Posted by: 1000fish | January 28, 2018

The Wakkanai Road Trip Chronicles – Part Two


What kind of idiots drive 17 hours to catch a small dolly varden trout?

That would be us. And no, that isn’t the trout. The trout wasn’t that big.

To pick up our cliffhanger, Phil’s plan was elegant in its simplicity, yet diabolical in its execution. He asked me if I needed a Dolly Varden trout. I told him I did. He continued “Well, they aren’t big, but I know a place where we can catch one for sure.” I was waiting for the bad news, and there was bad news. The fish were on the opposite side of Hokkaido – some eight and a half hours driving. Each way. But we had our plan.

I didn’t say it was a good plan.

I had no idea Hokkaido was this wide, but a quick check on Wikipedia revealed that Hokkaido is roughly the size of Ireland. Japan overall is a lot bigger than I thought – about 1800 miles from NE to SW.

You really get to know someone when you drive 17 hours with them in one day, and the only radio stations are Japanese agricultural news. Phil and I explored the full depth of our relationships, emotional needs, and views on the major questions of life. That left us 16 hours and 55 minutes, and all I can say is thank God for the internet. (Which had also played a big part in the Great Road Trip of 2014.) Phil and I are almost a generation apart in age, but he still appreciates the finer things in life, like Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious.” (Which is a bit more politically incorrect than I remember, but the first time I saw it was on a rented Betamax player.) I will never look at Mr. T the same way ever again.

I pity the fool.

About halfway along the northern edge of Hokkaido, we passed a tackle store. More to stretch our legs than to look for gear, we stopped. The proprietor, who looked to be a solid 98 years old, spoke slowly but very, very loudly, and although the conversation took forever, Phil was very interested in something. During a lull in the discussion, he looked my way and whispered “Charter boat. Better weather.” It turns out that a local charter boat did its bookings through this tackle store, and that the weather tomorrow would be decent enough to go. By the time we were done, we had agreed to show up at 6am the next day to do some deep jigging. We would get a shot at our bottom fish. I was thrilled, until I did the math.

It was currently 11am. With good traffic, we would reach the trout stream in another four hours – 3pm. If we spent 30 minutes there, and then eight and a half hours to get home, that would put us in Wakkanai at midnight. We had to be back at the charter boat at 6am, which would require a four and a half hour drive. This meant a whopping 90 minutes of sleep, if we ignored food and hygiene, but the idea of getting out into the deeper water had us both positively giddy. The four hours flew by like 240 minutes.

It was a small stream, exactly what Phil had described. Just as he promised, we both got Dolly Vardens immediately. We fished for exactly 14 minutes, then it was back into the car, much like the fabled Cottonwood Death March,  but with fewer blisters.

It’s a Dolly Varden. Jaime Hamamoto hasn’t caught one. Works for me.

Phil works the creek. No idea how that jacket didn’t spook the fish.

Phil’s beastly Dolly. (Which would be a GREAT name for a band.)

On the way home, I explored every possible cantaloupe ice cream permutation – cups, cones, soft serve. It never got old.


We found even more inappropriate, juvenile comedy on my phone. I could just hear Marta saying “You two are clearly related, and you are both idiots.” But Andrew Dice Clay is darn funny, especially when you’ve had no sleep. The sun came out, and we did pass some lovely scenery.

The Hokkaido coastline, looking toward Russia.

Some waterfall.

We also passed another bathroom with deeply confusing signs and devices.

I don’t know what this means, but it scares me.

This is for storing your baby while you use the toilet, which also terrifies me.

We got back to Wakkanai shortly before midnight. Dinner, and some basic personal hygiene, was accomplished at McDonald’s, and then it was nap time. I was just getting into a dream about dogtooth tuna when the alarm went off.

Four hours later, we arrived at a big, yellow charterboat.

Our home for the next eight hours.

The water was bumpy, to put it lightly, but after three cancelled trips, it looked pretty good. We motored out half an hour, and I dropped a two-hook rig to the bottom. I had a light bite, set the hook, and my line broke. I re-rigged and re-dropped. My line broke again. Phil finally discovered that one of my guides had cracked and was fraying the line. We cut the guide off and kept fishing. I am sure I was the picture of patience during this entire process.

My first two fish up looked like Atka Mackerel – a species I had lusted after in many a sweaty late-night fish book session. But these didn’t look quite right, and as soon as I could research it, I discovered that these were Okhotsk Atka Mackerel – a different and even cooler species.

The Okhotsk atka mackerel. I am told the regular ones are also here.

I followed this up with a Shimasoi Rockfish.

Another Sebastes for my collection!

As we drifted off the hard reef, we started catching loads of Pacific Cod. (I had gotten these previously, but they are fun to catch and excellent to eat.) Besides, we were finally using the heavier rods and catching dignified bottom fish.

Phil with a typical cod.

They were everywhere. Spellman could have caught one. Maybe even Guido.

The skipper took us to quite a few spots. We fished mostly in the 200 foot range – the deeper water, further offshore, was simply too rough. But we were on a boat and catching stuff, and although it was not the calmest day I’ve fished, we were here. My next species was large sculpin, which is part of a group that are called “Irish Lords” for some unknown reason. This one is a Gilbert’s Irish Lord.

Gilbert, ironically, was not Irish. And no, there is not a Sullivan’s Irish Lord, because I know you were going to ask.

In between a bunch more cod, I got a gray rockfish.

Another Sebastes. As fast as I can catch these, some scientist seems to add more species.

Just before we needed to head back to port, I got my biggest bite of the trip. I had trouble getting the fish off the bottom, and it fought hard well up into the water column. I guessed shark; Phil guessed greenling. I explained to Phil that greenling don’t get that big. Phil smiled and helped me land the biggest greenling I have ever seen, pushing six pounds.

So Phil was right.

The so-called Fat Greenling actually gets larger than that, and I was appropriately humbled. It was my fifth species of the day, and as much as I wanted to launch my breakfast all over the deck, I was thrilled with the excursion. The five new ones – all presentably large fish –  brought me up to 28 species for the trip.

It was four hours back to Wakkanai, but we had some actual fish to talk about. We were already planning a return trip next year. There are wolf fish and a whole new batch of other species to get, and I had forgotten completely about the lousy water conditions. On the way home, we stopped at a Wal-Mart-looking place and bought a coffin-sized cooler, which we then used to store all the fish, along with six bags of ice. It weighed over a hundred pounds, and I had no idea that Phil believed he was going to check it as luggage the next day.

The floor of the car had become a ghastly forensic record of my diet for the past 24 hours, and while I was not proud, I was certainly constipated.

Yes, I ate all that.

Normal people would have slept in the next morning – we had certainly paid our dues. But Phil wanted another Taimen, and I wanted to see what small creatures were living in the rivers. We were on the road early, fortified by Red Bull and cantaloupe ice cream. Now that I think about it, cantaloupe ice cream and Red Bull would make an excellent milkshake, and I am going to act on this impulse as soon as practical. Phil found a perfect-looking river, and he wasted little time in hooking a magnificent fish.

I wish I had video of the high-risk gymnastics Phil did to get across the concrete structures and land the fish.

It was a fitting exclamation point on a trip that had become more than memorable – the boat trip had given us the solid bottom fishing we had been craving. What bad weather? What junk food diet? What lack of sleep? We had done it, and now it was time for the airport.

Our next challenge was to somehow get a 100 pound cooler on to the flight home. ANA is a very rule-driven airline, almost Germanically so, and they had simply never considered that a cooler this large could exist. Their price list ended somewhere around 80 pounds, so it took some convincing to allow us to check this beast. Phil must be very charming in Japanese.

When we finally got to his house, it felt like we had been gone a month. Hitomi, a certified sushi chef, set to preparing a feast out of our catch, and we had a marvelous meal to celebrate our triumphs.

Betsey was a bit surprised to see me.

My flight home was late the next afternoon, so Phil and I gave it one more quick shot in Tokyo Bay, close to the base where his boat is moored. It was still a bit bumpy out, so there was no shot at deeper water, but we managed to scrape up two new species – a sabihaze goby and a pearl-spot chromis.

The sabihaze goby. They’re stronger than they look.

The chromis. Basically a damselfish.

I also caught a positively beastly Japanese whiting – not new, but a personal best, which pleased me. (See “Land of the Rising Species Total” for earlier Japanese whitings.)

The godzilla of whitings.

This took the count for the trip to an even 30 –  we had gotten 82 together in less than a year. (My lifetime count had climbed to 1734 – a good jump on 1800.) The less-than-perfect conditions are part of the game, and I can’t thank Phil enough for finding the spots and sticking it out with me, especially on the Dolly Varden adventure that led to all the bottom fish. Still, it only took a few moments in my Japanese fish guide to remind me that there were countless species left for me to catch in the Land of the Rising Sun. I knew I would be back, and that Betsey would be waiting.




Speaking of Phil and marlin, just about a month after I left, he actually got a blue from his boat. It’s great to see him catch a lifetime dream like this – perhaps the Fish Gods are rewarding him for all the time he has spent chasing obscure species with me.

He had been after one of these for years.

Anything taller than Phil is TALL.


  1. You need to get this thing sponsored.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. I´m having so much fun reading your blog! You should now that I have been reading it for some time before nr 1000. /Hans, Species hunter from Sweden.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words. I’ve done very little fishing in Sweden, and I know there are many opportunities for me there. (Especially a plaice!)



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