Posted by: 1000fish | January 2, 2018

Natural Born Krillers

Dateline: July 15, 2017 – Tokyo Bay, Japan

Betsey the cat was waiting for me. That alone was worth the trip to Japan.

Betsey the cat sporting her outfit of the day. She was glad to see me, once she figured out I had access to the cat treats.

Betsey is treated very well. This is her cat toy selection. This is all the doing of Phil’s wife, Hitomi, but most of you have not read this far and will naturally assume Phil is a cat lady, which was the whole point.

Phil and I had crushed it on my trip to Japan last year – 52 species and two world records – but Japan is a big country and has a lot of fish. I was convinced we could get another big haul, especially if we headed outside of Tokyo. This year, Phil generously invited me for a 10 day stretch in July, which must mean that he is very patient. Marta feels that even Mother Theresa would snap after no more than 48 hours with me.

On that 2016 trip, we were blessed with ridiculously good weather. Tokyo is generally windy in July, so Phil warned me we would lose a few days to sea conditions. But we didn’t. It started nice and just got nicer every day, so that on our final evening it was so dead calm that we actually complained we weren’t drifting fast enough. In 2017, the Fish Gods caught up to us. My United flight landed right over Tokyo Bay, and the water looked like an over-soaped washing machine. Deep dropping was out of the question in these conditions, and we had planned on a lot of deep dropping. Our drive home from the airport was filled with discussion of plans B, C, and D.

Phil would not to be undone by inclement weather – remember, he is a Navy officer – and he found us a great option for the first evening. About two hours south of Tokyo, there is a port named Shimizu. Phil explained that the area is protected from the prevailing wind, and that it has a steep dropoff, so the deepwater fishing is quite close to shore. The target would be oilfish, with an outside chance at an escolar or some kind of midwater shark. Although I had gotten a small oilfish last year, getting a dignified one was very appealing, and the idea of dropping bait down 1000 feet always makes me smile. (Until the reeling starts.)

It was raining and miserable when we got there, but NOT windy, so I was thrilled. The charter boat was big and comfortable, and as far as I could tell, the captain was very personable. (I speak NO Japanese, so I have to take Phil’s word for everything.) We boarded and motored out onto a large bay. The oilfish don’t bite until dark, so we spent the late afternoon fishing the bottom close to shore. The guys in the back of the boat got a few assorted bream, but just when I thought I would be left out of the fun, because my rig did not have a picture of the specific fish I wanted, which is very bad in Japan, but just then, I got a bite. It wasn’t big, but when I landed the fish, I was thrilled. It was an unusual threadfin bream – a Nemipterid, as I know you were about to ask – and I had my first species of the trip.

The yellowbelly threadfin bream. I swear it glowed.

The cloudy late afternoon tapered into darkness, and the captain came on the loudspeaker and announced, at least according to Phil, that we were going to begin fishing the deep water. We ran about a mile, out to where the bay drops into abyssal depths, and dropped big fluorescent jigs down anywhere from 600 to 1000 feet, counting out the color changes on our marked braid until we got to where the skipper recommended. The action was just stupid good. We both hooked up immediately, and it was at this stage that our otherwise mild-mannered captain went schizo. As soon as I had a fish on, he got on the loudspeaker and began shouting instructions. This was not helpful, because I speak less Japanese than Betsey the cat. Phil tried to translate – “set the hook, keep the rod up, reel, reel REEL! …” but he had a fish on too so most of it was lost. Within twenty minutes, we both landed solid oilfish. I was ecstatic.

Steve, Captain Yellatme, and the first oilfish.

Since I was busy fighting my fish, I only faintly noticed a loud crack on Phil’s side of the boat. In the back of my mind, I thought it might have been his underwear failing, but I was relieved to find out it was only one of his jigging rods shattering, which was still bad but less of a problem aesthetically. Nonplussed, Phil fought the fish to the boat with the reel and a short section of handle.

Phil’s first fish and the remains of his rod.

Note that this would not be an IGFA legal catch – the rod must remain intact. But imagine the hand strength it took.

We dropped again, and as soon as we got to the prescribed depth – slam. More oilfish. We each got six, all adult fish, great fights, easy to release, and for God’s sake, if you keep one to eat, invite lots of friends so that no one gets more than four ounces, because anyone who overindulges on oilfish will be counting the tiles on the bathroom floor for the next 36 hours. Ask Wade.

Another solid fish. Note to first time oilfish anglers – bring gloves. Oilfish skin is brutally sharp.

One of Phil’s fish that didn’t break a rod.

On perhaps my fifth drop, I got a bite fairly shallow in the water column, maybe 500 feet, and hooked up on something that ran more more side to side than an oilfish. After half an hour of head-shaking battle, a dark shape emerged into the light. Phil spotted it first – “Escolar!!” I went into sphincter lock and almost lost the fish, but I somehow managed not to rip the hook out or break the line until they lifted it onto the deck. I had gotten one of the true deepwater ghosts.

My escolar. The mark on the side is from a cookie-cutter shark, and don’t ask me which fish I would rather catch.

A random amusement park on the way back to port.

Then there was a lot of sleeping, followed by more sleeping, followed by morning, a Red Bull, and some local freshwater fishing. Well after lunch, Phil dropped me off at a small local creek and handed me a batch of micro gear and a tub of maggots – is there any better recipe for a perfect afternoon? I looked over the area. The water was at the bottom of a ten-foot concrete flood wall, and while there were ladders to get down into the ditch, this would mean walking through tall weeds which undoubtedly hosted large spiders and other unpleasantries.

Yes, people fish in places like this.

I decided to fish from the ledge. The fish were everywhere, and foolishly, I thought it would be easy. The problem was, and this isn’t the first time this had happened to me, that if you can see the fish, they can see you. Every time I leaned over and dropped a bait down, the critters scattered to the four winds. So I got stealthy. I dropped a float rig with just the last few inches of the rod over the fence, and finally got a few fish.

Note for the linguistic purists who are reading this – I do not speak Japanese. (Not even the three critical phrases – “Where is the bathroom,” “Are there testicles in the stew,” and “No one that tall is really a girl.”)  The common names I report here are cobbled together from poor translations and wild guesses from, but if anyone wants the scientific names, just write me.

The first catch turned out to be the Aburahaya minnow, a dace-like creature that was surprisingly difficult to get on the hook.

This is apparently a large one.

Working my way downstream to the curious and not unamused glances of the locals, I got another species – the Nagoya goby.

Dignity is not an issue.

Phil joined me toward evening, and after examining my photos, he declared that there was another goby to catch. We fished in a long, slightly deeper run for about an hour with no luck, but right before we were going to leave, I got a spirited bite and pulled up a beautiful pond loach.

A relative beast.

This is my fourth species in the family, and the other three – in England, Laos, and Myanmar –  have been rather memorable.

Our next item was to try for an eel, but we had a couple of hours to kill before it got really dark. This left plenty of time for dinner, and to what I am sure is your collective horror, I skipped anything cultural and opted for Red Lobster. That’s Red Lobster, as in the mediocre American seafood chain. It’s exactly the same food in Japan, it just costs three times as much. I have to acknowledge Phil’s patience on the food topic – he would have been just as happy with something Japanese, but if I can’t read the menu, I am generally a coward.

We then returned to the scene of last year’s eel failure, an urban canal somewhere in greater Tokyo. We cast out bottom rigs with night crawlers and sat down with some cold beverages. There was no drama this time – I got one quickly.

Species number six of the trip.

This would be, however, the only eel we got. The next day was some sort of Japanese holiday, and ironically, eel is the required dish on this holiday. Phil’s wife had put quite a bit of pressure on us to bring home a good catch, and we had failed. But after he dropped me off at the house, Phil went back out and dipnetted a regular eel feast, so he was, at least as of that moment, a good husband.

On the 15th, we got enough of a break in the weather to make taking the boat out marginally safe. This was not to imply it was going to be pleasant, at least for me, because it was still windy and the seas hadn’t fully calmed down, but it was worth it to take a shot at some of Tokyo Bay’s weird and wonderfuls. There are basically no water conditions that bother Phil, because, as we have covered, he is a navy officer and is used to doing involved technical tasks, like keeping complicated IT systems running, or playing solitaire, on board a destroyer in the middle of a typhoon.

We hit the water bright and early, and as soon as we anchored, I was confronted with yet another bewildering Japanese terminal rig. We would be using krill for bait, on something resembling a European feeder rig. The leaders that were attached below these small baskets were lengthy – some seven feet – and contained three hooks at the tail end. (So this would not be IGFA legal – max two hooks on bait – but catching a record was not my top priority.) Baiting each of these hooks without lassoing myself was going to be a concern. I knew better to ask for a simpler rig, because, as we have covered, the Japanese are very, very specific about their terminal tackle and any changes typically result in no fish.

Phil was not nearly as intimidated by the setups, and showed me that the boat had a set of small strip magnets on the rail so the hooks could stay put while I filled the basket with krill and then baited the hooks with the same tiny shrimp. The bait then had to be lowered to a precise depth, using the marked braid, because too shallow would get no fish and too deep would get the wrong fish. I got the hang of it after about eight hours, but in the meantime, I did manage to get six new species.

The first new species was an anthias – a type of fish faintly related to groupers that always seems to come in bright colors. I’ve gotten relatives in Hawaii and Gibraltar, and I am more or less randomly calling this a Sakuradai, because that name was on Fishbase someplace near this creature.

That’s Phil’s best attempt not to look bewildered.

New rockfish are always welcome on the species list.

I’m calling this the Togotto-Mebaru.

Mercifully, the scorpionfish below had a clear identifying characteristic – the spot on the cheek.

Hence, the spotcheek scorpionfish.

They call this next one a chicken grunt.

No, it doesn’t taste like chicken. My Mother always tried to get me to eat unacceptable things, like weasel, by telling me they tasted like chicken. My question always was – why not just have chicken? Weasel is expensive.

I usually leave the scads alone, but this Japanese scad was actually identifiable.

A big thanks to Phil for pointing out that this was a new species. I was about to throw it back, thinking it was another horse mackerel.

And finally, a lovely half-lined cardinalfish.

Half the fish has lines, hence the name. If these were out, we knew it was getting late in the day.

We took our time cruising home, trolling for cutlassfish in a couple of spots. I had passed on these last year, when there was a wide-open bite, but in the course of subsequent late-night bathroom reading, I discovered that the Japanese cutlassfish is a different species than the ones I had gotten elsewhere. So, since I now want to catch one, they have become scarce, a la the Klamath Smallscale Sucker. I have to give Phil a big thanks here – he would really rather be out trying to get a marlin, which, from his relatively small boat, would be quite an accomplishment.

The count for the trip had reached 12 – already a worthwhile adventure. It was a shame we hadn’t been able to get out to the deep water, but as some tottering uncle of mine always said, “Them’s the breaks.” The real test would come in the morning, when we would – on purpose – fly to one of the most barren, windswept places on earth, and try to fish there. So tune in next week for our trip to Hokkaido, which is Japanese for “Your charter is cancelled.”





  1. Great trip! Getting ever closer to 2000.

  2. Comeon, Steve, where are your totals? We want to keep score.

  3. […] My initial record, in 2012, broke an existing record held by good friend Phil Richmond. […]

  4. […] is found throughout the Indo-Pacific – I’ve caught them as far afield as Thailand and Japan, but there helpfully seems to be a different type in each location. (Goatfish should take a hint […]

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