Angling Abroad: Mandarins in the morning

The mandarin fish is South Korea's most sought-after native game fish. 

HADONG, South Korea — My angling apprenticeship for mandarin fish was with Mr. Na, a man obsessed with the pursuit of this unique fish.

He was a mid-level salaryman at a shipyard and his wife was an airline attendant. She wasn't around much and I think he preferred it that way.

Mr. Na finished from work, drove an hour to his favorite river, fished hard and intense throughout the night, slept for a bit in his truck, and returned to work in the morning. That was his life.

"We use lead jigs," he said and handed me a fistful of unpainted jigheads and another fistful of soft plastic curly-tail grubs. Quite generous of him, I thought. It was 4 in the morning on the Gyeong Ho River. By noon all of the jigs he gave me were gone.

If the North American muskellunge is known as the fish of 10,000 casts, then the mandarin fish of the Far East is the fish of 10,001 casts. Although it isn't a fish that is easily spooked, it is more of a matter of covering an underwater area that holds an inconceivable amount of rock structure.

Known in the Korean language as "sogari," Siniperca scherzeri is distributed throughout Manchurian China, the Russian Far East and the Korean peninsula.

The mandarin fish makes its home in fast-flowing freestone rivers, hiding under and around rocks to ambush their prey.

It has the walleye preference for cold deep water with a gravel bottom. It has the ambush instinct of a smallmouth bass. And it lives in a river ecosystem that a brown trout would find comfortable.

"You must be more sensitive," said Mr. Na, gesturing slowly with his rod.

"Sensitive," he said again, and he suddenly set the hook with a wrist snap. He was snagged.

English was his second language and he was commenting on my retrieve and not my personality. The presentation must flutter past the nooks and overhang ledges where the sogari lurks.

Casting out the jig and slowly retrieving it gently over the rocky bottom produced many inevitable snags and I was steadily working my way through my stash of jigs.

As the sun was rising, Mr. Na hooked a mandarin that was fighting hard and trying to dive deep. I scrambled over the boulders as he brought it close. Its body was a golden brown dappling of mottled spots and leopardlike rosette patterns. It was a 19-inch mandarin. We admired it and he returned it to the water.

Leviathans among mandarin fish are considered to be those in the 25-inch range. However, since conservation of fish isn't a priority in this part of the world, not a whole lot is known about the mandarin in South Korea. There are no game wardens because there are no laws pertaining to angling. Consequently, there are no fishing licenses, no bag limits, no size limits and no restrictions. The health of the mandarin fishery could be great, or it could be poor. There's really no telling.

What is certain is popularity of the game fish. There are Korean angling clubs that specialize in mandarin fish. And among national Korean fishing magazines, articles on mandarins typically are included in each issue — usually accompanied by photos of sogari on stringers. This all leads me to believe that the sogari is being overharvested.

The good news, however, is there appears to be a new breed of Korean fishermen, like Mr. Na, who practice catch and release. I believe they are South Korea's best hope to help its poor freshwater conservation standards.

Later in the morning, he handed me a small, generic inline spinner. "What's this for?" I asked. He laughed, "It is a 'keokji' killer!"

I quickly learned what a keokji was after a couple casts in some shallow rapids. It was the exploding dark shadow that burst from the rocky bottom and smashed my spinner. It was the mandarin fish's smaller, more aggressive stepbrother.

The Korean brook perch — Coreoperca herzi, a k a aucha perch — has nearly
identical habitat characteristics of the mandarin fish, but tends to hunt in the shallow stretches of river. They grow no more than 12 inches long but are a compact, muscular fish that are a pleasure to play on ultra-light tackle.

I haven't seen Mr. Na in quite awhile. I moved to another province and we fell out of touch. That was fine by me. I was starting to despise fishing with leadhead jigs that got snagged every other cast.

According to articles in local fishing magazines, however, this was the best way to fish for the sogari, along with spoons and suspended minnow crankbaits. But there are other ways.

Many of the sogari rivers are in fly-rod country; having gravel bars that allow for long back casts in every direction.

A new province meant new rivers to explore and, armed with what I learned, I studied the Seom Jin River near my home. It runs along the western border of the Jiri Mountains and is one of Korea's premier mandarin rivers.

Since neither fish have the predilection for surface feeding, I loaded my reel spool with sinking line and my fly box with streamers, nymphs and strike indicators. Simple stiff leaders were constructed to throw out medium-size flies with larger tippets to match the fly and to help fend off abrasions and snags.

With a wide variety of streamers, I found that the jerk-strip retrieve method to be the most successful and intense for catching the brook perch.

The imitation of an escaping wounded baitfish is irresistible for the opportunistic hunter. This method is fast moving in both cast-retrieve actions and for covering long stretches of shallow rapids. It's an aggressive style of casting for an aggressive fish.

Figuring out how to catch rapacious brook perch on the fly was not so difficult. The mandarin fish was a different matter. It's not aggressive as the brook perch and would need a perfect drift through the deep holes with a tantalizing fly coaxing it to strike.

Getting the heavy line with open loops out to the target area required some wet wading and scrambling up to the many boulders that characterize these kinds of rivers. By elevating yourself on the boulders, you give yourself more room to cast and you get a better view to determine water depth. With the mandarin down deep, spooking the fish is negligible.

One of the difficulties with the fast current was to get the fly deep to the low-lying mandarin before the drag set in. A strike indicator is essential in the rapid current and it is difficult to tell if the nymph is hitting a rock or in the mouth of a finicky mandarin.

Split-shot and size No. 8 beadhead nymphs combined with the sinking line was enough to get it down.

And getting it down is the trick. It produced a strike from a nice-size mandarin, and more strikes after that. Strikes don't come as often as the brook perch, but a mandarin of more than 20 inches heading downstream and deep will make your drag whiz.

For an American angler, bringing a mandarin to net will be a most exotic
sporting species to add to your wish list.

Like nearly all game fish, the best times for angling both of these fish is as dawn and dusk.

Korea is nicknamed the "Land of the Morning Calm," and there is no better place to be than on one of the country's freestone rivers, casting your fly in the morning calm under misty mountains and into free-flowing rivers.

James Card is a free-lance writer living in South Korea and writing a book about Korean wildlife. He can be contacted at