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Pondering the Shokuryoshi

June 29, 2016

When dinosaurs roamed the planet, and long before the Shokuryoshi (discussed in detail later) entered the scene, the Izu Peninsula of Japan was just a tiny collection of small volcanic islands in the Southern Pacific Ocean. Then these islands began moving north on the Philippine Sea Plate and eventually collided with Honshu, the mainland of Japan. This collision not only created Izu Peninsula but also raised the Tanzawa Mountains which mark the western edge of the Kanto Plains. Over many eons the Tanzawa Mountains were carved by the steady yet glacial pace of erosion, both from rain and the copious spring fed creeks emanating from the bosoms of her many sky scraping peaks. Today, despite receiving only a hundred centimeters or so of snow every winter, these springs continue to bubble to the surface year round; providing suitable habitat for Yamame, Kawanezumi, and all manner of other creatures both great and small.

The last few weeks have been, by far, the most frustrating for me as the creator of Fallfish Tenkara - as my site crashed over a dozen times in just a few days. In the past a quick server reboot would address the issue but this was not the case this time. In the end I spent five plus days glued to my computer typing endless lines of code, spinning up a new server, migrating my site, and reading hundreds of pages of tutorials before getting things back to some sort of normalcy. On a positive note I did learn a lot and in a way it was actually kind of fun so it was not all gloom and sad faces. You may have noticed a few changes to the site layout, which were unfortunately necessary to keep the site uptime as high as possible. Hopefully the site is loading much faster for you (according to my testing I cut the site load time in half!). The cause for all my troubles has yet to be determined, but I am hopefully that it will not resurface. After a long week spent troubleshooting I really needed to get outside and unplug. So I planned a trip to one of my favorite mountain ranges in Japan, you guessed it - the Tanzawa Mountains.

If one thing has become clear through this blog, it is that I am in love with the Tanzawa Mountains. With easy(ish) access from where I live, beautiful streams teeming with Yamame and the occasional Iwana, fresh air, and solitude - what is there not to love? So sit back, hit the play button below, and enjoy some good ol' fashioned fishing stories.

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I recently watched this great video documentary by Fishing Café - Tenkara with Dr. Hisao Ishigaki (aka テンカラ王). If you have not watched it yet, I highly recommend that you do - it is a wonderful video. The video focuses primarily on the shokuryoshi of Japan, or Tenkara anglers from old Japan who fished mountain streams for a living. These Shokuryoshi would catch fish (sometimes as much as 200 in a day!) in the mountain streams of Japan and then sell them to local inns and restaurants. It was a hard living but based on the vintage video footage featured in the documentary it looked like a happy lifestyle.

Nowadays catching 200 fish a day in any river in Japan would be nearly impossible. This is pretty sad fact but I think that maybe someday it could be possible again. In the video Dr. Ishigaki talks about restoring Japan's mountain rivers and fisheries which I found to be very refreshing. It was encouraging to see that he is working hard to educate the public about sustainable fishing practices in Japan. Still today the fishing in Japan can be phenomenal, you just need to know where to look. Case in point: while the Tanzawa Mountains are close to Tokyo, which makes some of the "easy access" streams mostly devoid of fish, if you are willing to hike (or bike) deeper into the mountains you can find some healthy rivers, relatively untouched, high above Lake Miyagase.

At the trail-head I came across two bird watchers with some very expensive camera equipment. They seemed a little surprised to see a foreigner decked out in sawanobori gear riding a bicycle but were nevertheless friendly. The rest of the day I did not see a soul. After a fun five kilometer bike ride down an old logging road, I stashed my bike in the forest and scampered down to the river's edge where I deployed my "newest" Tenkara rod. At the first pool I got one nibble and then the fish swam away so I edged a little further upstream and tried again, on the first cast the largest Yamame of the day slammed my fly hard and after a brief, yet spirited fight I snapped her photo and eased her back into the pool. It was a good sign to see such a big fish so close to the "road". The fish was big enough that she probably was in her second year of life! I hope she grows much older in that pool...

I could not have picked a better day to go fishing either, big puffy white clouds drifted lazily across the blue sky and the occasional gust of wind would make me notice the constant, yet hardly discernable, breeze that rustled the bright green leaves high above my head. So far June has been absolutely phenomenal here in Japan, especially compared to last June which was scorching hot and humid. It actually felt like early April in the morning, and people could be seen walking about wearing sweaters! The breeze was playing tricks on my eyes though causing the shadows of leaves and branches to dance across the water. More than once I was deceived by a leaf's moving shadow thinking it was a fish and I would set the hook and catch nothing but water.

One of the things that stood out in my mind that Dr. Ishigaki said in the video was (I am paraphrasing here) "... that the river has a way of teaching you how to Tenkara". I have to agree with him 100%, in the last 18 months that I have fished in Japan I have come to learn the habits of its residents and now most of the time I know where the fish will be. This aids greatly in being able to sneak up on them effectively and how to present my fly without spooking them. However, I am still refining my techniques on how to catch them.

Any idea on where I almost caught a fish in this pool?

The fish in this river were smart, I was certainly not the first person they had seen that season (in fact I am pretty sure another angler had been there in the last week or so, due to how skittish the fish were). Ever since my time on the River Don with Paul and John from Discover Tenkara, this past March, I have taken a keen interest in the knowledge they pass along via email. One of the more recent lessons I received in my inbox was on fly manipulation, in other words pulsing the fly in the water. This is also a technique that Dr. Ishigaki used in the Shokuryoshi documentary and I was keen to give it a shot. Lo and behold it worked! My technique is still in need of improvement but in two pools that I was sure I would have no luck in I got a strong bite in both of them. Like I said my technique needs work, with a bit more practice I am sure I will not get "skunked" next go around. Still I was very excited to have gotten a bite, especially because I was pulsing an ant fly. I could see a fish biting a fly that looked like some sort of underwater insect flailing in the water, but an ant moving through the water like a jellyfish!?

Each step upstream my soul felt more and more rejuvenated. It was as if a magnet was drawing me upwards while simultaneously ablating me of stress and anxiety (if you have gotten this far in my novella of a blog post I am sure you are familiar with this occurrence). At one point I came across an absolutely gorgeous pool and I began to deploy my rod, which I had collapsed to ascend a particularly technical boulder hopping section, but then I stopped and just watched. At first I saw nothing, and then I caught a faint movement, and then another, and another. There were at least six beautiful Yamame swimming in the pool! I stood there for a long time just watching them play and feed. I could not bring myself to plop a fly in the water and potentially jerk one of them from their utopia. So instead I stepped into the pool sending them scattering to the depths and safety - a friendly warning that they should be more wary because the next individual to come along might not enjoy their serenity quite like I had.

Echoing Dr. Ishigaki and how the river is the best teacher, I had another lesson that day. On three separate occurrences, in three different pools I was sight fishing and could see the fish swimming towards my fly and just as they were about to bite, and I was about to set the hook, a small winged insect would fly right into my eyeball! My eyes would clamp shut and when I was able to brush the bug out and open my eye the fish was nowhere to be seen. Besides highlighting the fact that I need a pair of polarized sunglasses with a lighter lense, these three separate events made me realize that I am relying too much on seeing the fish and less on feeling them. The third time this happened I subdued my instinct to rub my eyes and instead focused on the Tenkara rod in my hand. And then I felt the slightest of twinges so petite I thought a fly had bounced into my line, I set the hook anyways and felt resistance! The fish however was just nibbling the hackle and presently spit it out and darted back to his home. I laughed out loud and rubbed the small fly out of my eye. The river certainly is the greatest teacher.

What else could it be trying to teach me that I have overlooked?

It had been a wonderful day, a day in which I brought four beautiful Yamame to hand, two that had been "long distance caught and released", and at least another two dozen or so that I did not know enough to catch but had enjoyed watching them outsmart me - give me another 18 months and they might not be so "lucky".

After about five hours of fishing it was time to turn around and head home - I had a hot date to catch with my wife, to see a movie about fish no less, and I did not want to be late.

Have bike, will travel - my trusty steed who recently turned 13.

Written by Isaac Tait who now lives in San Diego but dreams of returning, one day, to Japan. You should follow him on Twitter