JAPANESE YELLOWTAIL

Falling for it hook, line and sinker

by Alan Bergman

Autumn is my favorite time of year, and it’s also the season for one of my favorite saltwater game fish, the hard-fighting Japanese yellowtail (Seriola quinqueradiata). A member of the jack family, this is the best-known and most widely distributed of three very popular and closely related sport fish in Japanese waters, the other two being the kingfish or yellowtail (Seriola lalandi) and the greater amberjack (Seriola dumerili).

A highly valued food and game fish, the Japanese yellowtail can be found from Hokkaido to Taiwan. In Japan, this fish is known by a wide variety of names. In eastern Honshu around the Kanto region, fish in the 15-30 cm range are called wakashi, those of 40-50 cm are called inada, those from 60-70 cm are called warasa, and yellowtail weighing more than 7 1/2 kg are called buri. In the Kansai region, the same fish are referred to as tsubasu, hamachi, mejiro and buri respectively. To further complicate this name game, yellowtail that are raised commercially by aquaculture are sold throughout the country as hamachi.

Japanese yellowtail have dark-blue backs with an olive undertone, silvery-to-whitish sides and bellies, and, of course, yellow tails. They are easily distinguished from amberjack by their color and from kingfish by their shape. Japanese yellowtail have rounded, spindle-shaped bodies, while kingfish and amberjack have wider, flatter bodies.

Yellowtail fishing begins in late summer and runs through the end of the year, with fish getting progressively larger but more difficult to catch as the season advances. A variety of techniques are used for catching yellowtail, but here in the Kanto region, two styles predominate. Both, however, use frozen krill as chum (bait that is scattered on the water to attract game fish).

The first method, called kattakuri, employs several yarn flies or small jigs (lures) with fish-skin bodies. These are fished with a hand-line.

The angler drops the line to the desired depth and retrieves it with a series of pulls and pauses. The jerking motion of the pulls disperses the chum, and the fish strike during the pauses.

A pause of about 10 seconds works well with the yarn flies, which imitate the krill chum, while the jigs Ewhich simulate small swimming baitfish Edon’t require as long a pause. Kattakuri is particularly successful earlier in the season when fish are smaller and more plentiful. Catches of over a dozen are the norm — a catch of even 50 or more fish is not unusual.

The second method uses a rod, reel and baited hook. The bait is 5-cm-long frozen krill from the Antarctic called okiami. The krill are threaded onto the hook, two at a time. When fishing for smaller fish, it is common to use two or even three hooks. With larger fish, a single hook is standard. The length and strength of the leader (the length of catgut that attaches the hook or lure to the line) depends on the size of the fish and the strength of the current.

Yellowtail have keen eyesight and can be leader-shy, but they are extremely powerful fish. The angler must find the correct compromise between a leader that doesn’t spook the fish but is still strong enough to land one.

The presence of sharks necessitates the use of a shorter, heavier leader. This will mean fewer hits from yellowtail, but it will help the angler to quickly land a fish before a shark takes a bite out of it.

Several useful points should be kept in mind when fishing for yellowtail. The first is that the fish do not lie on the seabed. The boat’s captain will locate a school on his sonar and call out the depth at which to fish.

To hit this depth precisely, use line that is marked every meter. Reels with a depth indicator are not accurate enough, usually giving readings that are off by 4 or 5 meters for every 100 meters of line — a margin of error that can be enough to prevent you catching fish.

Be sure to keep filling your chum holder, as the chum is what attracts the fish to your line. When fishing with chum, the location of your seat on a charter boat can be crucial to the number of fish you catch. Fish follow the trail of chum, so the angler who fishes farthest down current typically catches the most fish. This means that anglers situated at either the stern or the bow almost always catch the most fish.

In recent years, lure fishing for yellowtail has also become very popular. The standard lures are metal jigs. Anglers use spinning tackle, but instead of the usual clear monofilament line, they use marked braided line.

This permits fisherman to target specific depths. Also, the braided line doesn’t stretch, so it is much more sensitive and is better for setting the hook. Ports along Chiba Prefecture’s Pacific coast have many lure-fishing charters. In the fall, Tokyo Bay’s sea bass lure-fishing charter boats also go for inada-class yellowtail.

Smaller yellowtail often come close to shore and can be caught by casting lures into the surf, surf-trolling, in other words. Kanagawa Prefecture’s Oiso Beach is a popular spot for surf casters.

Here in the Kanto area, Sagami Bay and lower Tokyo Bay have a large number of charters for small- to medium-size yellowtail. The price for these charters averages around 8,000 yen.

The best place to go for larger fish is Izu. The waters around the tip of the peninsula are the gathering place for numerous schools of yellowtail in the 3-8 kg range.

It is quite an experience to be amid dozens of boats that are racing about, jockeying for positions to intercept the roving schools of fish. The price for these charters is about 14,000 yen, including bait, chum and ice.

There are many reliable services offering yellowtail charters. Among the best are two that I can recommend from personal experience — Shozaburomaru in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, (0463) 21-1012 or 2.empac.co.jp/~shou3annai2.html/ and Ryushomaru in Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, (0558) 22-3935 or www2.empac.co.jp/~ryusho/