Chejudo Roostersby R. Michael DiLullo
The rising sun gleamed brightly off the unbroken rows of frost covered cabbages as we climbed into the warm cab of the idling pick-up truck. The pre-dawn temperature was in the mid-twenties, but the combination of a light wind and the sea air made it feel twice as cold. At the wheel sat Mr. Kim, our guide for two days of pheasant hunting on Chejudo Island, in The Republic of South Korea. Mr. Kim spoke only broken English. He had the build and that weathered appearance of a farmer. A man attached, not just by culture and tradition, but by spirit to the land. He epitomized the gentle, happy nature so common among the Korean people.
Iced over puddles cracked under the truck’s tires like a thousand panes of glass, as we drove down an ancient dirt road. The old Chevy bounced and shifted between the deep ruts that meandered down the narrow road like a trail made by some giant serpent. Dogs barked from behind hidden courtyards as we passed through a village. The golden rays of the sun broke the quiet darkness of morning and the land was bathed in a warm glow. A world which had been hidden in darkness since our arrival the night before was now being revealed. Dark brick colored pumice walls terraced the hilly landscape and divided the island into a thousand parcels of green fields. The image of Chejudo that I had conjured-up in my imagination was nothing like it appeared. In reality it was more like I had pictured Ireland to be. A mosaic of bright green meadows divided by the chest high walls of the island’s igneous matrix. A landscape broken only by the naturally rising hills and bluffs that led from the towering snow covered pinnacle of Mount Hallasan, an extinct volcano at the island’s center, down to the cliffs and beaches reaching into the East China Sea.
As a young Marine officer stationed on Okinawa, I had deployed throughout the Far East. In that time I had accrued several months each year in the frozen mud of the Korean peninsula. It was the end of the Cold War, and terms like “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” where in vogue. The Olympics had just left Seoul, and exercises with names like “Bear Hunt,” “Valiant Blitz” and “Team Spirit” had brought me to South Korea for the past three years. I had come to Chejudo for a different reason, however. Throughout my time in Asia, I had heard from others of the island’s haunting beauty, relaxing atmosphere and legendary pheasant hunting. For the island was once the Korean Emperor’s personal hunting grounds and its native pheasant population vastly outnumbers its indigenes human residents. So, when the opportunity arose to join several senior Navy officers on a Chejudo hunt, I accepted without hesitation.
Chejudo, like most of Korea, is a land of contrast and mystery. It is an island of unique customs and legends, and it is the largest of the Korean Islands. Situated off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, the island is bathed by the warm sub-tropic currents of the East China Sea, producing a prolific amount of sea life. The island’s residents are primarily an agricultural
society, however, a small group of women divers prowl the rocky coasts harvesting plants and shellfish. Chejudo has become the “Niagara Falls” of South Korea. It is the honeymoon resort of choice to thousands of Korean and Japanese newlyweds each year. Newsweek magazine once
considered the island one of the ten unspoiled tourist paradises in the world.
In 1882, Judge Owen Denny, the U.S. Consul in Shanghai, China imported 30 Chinese ring-necked pheasants into Oregon where the birds prospered. Ten years later, Oregon held it’s first pheasant hunt and hunters took more than 50,000 birds. America was hooked on pheasant hunting and Asia became a primary contributor to the growing North American pheasant population.
A trio of colorful Chejudo roosters. The number of pheasants on Chejudo greatly outnumbers the Island’s human population.
Photo by: Author
And so it was, I had returned to one of the places from which it had all begun. Growing-up in non-hunting home left me to dream of days like this. Outdoor magazines, books and television shows fed my youthful imagination until I was old enough to begin hunting with high school friends. But, sports, dating and academics all limited our time afield. We mostly hunted the crowded public hunting grounds of New York and New Jersey. We were all inexperienced hunters, but we all shared an eagerness to learn and a desire to be afield. We all had shotguns, mostly old 12’s with scared stocks and bluing worn to the color of storm filled seas. Few of us had hunting dogs, so we were left to beating the brush for the occasional birds we did manage to shoot. With age came experience and improved wingshooting skills, it also brought an appreciation and reverence for being afield with gun and dog. This was something I had sorely missed after nearly three years overseas.