Dateline: July 31, 2016 – Tama River, Japan
Sometimes, we do stupid things. If no one is looking, these tales can drift off into the mists of history. Other times, we do stupid things in front of witnesses, and those witnesses are too big to kill. Hence, this blog.
Phil and I had hammered the saltwater hard, for three days long on species and short on sleep. Our next step was to investigate some freshwater opportunities around Tokyo, which involved even less sleep, plenty of species, a shameless act in a pay pond, and me doing something really dumb. I’m not sure if the pay pond thing or the dumb thing was less dignified, but anyone who comes here looking for dignity is reading the wrong blog.
The first freshwater day involved substantial road-tripping. We headed in the general direction of Mount Fuji (where they used to grow Fuji film before everything went digital.) It amazed me how quickly we left behind the urban sprawl of Tokyo and got out into the countryside, and how quickly we got from flat coastal plain to thickly-forested mountains. The conversation in the car was of course mostly fishing – Phil grew up half an hour from where I live, so we knew all the of same Sacramento River striper guides. Barry, Dave, Jolly Jay – each name brought out a smile and a fishing story.
Mt. Fuji. It never seemed to get any closer.
In these mountains, there were streams, and in these streams, Phil hoped to find us two quite rare and wonderful trout relatives – the masu salmon and the whitespotted char. He was not expecting large fish, but he felt, at a minimum, we had a decent shot at the Masu. So we drove. And we drove. Eventually, we got well up into the hills, and found the Shinkin No Kao River, where Phil had fished before. The scenery was gorgeous. We hiked about a mile upstream and got our first surprise of the day – water levels had dropped and our target fish were nowhere to be found.
So we drove some more. Our second location was the pristine-looking In’no creek, deep in a canyon. It was low and clear, and Phil was incredibly stealthy for something his size that was wearing a bright orange shirt. He went upriver and I went down, he fished his fly rod and I used a small piece of crawler. We could see trout in the water, but they were exceptionally spooky.
Phil sneaks upstream.
I kept a low profile and cast a number of attractive holes without result. Just as Phil came stealthily back to my spot, I had a small bite and hooked a fish. Flipping it up onto the bank, I was surprised to see that it was not a trout – it was some type of cyprinid, and definitely a new species. Weeks later, it was determined (by scientists) that this was a type of redfin.
The Tribolodon genus makes it on to my life list.
We hit the road again, examining a few other small rivers without stopping. Looking at the time, which had slipped well into the afternoon, my shame tolerance plummeted – and remember that my shame bar is already set very, very low. We had passed a few pay pond-looking signs. These were of course in Japanese, so I couldn’t be sure, but the picture of a child holding up a trout while the father hands money to someone is almost universal. To make sure we are definite that Phil wanted nothing to do with this, I think he actually said “I want nothing to do with this.” But I persisted, explaining that we could at least technically catch the species and then continue hunting the area for more dignified examples. Phil reluctantly agreed, and we entered what would turn out to be the most shameless fish farm I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.
Whereas most of these operations have a single pond or stream that is stocked, this one had divided a mountain stream into a series of pools, each about the size of a big hot tub. Once you settled on which pool you wanted, the staff would walk up with a bucket of fish and release them in the pool. You heard me. Even I knew this was somewhat lame, but I was focused on the species, and so we added a bucket of masu and a bucket of char.
The pay pools.
The masu were aggressive, likely because they hadn’t been fed in anticipation of my visit. They jumped all over normal trout offerings like small jigs and spoons, so I added this species quickly.
A small masu salmon.
Phil was loudly hoping I would catch the char so we could leave before more people saw him.
Phil hides from the camera.
The char, however, seemed less interested in my trout offerings. Ever the pragmatist, I ordered another bucketfull to be added to my pool. Still, they wouldn’t bite, even though I now had dozens of them dashing around at my feet. I began to wonder if, for a bit more money, they could put the fish on the hook and hit them over the head.
Phil, clearly not a fan of this type of fishing, finally offered a piece of advice. “Try a medium minnow lure.” This surprised me, as these were not large creatures, but I followed his suggestion and the char attacked. I added a third species for the day in short order. I felt a faint pang of something that might have been shame, but was most likely gas.
Remember that Phil has caught much larger char in much more challenging conditions.
Phil was not heartbroken to leave the trout farm. On our way out, I was taken aback by a terrifying statue. It looked something like a raccoon possessed by Satan, and I was grateful that I hadn’t encountered it in low-light conditions, because I might have wet myself. Phil explained that it was a Tanuki – a raccoon-dog – a form of local wildlife that is considered good luck.
Phil also mentioned that the Tanuki is a sign of fertility. I countered that it didn’t look all that fertile to me, at which stage Phil told me to look down.
Yep, that’s fertile all right.
We drove deeper into the mountains, and Phil had one more idea for the day – an attempt to rescue my honor by catching a three-lipped chub in the wild. This creature lives in lakes, which didn’t seem like a problem until I saw that there was no easy way down to this lake and we would need to do a lengthy and steep hike. This was no problem for my host, as he is in shape, but I was less thrilled. Still, we got to the shoreline with only a few slips and falls, all of which were mine. It was certainly a beautiful place to fish as the sun went down, but unfortunately, no chubs were in evidence.
Kogan reservoir. Stuffed with American bass and a few other interesting species.
The way up was steep and slippery, but Phil owed me this after the pay pond debacle. We came across the skull of a monkey, which had likely died trying to hike up from the lake.
It likely caught just as many three-lipped chubs as I did.
My travel cold had finally departed, likely due to shame, and I slept well that night.
The next morning, we headed out to some of Phil’s urban Tokyo freshwater stomping grounds. These are not places where one would expect to find water, let alone fish, and yet here they were, little gems in the middle of one of the most crowded places on earth. Our first challenge was, of course, parking. We ended up eating at a less-than-optimal restaurant so we could leave the car there with some hope of not being towed, and off we went to the Yo-dare spillway on the Tama River.
The main target was a barbel steed, a wonderfully-named local creature that has a reputation for savage battles. This is a sight fishing thing, and we walked up and down the spillway wall looking for one, and just as we spotted a few, it started raining hard. This killed the sight fishing for a while, but we stuck it out in our Gore-Tex, and about an hour later, the rain and water settled down. The barbel steed started showing up again. This is a precision-casting thing where the bait needs to land just upstream of the fish, and for the first one, I let Phil cast. He handed off as the fish moved up onto the bait, and yes, they do hit hard. The fight is very reminiscent of the European barbel, and I was lucky to get it to the bottom of the wall where Phil scooped it up with the long-handled net that every Japanese fisherman needs to have.
The barbel steed – worthy of the name. I caught several more on my own, but nothing this size.
We then walked down the bank about half a mile, and set up on some rocks just below a riffle. I had begun fishing with some ridiculously tiny hooks, hoping to see what local micros might be in the rocks. The first two were surprise repeats.
Yes, this is a smallmouth bass. Who knew?
And this is a zacco – scientific name Opsariichthys platypus, and platypi are cool. I originally caught this species in Korea thanks to the kindness of Mr. Lee, a doorman at the Seoul Hyatt.
Putting the micro-rig down again, I didn’t have to wait long for a bite, and this time, something smashed me, peeled line off my Stella 1000, and showed no signs of stopping. Mind you, with hooks in the #26 range, you can’t put on much drag, but it was certainly a decent fish. I played it for at least 20 minutes, with Phil making helpful comments like “You’re going to farm this one.” (“Farmed it!” is a Delta expression for losing a fish. I have no idea where this comes from, but Phil says it often.) Slowly, I got the upper hand, and to Phil’s amusement, I netted a beautiful new species – the white crucian carp.
The Japanese white crucian carp. Also called “carp minnow.”
Close relative of the crucian carp – which I can never see without thinking of Roger Barnes.
Then I did something very dumb. I admit that I would never have publicized this had Phil not seen the whole thing, but I did it, and hopefully someone can learn from my tragic example.
I cast my light setup – a Stella 1000 and a Loomis Escape trout rod – and left it perched on the rock while I rigged up a heavier bait. I remember thinking that I shouldn’t leave the rod unguarded, but I only turned my back for a second. I figured that these were small hooks and anything that grabbed them would be hard-pressed to run away with a pound of tackle. I hadn’t counted on a carp swimming into the line and getting snagged, then bolting downstream. There was a noise, and I spun around just in time to see the handle of my beloved Loomis travel rod racing off into the depths of the Tama River. I thought briefly about jumping in after it, but then my reasonable side kicked in and I thought of cell phones, wallets, diseases, and drowning. The rig was gone.
This setup had been with me for years, and I had caught hundreds of fish on it. Yes, I get attached to my tackle, and this was horrible. Phil was actually kind to me, at least for an hour or two, and offered one of his rods as a micro-rig. I felt sick to my stomach, but I was here, and I needed to keep fishing, so I shut it out and kept going. But readers, please, please be careful when setting a rod down – even for a moment. That’s all it takes. And if you have a Stella 1000 in your collection, give it a hug.
We walked back upriver from the rocks of tragedy, and I kept going on micros while Phil tried casting the spillway for larger quarry. I pulled in my final new species of the day, the Khanka gudgeon.
It took me years to catch a European gudgeon, so I was thrilled with this.
In the meantime, Phil had hooked something a bit more substantial.
Northern Snakehead – I caught one in Macau.
Our dinner that night was quite a treat for me, considering that I am a culinary coward and fear most Japanese food. We happened by an Outback Steakhouse, a middling US-based eatery which looked liked gourmet fare to me after three days of ramen. Phil was patient and put up with my high-maintenance requests.
The Bloomin’ Onion, an Outback staple. My Grandmother loved these.
Reinvigorated by the food and caffeine, we decided to give the eels one more try. We set up a couple of baits in dark crevices along a tidal stream and waited, both of us focused and not caring that it was past midnight. Phil was walking well downstream, spotlighting the stream and looking for fish, when the rod I was holding went down hard. As I waited for the fish to stop taking drag, it occurred to me that it probably not an eel, or, if it was an eel, it was so big that landing it was going to be dangerous. For Phil. Luckily, it turned out to be a nice, if lost, seabream. I had caught this species before, in a Taiwan pay pond, (DETAILS HERE,) so this does count as a wild-caught example, not that this will even out the shame level in this blog.
A wild-caught bream. Safely released.
With these six freshwater species, I was now up to 30 for the trip. We had two days left, both back in Tokyo Bay with Aki, because I had wussed out of kayak fishing with Phil because I know deep in my heart that large sharks eat kayaks. Could we get five species each day and cross the 40 mark? And could I avoid tossing any more expensive tackle into the water? For the answer, tune in next week, or, as they say in Middle Earth, rune in next week.