The old men and the riverFishing in the Han River has been a leisurely activity that the people of Seoul have enjoyed for centuries. In this day and age, however, no one in Seoul does it to earn a living, and it is mainly regarded as a hobby for middle-aged and elderly men. The Han River from Jamsil bridge in the east of Seoul to Dansang bridge in the west is a haven for men to catch fish and bask alongside the wide river that runs through the capital.
Most fishermen come for the excitement of the catch, rather than to take home a prize. And rarely do you find women fishing alone along the banks of the river; instead, you are more likely to find them watching their spouses hauling in a catch, be it a carp or an old shoe. Whether it is chilly or rainy outside, you can always find a few people sitting by the river, watching their bobbers and the ripples of the water. It’s an addictive hobby for some, a way to idle away time for others.
On a recent morning, the JoongAng Daily met with three veterans who go fishing at Ttukseom Resort ― one of the largest fishing areas along the Han ― to talk about the river and their hobby.
‘The pros don’t come here’
“The Han River is becoming dirtier as time goes by,” said Mr. Seo, who would only give his family name. “And it’s all because of these young people who come and mess up the area, litter the river. Damn.” A scruffy man in his early 40s, Mr. Seo refused to divulge the details of what he did during the day when he wasn’t fishing. Asked why he was out in the late morning, he snapped, “Because I feel like it.”
“My wife doesn’t know I’m here,” he continued, laughing. “She doesn’t like it when I come here. Most people who come here are jobless. Only people who have nothing to do all day come here.”
It seemed strange for a man his age to spend midmorning fishing alone, with only a rod and a plastic bag full of maggots at his side. “We’re forbidden to use plant feed for bait because it will pollute the waters ... only maggots and worms allowed,” he muttered.
In the hour he sat on the cement banks of the river to fish, Mr. Seo had not had much luck. But he didn’t give up. He planned to stay until dusk, not because he was determined to take a carp home, but because he said that was what fishing is all about. “I don’t eat freshwater fish, but I come here for the thrill of the catch,” he said.
He sat silently, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, frowning and staring at the wide river before him. Mr. Seo spoke in phrases, not full sentences. “The river gives me peace of mind,” he said, throwing in a handful of maggots around where his bobber floated. Cornet fish, carp and crucian carp are the main fish that inhabit the greenish-brown waters of the river, with crucian carps being in full season now. “I can spend all day fishing for crucians,” Mr. Seo said. “If you want to be good at this, you’ve got to be diligent. You’ve got to practice, even at fish farms.”
After a pause he added, “But those who really like to fish, the pros, they don’t come to Han. They go to Chungju, and places that are famous for freshwater fishing. I’m not a pro. I come here because it passes the time. I’m not going home until I catch something.”
‘The trick is in the tackle’
Watching him handle the tackle, one could guess that Lee Dal-gon, 58, is skilled. “I’ve been fishing professionally since I was a boy,” he said. “I even contribute articles to Monthly Fishing and Fishing Spring and Autumn. I write about my special know-how for fishing.”
Just then, the bobber started to move frantically, and he lifted up his fishing pole. After about a minute of working the line, he pulled out a 40-cm-long (16-inch-long) crucian carp. Onlookers and other anglers nearby gasped and congratulated him. Mr. Lee smiled and soon threw the twitching, silver fish back in to the water. “Fishing here is just for the hands,” he said. While others nearby had yet to have anything to show for their efforts, Mr. Lee said that that fish was the second he had caught in the past hour. “The trick is in the tackle,” he said smiling. “That is, you need one that’s ultrasensitive. Also, it’s in the gift of the gab.”
Mr. Lee travels all over the country searching for best fishing spots ― be they at sea, along a river, or in a lake ― and he even owns a small skiff. Chungju and Danyang in Chungcheong province are his favorite spots. There, unlike the Han, he eats his catches.
“It’s not clean enough to eat fish caught in the Han,” he said. “In the old days, it was great to fish in Yangsuri, but now it’s banned because the area is in an environmental protection zone.”
In addition, Mr. Lee feels strongly that authorities should allow boat fishing in the river. “You see all these ferries, windsurfing boards, pedal boats for tourists, all of which contaminate the waters. They should allow boat fishing. It’s a traditional culture of ours, which ought to be permitted as a type of recreational culture.”
“Boat fishing would make a great cultural product ― Japanese tourists would definitely dig it. They let greasy motor boats all over the river and won’t allow wooden skiffs to float. It’s ludicrous. “
Mr. Lee says his wife is a fond fisher as well. “At first, she hated fishing because you have to handle maggots,” he said. “But now, my wife doesn’t go home until she’s caught something.”
He explained his love of fishing by saying, “I don’t know how time passes. If I’m by the river, my mind feels serene. When I drive past rivers or lakes, my heart skips a beat.”
‘Kids are not serious about fishing’
A 75-year-old grandfather of two, Mr. Kim ― who also declined to give his name in full ― said that he goes to his favorite spot almost every day because it’s close to his home. “I’ve lived in Gui-dong since the 1950s, so coming here to sit is part of a daily ritual for me.”
“I haven’t caught a thing since yesterday,” he said scowling. “Damn it.” With his hair dyed jet black, Mr. Kim looks much younger than his age.
Does he care if the government enacts the Fishing License System in 2006? “As long as there’s a lot of fish to go around, then who cares? As long as the water’s clear and there are plenty of fish.”
Mr. Kim also complained about the young people who were disturbing the fishing area. “These kids, they’re not serious about fishing,” he said, shaking his head. “They throw cigarette butts in the water and other junk.”
Even though he lives close by with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, Mr. Kim does not bring his family along, even to picnic nearby. His wife is the most negative person about fishing. “Twenty years ago, I lost my son to the water,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we went to pay homage to our ancestors in Gwangju, Gyeonggi province. There, in the creek, my son drowned while swimming.”
In tattered pants and rubber shoes (the type worn by farmers), Mr. Kim throws in a bunch of maggots using a small plastic shovel. Even after five throws, there is nothing stirring in the waters.
“I don’t feel boredom, even if nothing happens for hours and hours,” he said. “I don’t even feel hot, even if the sun is scorching.”
by Choi Jie-ho