Ice-fishing checklist: rod, hammer, noseclipsSmelt or smelled? Smelt has a few definitions, including the past tense of smell and various small silvery marine and freshwater fish. Although different in meaning, the two definitions have one thing in common. Smelt indeed smells, or has smelt if it's been in your house for a few days. Want proof? Just grab a live smelt and take a bite. You'll see.
Last Sunday I called up some friends to see if they wanted to go ice fishing in Gangwon province, where a smelt festival was going on. Hosted by the Inje district office, the fishing party had begun last Friday.
None of my friends took the bait; each begged off with this excuse or that. So I ventured solo to the East Seoul bus terminal to take an early bus, where I found plenty of winter fishing enthusiasts. In fact, all of the earliest buses were booked, so I had to wait for the 10:20 departure. Five hours after that, I arrived at the festival.
It was quite a spectacle. The frozen-over Soyang River was dotted with thousands of people huddled around holes they had dug and dropped fishing lines. The mountains surrounding the lake were white with snow, and children were frolicking with sleighs. Unlike me, the people ?mostly from Seoul and Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces ?were in groups. Families, lovers and friends were enjoying themselves to the fullest.
Most of them had cooking equipment and ingredients to fry up smelt on the spot. The braver souls, with soju at the ready, would dump a just-caught live smelt in gochujang, or red pepper sauce, put it in their mouths and chew down the flapping finger-sized fish.
I thought I had come prepared, equipped as I was with my trusty simple fishing rod. Little did I know there was a fishing rod exclusively used for catching smelts. The smelt rod, or bamboo-fishing troll, whatever you want to call it, looked like a flyswatter. It is yellow with strings dangling from it, which have five or six corks attached. Also, before you start fishing, you have to make a hole in the ice with a hammer or some other sharp tool, and the ice on the Soyang River was 40 centimeters thick.
I bought a bamboo-fishing rod on the spot for 8,000 won ($6), got some bait, borrowed a hammer and set to digging, which seemed to take hours. Finally I had my hole and I was fishing. With all that bait on my hooks I was sure I'd get a nibble quick. But nothing happened. A genial man fishing beside me noticed my frustration and gave me some tips.
"I've fished for more than 10 years all over the nation during the winter," said the man, Cho Tae-hyeong, 44, from Ilsan. "Smelts tend to bite from 9 to 10 in the morning or 4 to 5 in the afternoon, because that's when the water is warm and the wind doesn't blow much." He sounded knowledgeable enough, but I noticed that he only had three small fish in his bucket.
I began to guess I'd come on the wrong day. I didn't blame Mr. Cho; other people said they weren't catching many, and some left to buy smelt at nearby stores. Then, suddenly, my rod twitched. I frantically reeled in the line and there it was: a smelt. I coated the flapping, scaly thing with Mr. Cho's gochujang, gulped, and dumped it in my mouth. How did it taste? Just like it smelt; although the red sauce did mask the fishy odor. By then the sun was gone, and most of the people, too. Nothing was left on the ice but lots and lots of holes.
Soyang River is open to fishermen all winter. Other recommended smelt-fishing locales include Paro Lake in Gangwon province and Maejeonji and Chupyeongji lakes in North Chungcheong province.
by Lee Sang-joon