Sunday, 10 May 2015

South Korea

I had read that the DMZ separating North and South Korea is the most heavily militarised strip of real estate in the world, but even then I was unprepared for the sheer scale of that military presence. I had asked Mr Lee, my fishing guide, if we could fish as close to the DMZ as possible and we got about 15 to 20km away as the crow flies before Mr Lee did a u-turn in the road and said it wouldn't be a good idea to go any further. By this stage we had passed several South Korean army convoys, and soldiers posted at the roadside. The soldiers watched us suspiciously, their hands never far from the triggers of their automatic rifles, and seemed primed to deploy mobile barriers and spiked chains across the road at any second. Every few hundred metres more soldiers were dug in under the shade of camouflaged tarpaulin in machine gun nests, their menacing looking weapons pointed at the road. We also passed several roadside anti-tank blocks, rigged to explode and prevent the mobility of tanks in the event of a land invasion. At one point Mr Lee and I were standing in the river fishing a likely looking run when artillery was fired not too far away, each shot a thunder clap which punctuated the still air. I looked quizzically at Mr Lee wondering if the North Koreans had invaded and, sensing my alarm, he reassured me it was "just testing". I later saw the huge muzzles of the guns protruding from dug in positions near the road, and unsurprisingly they all pointed north. Jet fighters occupied the skies at one stage, tearing this way and that in a display of aerial strength. For all the travelling I have done, I have never before been in a country prepared for a war and it was a curious thing. It was even more curious and a little thrilling to rig up my fly rod and catch trout among all of the military commotion. Mr Lee however seemed totally nonplussed by this every day reality of Korean life near the border.

Naturally I didn't feel too comfortable whipping out my camera to photograph gun-toting soldiers or military hardware, but I snapped a quick photo of anti-tank blocks as we drove past

I came to South Korea to catch cherry salmon, the same beautiful species of fish I had caught in mountain streams of Japan, but I left with something even better - cherry salmon and lenok, the world's oldest trout species. Lenok, otherwise known as Manchurian trout, are found only in Korea, Mongolia and some remote parts of China and eastern Russia. Lenok have a distinctive overbite, akin to grayling, but are otherwise most like brown trout in appearance. Some of the lenok I caught had deep crimson tails and anal fins and matching crimson bands on their flanks, making them unique from any other trout I have seen. Best of all, I discovered that lenok rise to dry flies very willingly making them a pleasure to catch on the fly.

The Seowha River, near the DMZ, under grey skies

On the morning of our first day together, having driven 3 hours from Seoul, Mr Lee took me to the Seowha River. In terms of setting the scene, the Seowha River is near the famed "Punchbowl" battlefield of the Korean War and the fourth infiltration tunnel discovered by the South in 1990. Compared with typical Korean valleys which are narrow and forested, the Seowha valley is mostly wide and there is a town and farmland on the river's banks. The water was numbingly cold and Mr Lee explained that lenok prefer colder water temperatures to cherry salmon, which do not share the same rivers as lenok and are found in separate Pacific-draining catchments over the mountains. Within a matter of minutes a lenok came confidently to my dry fly, followed a few minutes later by a larger lenok of 15.5 inches. This was a good sized Korean lenok - it got Mr Lee excited - where 20 inches is considered a trophy. We moved around the Seowha River quite a bit, searching for fish, and the impression I got was that the lenok were shoaling. Where one lenok was found, others were bound to follow. The numbers of lenok were not high from this river, and I caught seven by lunch time (but was pleased nonetheless). Their number was however dwarfed by a plague of Dark Chub. Dark Chub, with a Korean name I just cannnot recall but which sounds something like 'tiger nanny', are a striking looking fish which grow no bigger than about five or six inches. They attacked any dry fly within range with a voracious appetite and were often too small to do anything but drown the fly. Once the novelty of catching one or two of them had worn off I came to view these little fish as a curse, at times needing my dry fly to be shaken about in Frog's Fanny after every cast.

A Dark Chub

At one point on the banks of the Seowha we set a small alarm bell ringing by stepping through a fine trip wire of fishing line. This led to some surprised looks from three South Korean soldiers in a well camouflaged machine gun nest on the banks of the river, and Mr Lee and I wondered if we had disturbed their sleep. When we broke for lunch Mr Lee took me to a restaurant in the nearby town where we enjoyed a traditional meal of grilled mackerel and sides.

Mr Lee tucking in to some grilled mackerel

That afternoon we crossed over the mountains by following a dramatic mountain pass to pursue cherry salmon. It was much warmer on the other side of the mountains and more humid and in the heat midges seemed to thrive and buzzed about our faces. There was also no military presence to be seen. Mr Lee took me to Galcheon creek, a small clear moutain creek and it wasn't long before I caught my first Korean cherry salmon. We had spotted a school of cherry salmon resting on the bottom of a deep pool and my fish came up from the depths with some gusto to attack a dry fly. The heat eventually got to us and we took an early break for dinner, visiting a local restaurant on the banks of the river where we ate bibimbap, a signature Korean dish of rice, mixed vegetables, chili paste and a raw egg which is all mixed together while the egg cooks itself. After dinner we drove upstream and in the coolness of the evening when the sky had turned pink I caught several more cherry salmon on a dry fly. Cherry salmon, with their markings similar to the parr marks found on juvenile brown and rainbow trout, are beautiful fish, perhaps the prettiest of any trout I have caught.

Galcheon Creek

As night fell we crossed back over the mountains to the lenok side of the drainage and checked in to a traditional Korean log cabin in a forest park. I drank a beer with Mr Lee while we discussed our respective fishing trips around the world and then sleep came pretty quickly with dreams of catching a trophy size lenok the next day.

At 6am Mr Lee had a breakfast of toast, eggs and hot ham prepared and soon thereafter we were in his car on the way to the Naerin River. Mr Lee had shown me photos of several trophy fish from this river and my excitement was palpable. The Naerin is a fairly large river and in the early morning haze whilst the sun was just peeking over the mountain tops I had caught ten lenok before an hour was up. None were trophy size but all rose confidently to the dry. It was an absolute pleasure being out on this river, flanked by steep, forested mountains and purple blooming azaleas. When I grew up my mom always had azaleas growing in the garden and it was nice to see them growing wild next to the river.

A large hatch of pale mayflies lifted from the water at about 10am when Mr Lee and I were fishing the fast pocket water and glides between two substantial pools, the kind of water with plenty of good looking slack water in front or behind rocks with some enticingly deep holes. The mayflies fluttered about our heads before the wind carried them downstream where they were picked off by birds. Lenok rose to them with gleeful abandon and, provided the imitation could float free of drag for a second or two among the swirling currents, it would pretty much fool a lenok every cast.  So enthusiastic were the fish that in one surreal moment two lenok leaped clear out of the water at precisely the same time for my fly and head butted each other! The victor still managed to take my fly and I only just managed to keep the line taut and land it while laughing heartily with Mr Lee.

Lunch time came all too soon and by then I had caught something like thirty lenok. Mr Lee took me for a traditional lunch of pan fried tofu and mixed sides (the tofu is fried at your own table) and I had just as much fun over the two days sampling the local cuisine as I did catching fish. It does take some getting used to sitting on the floor to eat at a low table, as it doesn't take very long for the joints to start aching!  

Not much left over of our tofu lunch

Catching fish for fun, eating fish for lunch

In the afternoon we fished a much smaller and more intimate stream called the Gyebangcheon Creek where I picked off several more lenok. From a bridge we spotted several trophy size lenok in a single pool but it's perhaps no coincidence that the pool, flanked by cliffs on either side, offered no place from which to cast a fly. We stared longingly at the fish as they moved about the pool, tempting us with all the confidence in the world. By the end of the day I had caught something like forty-five lenok, all taken on the dry fly. It was a highly enjoyable day of fishing and I realised, a little sadly, that it brought to a close the Asian leg of my fly fishing travels. I've had great fun catching new trout species, exploring distinctly foreign lands and cultures, sampling great tasting local cuisine and making new friends.

Gyebangcheon Creek

Prey turned predator turned prey - the scarred lenok

If you're ever in Korea and need a fishing guide, get in touch with Mr Lee, or pop in to his dedicated fly fishing store in Seoul for a coffee and chat (it's a bit of a trek from the city centre but handily placed on the #8 subway line) Trutta Fly Fishing Store. Mr Lee's email address is in the contact information at the foot of his website. For the time being I take a little break from fly fishing and then I move on to the USA. I'm looking forward to seeing what places like Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado are like.


  1. Justin
    Unbelievable trip, I would have never thought trout in South Korea---thanks for sharing an interesting post!!

    1. Bill, I dream about visiting places which have trout which you never knew had trout! Thanks for leaving a comment.

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Rachel, it was beautiful and different - the best mix. Thanks for leaving a comment.

  3. man I just read this post and I love Korea fly fishing as well. I had a different guide tell me that there are only around 1000 or so fly fisher men and women in Korea. With no licenses and such, what a great place to fish!!! I will go back to fish!!!!