Dateline: August 3, 2016 – Tokyo Bay, Japan
We set out hoping each day on the water will be a great one, and once in a while, it happens. And out of those great days, a very few go beyond anything we could ever hope for. That’s a high bar – as fishermen, much of what sustains us is hope … hope, and the photos from those precious days where everything went right. You’ll find them below.
After our freshwater adventures, Phil and I were ready to get back on the boat. The boat has rod holders and adult supervision, so I was less likely to have any more gear disasters.
On our second-to-last day, we set out to pick up some species we had missed inside Tokyo Bay. This would be a whole day of “grab bag” fishing – putting baits down and seeing what would bite, and I can’t tell you how much I love doing this in a place where I haven’t caught most of the fish. Of course, we were also armed with an array of the Japanese specific species rigs – I leave nothing to chance. Neither does Phil – during the early morning bait store run, he bought a dozen live gobies, saying that there was a specific fish we might try for in the afternoon. I trusted him, but I secretly wondered if he was going to eat them himself.
We fished around some banks and dropoffs, looking for a croaker and a few other odds and ends. While we waited for bites, Aki noticed some small baitfish near the boat, and I jigged up what turned out to be a Japanese anchovy.
Mock if you must, but it’s a species.
Moments later, the custom rig paid off and I reeled in a silver croaker.
A Japanese silver croaker. Their main diet is Japanese croaker rigs.
Then we were off further down the bay to hunt the banded houndshark – a medium-sized, hard fighting critter that is closely related to the leopard shark found in my California home waters. Phil and Aki had been quite confident we would get one a few days before, and both wondered aloud what was slowing down the bite. We put in our time, and while we were waiting, I stumbled on to a convict grouper – a beautiful bonus species.
Aki is pleased about the convict grouper.
But the houndsharks would not bite. Aki started talking about moving, so just then, Phil’s rod, a comically light setup better matched to smallmouth bass than sharks, exploded. Phil put his hands up like a defensive back denying a pass interference call, and said “It’s all yours.” Here I’ve been abusing Phil, especially about Betsy the cat, and he goes and does something nice like this. I didn’t need to be told twice.
I grabbed the rig and hung on while the shark stripped light braid off the reel. There wasn’t much lifting power to work with, but it was a great battle.
The battle rages.
The process took about ten minutes, and as the fish started coming up, I moved to the bow so I could drop it down to Aki and the net. Moments later, we boated the fish. I had my fourth species of the day and had completed the vaunted “Triakis trifecta.”
Triakis scyllium – The banded houndshark, Tokyo Bay,
Triakis megalopterus – Spotted Gully Shark, Swakopmund, Namibia.
Triakis semifasciata – Leopard Shark, Tomales Bay, California.
I started to eat my lunch, and this must have made Phil think of the gobies. “The gobies!” he said. Aki immediately responded “Olive flounder. Flathead. There’s a good spot just a few miles away.” We raced off to a sand flat, maybe 20 feet deep, and set up some live bait drift rigs. Midway through the first drift, Phil’s rod sagged down, then mine. We both reeled in an olive flounder – a halibut-like flatfish that is revered among fishermen here.
Awkward moment with flounder.
We did a few more drifts, and on the third, my rig got nailed again. This time, I reeled up something completely different – a flathead. I have always had a soft spot for these hard-biting, bizarre creatures of the flats, ever since Scotty Lyons introduced me to them in Botany Bay a long, long time ago.
I have no idea what Phil was listening for back there.
We fished some deeper water to close out the day, and I got one more species – the Ryuguhaze Goby.
This put me at 1587 species lifetime.
That evening, over surprisingly good pizza, I took some time to count the results of the trip thus far. Part of my “hobby” (although Marta calls it a “condition”) is keeping various lists. The main one, of course, is my lifetime species total. I was 13 species away from 1600, but I do not recall ever getting 13 species in a single day. Another list I keep is the number of total fish I catch each calendar year. I generally try for at least 1000, and I noted that I was at 948. This seemed doable. I was also hoping to get at least one world record so I could add Japan to that list, which stood at 22. I went to sleep dreaming good fish dreams.
That last day didn’t start well. Betsy had rejected her outfit and sat perturbed on the couch.
A perturbed Betsy. She really doesn’t like pleats.
Phil and I got to the boat a bit early, and it was pouring rain. This would not dampen my enthusiasm, because I knew there were still lots of species for to get, and we would be going back to the deep water where some truly awesome creatures could be found. One of the photos that had inspired this entire journey was one of Phil’s deepwater frog shark. and I knew we had a reasonable chance of getting one.
Yes, he caught that from a kayak.
We made a long run to the mouth of the bay, and started off with some drops over 1000′, just to get our arms warmed up. I felt some faint taps once the rig hit bottom. and as I started reeling up, there was clearly more weight than what I had sent down. It takes about seven minutes to bring up that much line, and I was frantic with anticipation the entire time. “What do you think it is?” I asked Phil. “A fish.” he responded helpfully. “Or a rock.” I reeled and reeled, and when I finally saw color in the water, I was thrilled. I had gotten a deepwater eel – perhaps not a glamorous creature, but certainly one I wasn’t going catch elsewhere.
I could eel the love.
A few drops later, I got a more definite strike, and started cranking up. Aki said “Japanese bonefish.” Naturally, I thought he was full of racoon-dog crap, because I was fishing in 1000 feet. But he wasn’t. When we netted the fish, it was indeed a long, silvery creature with a big eye – a “gissu” – and this “gissu” turns out to be a deepwater cousin of my beloved Albula species.
Jamie has never caught one.
A bit later, we motored in to shallower water – 200-300 feet – and started to fish with krill baits. I didn’t like the rig – it was a sort of hybrid spreader/paternoster with thin mono-snelled hooks. and mashing the pasty krill on them seemed less than reliable. But I had learned to stop questioning Phil and Aki on rigging early in the trip, and the setup got sent deep. Suddenly, here were all that little “whatsits” that Phil told me frequented the area. The first one was a Japanese sailfin.
This looks like a gurnard and a sergeant baker had an unfortunate night together.
A few minutes later, I got a serranid. It wasn’t big, but was new.
Kellogg’s perchlet. Good for breakfast.
We moved out a bit deeper, perhaps 600 feet, which seemed oddly shallow after all the deep drop stuff. We explored a sandy bottom, looking specifically for a type of tilefish, but we got that and a couple of other surprises.
The Horsehead Tilefish
Goldbridled Sand Perch
The Abyssal Gurnard. Gotta love that name.
It was just after 11am and I had seven new species. Yes, I realized the next milestone was six away, but I had already been very fortunate. Wishing for six more would likely upset the Fish Gods, and I had no interest in doing that.
We continued exploring. Our next spot was shallower, around 200 feet, and within 20 minutes, I had pulled up two more – the rather unusual groppo and a Seibold’s wrasse.
A Groppo. I had never even heard of these, and I read fish books the way Phil reads cat fashion magazines.
The wrasse. Yes, I knew this was nine for the day. I tried to put it out of my head.
Around 1:30, I caught my 52nd fish of the day – another sailfin – meaning I had gotten 1000 total fish (of any type) in 2016. And no, this is nowhere near the earliest in a year I had crossed the 1000 mark. (That would be April of 2006.)
That’s 1 for 1000, because I can’t make three zeros with my fingers and still hold a fish.
We drifted out on to some deeper rocks, and within 20 minutes, I got two new scorpionfish. Do not put these in your pants.
The Izukasago Scorpionfish – 10 for the day.
The Western Scorpionfish – 11 for the day.
On the very next drop, I got a beautiful spiny something, and a quick check of the book told me I had gotten a yellowbarred red rockfish – #1599.
OK, now 1600 was crossing my mind. A lot.
I didn’t want to be greedy. The day was already stupidly epic – I had reached the 1000 fish caught milestone for 2016, and gotten a huge haul of species. Could I actually be that close? With an appreciable portion of the day still to go? Any time something seems like it should be easy, that usually means that something is going to go wrong. I just kept fishing with the paternoster, hoped for something weird, and looked out for asteroids.
We stayed in the medium depths for a while, and when we slipped over a reef in around 300′, I had a solid take on my scorpionfish rig. Whatever it was pumped hard a couple of times, then lost its temper and snapped me off. Phil saw this, smiled, and said “Dogfish. This won’t take long.” He put down a bigger rig with a heavier leader, and almost immediately, he was in to a nice fish. When he got it up to the surface, it was indeed a dogfish, similar to the ones we get in San Francisco, but with a huge eye. I dropped a similar setup, and as soon as I hit the bottom, a fish took off with the bait and the fight was on. It was a good-sized animal, pushing 20 pounds, so it took a while, but when we finally netted it, it was the same large-eyed dogfish. I knew it was a new species, and that meant, unthinkably, I had hit 1600, just like that. 1500 had come only six and a half months ago, and I felt like that was a serious struggle – now here I was at the next milestone.
Phil and Steve with their shortspine spurdogs.
And it gets better. Looking at the Squalus species on the IGFA app, it was fairly clear that this fish wasn’t listed. My 1600th species would turn out to be my 133rd world record, and Japan would be the 23rd country where I had gotten a record. Phil’s fish, heavier than mine, would also be a record. (All fish that set or break a record in the same day count.) I had expected a good result in Japan, but this was beyond my wildest expectations. I had gotten 50 species in six days, and we still had an evening in front of us. No matter how Phil dresses his cat, he had put me on one of the single greatest weeks of fishing I have ever done.
We hit a few more reefs, and I scrounged up another species – the hoshi perchlet. I had started on the road to 1700, and everything seemed possible.
As the sun started to go down, we moved back out to super-deep water. We set up our first drift – I was using a heavy paternoster, but Phil was all-in with a big jig dressed up with fresh mackerel. Phil was in the water first, probably because I was still admiring the dogfish photos or getting a Red Bull or wondering how the heck I had caught 1600 fish species. All of this snapped out of my head when Phil announced “Fish on. Big one.” His jig rod was doubled over and the reel was peeling braid. Phil got a quizzical look on his face for a moment, then looked at me and said “You want him? Big fish.” This is the kind of thing I might – MIGHT – do for a close friend, or Spellman, but here was Phil, after only a week on the water together, handing off a potential monster. I took the rod. Phil mentioned the strike came when he was down 1350 feet.
To address the legalisms here, I would not count this fish as a species, as I didn’t hook it, and it also would not count as an IGFA world record, as again, Phil hooked it. But it did look like it was going to be a fun fight, and who was I to say no?
About 45 minutes later, with the fish still down at least 500 feet, it dawned on me that Phil might have actually put one over on me. I was on the fish for over an hour – the tackle was relatively light, so moving it was painfully slow, and just when I got up a few feet, it would run back a few more. A quarter mile of line is a whole lot when something on the other end doesn’t want to see you. My back started to cramp, my toes started to cramp, but I wasn’t going to give in and neither was it, and of course Phil was very sensitive and helpful as he stood behind me and sensitively yelled “Get that thing out of the water! We have fishing to do! It’s kicking your ass!!”
And it was.
This delightful encouragement continued as I got the fish coming up to around 200 feet, and just as I thought he was giving up, he turned around and ran about 50 yards deeper. We presumed it was an oilfish, and it couldn’t have hurt me worse if I had eaten four pounds of it. (Look it up. It’s horrible.)
About 15 minutes later, the fish appeared under the boat. It was bigger than I thought it would be, and this time, it wasn’t a blue shark. (After all, EVERYONE has caught a blue shark.) It was a great big oilfish, and when Phil and Aki netted it, I yelled in primal triumph, or because my back gave out.
Steve, Aki, oilfish.
Phil, Steve, oilfish. I’ll never wash that shirt again.
We jigged well past dark. We had a few bites here and there, but nothing hooked up for several hours, and I hate to admit this, but it really didn’t bother me. It had been a day for the ages, and anything else would be a bonus. I drank a Red Bull and looked at the lights of Tokyo in the distance.
The bonus happened shortly after 9pm. I had a jig/bait combo down about 600 feet, and I got bumped. The fish came back twice, and I ended up hooking it. It was a reasonable size, but I was predicting nothing after the blue shark debacle. The fish finally got into the lights – it looked to be some kind of dogfish, but I didn’t figure it out until it actually hit the deck and flopped out of the net. It was a sharpnose sevengill shark, one of the most unusual fish I have ever caught. Yes, I recognized it immediately, because this fish is always on the same page as the regular sevengill, and I had looked longingly at it for years, realizing that the “deep midwater” habitat and the “poorly known” notation meant that I would likely never see one. And here I had one in my lap.
Species 15 for the day, 1602 overall.
I’m not sure if the eye or the teeth are cooler.
Phil hooked a fish just after I did, and he reeled up the same species, just a half a pound smaller. The species was an open world record, and we had the perfect finish to a perfect day. Of course, no fishing trip with Phil would be complete with a trip to the ramen place, and so, somewhere in the early hours, we had our last ramen meal of the week.
Japanese ramen. It does not come in a plastic for for fifteen cents. It’s actually pretty good, although I am still unclear on the ingredients.
The next day, I had to actually clean under my fingernails and get back to work. Phil generously drove me in to downtown Tokyo, where we visited several tackle stores and I loaded up on even more specific Japanese rigs. These would prove to be very handy in the coming months. He dropped me off at the Marriott late in the afternoon, and I could not find words to thank him enough. Fifty two species, two records, and a major milestone, all in a place where I could have done nothing without Phil’s local knowledge, connections, and generosity. There are very few people who care about this sort of fishing in the way I do, and I had met another one of the brotherhood, God help him.
Betsey waves bye bye.