Snowmen and ice fish: a raucous day on a frozen lake

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Snowmen and ice fish: a raucous day on a frozen lake

Snow fell early in the morning and everything around Lake Chuncheon, Gangwon province, was bathed in white: the lake, the trees and the mountains. For a moment, all was calm, an empty canvas waiting for a landscape. The ice on the lake supported only a few fishermen, who peered into quiet holes.
Then like a blizzard, groups of ice-fishers poured across the lake in an exhibition of raucous family activity.
It was on that white Christmas morning that I grabbed a friend and went to Jiam-li in Chuncheon to go ice fishing. The weather was perfect, not so cold that a person had to huddle on the ground nor so warm that the ice risked breaking under our feet. The frozen sledge over the water was 35 centimeters (14 inches) thick. The season had drawn an unexpectedly large number of families to the lake, bombarding the scenery with rowdy kids and snowball fights.
The “menu” for the day was fresh-water smelt, otherwise known as ice fish, a silvery thing with a dark yellowish back, that darts around in the water while other, lazier creatures are still sleeping. It can live in brackish or fresh water at a temperature of 6 to 10 degrees centigrade (42.8 to 50 Fahrenheit). In the summer, it moves deep into the water to escape the heat but in winter stays near the surface, ready to spawn in spring. It lives off of plankton, insects and small crustaceans such as shrimp.
Lake Chuncheon, as well as Lake Soyang in Inje, also in Gangwon province, is packed with the fish, making it a popular tourist spot in winter.
It’s easy to see why so many people go ice fishing: it’s easy. Go out on the ice, pick a spot and bore a hole in it with a sharp pole. The owner of a restaurant near the lake advised us to make a hole in a pocket of the lake where the fish could easily get stuck. He also told us how to make the hole. Drive the pole in at a slant and walk it in circles, rather than bashing the ice from above. Once you’ve got a decent hole, make an ice pit next to it, so you can throw any fish you catch in the pit.
Once you’ve made your hole, everything else is easy. At least it is in theory. You don’t need expensive equipment or finely-honed skills to catch a fish ― just stick a maggot on the end of the hook, put it in the hole and bide your time. It helps to pull the line up and down every so often, to make it look as though the maggot were still alive. Once you feel something pulling on the line, give the pole a stiff upward jerk and reel in your catch.
Lots of people told me before I went that I’d catch a lot of fish. “It’s that easy!” they said. Well, I caught a grand total of zero fish.
My friend and I may not have been expert fisherwomen, but we sure looked the part. We had with us an icebox, portable burner, pot, bowls, instant noodles, an egg, sliced green onions, kimchi, chips and a Thermos full of hot plum tea. We also borrowed long Styrofoam sheets from a place near the restaurant so we could sit above the ice. Other people out on the lake brought their own chairs, or rented sleds, or even brought out tents to construct on the ice.
My friend used the water from the lake to boil the ramen and erected a wall of boxes to protect the flames from the wind. Our tour guide, Nah Pil-woong, told us that Lake Chuncheon’s water is drinkable. So we sat on our Styrofoam pads, slurping ramen and waiting in vain for our rods to jiggle around.
Someone must have warned the fish that day, because we weren’t the only ones to go home empty-handed. Lee Ji-young, 39, had arrived with her family from Ilsan, Gyeonggi province, but caught nothing. As a last resort, they bought a bag of live fresh-water fish at a shop by the lake, large enough to feed the family and give handouts to other fish-less fisherpeople (such as myself).
The fish is usually eaten after first being slathered with a vinegared red pepper paste. Given that at this point the fish is still alive, some prefer to put it out of its misery by slapping its head against the ice first. Either way, the fish winds up tasting more like red pepper paste than cucumber, which is how it’s supposed to taste. Fishing for cucumbers, however, would hardly be as exciting.
Mr. Nah said that the most successful member of the tour group caught four, a relatively low figure. He attributed the poor catch to the amount of noise: there were about 200 people out on the lake, some fishing, some tossing snowballs and a few making snowmen. Others were riding around on flat wooden sleds, the old-fashioned kind with two long blades that riders move by stabbing the ice with sharp poles. Add in a pack or two of rambunctious dogs slipping and sliding around on the lake and you have the underwater equivalent of a thunderstorm. No wonder the fish swam away.
Jeong Beom-suk, the shuttle bus driver who took us up from the train station to the lake, had what was probably the best explanation for our bad luck. The fish are hungry in the morning or late evening, he said, and don’t bother to surface in the afternoon. Mr. Jeong would know ― he was born and raised in Chuncheon. His advice was for us to stay overnight next time and fish early in the morning or late at night.
Ms. Lee might have benefited from that advice, but she didn’t seem to care. She said that even if they didn’t catch anything, it was still a fun family outing.
“We had a great time fishing, making a snowman and riding ice sleds, the kind I used to ride when I was young,” she said. “It was just good to be out of the bustling city.”

To go to Lake Chuncheon from Seoul, take a train from Cheongnyangni Station to Namchuncheon Station. After the two-hour trip, transfer to a shuttle bus for another 30-minute ride to the lake. Because it's difficult to use public transportation from the train station to the lake, it's better to rent a shuttle bus if you're with a group of more than six persons. Alternatively, you can join a trip with a tour agency. For buses, call Gangil Rent at (033) 264-7044. Tour Sketch, one of the most well-known domestic tour agencies, offers a trip package that includes train tickets, a shuttle bus and a fishing rod and line, for a fee of 35,000 won ($35) for adults and 32,000 won for children. You can rent a Korean traditional sled for 3,000 won and a modified, chair-style sled for 4,000 won for a day by the lake.
If you don’t catch many or any fish, don't be disappointed. You can always buy one at a restaurant near the lake. Fried or seasoned ice fish costs around 10,000 won per plate. You can also buy a bag of ice fish for 10,000 won to 15,000 won. The restaurants also offer ramen for 2,000 won and udong for 3,000 won for those who neglected to bring their own cooking ingredients.

by Park Sung-ha
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