Baja Fisherman’s Cast Net

Erika Koltay

Among the forty items that currently appear on Hungary’s list of intangible cultural heritage, there appears one added in 2013 that reads: Traditional Methods of Fishing on the Lower Hungarian Section of the Danube River. The practices that fall under this heading also feature in the Museum of Ethnography’s new permanent exhibition, where they enter a discussion of the highly complex and not always unproblematic topic of The Concept of Heritage itself.

Specifically, in the subsection entitled Tangible and Intangible, visitors are called upon to examine the relationship between the form of something and its intangible content. With some objects representing intangible cultural heritage, it is not only the form of the thing that is important, but the meaning, as well. At other times, the object itself serves as little more than a vehicle, such that different forms carry the same meaning across ages. In some cases, both the physical form, and the meaning of an object are passed down through time, so that the object remains an immutable element of cultural processes and practices; while in other cases, a carrier object plays a part in a cultural practice only momentarily, becoming heritage only upon its eventual inclusion in a museum collection. The fishing implements of modern-day manufacture discussed here seek to illuminate the phenomenon whereby an object serving as a vehicle for heritage maintains its original shape, but—being made of novel materials—contributes to the continued practice and expression of that heritage into the present age. In the exhibition, this modern tool of the fisherman’s trade is displayed side-by-side with a cast net that, while of the same type and from the same region, was instead made long ago.

Cast Net Inv. no.: 2021.29.2  Photo credit: Eszter Kerék
Cast Net Inv. no.: 2021.29.2 Photo credit: Eszter Kerék

            Cast nets are a typical tool of small fishermen, who, unlike the industrial wielders of larger nets, are able to fish areas (marshes, overgrown banks, rocky shores, and log-strewn riverbeds) where sprawling nets cannot be used effectively. The ‘small fishermen’ category includes peasant, part-time, and modern recreational fishermen and is characterised by the use of various implements made at home. The Museum of Ethnography’s new cast net was made by the Baja fisherman Péter Bálint using all-new materials, but in adherence to the traditional form. The knotting techniques involved he learned from his grandfather.

Called a pöndöly locally, Bálint’s Perlon® net features a mesh size of 30 mm and a design that expands 15 squares at a time from an initial row count of 75 squares at its peak to a final count of 360 mesh squares at its lower perimeter. Stretched out, its shape is reminiscent of a skirt, which is how it earned its local name (pöndöly being the word for the skirt in the regional folk costume). The horn located at the peak of the net is made of iron, while the lead line that marks its lower perimeter—i.e. the part to which the lead weights are attached—is made of twisted rope. The netting itself is double-knotted starting at the 5th mesh square from the bottom, a feature that imparts added strength, as it is this part that makes contact with the riverbed and is therefore most likely to become tangled on branches or rocks. The mesh of the net includes one decorative row in which half of each mesh square is brown in colour. The braille lines (or spinglik) on the inside of the net—a means of gathering the net together—lead from the lead weights around the net’s lower perimeter to the handline at its peak. The weights, for their part, are evenly distributed along the lead line according to their share in the weight of the overall net. On this particular net, they are spaced one lead ball per two mesh squares for a total weight of five to six kilograms. Fishermen cast their own lead weights at home using a mould known as a kokilla. When wet, the weight of the net and balls together can reach as much as eight to ten kilograms, suggesting that use of the net requires both strength, and appreciable skill.

Cast nets are used in all seasons, but are particularly advantageous in the fall, when fish tend to school. Non-industrial fishing of this type is still in full use across Hungary’s natural wetland habitats. To be effective, the fisherman must be familiar with the life cycles, eating and mating habits, and spawning sites of various fish, along with the effects of changes in water height and flow on the presence of different species and the likelihood of catching different fish with different implments in different seasons. Moreover, the entire activity transpires within a highly refined system, which the fisherman—to consistently choose the best technique and location—must monitor ceaselessly. According to current law, fishing employing non-industrially sized implements may be pursued only as a hobby, a restriction that stands to sweep what was once a means of sustennance for many, along with all the special knowledge it entailed, toward the brink of oblivion. Can this process be slowed? Perhaps its inclusion on the list of Hungary’s national cultural heritage is a good place to start.

Fishing with a cast net in Baja. The fisherman prepares the handline before casting. NM F182801  Baja, 1952  Photo credit: Zsuzsanna Bene
Fishing with a cast net in Baja. The fisherman prepares the handline before casting. NM F182801 Baja, 1952 Photo credit: Zsuzsanna Bene

Fishing with a cast net on the Black Sea.  NM R 6074  Crimean Peninsula, Russia, 1903  Drawing by István Nécsey
Fishing with a cast net on the Black Sea. NM R 6074 Crimean Peninsula, Russia, 1903 Drawing by István Nécsey