It’s the coldest time of the year, and here we are. Standing on the frozen river late at night, ice fishing. Welcome to the Burbot Festival.

The burbot requires frigid temperatures to breed. So says Wikipedia, and Wikipedia must be right unless it’s wrong. In this particular case, it’s probably true.

Or, as long-time fishing guide Peter Schmitt puts it, “fishing burbot is unfortunately at its best right now, the coldest time of the year, so you should to dress properly not to freeze”. He likes it, though. “Getting out on the snowmobile now when it’s plenty of moonlight, with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate… It’s nice.”

The students and teachers from the local school gather for an outdoor lesson.

The first part

Supposedly, Ammarnäs is where the road ends, alluding to the Route 363 running from Umeå to Ammarnäs. But it could also be where it starts, considering that the national river Vindelälven runs from here, as well as the part of the King’s Trail going north through Swedish Lapland to Abisko.

The confluence of the rivers Vindelälven and Tjulån is also favourable for fishing burbot, and for eleven years running now, the villagers and visitors have gathered here to ice fish for it – the first part of the Ammarnäs Burbot Festival.

I’m with Peter Schmitt to prepare for the second part – a celebration dinner featuring braised burbot served with a béchamel sauce, liver and roe pouches. The amount of burbot fished during the ice fishing competition the night before is seldom enough, he explains.

To fetch the line, hook and fish, you have to start with removing the insulating snow that keeps the holes open. The tension is tangible: will there be a fish or not?

The catch

Burbot (Lota lota) can be caught in many ways, one of which is with set lines and large, baited hooks. We’re joined by Ammarnäs’ single school class, with pupils aged between 6 and 13, having an outdoor lesson – it’s their second day of pulling up hooks. The kids that didn’t pull up any hooks the day before gets to do it now and the tension rises.

Is there burbot at the end of the line, or not?

There isn’t.

Not for one, not for two, not for three and not for four. I get to pull up the last one. I have never done it before, and I’m a guest, so everyone agrees that I should try next. Both Peter and the kids tell me I should feel if there’s a fish on the hook, but I feel nothing except possibly a little weight. But to be sure, a burbot comes through the icy hole.

It’s long, has a flat head and is not as ugly as I imagined it would be – the faint, watery, copper shimmer of its body is quite beautiful. And: it’s dead. Quite dead, the kids conclude, before they start comparing it to the fishes they pulled up yesterday.

Peter shows one of the students, Edvin, how to use the ice drill.

Fishing in the night

Peter explains that it is the burbot mating season. They swim upstream and gathers in “burbot pits”, as he calls them, making them easier to catch. This one is a female and carries the roe. He can tell by the roundness of the belly.

The arrangers of the burbot festival, the local fish preservation association, are careful not to disturb the local burbot population. They’ve been working with sustainable fishing for a very long time, and this is no exception. Burbot is considered a near-threatened species, with decreasing populations in southern Sweden and the Gulf of Bothnia, but the burbot population is strong in Ammarnäs.

Fishing for burbot means fishing in the night when it is the most active. So the festival starts off late in the evening, in pitch-black darkness. It would be impossible to see anything unless there were open fires, snowmobile headlights and headlamps. Hot coffee helps to keep you warm – and awake. Anyone can join in. It’s cosy. Cold, but cosy.

Frozen burbots can be used for many things, one of which is playing.

Award ceremony

Day two starts off with an award ceremony. It is a modest one, but generous, with prices given from local entrepreneurs. Todays’ big winners are the young Swiss women who have come here to experience winter in Swedish Lapland.

The dinner, as well as the ice fishing event, welcomes a nice mix of villagers as well as international guests. The German sitting beside me, a well-travelled fly fishing enthusiast who has been “almost everywhere”, proclaims he has never experienced anything like the festival.

I have to take his word for it, as well as his appreciation for the delicacy of the lota lota liver that I have yet to taste. The rest of the burbot is good, but not exceptional. The taste reminds of something in between cod and pike, but someone at the table is disgruntled over that this years’ fish doesn’t have “that muddy taste – I miss it!”.

It’s been an evening of conversations, good food and new acquaintances, and I’m driving home thinking I should have brought along my family of four, positive that the youngest will love it.

I know the young Swiss women are coming back this winter to enjoy the burbot festival. So am I.

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