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Life as Korea's Only Fly Fishing Guide
December 18, 2008
The Baekdudaegan Mountain Range is considered the "backbone" of Korea, and is home to its trout streams.
The Baekdudaegan (White-head Great Ridge) is a 416-mile long mountain range that runs the length of the Korean peninsula. It is known as "Korea's backbone." It starts at Baekdu Mountain on the North Korean/Chinese border and ends near Korea's far southern coast. That distance is roughly cut in half as the militarized and heavily landmined DMZ bisects the peninsula. Koreans view the mountain range as the spiritual "spine" of the country. It's the source of the country's watersheds and major river systems and it holds the highest peaks in the nation. And most importantly, it is the keeper of all the trout streams.
Guide client Jim Creighton casts from a rock ledge looking over a deep, clear pool of filled with spooky cherry trout.
I've given an enormous amount of thought to what constitutes the proper role of a fishing guide. The end result of a few thousand hours of analysis is that a guide should be the best fishing partner you ever had. He's the guy that gives you some helpful pointers on casting, lends a hand scrambling over greasy rocks, makes a decent sandwich, advises you on presentation and fly selection and reminds you-often many times-to stay low so the fish do not see you. You have another set of eyeballs working with you to find fish, and you have another set of hands to help untangle the backcast you just threw into the willows. Also, the role includes but not is limited to: a meteorologist, travel advisor, naturalist, fly casting instructor, medic, folklorist, handyman, Sherpa, and marriage counselor.
Korea's cherry trout are members of the Pacific salmon family.
Although they are members of the Pacific salmon family, like steelhead and rainbows, there are populations of landlocked cherry trout that do not migrate out to sea because of dams, spillways and natural barriers. They are considered by Korean and Japanese anglers the finest species to pursue with a fly rod.
Lenok, or Manchurian trout, inhabit Korea's deep valleys.
South Korea holds the world's southernmost population of lenok (also called Manchurian trout,
) that only exists in deep mountain valleys. They are distributed from Korea up through Russia and Mongolia and are mentioned in one of the best outdoor books ever written,
Dersu the Trapper
by V. K. Arseniev.
Client Preston Sink throws one up to the head of the pool searching for lenok.
As a rule, a fly-fishing guide shouldn't fish on the client's time. It's his day on the water and your job is to make sure it is a damn good one. That leaves you to watch his casting all day long and note the good, the bad, and the ugly, and offer some suggestions without sounding like an anal retentive football coach. So here are my four tips to better Korean trout fishing: 1. Less false casting. You'll scare the fish. Too much is masturbation. 2. It's not so much about moving the rod, it's about stopping the rod at the right time. This takes practice. 3. Slack is the enemy. Keep slack out of your line unless you want it there such as when you are mending. 4. Use enough line to get the job done and no more. "Shadow casting" doesn't work well on a tree canopied creek.
Client Franklin Childress snuck around a creek bend and threw an elkhair caddis into a deep darkwater pool and came up with this fat lenok.
Some guys want big fish, a lot of fish, or just some quiet time on some pretty water. One thing I've observed that all fly anglers have in common is an impetus to explore around the next bend to see what the water ahead holds. The urge is even more savage on small creeks, nearly uncontrollable. It is a primitive drive that is hard to explain-I feel it myself, and I've seen both wizened experts and eager beginners get a boy-like gleam in their eye and a lunge in their step when approaching the next unknown pool. It's magical and it's in the blood.
A rainbow taken on a bamboo rod brought over by one of Card's clients.
This rainbow was caught by client Gordon Koppin on a bamboo rod he made himself and brought over to Korea while on a business trip. The evening before, over spicy fried chicken and beer, we discussed the idea of bamboo rod making and working as fishing guide as profit-making ventures. The hands-down conclusion after a long discussion: after expenses, time and energy, you're not in it for the money but for the love of the sport and craft. You build and sell a rod just so you can make another masterpiece and you guide a trip so you mark one more day of your life on a trout stream rather than behind a desk under a fluorescent light.
One of Korea's abandoned trout hatcheries
Rainbow trout are not native to Korea and populations have been established in some watersheds. Most of Korea's rainbow trout population is derived from privately owned commercial fisheries. The trout escaped by floods, accidents or illegal stocking and established fugitive populations in nearby rivers. The trout fishery here was abandoned long ago after being blown apart by a flood and creating one of the best rainbow rivers in the country.
Chip Heine shows off a Korean rainbow trout.
One thing about living in a foreign country is the diversity of people you meet from all over the world and you would be surprised at the number of fly anglers scattered around the globe. These fly-fishing junkies do the exact same thing and it goes like this: They have some reason to visit a foreign country (business trips, a vacation, see some distant relatives, etc.), and before anything else, before reserving plane tickets or hotels, they Google up: country name + fly fishing. They are hopeless. I know. I am one of them and that's why seven-piece travel rods are made. Chip Heine, a civil engineer brought to Korea to supervise a massive construction project, escaped the worksite for some time on a creek loaded with rainbows.
Though many species have not been officially identified, Korean trout streams all experience hatches of stoneflies, caddis, and mayflies.
What flies should I bring or tie for the trip? It's a common question. The usual suspects, like stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies, exist on all Korean trout streams, but the problem is nobody knows what they are. Only a few species are known to science. When you think about it, the common hatch charts available for so many American streams are years of aggregated observations by angers and entomologists, and many anglers take such information for granted. They should be recognized as regional treasures of prized and valued information passed on from one generation to the next. But in the end, a small, pale-colored mayfly in Korea, Slovenia, or Chile pretty much looks the same as a small, pale-colored mayfly in Montana or Vermont. With a well-stocked flybox of nymphs and dry flies of the main three aquatic insects, you can fish the world's trout streams and do just fine.
Like many U.S. rivers, Korea's trout streams may be devastated by construction.
Although there are plenty mountain streams in Korea, they are increasingly under siege by government-sponsored developers and dubious construction schemes. The greatest environmental threat South Korea currently faces is the "Grand Canal Project." Former mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, (once nicknamed, The Bulldozer), gutted out a cement-covered sewage stream that ran under Seoul and turned it into a concrete trough with an artificial babbling brook running though it. The people of Seoul loved it. The media dubbed him as an environmentally friendly leader and last year he was elected president. His plan now is to replicate his past success on a massive scale: to dig out the nation's main river systems for a huge canal that can accommodate ocean-going cargo ships. Like Florida, South Korea is a peninsula, and it would be like digging a canal from Miami to Tallahassee and gutting all river systems in between. For the country's river ecology this would be a disaster.
Bamboo harvesting is also cause for concern regarding the health of mountain streams.
When traveling further south in the valleys of the backbone, you'll see the flora and fauna change. Ringneck pheasants replace the hazel grouse and stands of larch and birch of the north dissolve to groves of bamboo and pine. Selective cutting is done in this managed forest and the intertwined root system of the bamboo holds the soil in place and protects the trout stream from erosion and mudslides. The bamboo grows thick and tall and provides essential shade over the stream that allows the water to remain cool in the critical summer months.
The ultra-clear water in Korea's trout streams makes hooking up on a dry fly a difficult task.
But for now, the fishing remains pretty stable, and there is nothing worse than putting a client on rising, hungry trout all day long and he misses strike, after strike, after strike. It drives a guy to insanity, rage and frustration when he should be relaxed and having fun. The biggest problem is when fishing ultra-clear water. The angler can see the fish rise from the depths, this brilliant silvery flash approaches the surface, and he yanks the hook before the trout is able to kiss it. The trick is to control your instincts to wait a millisecond before setting the hook. This requires the patience and reflexes of a Zen monk warrior. For smaller trout on fast water, it's often a spunky splash and nothing more. Not much you can do, especially if you're daydreaming. For larger trout, wait for the "turn," the second the fish takes the fly and drops its head. Here, Kale Coghlan closes the deal and sets the hook on a cherry trout.
Client Steve Hemkens releases one of many cherry trout caught on a stream in the Jiri Mountains.
In different countries, the natural resources can be managed very differently, or not at all. South Korea has no fishing licenses, no bag or size limits, no season restrictions and no game wardens. So the fish are under pressure. The best thing is to become a catch and release evangelist and teach others the concept. It's a good idea anywhere you fish. The pressure might be waning as Korea has one of the highest rates of internet/computer addiction, and fewer young people are turned on to fishing. The idea of a fishing license has been proposed once by lawmakers but nothing ever came of it. Most Korean anglers I've talked to see it as just another tax with zero benefits in return.
The rainbow chub offers dry fly action that rivals any trout.
Norm Albiston, a fly fishing instructor at the University of Utah once said in an interview that he prefers to start off beginners by fly fishing for whitefish rather than trout. They are much easier to catch, which eases the learning curve and adds more fun. In Korea, the best "practice" fish is the rainbow chub. They are downright slutty on dry flies. They are small, but their pretty colors make up for it. Great for beginners, you will quit counting strikes somewhere in the triple digits. As a guide, matching the best species to pursue for the day that will equate to the best possible time to be had is an important factor. Letting snobbish perceptions get in the way confuses the formula more and sometimes the lowly chub offers a better sporting experience than the highly esteemed trout.
Tiger keelback snakes are just one safety concern for anglers on Korean trout streams.
Sometimes at the start of the day, I'll mention offhand to my client that he should look out for freshwater Korean crocodiles, that they aren't that big, about a yard long or so, and if one lunges out, just kick the reptile in the snout and it will most likely back off. Okay, I'm joking. That's total b.s. Korea doesn't have crocodiles and the last Siberian tiger was shot back in 1921 not far from a cherry trout stream. But there are some critters to look out for, such as this venomous tiger keelback. Pit vipers are another but the biggest danger is falling and slipping on rocks. In my pack is a first aid kit and on my cell phone my doctor friend is speed dialed in. Always ask your guide about emergencies before heading out. To the guide you won't sound like a wussy. More likely he will be impressed.
Client Mike Allen attempts to fool a riser in a crystal-clear pool.
If I were to fall off this cliff while photographing Mike Allen casting over this clearwater pool, it could put a damper on the day. As an independent fly fishing guide, you don't have much for back-up, especially if you are in a foreign country. Fishing shops carrying esoteric fly gear simply do not exist. A broken rod or a screwed-up reel could mean a ruined outing for a guy that has been planning the trip for months. What a crapper for him. So you create your own back-up plans and have double and triple of everything, some of it in your backpack, most of it back in the vehicle. A guide preparing for a trip is like the night before opening day of deer season. Checklists are gone through once, twice, and a third time about an hour down the road in the back of your head: Did I pack the sandwiches?
The notchmouth (above) and barbel (below) are two overlooked opponents in the mountain streams.
Everyone loves to fly fish for trout, but there are so many worthy gamefish that are overlooked in America and even more in other parts of the world. It's a shame. Consider that the Mongolian taimen, the world's biggest salmonid, only became known to most American anglers in the last decade or so. Ever hear of the Blackspotted pike? It's a cousin to the American northern pike. It lives in the wild country of Northeast Asia. Few western anglers have ever caught one. Tempting to think about, isn't it? In Korea there are barbels, a kind of sucker that is nearly identical in shape to a saltwater bonefish. Stalked in river shallows they are hunted by sight and you cast directly to them and watch the entire take, or the nervous rejection. Another species found in similar water are notchmouths, a predatory fish-eating member of the carp family. Its mouth has a notched upper jaw that fits into a hooked lower jaw.
Largemouth bass and bluegills are considered environmental threats in Korea.
Non-native American largemouth bass and bluegill have permeated many Korean waters and have been labeled by the government as "enemies of the environment." They are well-hated by the carp anglers that make up the majority of Korean freshwater fishermen. Likewise in Japan. But they also have a hardcore following in both countries composed of Bassmaster-style lure anglers whose dedication to the largemouth bass is extreme and obsessive. I like having them around, although I'm fully aware that as invasive species they do not belong in the local food chain. But as an American expatriate living abroad, they're a reminder of home. After pursuing all of the native species, catching some bass and bluegill is like meeting up with some good friends from the old days. It is technically illegal to release them after catching them (although many lure anglers do it anyway) and a couple times a year I go hunting for a mess of scrappy fighting bluegills. They are filleted and pan fried, and friends bearing cold beer stop over and we feast out in the courtyard as the sun goes down. Just like home.
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