Japan - Part 2 (Yamame & Iwana)
After catching Amago in the Izu Peninsular and leaving Tokyo behind, I'd spent several days sightseeing in the cities of Kyoto and Hiroshima. It was now time to focus on my final goal of catching a Yamame and Iwana. I'd set aside a day to achieve it and looked forward to leaving the cities behind and going into the Japanese countryside to find these fish.
Hiring a Fishing Guide
Often the best way of achieving a quick introduction and success at a new fishing destination - especially with limited time - is to hire the service of a guide. As I've grown more proficient at river fly fishing I'm now more inclined to skip the guide and fend for myself. After all, trout eat the same food and share the same habits pretty much the world over. But Japan and my next stop South Korea are a little different by virtue of the fact that without being able to speak the local language, finding information, directions, purchasing a license and reading road signs can be very difficult. It's much easier to throw your lot in with a local guide and have all the minutiae taken out of your hands. With this in mind I searched the internet several weeks in advance of my arrival in Japan for a suitable guide. The search didn't take very long at all as there are not many who advertise in English. I found one, and booked him, and our initial exchanges were very pleasant. We agreed to meet in central Honshu on 25 April. I was able to relax in the knowledge that I'd have a guide to put me on to the Yamame and Iwana I wanted to catch. I based my plans around the booking - I'd see Nagano, the nearest city, and then make my way south again to catch a ferry to Korea.
The guide in question turned out to be rather unprofessional and he let me down at the eleventh hour by cancelling my booking. The cancellation two days before our diary date was most inconvenient to me, meaning I had to look around for another guide at short notice and change my travel schedule. The silver lining however is that the replacement guide I found was excellent and I'm more than happy to endorse him - Motohiro Ebisudani (Ebi). In short, Ebi had a good command of English, had fished for trout and other species on the fly all over the world and had a very friendly, easy-going style. Ebi's fee was communicated very clearly and upfront as an all inclusive single charge (the other guide's fee structure was a little baffling and open to interpretation).
At such notice I was pleased that Ebi was able to accommodate me, but only on 29 April. Ebi's guiding business is based out of Tokyo so I had to make my way back there from Kyoto which was as simple as jumping on a one-change Shinkansen (bullet train) on Japan's highly efficient rail network. It meant that my plans to see Nagano and later catch the ferry to South Korea were abandoned. I would now leave Japan by flying from the airport at Tokyo.
I explained to Ebi that I wanted to target Yamame and Iwana and he said no problem. He seemed more concerned that his suggested collection time of 05h30 outside my hotel would be too early for me. Being a national holiday in Japan he wanted to avoid the traffic out of the city and I replied that it's never too early to start the day for a fishing trip!
On the road to the Mountains
We hit the road for 90 minutes in a west direction from Tokyo and reached the base of the imposing Tanzawa mountains. There we started to ascend what is probably the most impressive and vertigo-inducing mountain pass I have driven in my life. In many places the road is a single lane and cyclists tearing down the hill in the opposite direction kept us on our toes. Out on the river a little later I actually felt a slight bit of motion sickness from the winding road - it's highly unusual for me to get motion sickness from a car so it gives you an idea of the state of the road! Given that Yamame literally translates to "lady of the mountains" I couldn't think of a more apt place to catch them.
'Tokyo Style Fishing'
Driving down the other side of the pass to the valley basin I caught glimpses of a little powder blue tributary through the trees which we followed until we met the main river. Ebi commented "lots of fishermen" as we pulled up and I noticed a handful of fly fishermen rigging up in the car park. What followed was incredible, yet highly enjoyable because it was so different to anything I have experienced before. There were probably about 30 fly fishermen sharing something in the region of one to two kilometres of river. Ebi shrugged his shoulders and simply muttered "Tokyo style fishing". Anywhere else in the world the chances of fisticuffs erupting with this many roving fishermen sharing such a limited space would be high, but typical Japanese politeness prevailed. At one stage I glanced downstream and saw four fly fishermen fishing the four pools immediately downstream of me like the river was a conveyor belt at one of the country's leading car manufacturers. Usually this type of fishing would be a big turn off for me but I enjoyed the complete uniqueness of the situation (for me at least), the single-minded purpose on display and the sense of camaraderie between anglers. It also helped that the fish didn't seem to mind and I immediately started to catch them.
To avoid the crowds and "get my eye in" Ebi took me to the confluence of the tributary we had seen from the road, seemingly ignored by the other anglers. I had instant success in the tributary, convincing what appeared to be a Yamame to take a para RAB, but lost the fish in the fight. In the very next pool my fly stuck and I brought an Iwana to the net for my first fish of the day. An Iwana is a species of char and shares strong similarities with Arctic char and brook trout. Shortly afterwards I brought a 9 inch Yamame to hand, a near trophy, and convinced myself from its near perfect fins and tail that it was a wild fish. The river here is stocked - it has to be to feed the needs of the high number of fishermen - and I did catch many other Yamame and rainbow trout which were clearly the product of hatchery ponds.
|Fishing up the little tributary|
|My first Yamame (notice the absence of red spots which distinguishes it from Amago)|
|Another gorgeous Yamame|
|Voicing my disapproval at the ugliest little stocked rainbow I have ever caught. It had stumpy fins and a rubbed nose. If you have native species like Yamame and Iwana why stock rainbow trout?|
|Getting bigger but still ugly|
|OK, now this is a nice rainbow trout!|
It was a fantastic morning of fishing, followed by a curry lunch and salad at the lodge and a further hour's fishing in the afternoon before we set off to beat the rush hour traffic in Tokyo. I lost count of the fish I caught but it was somewhere between 25 and 30 (I'd guess 60% were Yamame, 30% were Iwana and 10% were rainbows). The rainbows were generally ugly little creatures but my best fish of the day was a fat little rainbow in perfect condition with no signs of a hatchery upbringing on its mouth, fins and tail.
|The fishing lodge, called 'Tanzawa Home'|
|Tokyo in the far distance|
|There are bears here. One fisherman even walked with a bell rigged to his leg to make his presence known to any otherwise unsuspecting bear|
I really enjoyed this day of fishing! Thanks Ebi. And with that, I achieved my goal of catching an Amago, Yamame and Iwana with a fly in Japan. I should also thank James Prosek, whose book Trout of the World really planted the seed in my mind.
[Credit to Ebi for the majority of photos in this post]