Making a run for the horse mackerel

by Alan Bergman

Abundant, easy to catch and good to eat: an apt description of the scrappy little Japanese horse mackerel. Records show that the fish has been a Japanese favorite since the Nara Period, over 1,000 years ago, and it still has its aficionados today. Many Japanese anglers pursue this popular fish in preference to any other.

The horse mackerel (Trachurus japonicus), known as ma-aji in Japanese, somewhat resembles the mackerel in appearance but is actually the most common member of the jack family found in Japanese waters. Big eyes, a projecting lower jaw, a square-shaped tail base and a curved lateral line of hard scales called scutes make the horse mackerel easy to identify. There are two physical types of horse mackerel: the deep-bodied, yellowish inshore variety and the darker offshore variety with an elongated body. An average-size fish runs about 20 cm in length.

Big horse mackerel (ma-aji) like this 49-cm whopper haunt the deep currents at the entrance to Tokyo Bay.

The techniques and tackle used for catching horse mackerel vary with the size of the fish. In summer and autumn, small and medium-size horse mackerel are caught in large numbers from breakwalls, piers and rowboats. Many anglers use long poles with a small float and a small single hook baited with a tiny shrimplike krill or a piece of sea worm. Others use a string of six to 10 small latex or fish-skin flies called sabiki. The flies are suspended below a plastic, wire or thread-mesh chum holder. Small frozen krill are the most popular chum for this type of angling. When the fish are cooperative, it is common to catch one on every fly, looking like a miniature of the carp banners flown on the Children’s Day holiday.

Anglers fish for big horse mackerel year around, but catching them is a bit more challenging than landing their smaller relatives. Mature fish live at a depth of 100 meters or more where they feed on plankton. In order to catch these larger fish, anglers use heavy wire-mesh chum holders weighing 500 grams or more. The chum is ground sardines.

The rig consists of a 2-meter-long monofilament leader with a hook on the end and another hook on a branch leader. The hooks have turned-in points, making it less likely a fish will be able to wiggle off once hooked. The leader is attached to a wire spreader and the chum-holder with an elastic shock cushion that helps protect against breakoffs.

Large horse mackerel suspend several meters off the bottom. To catch them you drop your line to the bottom, bring it up 2 meters and shake out some chum, then raise your line 1 meter more and wait. If nothing happens within about three minutes, reel up and check your line to make sure it isn’t tangled. When you do hook a fish, reel it in with a slow, steady retrieve. Horse mackerel have paper-thin mouths that tear extremely easily.

The horse mackerel is one of the most familiar food fish in Japan. It has firm flesh and can be served in a wide variety of ways. Among the most popular ways to prepare horse mackerel are grilled, deep fried, dried or as sashimi. Frying and then marinating them is an especially delicious way to cook smaller fish.

Kanto anglers are in luck because one of Japan’s premier fishing spots for horse mackerel is close at hand: lower Tokyo Bay. Not only are the fish plentiful, but knowledgeable anglers claim that the bay’s strong currents develop the muscle tone of fish living here, making them far superior in flavor to those caught elsewhere. Scientific research has found flavor-enhancing enzymes in the flesh of Tokyo Bay fish that support this belief.

The mecca for anglers hoping to catch a bragging-size horse mackerel is Kanagawa Prefecture’s Hashirimizu, a small fishing harbor located adjacent to the narrowest part of Tokyo Bay. In most places a 30-cm fish is considered a good catch but here anglers regularly catch jumbo horse mackerel almost twice that size.

In the middle of July I went out for a memorable morning of fishing and caught 25 horse mackerel ranging in size from 20 cm to a whopping 49 cm. We also caught chub mackerel (saba) and blackthroat perch (akamutsu). A delicious lunch of conger eel (anago) tempura was provided by the charter service.

In summer Hashirimizu charters go out three times a day: 4, 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The price for one session is 5,000 yen, 8,000 yen for two, and 10,000 yen for the whole day. Ice, bait, hooks and lunch are provided. Rental tackle is available for 500 yen.

Hashirimizu is located at the western terminus of Route 16. To get there by public transportation, take the Keihin Kyuko Line express to Yokosuka Chuo and change to a local train stopping at Mabori Kaigan. From there take a bus or taxi to Hashirimizu, or you can call a charter service for free pickup.

There are over a dozen fishing charter services in Hashirimizu. Hirokawamaru, (0468) 41-8002, specializes in charters for jumbo-size horse mackerel. Their home page at www2.ocn.ne.jp/~oh-aji/ has lots of helpful information for anglers.