South Korea's first area to freeze over is always Hwacheon, where the river's ice reaches a solid 16 inches thick by January ideal conditions for trout grabbing. The Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival is a unique wintertime celebration that draws over 1,000,000 visitors every year. To promote it as the nation’s largest and most popular winter festival, organizers plan a variety of programs and fun activities, but the most popular pastime is ice fishing in the clean waters of the Bukhangang River.
“The process is simple enough,” writes Chris Backe, who recently experienced the festivity. “Purchase a small plastic pole that looks vaguely like that DNA model from high school, pay your way in, find a hole and start bobbing the pole up and down. If looking to actually catch something, try some bait and perhaps a slightly different motion than the thousand other ice fishers. Some friendly Koreans with grills will cook your catch, or a bottle of soju can be obtained to drown your sorrows.”
Shouts of joy ring out at random across the crowded ice: "I caught it!" every time a festival-goer reaches into one of the 11,000 ice fishing holes and pulls out a fish bare-handed from the clear, cold waters. Each day of the festival, 32 tons of mountain trout are released beneath the ice for the grab. Still, catching one takes a bit of luck and nimble skill in numbing conditions.
The freshwater mountain trout, a member of the salmon family, is endemic to Gangwon-do Province. It lives only in clean fresh water with a temperature below 20 degrees Celsius throughout the year. The trout is called the “Queen of the Valley” for the beautiful parr marks on its sides. The cultural festival is organized to celebrate the abundance of mountain trout in its waters.
Photos by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
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