Article by Daniel Galhardo
Outside of Japan, Hokkaido has been gaining notoriety in recent years for skiing. In the winter the region gets so many feet of light powdery snow that if you were to stand outside for a week… well, you’d die… but you’d also get completely covered in snow.
I have been interested in going to Hokkaido for several years for other reasons. In fact, I have tried to arrange a visit to the northernmost island of Japan on three different occasions just to see plans fall through. The reason I have wanted to go so badly has been for fishing of course.
Hokkaido is a bit like the wild Montana or Wyoming of Japan. It’s sparsely populated, and its rivers have some very large trout. The vegetation is much more lush, with some plants reaching jurassic proportions, due to the amount of rain that comes down over there. But the amount of space between villages, and the relative small number of anglers did remind me of Wyoming a bit.
Although when I looked up the population numbers I learned that Hokkaido has 67 people per square kilometer. That’s more than 10 times the density of Wyoming. However, most people are located in or near Sapporo, the capital, and we were much further North East of there.
As is usually the case when I visit Japan, I was going to be joining Dr. Ishigaki. We were also going to be joined by Dr. Ishigaki’s friend, Mr. Yoshyia Nakayama.
I always get the impression that the people who I fish with in Japan have the most appropriate last names. Translated into English Nakayama means “into (inside) the mountains”. Other people I have fished with have names that translate as “mountain river” (Yamakawa) or “river rock” (Ishikawa).
This was to be my 9th visit to Japan to learn more about tenkara, and I was curious to see what I could learn now. But, I was mostly looking forward to catching some large fish.
You see, people have the impression that Japan only has little fish or small streams. But, the reality is that the streams and rivers of Japan are just about exactly the same as the streams and rivers we find in the US or in other continents. The waters themselves range from small to large. And, the trout, they are the same. Or, at least they could be, if they were given a chance to get that large.
Most anglers in Japan still have a strong catch and keep mentality. In the main island of Japan, where the population density is more than 10 times that of the US as a whole and fishing is a much more popular activity, streams and rivers have a lot of angling pressure. It also doesn’t help that most places have no regulations in terms of how many or what size fish anglers can keep.
People do catch large fish in the main island as well. That’s easily observed when you see mounts of actual fish that have been caught in the past. But, with catch and keep practices being the norm, fish are just not given a chance to get very big very often.
In Hokkaido, on the other hand, with reduced angling pressure, fish are allowed to grow. And that’s what I wanted to see.
On this trip we would be catching the native white-spotted char, or amemasu. And, we would also be running into rainbow trout, a bit more of a controversial fish as it is not native to the area but the sport it provides ensures the government works to keep them in the water even if they may replace the native trout over time, but I’ll leave that conversation for another piece.
We flew from Tokyo to Kushiro. Flying within Japan is always an incredible surprise now that flying within the US is all but a nightmare. Very surprisingly they didn’t check my passport once…. and even if they did, they wouldn’t even be able to verify it was really me as Dr. Ishigaki, who booked my flight, just used my katakana name (ダニエル).
We didn’t need to take off our shoes and the security people were polite to a fault. We literally had to show up at the security line just minutes before the flight time, and if that wasn’t enough time the security folks would come around and announcing which flights were gonna board soon and they would usher us to the front. It was, truth be told, a delight. On the other hand, Dr. Ishigaki has told me he’s likely not returning to the US to fish anymore, and the main reason is, in addition to the long flight, how stressful it is to fly here.
And then we started fishing. Yeah, we didn’t have to drive that long to hit our first piece of water.
A bit north of Kushiro is a series of lakes and several streams among them. We stayed in that general area for about 5 days. We fished a small stream, a large river, a medium mountain stream and even a lake.
All three of us caught fish left and right, with a good number of them in the 18 – 21” in length. I was able to show that indeed Japan does have large fish. What many assume was a technique developed to catch small trout, more than likely developed to catch these same fish, for back in the day it would have been more common to find fish of this size anywhere in Japan.
In one of the streams large mayflies, perhaps size 8, fluttered around everywhere. The typical response I had come to expect from Dr. Ishigaki had been to shrug the hatch and keep using whatever fly. Yet, this being a place he doesn’t fish often and with us having little time, he deferred to the suggestion from Nakayama-san that we use a mayfly imitation provided by Nakayama-san himself.
I didn’t want to be a contrarian and obliged, switching my fly even though I was sure my standard kebari would have been just fine. I caught a nice amemasu with the yellow mayfly imitation. This fish was perhaps 16 inches in size. And then, when they weren’t looking I snipped my mayfly off and quickly tied on my Oki kebari. Three casts with that fly and I had another fish, about the same size.
That story repeated itself pretty much the same way through the rest of our days in Hokkaido: Nakayama would give me a fly he said was the “right one”. The “right fly” would always be a different fly, covering the gamut of typical western flies, from woolly buggers to some stonefly nymph imitation to little dry flies. I would catch a fish with it, then switch to one of my sakasa kebari and catch a fish with it too. Then I’d make sure to let them know what fly I was using, after all, I was taught that “any fly is ok” by Dr. Ishigaki and I saw no reason to ignore his teachings now.
Later, when I asked Ishigaki why he was now seeing a need to switch flies, when in the past he would just keep his fly on, he responded with “When in Rome…”. But, I suspect that after so much time fishing pretty much the same fly, he’s been looking forward to a bit more diversity in his fishing. And, the reality is that there is nothing wrong with that. It was not a judgement on my part, but simply curiosity, after all I was not taught the tenkara fly is the right fly, but rather I was taught that “any fly is okay”.
If you want to learn a bit more about the fishing in Hokkaido on this trip, as well as fishing in a couple of other parts of Japan I got to visit, I recorded 3 episodes of my podcast during the trip. They can be found here.
And, if you want to see a video of what the fishing in Hokkaido on that first day may have looked like, you can find a video of Dr. Ishigaki fighting one of the island’s large rainbows here:
Daniel Galhardo founded Tenkara USA in 2009 and introduced tenkara outside of Japan. He strives to ensure tenkara touches and inspires people to simplify their fly-fishing experience.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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