ICE-FISHING is so dear to Russians that, in the Soviet days, companies used to provide buses to transport employees to their favorite fishing grounds.
''At times there were several buses, quite a party on the ice!'' Mikhail Smirnov recalls. Under a silver moon, he walks on a frozen reservoir 75 miles west of Moscow. He aims to reach, before dawn, the spot where he used to come on the company bus.
Now Mr. Smirnov and the other fishers have to find their own transportation, but they know no deterrent - least of all the weather. With the temperature minus 20 degrees F. on a recent weekday, one could spot at least a dozen men scattered across the lake. ''On weekends, there can be as many as 5,000 people on the ice,'' Smirnov says, ''standing by their holes like penguins.''
What in North America remains a marginal pastime is in Russia a national passion. ''From Murmansk to Vladivostok, wherever there is ice, there are fishermen,'' Smirnov says. ''As soon as the ice is about two inches thick, strong enough to support the weight of an adult, you'll see people on the ice.'' The biggest catches are during the ''first ice'' in December and the ''last ice'' of the April thaw.
The ice fishers begin as summer fishermen, some at the age of 8 or 9. But because of the hardship involved, winter fishing is clearly not a children's game. Most ice fishermen get hooked on the pastime in their 30s.
''For summer fishing, you need a boat, an anchor, a net - a lot of stuff. Here it's one man, one fish. That's real sport!'' Vladimir Alexeyenko says with enthusiasm. He's another Muscovite who often comes for several days of fishing. ''When I come here,'' he adds, ''I'm completely disconnected from the rest of the world. I don't think about anything.''
At such low temperatures it's difficult for anyone to think. There is undeniable romance in standing in the center of a 2.5-square-mile frozen lake - but staring for hours at some dark little circles? The only noises are the thumps of the ice as it cracks deep underneath.
Some fishers come by public transportation from Moscow - one train, two buses, and a good hike in knee-deep snow. Some catch the last train and sleep at the train station; others don't hesitate to pitch their tent on the ice. ''All those are fanatics,'' Smirnov says, shrugging.
NIKOLAI SVESHNIKOV denies he belongs in this category. He's just a fisherman who had to come check his holes when it was minus 20 degrees F. because he had chummed the water with bait the day before, he says. As a bus driver, he has quite a bit of free time, and he lives close by. ''What else is there to do in winter here?'' he asks.
Not much. In Demidkovo, time seems to have frozen, just as the fish do as soon as they are caught and thrown onto the ice. Ice-fishing has survived. It was an economic necessity for the peasantry in most of northern Europe until a few centuries ago.
Ice fishermen still have a very peasantlike look to them, starting with the valenki: sturdy, often home-made felt boots that have kept generations of Russian feet warm. In winter, a pair of rubber galoshes often is worn over them. Mr. Sveshnikov wears the military version of the valenki, huge green boots that are standard-issue antichemical-warfare equipment for Russian soldiers.
To complete his outfit he needs two or three pairs of socks, thickly lined trousers, several layers of sweaters, a fur-lined coat, mittens over fingerless gloves, and of course a chapka, the traditional Russian fur hat.
There is nothing fancy in the equipment, either. Most often it is handmade by the fisher himself. The rods are very short, carved out of light wood or polystyrene, often brightly painted. Bits of electrical wire and rubber are handy as sinkers. Hooks and floats are often store-bought.
But since there are no bait shops in Demidkovo, Sveshnikov has to make his own bait, a mixture of fried sunflower seeds and porridge. City dwellers have the luxury of buying various sizes of grubs in pet shops: the small ones to chum the water in the hole, the bigger ones with which to bait one's hook.
No battery-powered drill here, either. In Russia one digs a hole with a giant, hand-powered auger. But that's an improvement from the old days, when one had to chip through the ice with a sharp pick. ''Of course you can read about this or that in the fishing magazines,'' Sveshnikov says, ''but the equipment remains the same, and the fish haven't gotten smarter.''
BEFORE daybreak, the fisherman checks the wind and superstitiously mutters, ''No tail, no scale'' and, for good measure, ''God willing.'' Only then does he start drilling an average of eight holes (''little moons,'' in Russian) about 5-1/2 inches in diameter through ice that is about three feet thick. He chums every hole with some bait and then starts his rounds, plunging his line into each hole for a few minutes at a time. If he gets a bite, he stays at the same hole. He uses a skimmer to keep the holes free of ice, and carries his grubs inside his clothes to keep them from freezing.
The law authorizes a maximum catch of 5 kilos (about 11 pounds) of fish per person per day. That's quite enough, since nobody nowadays seems to be fishing for food. Much of what Smirnov catches are bream, a common European freshwater fish. Smirnov favors pike, while Sveshnikov likes the pike perch better. One can also catch catfish. Women, remarkably absent during the ice-fishing day, appear in the evening when it's time for someone to clean and cook the fish.
Russian cuisine is not very inspired in its treatment of freshwater fish. Small fish are fried, bigger ones are boiled in soup, while bream are most often dried to be eaten while drinking beer.
Drinking seems an integral part of ice-fishing, as it is in most male gatherings in Russia. That might explain why recently an enthusiastic fisherman, overjoyed to have caught a large pike, kissed the fish on its mouth. The pike bit the fisherman's nose and would not let go. He hiked to the local hospital with the fish still clinging to his nose.