Article by Chris Lynch
I had a trip from Korea back to the United States planned for June and was shopping for tickets when I found that I could get a pretty good fare with Delta from Nagoya to Alabama. Seoul to Nagoya is dirt cheap, so I jumped on it. I figured while I was in Japan, I could detour a few days for fishing and adventure that my wife and son normally would not be very enthusiastic about!
Sidebar: I’ve got five years of living in Japan (Okinawa) experience, along with several visits to Honshu and Kyushu. I have driven somewhat extensively around Japan and used the fantastic rail system a little as well.
This trip was planned as a budget whirlwind fishing weekend. Originally, I was going to take a train up into Gifu Prefecture and just wander around from there, seeing what I could get into. But then I remembered I still had my international driver’s permit from AAA, and it turned out to be good for exactly the days I needed in Japan. SCORE!
I scoured my rental options, knowing that I wanted a kei (micro) van, since I could “camp” in the back, as opposed to relying on hotels or bringing a tent. I found that ORIX Rent-A-Car near Nagoya Station had vans, so I booked it for 3 nights, (June 1-4). With all the coverage possible (as I would be driving around solo in the mountains), it came to approximately 23,000JPY (Japanese Yen).
Van secured; I ran over to Mont-Bell for a backpack I’d had my eye on… an ultralight 30L roll-top that looked great for weekend fishing/backpacking trips.
After that, I jumped on the expressway and went north. Two hours and ~3400JPY later (toll fees), I was in Itoshiro. I did all my location scouting for this trip just like any other, pouring hours into Google Maps, Google-translated searching, and talking to people who’ve been to the area – not the least of which was Paul Gaskell! I felt like I had a pretty good set of leads concentrated around the border of Hakusan National Park, all of which were relatively easy to get to from the road. I didn’t want to be hiking into backcountry streams by myself, not worth the risk.
Making my way up the narrow mountain road, streamside, I kept seeing amazing sections of water, but also other anglers’ cars! It was already past 1pm, I was burning daylight. Getting impatient, and knowing I still had a good distance to go for the initial location I’d marked on the map, I pulled over at the first fishy-looking spot I came to that wasn’t previously occupied. A nice big pool below a fast riffle, followed by a small set of falls. I tied on a small reddish kebari sent to me by Paul and made a few casts.
Upon first contact with the water, I saw a reaction. Small trout were checking it out for sure. This was exciting! I’m five hours into Japan, the first minutes on the water, and already getting action! I think it was the fifth cast, I got a solid bite! Beautiful little native iwana, in just an incredible location. I couldn’t be happier. Well, maybe… ha-ha.
I gave that pool a little more work, but nothing panned out, so it was time to move upstream. I approached a small calm spot between boulders that looked perfect for a dry fly (I know, I know), so I swapped out and made the cast. Boom! Instant reaction, first cast. Second iwana of the day.
I caught two or three more that afternoon before it got dark. Just before dusk I saw the most unbelievable hatch of my life, a mix of large mayflies (two or three different species I think), some stoneflies, and caddis. The stream was literally exploding with life.
That evening I drove down to Shiratori, a larger town than Itoshiro, but still very small. They have actual grocery and convenience stores, so this would be my home-base for both nights of van camping. After buying some supplies at Lawson (the grocery store), I cooked dinner with my backpacking stove, had some beers, and passed out in the back.
Early to rise in the morning, I gathered myself and drove back over the mountain to Itoshiro. I would go higher up today. Initially I drove way up high, and honestly this water felt more pressured. I saw the occasional trout but couldn’t fool any. I didn’t see any other anglers, but I saw footprints, some still wet on rocks, so somebody had been there recently. Also, this stream was very rugged. I had a climbing helmet on for precaution, along with felt soles, but didn’t want to risk a nasty fall and subsequent injury. So, I took my leave and went back down the mountain. I decided I’d try fishing in Itoshiro itself, as I was told I could possibly get an amago or two there.
While I was exploring the small town, I saw a small group of anglers, and one of them looked familiar… It turned out to be Masami Sakakibara, aka Tenkara no Oni! While I was watching their group for a minute, Oni noticed me and came over to introduce himself. We talked in broken English/Japanese for a minute, and he called his wife so that she could invite me over for lunch. This was too cool; I couldn’t believe it!
I thought I knew where their pension (guesthouse) was, as the town is very small, but I did not! It took me a bit to find it, as it’s tucked away. Everybody was having Sri Lanka style curry, and it was delicious! After eating, Masami showed us some old-style Wazao rods, where the tip section was stored inside the bottom – so it’s a 3-piece rod, which packs down to what looks like 2-piece. They were works of art and felt just as nice.
Masami’s wife, Coco, asked me if I would like to go fish with the group as they were about to head back out, and I very appreciably replied yes! We all geared back up in our wading gear, I hopped in my van, and Masami told me to wait, so he could ride with me. He directed me to the section of river we’d be on for the afternoon session, and on the way, he expressed annoyance at all the other anglers on the river that day, ha-ha!
For this afternoon lesson, we were on a large river, and Oni was fishing his 3.4m Itoshiro Special, as opposed to the the Oni 395 he had earlier on smaller water! He rigged it with approximately 3-4m of #4 level line, and another 1-2m of #3 level line. Here, he was demonstrating downstream casting, and pulsing the kebari back towards, to entice a fish. On the second cast, he had a fish nearly leave the water missing his fly; but didn’t get one to take after that. Oni’s wading was impressive, has we ventured into some deep and fast water and he made it look easy. His casting broke down the river and he covered so much water with efficiency and precision, it was amazing to see.
After this demo, he told us to spread out along the bank and practice. He came over and laid into me on my casting, taking my hand and slowing my casting stroke down. “Ichi-Ni”, showing me how it should be slower, more deliberate, and gentle as well. I’m still working on it, as this is a new rod to me, and honestly, I’d kind of gotten away from tenkara for a bit. He spent time with each angler, giving pointers where needed. Nobody caught anything, and he said something about the fish being very careful today. I had a strike and a miss with a large kebari just before we were finishing up.
After we got back to the pension, I exchanged kebari with one of the other anglers, who I’d met earlier up on the mountain when he was having car problems. They were impressed this goofy American had tied his own kebari. I offered one to Masami, and he very quickly mentioned the Gamakatsu Retainer Bend hook I’d used, and told the other anglers something about it I didn’t understand… A few minutes later, he came out with some of his own kebari for me. A welcome swap, I’ll take that any day!
Masami suggested a section not far from town, just above the fishing-restricted zone near one of the entrances to Hakusan. I drove up there and was focused on using my Bait Finesse System (BFS) lure setup just as I had first thing that morning. I’d caught trout on the fly in Japan, now to accomplish the same with lures.
I had several nice fish chase my lures, while I dialed in my casting, twitching, and retrieve. I changed lures several times as well until I found one that seemed to get lots of attention. This is what got my largest fish of the trip, a nice iwana.
On day three I drove down to Gujo-Hachiman, the water city. I was planning on just relaxing and not really fishing here, just food and photos! Paul convinced me to squeeze in a quick afternoon excursion to a stream, so I suppose I had to! I drove seven minutes up the road from the city center to a small feeder stream that dumped into the main river. Less than 5 minutes after leaving the van, I had my first amago! I was getting lots of reactions with my own kebari pattern, tied on the Gamakatsu hook. These hooks are heavy, so they sink a little faster, and the retainer bend works magic! I Caught two fishing downstream, then one as I moved up. Another great day of fishing in Japan!
After this small victory, I went back to town to freshen up at my hotel and figure out dinner. Dinner turned out to be just around the corner, at one of the few places still open near 9pm, since I crashed out for like two hours in an unplanned nap. I had Ayu Shioyaki, or salt-grilled ayu. You eat the whole fish, bones and innards, as it’s cooked completely intact. The flavor was so rich and so good! They were served with various local sides of vegetables, white rice, and a delicious red miso soup.
This night would mark the end of the brief trip, as I flew out of Nagoya the following day. As I left, I was filled both with fond memories of my fishing adventure in Japan, and with the anticipation of returning to Alabama to spend three weeks with my family.
Chris Lynch: “Father and husband, active duty US Air Force. The AF has sent me all over the world, from Okinawa and South Korea, to West TX and Alabama. I’ve fallen in love with fishing and hope that my son will pick that up one day, LOL.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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