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THE DANUBE FISHERMEN AND A UNIQUE PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE

Between white and heavenly fields

If you have never been an angler on the Danube, you will never know how it feels when thick fog suddenly settles on the big river, when on the point of freezing a rope cuts the palm of the hand like a sword, when because of a bad catch even those who love you are ready to leave you. But if you have been an angler on the Danube, you would know that you would gladly leave all the treasures of the world for the sake of this life. It is a special world, and it is here, beside us, to be instantly loved and forever remembered
Text: Karlo Kubiček Photo: Reporters of „Serbia – National Review”
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From times immemorial, stories have circulated about how the Danube anglers differ from other members of the anglers’ fraternity on the rivers Sava, Tisa, and Morava... Those who claim that say that the Danube people are – although not at first sight, but when you get to know them better - bigger rascals and charmers, and that they are slicker than all the anglers from rivers whose names have feminine endings.
- This is self-evident! We don’t catch fish in some sort of little streams and ponds, we fish in a real man’s river, - explains Neša the „Cleaver”, who was born in New Belgrade but who absconded to the angler fraternity of Zemun.
Come this autumn, these angling slickers of Zemun will be using their skills, as well as the generosity of the big river, to fill their fishing nets with bream, carp, barbell, gull and sturgeon. They will do this with the utmost respect for the River Danube. For they know that within the blinking of an eye, the river can drag down the unwary and vain into the bosom of the waves, or drag them under a barge or ferry, where the „white fields” (to borrow an expression from a popular song) they ploughed will become the „heavenly fields”. For the song says: „All the fields are green, but the angler’s fields are white”.
- There is fish, but not as before, not by a long shot – says the Zemun angler Preža, who has started fishing again after pausing for a few years. – If it wasn’t for the job of security guard in the „Radecki” Society, and the small pension I receive, and if my son wasn’t grown up and independent, I would not be able to feed my family. I have invested more than four thousand Euros in a boat, a second-hand engine, nets and other angling gear, as well as a license…It all has to be repaid! Moreover, fishing is like a lottery, sometimes it’s bingo, sometimes it’s just a bet, sometimes not even that.
As if by the way, Preža says that for the money invested he could have bought a nice house with a yard in Surduk, where he could have planted onions and tomatoes and spent autumns and cold winter days inside, leaning against the kitchen stove. But what of it! The call of the Danube was stronger.
- This season we haven’t had a capital catch, but there was gull that weighed a few kilograms. Some carp also wriggled about in the net, but white fishwas plentiful.

THE BOAT WHICH LOOKS LIKE A LOG
While he talks, there is regret in his voice that the trophy catch of a forty kilo gull or a thirty kilo carp is a thing of the past. Nevertheless, he and all the other anglers know that the capital catch is there to warm the angler’s vanity, to spin stories... It is more importaint that, as often as possible, the net should not be empty but also that it should not contain some of the things the Danube carries. It happens that the „catch” could be a table, a chair with or without legs, an old coat or a pair of ragged pants… Anglers from Zemun still talk about the look on the face of one fisherman who was dragging the net, and who saw first the head with long blond hair, then a shoulder without an arm… His heart almost failed! But it turned out that it was only a mannequin from a department store that someone, for God knows what reason, had thrown away into the Danube.
NicknamesAs much as the nicknames of the Danube anglers sound unusual at first, almost each one has a separate story. The already mentioned Pera Šuma (Forest) got his nickname because he had an extremely hairy chest and shoulders. Because he never buttoned his shirt, they teased him that his forest is sticking out. Another angler was nicknamed Firanga (drapes) because he was not keen on patching his nets, so they, full of holes, looked like drapes (firange). When a robust angler, who did not change his seat in the boat for many years, fell through to its bottom (because the rotten plank could not hold him any more), he became Sedalica (the Seat). The angler Nenad Jovanović got his alias Satara (Cleaver) because after he finished a cooking course he used a cleaver as deftly as a pen…

The anglers tell how harrowing it is for them to experience the fog on the Danube, and to hear the noise of a ship’s engine or the sound of a siren while they are desperately trying to get to shore. Those who have experienced these two sounds, but especially the second one, say that the blood in their veins froze.
- Ship captains say that on the radar they see a boat looking like a big floating log. That is why they don’t react in most cases. Fortunately they also try to avoid sailing in the fog, so when it appears, they drop anchor. However, there are those who sail when the fog is thick… Those are stories from the angler society „Radecki” in Zemun. They agree that the fog is worse than any kind of wind, any storm, gale or „salauk”. You don’t know when it is going to descend and it can be so thick that you don’t see you own nose in front of you. Only a compass can help. However, often it, too, is of not much help, because there is no stable place in the boat where it can be placed. Because of that, the unwritten rule for the angler is, that as soon as he steps out of the fog on solid ground, he must go to the nearest pub for a drink to help him recover his wits and than straight to church, to light a candle to the saints-protectors of his angler’s guild, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.
To honour these saints, the Zemun fishermen have always celebrated Saint Peter’s Day. In truth, today the sacred day is celebrated more modestly. On 12 July every year, after cutting the sacred ritual bread, as prescribed by custom, the anglers cooked fish soup for the „Radecki” club members, although occasional visitors were not left to starve either. While the soup was simmering, one could hear that only seven anglers were still working, but not long ago there were more than thirty fishermen’s boats here.

A FEATHERED CATCH
-It used to be like a taxi rank here. We were waiting in line to drop the nets! At dawn, we all gathered on the shore, where the citizens of Zemun waited, with their baskets. Most often, we would sell everything over the quotas we were obliged to bring to large-scale buyers. When the catch was good, there was money in abundance. Then we would go straight to the pub. We went to the Zemun „Brioni” to eat chitterlings, to the „White Lamb” on the market for a drink, and to the „Three Boatmen” nearby – reminisced the anglers, who say that in the old „Carp” restaurant, there was even a table reserved for them. With freshly fried fish, which was washed down with plenty of wine, they used to tell stories, make jokes and sing the old songs.
The anglers say that their biggest problem was to keep the fish from spoiling if they went angling outside the city for a couple of days. That is why they sold their catch the same day to the restaurant owners, but also often traded the catch with peasants from nearby villages.
- From all those trips, I came home as if I had been to market. With potatoes, paprika, fruit…It is true that it was not real money, but groceries are also needed for the household. During one of those fishing trips, I even had a feathered catch! I had sold almost all of my catch that day, when a peasant came saying he had no money but he had a rooster. I say to him, I don’t need it, explaining that I resent killing it. But he was persistent, and in the end, I agreed. I remember that my mates made jokes at my expense because of the rooster, but how it all ended, I don’t remember – says Preža.
The most beautiful songOnce acquired, the nicknames of the Danube anglers would be passed on to their sons, whether these became anglers or not. That is how Jovan, who never became an angler, inherited his father’s nickname Puba. The reason for this was: as a kid he dropped a huge gull his father had caught into Danube, so his father forbade him to go fishing. Instead of becoming an angler, Jovan Ljubinković Puba became a poet and bohemian, who all his life wrote nostalgic poems about the Danube. One of these is the well-known one: „Softly, softly flows the Danube, she will not return to you, What remains is hopeless yearning, Can’t forget those honeyed lips, Those eyes, the doe-like step, Never, never, nor that the black hair “.
Set to music by Mirko Šouca, these verses were recorded by Žarko Dančuo and the song is among the most beautiful songs ever sung about Zemun!

From this story, but also from other anglers’ stories, always sitting on the edge between dream and reality, mildly seasoned with imagination, one could get the impression that the angler’s life is all peaches and cream and that everything is fun and games. Wrong! The angler’s lot is a hard one…During the summer, they say, it is a little easier. It is true that the sky is burning and that the mouth is dry and the face wet from sweat that bites the eyes, but salvation comes with the cool of the nights… That is the reason why they go fishing at dusk, they sail a couple of kilometers upstream, place the nets or drag them. They return at dawn when along the mighty river one can feel the morning breeze.
Meantime, the anglers say, the boredom is deadly! During the night, while they wait for the fish to entangle itself in the net, Time passes slowly. Hours of waiting are relieved by a sip of brandy („rakia”). The brandy helps the angler get to sleep more easily in the boat or in the sleeping bag, on the riverbank. Maybe for that reason or any other you might think of, fishermen’s stories about enormous gull that drag boats into the Danube’s deep waters, or about strange creatures that scare fish out of the net, always have a nocturnal scenography.
To cut the night short, some anglers take their dogs fishing. Among them is Joca, whom they call Ghost.
- It is more interesting with him, he runs, jumps about in the boat or on the shore… However, if I decide to lie down, he feels that and falls asleep before me. Than, his snoring lulls me to sleep as well – he says apologetically…

THE NET IS RAZOR-SHARP
It is worse, the anglers agree, during autumn and winter. That is the time when winds blow frequently, from the north or from the east, winds whose humidity penetrates to the very bone marrow… Only anglers know how it feels when wet fingers get stiff in the wind so that every move is painful. Temporary relief is brought on by warming the hands under the engine, but that does not really help. They also know what it is to drag the net from the water that’s close to freezing, so it can cut the hands like a razor. It is more bearable when you are young, they say, but when the birth certificate starts to fade, first your wrists suffer, than the kidneys…
- I am lucky I don’t have dandruff – so joked at his own expense the now deceased fisherman Josif (God rest his soul), who was one of the very few to reach his retirement as a professional angler and to be eligible for a pension. When they asked why, he replied that there is no way he could have scratch, because his shoulders were so stiff that he could not have raised his arms above his head.
That is the reason why there are fewer people deciding to became anglers, but also there is another reason...
-What is in fashion nowadays are fish burgers and frozen filets, you just throw them on cooking oil, and there goes your lunch. Few people want to go out of their way to clean the fish and to prepare a meal with it. They say that fish stinks up the house. Listen to them: fish is stinking? You don’t say! – angrily commented a fisherman who found only a couple of customers for his bream and pike which he brought to the Zemun market. After persistently hanging out for a few hours, he managed to sell hardly half of his catch, so he left the remainder to his colleague and, obviously upset, went to have a beer at the „Three Boatmen” nearby.
Even this Zemun pub, previously a place where anglers met, is no longer the same. For that matter, the renovated „Carp” is also not what it used to be… One of the last oases where anglers occasionally meet is the „Radecki” pub. When they do meet, their table is dominated by stories about the happy times. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the photographs of old anglers are watching them from the walls, where a special place is reserved for the late Pera, called Šuma. Someone preserved the moment with a camera, in which Pera is holding a huge sturgeon, while a poem is also dedicated to him:
Pera Šuma Knežević rose up early,
The Fisherman from Zemun hurried to the Danube water,
To close off the Danube with his net,
Not to let the fish cross into the River Sava.
These somewhat clumsy verses will probably not make it into an anthology of poetry, but what does that matter…What is more important is that these verses are the repository of memory and that they provoke stories and reminiscences. As long as there are those who can tell and remember. But after that…who know…
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