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Memories of Adult Cherry Salmon in Japan

The high price of dams and urbanization.

Memories of Adult Cherry Salmon in Japan

Amago (Oncorhynchus masou ishikawae) have small red or orange spots on their bodies. Like rainbows/steelhead they have a seagoing variety of the same species called satsuki masu or “rain salmon.” Yamame (Oncorhynchus masou masou) don’t have the red spots, and their migratory form is called “cherry salmon.” (Daniel Galhardo photo)

Cherry salmon has for the most part been the colloquial term used by English speakers as a general reference to any salmonid in Japan. But in his book Trout of the World James Prosek explains, "Among Japan's many varieties of native salmonids is a beautiful pink and violet salmon that exists in both anadromous and landlocked forms. The sea-run form ascends rivers of Japan in May when cherry trees are in bloom and therefore is known as the sakura masu, or cherry salmon."

Japan actually has two important salmonids: amago (Oncorhynchus masou ishikawae) and yamame (Oncorhynchus masou masou). Visually, the main distinction is the presence of small red or bright orange dots on the body of the amago, with the absence of these spots on the yamame.

Like rainbows and cutthroat, both amago and yamame have landlocked and anadromous forms, with the landlocked varieties far more common. Amago are native to the western drainages of Japan, and thus migrate to and from the Sea of Japan. Yamame spawn in the eastern drainages and migrate to and from the Pacific Ocean.

Yamame literally means "lady of the mountains," and its sea-run form is known as sakura masu, the fish to which Prosek refers in his book. Like rainbows and steelhead, what is essentially the same fish has two different names based on the life cycle and history.

The name amago comes from the Japanese words ame (rain) and go (child), or "rain child." In its sea-run form, the amago is called satsuki masu, or "May salmon." While the term "rain child" may come from the fact that amago are easier to catch on rainy days, the fact that their migration coincides with the beginning of the rainy season in Japan makes me propose we call the migrating amago the "rain salmon."

Fly fishers who visit Japan quickly assume that all Japanese trout are small. After all, not unlike in the mountain streams throughout the USA, a majority of these trout come in the 8- to 10-inch range. However, those seafaring migratory fish that reach full maturity come in the same sizes and share similar characteristics to our coho salmon here in North America. Migrating cherry and rain salmon reach full maturity between three and four years of age, and they typically spend one full winter in the ocean. At full size they are between 20 and 30 inches and may weigh 4 to 10 pounds.

Like Pacific salmon and steelhead, both species start their journey toward their natal waters sometime in the spring when the rains come. They spend the summer on rivers as they navigate their way to their headwater home streams. The ones that are able to complete their migration will meet the same fate as other Pacific salmon species after spawning: death.

Unfortunately, the construction of dams throughout Japan, and the lack of catch-and-release practices have meant the sight of an adult cherry salmon is rare. Sadly, the migrations that made cherry salmon and May salmon may be things lost to time, leaving behind amago and yamame as romantic vestiges of a once-great migration.

Still, my imagination sees these fish moving upstream with purpose, overcoming myriad obstacles such as waterfalls and streams raging from heavy rain, and then occasionally resting under the branches of flowering cherry trees.

I would like to have witnessed that migration from sea to mountains. When I first started researching fly fishing in Japan, the cherry salmon mentioned by Prosek in both his Trout of the World and Fly-Fishing the 41st, was the fish that captivated my heart and motivated my mind.

I took up tenkara, the Japanese method of fly fishing that uses only a rod, line, and fly (no reel) on my first visit to Japan in 2008. Since that first visit, I have returned yearly to fish and to learn for as long as two months at a time.

The objective of my own yearly migrations to Japan has been to learn more about the tenkara method, its techniques, and its culture, and to share that story here in the United States. Along the way, I was consumed with the idea of catching all the different Japanese trout using the tenkara rods I was developing and the kebari (tenkara flies) I was tying.


In 2011, I spent two entire months in a small mountain village called Maze. During my first week there, I noticed a thick book called Dogs and Demons on the shelf of the small room where I was staying. I picked it up because I figured two months in a sleepy village would require good reading material to pass the nights.

Dogs and Demons tells the true story of Japan's environmental history, explaining how it became a country with "ravaged mountains and rivers, endemic pollution, tenement cities, and skyrocketing debts." It painted a disturbing picture I could have easily dismissed, if it were not for witnessing it all in person.

According to author Alex Kerr, 70 percent of the forests in Japan are new plantations of cedar. It made me realize that what looked to me like lush, healthy forests was but strips of uniform planted trees without a cherry tree in sight.

Kerr also focused on the rivers in Japan: "Civil engineers channel rivers into U-shaped concrete casings that do away not only with the rivers' banks, but with their beds. The River Bureau has dammed or diverted all but three of Japan's 113 major rivers."

The day I read that passage, I noticed that just upstream from one of my favorite stretches of the Mazegawa, a river that eventually makes its way to the Sea of Japan, there was a U-shaped concrete wall that runs through my fishing haunts, and then another, and an even longer one in one of its tributaries a mile or so upstream. The more I looked, the more I saw.

The image I had of witnessing a fish coming from the ocean and resting under a cherry tree were shattered. Concrete salmon, anyone?

The impacts of dams on migratory fish species is something we have been learning here in the U.S. since our own West Coast salmon and steelhead began a downward spiral following an era of dam building. But hydroelectric dams and the ecological damage they wreak is globally widespread in nearly every industrial and "developed" country.

Fly Fishing for Japan's Cherry Salmon
Most of Japan's salmon rivers have been dammed and channelized with U-shaped concrete casings. Ancient runs of cherry and rain salmon are gone, leaving behind only landlocked yamame and amago. (Daniel Galhardo photo)

Bunpei Sonehara, the Last Commercial Tenkara Angler

The last known commercial tenkara angler in Japan was Bunpei Sonehara. After a long winter, when his fishing on the Kurobe River was either unproductive or impossible, the first signs of blossoming cherry trees would come about in April. The blossoms signaled the beginning of the fishing season, and when the rains came, amago began arriving from the sea.

The bounties were great for many generations who used only a rod, line, and fly to harvest salmon. These anglers could catch hundreds of fish in a season, and the next season would provide them with more, as they were not indiscriminately netting all the fish they could.

Sonehara started fishing to earn a living after he returned from World War II. He got very good at it, and wrote of 150-fish days shortly after the war. In the 1950s, a quickly developing Japan decided to dam the Kurobe, a 51-mile long river in Toyama Prefecture.

The dam was finished in 1963, an engineering feat touted as the tallest dam in Japan. Construction, however, cost a fortune, took the lives of 171 people, and wiped out the migration of sea-run amago. "Rain children" ceased to exist.

For years Sonehara kept fishing the Kurobe for landlocked amago that didn't grow like the sea-run versions. But he soon realized the annual abundance was gone.

As a war veteran who was called to duty as a young man, Sonehara knew fishing was his only way to make a living, but the environment was sacrificed for development, and after years of stubborn resistance, the last commercial tenkara angler retired.

At the time, tenkara fishing itself faced the risk of disappearing, as in Sonehara's youth, fishing was not a sport. It was merely a way to forage for food.

The combination of dams, along with the easier access by road and by cars, combined with a lack of catch-and-release fishing proved an insurmountable challenge for any cherry and rain salmon that made it upstream. Without fish, there can be no fishing.

That same year I read Dogs and Demons I had the honor of meeting Ishimaru Shotaro, who at the time was 93 years old and had been fishing for almost as long. I asked him why he was able to teach himself how to fly fish despite the absence of books, magazines, and instructional materials when today we have all those resources, and people still consider fly fishing complicated. "There were a lot more fish back then," he responded. Sport depends on abundance.

During my stay in Maze, I spoke of how beautiful the Mazegawa River was, but how there were very few fish. I acknowledged there were things the village could do nothing about, such as the dam downstream. I knew they would likely never see migrating salmon that high up in the mountains. But, I knew there were things they could do to at least protect the vestiges of the migrations from decades ago.

When I mentioned they should implement catch-and-release on the river above the dam, I was quickly shut down, but when I returned last year, my talks with the town officials showed attitudes were slowly changing. They are now working on creating a large catch-and-release area on the upper Mazegawa.

What we have seen happen in the U.S. in the last few years in terms of removing dams and even connecting rivers in smaller ways through improved culverts gives me great hope that perhaps one day the migration of the cherry and rain salmon will take place again. The age of building dams came later to Japan, so if history repeats, then the age of dam removal is coming soon.

Daniel Galhardo is the founder and CEO of Tenkara USA. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he spends his time rock climbing, running the business, and teaching tenkara.

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