Posted by: 1000fish | January 15, 2018

The Wakkanai Road Trip Chronicles – Part One

Dateline: July 18, 2017 – Wakkanai, Japan

The bad weather didn’t follow us. We followed it. It was lousy enough in Tokyo, and Phil and I voluntarily got on a plane to go fishing in one of the most windswept, barren places on earth – Northern Hokkaido. This is Japan’s version of Siberia. Even the Russians passed on it after the war.

нет, слишком ветреный.

Still, there were loads of unusual species to be caught here, and weather or not, we were going to give it a shot. I had wanted to fish the Japanese northwest Pacific for years, ever since I noticed that they had Atka mackerel, which I have admired in books for years. There are also unusual rockfish, assorted flounders, and perhaps the most interesting of all, the Japanese Taimen, a river-dwelling trout cousin that grows to over 30 pounds and is closely related to the European Huchen. (Painful Huchen details HERE.)

Wakkenai is a 90 minute flight from Tokyo.

Sometimes, luggage tags are unintentionally funny.

As soon as we landed and got the rental car, we headed to the local tackle store. On previous trips in the area, Phil had gotten to know the proprietor quite well. The language barrier was not a problem for me, because the tackle shop owner communicated entirely in pessimistic noises. Phil asked him how the taimen fishing was. He bunched up his eyebrows, shook his head sadly, and said “Mmmmmm.” Phil then asked about the sea fishing. More scrunched eyebrows, and an even longer “Mmmmmmmmmmmm.” Apparently, there was some question whether our charter boats would even be able to go out – the seas were rougher than normal, and they’re normally pretty rough.

That first afternoon, we tried a taimen river. The scenery was stark but beautiful, and even in July, the temperature hovered in the low 50s with a wind chill reminiscent of western Ireland, where summer lasts 36 hours. I quickly understood why Phil demanded I bring waders and why he was concerned about my willingness to fight through steep jungle terrain. The river was fast and cold, with steep, overgrown banks.

And how exactly are we going to get down there?

I could have looked for a month and never found an access, because there really wasn’t one. Phil just crashed through the undergrowth, like a rhino but less graceful, until he either spotted or fell into the water. He is as dedicated an angler as I have ever met, and this is me we’re talking about.

Once we had actually gotten to a precarious ledge where I could aim a careful cast at a small section of water, I promptly snagged my lure in the trees. Phil helpfully advised me that Taimen do not live in trees. We left the river empty-handed, and I was not filled with optimism.

Our second stop was one that would become very familiar over the next few days – the Seicomart store, which I pronounced “Psychomart” – Hokkaido’s version of 7-11. There were some incredibly suspicious things on the shelves here.

I have no idea what was in this, but Phil ate one and survived.

Psycho had three items that kept me going: Red Bull, fried bird pieces, and, the best of all by far – cantaloupe ice cream. Apparently, Hokkaido is the main cantaloupe growing region in Japan, and cantaloupe ice cream is one of the greatest things ever. It is hereby declared to be its own food group, ranking somewhere between Haagen-Dazs and Taco Bell.

Oh, but it’s good stuff.

Speaking of unexpected foods, we ate dinner back in Wakkanai, at, of all the random restaurants to find, a Big Boy. The menu wasn’t quite what I was used to from Michigan, but they had very nice steaks. Phil would have been happy with local cuisine, but I was quite pleased to have western options.

A small taste of home.

Speaking of Japanese culture, one thing I will never get used to is the complexity of the toilets. In my opinion, a toilet should be a fairly simple device that requires no or minimal training. The Japanese apparently feel otherwise, and they have managed to add a bidet, deodorizer, and an assortment of other appliances I couldn’t figure out. I never even learned how to flush, so I always tried to go after Phil did.

These are the instructions for a basic toilet at a gas station.

That evening, which was windier, colder, and darker than the daytime, I tried my luck at one of the local harbors. The place was stuffed with redfin, but redfin species are almost impossible to tell apart from each other. I was, however, lucky enough to get a rather unusual new critter – the six-lined prickleback.

Pricklebacks are cool.

We finished up around 11. After I ate another load of cantaloupe ice cream, we crashed out for a few hours. Then it was time for Red Bull and fishing, and cantaloupe ice cream, which is close enough to fruit to count as a breakfast food. Our charter, as predicted by Mr. Grumpy-Pants, was cancelled. The alternate target was a harbor about an hour to the north, where the grumpy tackle store guy indicated that we might find something called a saffron cod. The drive along the coast was beautiful, but it was also obvious that sea conditions were brutal.

The wrong time and place to go out in a small boat.

We did get to visit the northernmost point in Japan. I can add this to my bucket list of directional extremes, like the southernmost point in the US (Southpoint, Kona, Hawaii,) the southermost point in South America (Godforsaken Island, Argentina,) and the point of no return with my ex-wife (Giving her a vacuum for Valentine’s Day.)

The northernmost point in Japan.

We drove into a small commercial harbor, and to my delight, there were quite a few locals already fishing there, meaning that either fish were present or that charters had been cancelled and the fishermen were desperate not to go home. Luckily for me, action was quick and we added two species in half an hour.

Doubles on the Saffron cod.

The Korean Rockfish. They are also apparently in Korea.

It was disappointing that we hadn’t been able to get out on a boat, but we were making the best of it. Phil took us to a local landmark for lunch – a restaurant that serves only scallops – and it was excellent. This was the closest I would get to authentic Japanese food on the trip, and even then I used a fork.

Phil with lots and lots of scallops.

We then headed back to the rivers. On the drive, I was surprised to see a fox standing by the side of the road. I said “I am surprised to see a fox standing by the side of the road.” Phil responded “I am surprised we hadn’t seen one yet. They’re all over the place.” From that point on, we saw dozens of them.

They were EVERYWHERE, including Phil’s shower, or so I would guess from the noises.

I was not rampantly optimistic, but every minute on the water is a new chance, so we donned our waders and headed down the steep, near-impenetrable bank. Phil was only a few yards ahead of me, but I couldn’t see him through the underbrush. I had just stopped to get my bearings when I heard a sound like a flat of concrete bring dropped from a great height into mud. An instant later, Phil shouted an expletive, but during that split second before I knew whether he was alive, I wondered how I was going to find the car keys. I certainly also slipped a few times, although not as spectacularly as Phil, but we finally reached the water.

We waded upriver, but it took at least half an hour to get through a hundred yards of deep, unfishable turns. At six feet, I am the shorter of the two of us, and I was millimeters from flooding my waders most of the time. But finally, we got to start casting, and this river had a lot more openings than yesterday’s venue.

The river, once we had reached the civilized part.

Phil has caught these fish previously, and he tried, gently but persistently, to correct two major mistakes I was making – working the lure incorrectly and casting to the wrong places. Mentally, I was fishing for steelhead, working lures at a medium-slow, very steady pace across open cuts and tailout areas. This garnered no strikes, because taimen are not steelhead. They act more like smallmouth bass, and eventually, it got through my skull that I needed to cast near structure and rip the baits aggressively.

After about half an hour of doing things correctly, I got a vicious strike and had a fish peel line off downstream, run me under a tree and break off before I could even start swearing. I was speechless with disappointment, but I retied as calmly as I could and stuck at it. About fifteen minutes later, a taimen hit me just inches from a fallen tree. I pulled hard on him and got him out in the main current, and Phil swept in with the net. I had gotten my fish. We whooped and high-fived, then took dozens and dozens of photos. This was not a particularly huge example, but it was a taimen and I was beside myself with joy.

The taimen, the rod, and the lure. I brought dozens of lures, but Phil would only let me use one bought locally.

Phil was due. He got a hit minutes later, and this was a much bigger fish. The fights were very strong but over fairly quickly – once the fish were out of the cover, they tired in the heavy current and we could net them.

And remember, Phil is a very large person, so the fish is even bigger than it looks.

This went on for another hour or two, and we each got two more fish – in other words, it was spectacular.

Another taimen, another locally-bought lure.

Late in the day, I got a smaller strike and landed a bonus species – a northern whitespotted char. (Close relative of the species I got in The Shameful Pay Pond Episode last year.)

It was nice to get one these in an unsupervised environment.

We rose early the next day, to the expected news that our charter was not going out. (“Mmmmmmmmmm.”) Phil had figured out a Plan B – a rocky shoreline that was relatively sheltered from the wind and might hold a few species. We spent most of the morning there, and I managed to add three smallish fish to the list – the so-called purple puffer and two different flounders. The scenery was amazing, but it would have been even more amazing from a boat. I was really dying to drop a jig into a few hundred feet of water.

It may look nice out there, but even 500 yards offshore, the wind was blowing hard.

The purple puffer. There were thousands of these.

The Kurogarei flounder.

The marbled flounder.

While I caught these beasts, Phil spent the morning hunting the beach for old glass floats. He has quite a collection of these.

These floats get loose from old fishing nets and wash ashore. 

Phil has found hundreds of them over the years.

After a Big Boy steak dinner, we headed to the docks near our hotel in Wakkanai. Using some Japanese sabiki/krill combos, we began fishing for rainbow smelt. (Also at the recommendation of the grumpy tackle store guy.) The fish bit quickly, and there was even a bonus rockfish species.

The rainbow smelt. Considered good eating locally, but they smell like cucumbers and I don’t like cucumbers.

The Japanese speckled rockfish. By this stage, I would take species when I could get them.

Out of the corner of my eye, I kept seeing a dog walk along the pier, but when I looked more closely, it was a fox. There were everywhere.

That’s a fox checking out Phil. They weren’t all that worried about us, except for the smell.

That evening, we went and spoke to the tackle store owner about the possibility of going on the boat tomorrow. He hung his head sadly and gave us his longest and most depressing pessimistic noise yet: “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.” We were officially out of ideas. The boats were not going out. We had tried the harbors. We had tried the shorelines. The rivers didn’t look great. But then, Phil dug deep in his tarnished soul and came up with one outlandish concept, which sounded close to idiotic at the time but ended up rescuing the last two days of the trip.

We haven’t had a cliffhanger on 1000Fish since July of 2010, and we haven’t had a good cliffhanger since, well, ever. So humor me that this one will have some bizarre twists and turns, and tune in next week for the sordid details.




  1. Keep um coming, Steve. I look forward to your stories. You sure are entertaining.

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