After
all, the idea of opening up Lake Sils to
ice fishing is one that came to him
more than 10 years ago. In those days,
however, the cantonal and local authorities
had other fish to fry – so
he had to take a step back and wait.
After about 50 metres, in the middle of the ice, Antonio stops. The sun is blazing in the blue sky, turning the surface of the lake into a dazzling expanse of glittering whiteness.
Antonio’s bronzed face glows in the sun’s rays, his silver hair sparkles. He takes the shovel from the sledge, clears away a patch of last night’s snow, and starts boring a hole in the ice with the auger. Once through, he takes his slotted spoon from the sledge and scoops lumps of ice out of the hole. A personal idiosyncrasy?
No, others do the same, he says, “if you did it by hand your fingers would freeze off.” By others, he means the ice fishing enthusiasts – young and old, experienced and novice – who buy a permit from him, maybe hire equipment, bore a hole in the ice, drop the bait to the depths and wait. Antonio, too, will soon begin waiting. But he still needs one thing before he can do that, he says, and unpacks his camping stool.
The bait needs to sink all the way down
to the bottom of the lake, which is
about 20 metres deep here. That is the
home of the namaycush, also known
as Canadian lake trout. These were introduced
in the 1960s to help regulate
the populations of the different fish species, in particular the numerous
Arctic char. However, the Arctic char
appeared rather too often on the menu
of the arrival from Canada, so the
former have now almost completely
disappeared. Meanwhile the population of namaycush, which have no
natural predators in Lake Sils, has exploded.
This had to stop. And as Antonio
Walther popped up again with
his ice fishing idea just at this moment,
angling for approval, the authorities
went for it.
Antonio lets his gaze wander across the lake, and tugs at the line now and again to stop the hole freezing over. Although it is not particularly cold today, a thin layer of ice has already formed after 10 minutes. “You can’t be too hopeful about making a catch,” he says. Ice fishing may have a lot to do with skill and knowledge, but luck is also important. Just recently, he says, a novice pulled out a fish after just one hour – but the size of it! Meanwhile even experienced anglers occasionally toddle off after a day’s fishing with an empty bucket.
But for many enthusiasts, the priority is not the size of the catch. Ice fishing is more about the experience, the tranquillity, nature and the sweet pleasure of doing nothing for hours on end – although the latter is not quite accurate. Just boring a hole, sitting down and lowering the bait is not going to get you very far. “If you sit by the same hole all day, nothing’s going to go for the bait,” says Antonio. “Fish aren’t stupid, they learn fast.” So an ice fishing enthusiast may make up to 12 holes in a single day. To stop the lake looking like a cheese full of holes by the evening, the fishing club issues only 30 permits a day.
Cars glide by at regular intervals along
the main road, the sound dampened
by the fresh snow. Antonio’s mobile phone
rings. He speaks in a charming Italian,
pulls a notebook from a pocket and jots
down: name, time, number of people.
A reservation for his restaurant, which
he has been running for 36 years.
He always keeps his notebook to hand:
“you never know.” His restaurant is
clearly highly popular, to judge by the
number of phone calls he takes today.
That, too, was an idea that worked: a fish restaurant in the mountains, which serves not just local fish but seafood as well. A bit crazy, “but I’m like that,” Antonio says. The phone rings again. It is his son Nico, who would also like to come out on the lake today. Previously, they would often go fishing together – in winter and summer alike. Nowadays, Antonio is more restaurateur than angler, and Nico is concentrating on his cross-country skiing career. But now and again they manage to enjoy a few hours together on the lake, chatting like old friends.
They talk about this and that, and what the next wacky scheme could be. Nico says: “If he came up with the idea of scattering salt in Lake Sils so he could release dolphins, I’d be up for it!” Antonio laughs. He hadn’t thought of that, but how about flying tourists up to Lake Sils in a seaplane from Zurich or Lake Maggiore in summer – or even winter – to enjoy a day’s fishing? Just like him now…
And then maybe they, too, would sit in front of a hole, gaze across the dazzling white snow, squint at the sun and dream up ideas that one day could even come true. It just takes patience, to wait for the right moment. And then someone will go for it.
Cut the leek, carrot, courgette and onion into thin strips and wash well. Boil the mixed vegetables in salted water for 2 minutes. Allow to dry, then fry for a short time in a pan with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Brown the fish slices in a frying pan (30 seconds on each side), then place each slice on a piece of aluminium foil. Spread the vegetables, olives and quartered tomatoes on top. Season everything with a little white wine, thyme, olive oil, pepper and a pinch of salt. Wrap the fish slices carefully in the silver foil and bake in the oven at 200 degrees for 10 minutes. Bon appétit!