Mountain Temple of the Lenok Buddha

December 29, 2023 By: Sam Lungren

A dragon flares from under his temple roof. Hand-carved hardwoods painted copper-green, pink, and blue crowd the gables beneath upswept monastic eves trailing down into columns and scrolls of Korean characters. We peek past tri-fold shutter doors to a gleaming golden Buddha statue solemnly presiding over the temple. I close my eyes to whisper words only anglers and romantics understand.

The January sun is setting, and we’re shivering. Back across the marble bridge and down an icy path through the steep, densely wooded mountainsides, past the car-sized prayer bell with its battering-ram ringer, through a column of barracks lined with portly ceramic casks fermenting kimchi, down to the pond along a slushy creek. An interpretive sign with an admirable effort at English explains: this is the southernmost habitat of the Brachymystax lenok, or sharp-snouted lenok, one of four species of its genus within the family Salmonidae—a revered native species. They can survive only in cold, clean water and thus live mostly in headwater streams in deep valleys, we read.

But the monks are being modest, our expat guide, Matt Awalt, tells my dad and me. Though lenok are quite prolific in parts of Mongolia and Russia, they’ve declined substantially in South Korea, particularly in these headwaters of the Nakdong Basin, the longest river in the country, due to deforestation, mining, smelting, road building, pollution, dams, and intensive harvest. In the early ’90s, a monk named Jeong Ho of the Hyeonbulsa Temple received a government permit to transplant fingerling lenok from the Naerin River further north into this temple pond. He used that broodstock to begin a full-fledged hatchery program and was eventually releasing thousands of fry into the adjacent creek and nearby tributary streams of the Nakdong. Some of these headwaters now hold sustainable populations of wild lenok, although poaching is still a problem. Lenok, like so many precious species, are prized in traditional Chinese medicine.

We peer past the sign into the half-frozen pond, plates of ice subsided into one another from freeze-thaw and inflow of spring water. Four spawning-phase lenok glide about lethargically—to my eyes bearing resemblance to a brown trout-mountain whitefish hypothetical hybrid.

We observe the fish in silence until the nose-numbing cold is tolerable no longer. Bidding annyeong to the gatekeeper, Matt drives us back down the narrow valley, past another sanctuary for an ever-so-slightly more charismatic native species, the Siberian tiger. At the creek’s confluence, Matt remarks that most Korean rivers don’t have specific names, or at least not in the manner we’re used to. Stretches of streams bear the name of the town they flow through, meaning a waterway that passes ten villages may carry ten different names.

He’s learned many such idiosyncrasies since a post-college, post-breakup bout of wanderlust landed him on this small, contested Asian peninsula 15 years ago to teach English. I find myself hoping my sister Emma, who is currently teaching English to Korean children here, comes home much sooner. Matt fell in love with the food, the culture, and a Korean woman named Nami, whom he eventually married. A lifelong angler, he was also keen to help pioneer Asiatic fly angling opportunities, leading him to launch the Far East Fishing Company and offering trips to Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and, prior to recent events, Russia. The biggest Korean lenok, he says, are in the infamous Demilitarized Zone, DMZ, into which he has slipped and fished while avoiding landmines and hostage capture. The cherry trout thrive in high cascading creeks reminiscent of Appalachia. Matt regales us with tales of Hokkaido and Kamchatka and Seoul’s indoor carp fishing facilities until we return to the town of Taebaek where he picked us up off the train earlier.

Koreans conveniently created a word for fried-chicken-and-beer—pronounced “chi-mek”—which makes ordering all too easy. They fry it well enough to challenge anywhere in the American South too, our Georgia Boy guide grudgingly admits. The barbecued chicken feet Matt ordered for dessert were notably less succulent but not altogether unpalatable.

We rise early into biting cold after a strange night on thin mats on a heated floor in the inn. Following a diminishing road downriver, a corner reveals a massive smelting plant, vestige of Japanese occupation. Cumulous clouds of gas and steam rise from the industrial colossus spanning the valley, leaving little doubt as to a primary source of the lenok’s demise. We park by a bridge where the road peters out. I put on every piece of clothing I have in front of a small propane heater, rig rods, then slide gingerly as far as I dare across shelf ice to the edge of a brilliant blue plunge pool and begin to nymph, wondering whether anything besides me is dumb enough to move around this river in single-digit weather.

My rod and rig gain notable weight with each passing cast. I bust ice from the guides and keep casting. On the next lurching presentation, I notice small snowballs fly past my head. Examining my flies, I find they’re completely coated in ice—hook points and all. Lacking a more elegant solution, I pop them right in my mouth. Ice melted and crunched off, I wonder how many more times I’ll have to do this dance today.

We work through the runs surrounding the bridge before gladly piling back into the car to enjoy warmth once again. I finally succumb to the urge to check my phone. Matt drives us back up the road to the smeltery and parks right across the river from it. I assume this to be the deadest of dead zones, but Matt assures us there’s a nice glide that holds trout—at least in the normal fishing season. And it is beautiful water—a riffle pouring off into a sharp corner piling into and under the rocky ledge of a small cliff face before sliding out across a broad gravel tailout. The backlit gas clouds still billowing from the smokestacks cast ethereal shadows on the clear water. Whether that water holds fish remains a mystery and we depart before security tells us to.

We park next above a plunging canyon and scramble down a steep embankment where I discover a wild boar skull and pluck a tusk for good luck. Far more serene without the heavy equipment and conveyor belts, the sun finds the water and my fingers and I finally feel like I’m fishing. The fish decline to support this illusion, however.

We hole-hop our way through the day, eventually winding up just downstream of Taebaek. I gasp as Matt parks below a weir and, in my haste to exit the car, flush the flock of regal, golden Mandarin ducks I’d hoped to photograph. Dad and I wade the stream arm-in-arm before splitting so he can pick apart the best-looking run and I can try to cover every inch of the quarter-mile section. In the bushes I nearly step on a dead racoon dog, a ferine member of the Canine family native to East Asia. Running short on time and unimpressed with the series of untouched nymphs, I switch to a small streamer. Working my way back upstream to Dad, I twitch the stinger-style pattern up and over a submerged rock.

A dragon flares from under his temple roof. The fly accelerates, teasing, pleading. The lenok rushes then slows, drifting back to its lair.

Matt and Dad hear my groan from 200 yards upstream. A half-dozen more patterns fail in tempting the firebreather to reveal himself again. Soon it’s time to return to town for rotisserie barbecue at Matt’s favorite Kazakh restaurant before Dad and I board our train back to Seoul and our family. Flying past creeks and rivers in the advancing darkness I ponder the fishing if we’d made this trip while all these cherry trees blossom rather than quiver barren in the wind. I might’ve added a fish to my list, along with a country and continent. Seeing such a special species is something though. Prayers are rarely answered in the exact way we hope.