Gone fishing

But do anglers fly in the face of common sense?


Fly-fishing is like pachinko. You know how some people get a rush from watching things go into little holes? Well, replace the smoke, noise and flashing lights with tumbling brooks, mountains and fresh air and you’ve got fly-fishing.

Just as which machine you choose to play on determines a lot of your luck at pachinko, where you choose to cast your line often seals your fly-fishing fortunes. Like pachinko, too, the repetitive actions have a calming, meditative effect.

With fly-fishing, though, it’s my hook going down a fish’s gullet, not a silver ball plunging down some chute. And my bounty, the fish itself (as if by some unwritten fly-fisher’s rule), is supposed to be released back to where it came from, just as pachinko players return their winning haul of balls. I admit I sometimes break the rule.

As you can tell, my view of fly-fishing has been rather simple. Up till now. This time, I vowed I would do it right; by the book. This time, before setting out, I stopped by the shop of an expert fly-tier, one of the best.

This was no routine trip either. Feb. 1 sees the opening of the trout-fishing season on the Nagara River in central Gifu Prefecture, one of Japan’s 109 designated large river systems — and we would be at the water just one day later.

The Chinese characters of the Nagara River, which runs 166 km from its source to the Pacific in Mie Prefecture, mean “long” and “good.” But the river has become notorious for the large dam built across the estuary to trap fresh water for industrial and domestic use. Critics say this has blocked the passage of fish that swim to the ocean and then return to fresh water to spawn.

“Every year there have been fewer and fewer satsuki-masu trout,” said Yukihiro Furukawa, the expert fly-tier who runs his shop called Kebari-ya (Fishing-fly shop) in Tokyo’s western suburbs.

He added that the range of options for fly-tying — the art of mimicking the look of real insects using hooks bound with thread, feathers and hair — has decreased as well. “There used to be a lot of mayflies. But when the dam was built, they got fewer and fewer. The quality of water has gone down and there is more sediment building up, meaning more and more midges are hatching. It’s getting to be that you can’t stray from midge fishing anymore.”

It helps that Furukawa is an expert tier of midges — tiny resilient insects that trout feed on all year round, throughout their life cycle from larva to pupa to adult.

Furukawa, who wrote a booklet titled “The Strongest Midges” for the March issue of FlyRodders magazine, gave me five of his best fly patterns, plus an assorted handful of others, and sent me on my way. But he warned me not to be disappointed by the swarms of people, not insects, I was likely to encounter.

“For Japanese people, the season’s opening day is like a matsuri [festival],” he said. “Whether they catch fish or not, they go. There could be a 300-meter-long pool with 30 people all fishing in about the same spot. For Canadians like you who may be used to being in the middle of nature, fishing all by themselves, it can be disappointing. I don’t want people to get a bad impression, so I usually tell them to go two or three weeks after the opening.”

Neither a rise nor a bite

With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, I set off on an all-night drive to Gifu Prefecture with my wife and Susa, a friend, in tow. When we arrived at our hotel in Mino at about 7:30 in the morning, it was bone-chillingly cold. Check-in was not until 3 p.m., so after getting our fishing day-passes from the local fishing cooperative association, we parked near some anglers gathered below a footbridge in front of the hotel.

Some were casting, some had already cracked open their wine. Even though I wasn’t planning on stepping into the frigid waters, I donned my chest-high neoprene waders, just to keep out the cold. We fished sporadically for about an hour — but saw neither a rise (a ripple created when a fish surfaces to feed) nor had a bite. The fishing was so unexciting, I took pictures instead. When two old fishing buddies turned up as well, we decided to move on to more fertile ground.

“It’s too cold for trout,” said Susa. “I’ve got a thermometer and the water is 4 degrees. They can’t eat. They can’t move.”

We drove off to a different spot, this time on the Mugi River, a tributary of the Nagara, about 20 minutes away. This spot was popular, as a row of about 10 fly fishers had already begun casting, many standing hip-deep in the current.

Just two days earlier, the fishing cooperative had released about 1,700 kg of amago (red-spotted trout) into the river, a fair portion of them just upstream from this spot. We should have some luck.

I started with Furukawa’s “yusurika stillborn,” the No. 1 pattern in his booklet. He is so confident of its ability to attract fish, that if it doesn’t work he says you might as well go home. It even works well in windy conditions, he says, as it represents an adult midge that’s been blown onto the surface of the water, got stuck because its wings are wet, and drowned. Fish can’t resist such a helpless snack.

Sure enough, after about eight strikes when I was too clumsy to set the hook (i.e. jerk the rod to hook the fish), I land one.

It is so small it practically escapes through the holes in my net. It must be about 13 cm, barely longer than one of my fingers. Canned sardines would put this little baby to shame. I let it go so it can live and grow up, maybe to be caught by someone else when it’s big and fat.

After a day of fishing, my sliver of a fish is the entire take for our five-person expedition. This is not, I like to think, because we were hopeless fishers. There were lots of others who seldom seemed to reel one in.

Catch-and-release zones

To return to the pachinko analogy, what if players kept winning huge jackpots and took all their silver balls home so the game could no longer be played? According to fishing experts, that is what’s happening to Japan’s inland fisheries over and over again every year.

“It doesn’t matter whether you put in six tons of fish or 10 tons or 11 tons,” said Seiji Sato, a fishing journalist and management commissioner for Gunma Prefecture’s inland fisheries. “You have to start all over again from zero every season.”

The reason?

“All the fish are caught and taken home by fishermen.”

A study of the Kannogawa River fishery by the Gunma prefectural government found that before it was regulated in any effective way, fishermen left nothing behind when they were not prevented from taking home their catch.

Then, in 1999, the Ueno fishing cooperative, which controls a stretch of the river near a village of that name, set up a few experimental catch-and-release areas where fishermen were asked to return caught fish to the water.

After counting 282 yamame trout over 20 cm long in the catch-and-release area in April, they found 24 left in late September. In contrast, in the no-rules area, 19 were counted in April, to which a total of 270 were added. By the end of May, there were only three fish spotted. By September, there were none.

Sato said that Japanese people tend to identify fish as food, so fishers take home as many as they can catch. “From a very long time ago, there have been people who would take the fish and eat them. That might be one part of Japanese culture.”

But he adds that there is a reckless abandon when it comes to considering supply.

“There are people who believe that yamame trout come from the roots of trees, and that iwana trout come from rocks. There are really people who believe such things, even now. So such things as spawning are completely irrelevant. They believe that no matter how many you take from the rivers, ever more fish will be born again. In Japan, the people who live in the deep countryside have about that level of understanding.”

The problem also rests with government, according to Morio Sato, chairman of Japan Fly Fishers, a nonprofit group involved in seeding rivers with fish eggs and other activities. He said a combination of government policies have cut off the insects that live in and around the water — the lifelines of many fish. Because Japanese rivers are prone to flood and change their courses from one year to the next, angry residents have complained to the government and asked for something to be done — in other words, for the banks and beds to be lined with concrete, in what is now a common rural sight.

The concrete prevents a buildup of silt, in which many insects plant eggs. The disappearance of those insects makes the waters uninhabitable for fish.

On the other hand, the policy of planting sugi (Japanese cedar) trees to provide timber for homebuilding, dating back to after the ravages of World War II, has turned the nation’s forests into dry sluices that flush out water soon after a downpour or snow.

The needle-leaved cedars do not retain water as well as broad-leaved trees, so when it rains, water is flushed downstream through the concrete chutes, and the trickles that remain are inhospitable to fish.

Then, when the sugi, which are often planted on steep mountainsides, are harvested, the excessive silt runoff makes the water too cloudy for insects like mayflies, which trout also love to eat. “This situation, which is killing the rivers, happens everywhere in Japan,” Sato said.

“However, the time has come when you can’t just say fly-fishing is in a sorry state and leave it at that. As fly fishers and as people who love nature, we have to raise our voices or take action.”

Sato suggested that the government should halt its policy of encouraging sugi planting, and instead try to bring back broadleaf trees that retain much more water. He also recommended lining troublesome rivers with jakago (which literally means “snake basket”), or gabion, which are wire fences that hold rocks.

“In between the rocks, bits of dirt get stuck and grass can grow. Grasshoppers and other bugs can live there, and frogs and fish can eat the bugs, and maybe snakes can eat the frogs.”

He said that though such ideas are taking hold, in Japan, change takes a long time.

“It is certain that the government is seeing the merit of the old way of doing things,” Sato said. “Little by little, they are changing. There are also places that have made those jakago. However, it is extremely slow. It costs money, and putting those rocks in place is a difficult process. So it costs money and takes time.”

On the second and last day of our fishing excursion, we head back to the same bridge where I had caught my sliver the day before. This time I catch another tiny one, on one of Furukawa’s buyurika No. 36 flies, on a hook literally 5 mm long.

The fly is so called because it looks both like a buyu (gnat) and a yusurika (chironomid fly). This time, the fish is so small it really does slip through the holes in the net as I scramble about for my camera, though it is still on the hook.

In a year, the Nagara River Chuo Fishing Cooperative Association releases some 16.2 tons of fish, amounting to around 20,000 specimens into its fishing area, a merging of three tributaries and the Nagara, some tens of kilometers long, and this tiny fish is one of them.

After a brief photo session, I let the little guy go. I wonder if that silver mite will still be in the water this time next year.