Fly Fishing Japan
March 12, 2013
I subsist in a suburb of the world's most crowded city — Tokyo, Japan. As recently as last summer, I made my home in Montana's Bitterroot Valley. But I'm not from there, or from anywhere else for that matter.
I've fished happily in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, so I didn't think Tokyo could bring me down. So what if 26.8 million people (1995 census) had packed themselves into a place not much bigger than a Montana cattle ranch? On an atlas, Tokyo is a convergence of rivers and bays. As long as there's water, I told myself, I can fish. And during our first week in the city, I proved it by hooking a four-pound carp in the trickle that irrigates the nearest park. No one else was fishing, although an entire school of fish cruised in plain sight. I'd been hoping for a strike from one of the red-and-white beauties, but my fish was a drab gold with big smooth scales. Both my kids were with me, and we drew a silent crowd of spectators before releasing it. Later, several locals expressed surprise that I was not arrested.
For what? I asked.
For harassing the sacred koi.
That was the first in a series of setbacks that preceded a long, meager winter. Japan's best waters are far from Tokyo — in Hokkaido to the north, or in the southern islands, or in the high mountains of the Japanese Alps. None of these places qualifies for the frequent casual excursions necessary for life as I know it.
But when the peach trees bloomed at the end of February, my spirits revived. According to rumor, the upper reaches of the Tama River — my new home waters — were stocked with trout. On a map, this destination looks ridiculously close — 25 miles at most. In Montana, that's a trip to the convenience store. In Tokyo, the same distance guarantees hours of diversion in the city's maze of narrow, traffic-snarled streets.
The next available day dawned cold and rainy, and my family pretended they would rather stay home, watching movies and eating popcorn. So I set out alone, bound for one of Tokyo's far northwestern outposts. Two hours later, I was greeted by a clear stream flowing through a deep valley spanned by red bridges. The streets were thick with men in rainsuits and waders. Drivers parked wherever they could, then worked their way down through apartment blocks and residential districts to the water.
I picked a relatively open stretch between two sociable groups of about 100 souls each, tied on a bead-head Prince Nymph, and commenced to fish. It was a pleasure just to cast again, to feel the line slip through the guides and watch the fly drop against the far shore.
As I waded upstream, two greater pied kingfishers flashed overhead, while a white egret wet its yellow feet in a shallow riffle. The egret's hopeful, forward-looking stance made me quicken my casting rhythm. Like him, I wanted to catch fish.
In the pool above, three men angled for trout in typical Tama fashion. Using a telescopic pole at least 20 feet long, each conducted a tiny hook baited with a single salmon egg in a sustained, drag-free drift. The rods had no reels and no guides. To replenish their baits, they simply pointed the rod at the sky and let the hook swing into an open palm.
I watched this performance for quite a while before witnessing a strike. Then one rod tip dipped slightly, the lucky fisherman straightened his back, and an eight-inch rainbow danced into the air. After a brief tussle, the transplanted foreigner was netted, unhooked, and dropped into a wicker creel the size and shape of a child's lunchbox.
As politely as possible under the circumstances, I eased into line with the others. When my turn came, I drifted my bead-head Prince through the pool several times, with no takers. Meanwhile, every trout in the water seemed to develop an insatiable hunger for salmon eggs. I could see them slashing at the baits, sometimes two or three charging simultaneously.
My nearest companion began slipping trout into his creel with almost frightening regularity. When the basket could hold no more, he scrounged a shopping bag that had washed against the bank, and methodically began to fill it, too. With a dark hat pulled low over his ears and his stooped shoulders hunched against the rain, he looked something like an old sorcerer, come to cast a spell upon the waters.
I rubbed my cold hands together until they were flexible enough to tie knots again, then switched to a soft-hackle. I landed and released a nine-incher on the first cast, pausing just long enough to admire its plump, hatchery-fed body, then suffered through another dry spell. The trout wanted salmon eggs and nothing else.
I unzipped a seldom-used fly case containing mostly large ties: Muddlers, Woolly Buggers, and old steelhead patterns. And there it was: an egg fly, tied in fluorescent red on a #8 hook.
The little fish rushed it as soon as it hit the water. Unless their angle of attack was exactly right, however, they usually missed the big hook.
Through a combination of perseverance and bad luck, a dozen trout managed to impale themselves on my fly. Most were hooked in the jaw, but a couple were snagged in the tail, and one managed to skewer himself through the dorsal fin.
I was having a good time, in a chilly and comedic sort of way. The scene reminded me of winter steelhead fishing in the tributaries of Lake Ontario, where you often find yourself standing in close company, with suburban backyards for scenery, while your hands shiver and your feet go numb.
At some point I scavenged my own plastic bag and killed enough trout for a couple of meals. Another pleasant hour passed, and then the sorcerer hoisted his cargo and trundled off into the mist. Two men who had been waiting on the sidelines scrambled to fill his place. They were not nearly as skillful as the old master, and those of us who remained suffered through a succession of tangled lines. After one particularly bad snarl, during which I was forced to clip off both fly and leader, I decided that it would be unhealthy to allow myself too much fun in a single afternoon.
I broke down my rod and trudged up the hill to the vacant lot where I'd left the car. The rain came harder now, and I was drenched before settling back behind the wheel.
Although I thought I knew the way, the drive home involved a number of unexplained detours. When at last I stepped into the dining room, my family was at the table, sitting before steaming bowls of salmon and mushrooms and fresh udon, a tender Japanese noodle. They were glad to see me. I washed my hands and sat down with them, smiling at this vision of plenty.
Peter W. Fong is the author of the award-winning novel, Principles of Navigation, and the head guide at Mongolia River Outfitters. He lives in Tangier, Morocco.