Multifaceted Asia Part IV: Niijima, Island of the Anglers

After a whirlwind tour of Taiwan fishing, I was whisked to the airport for an early flight to Tokyo. Although I had flown through the Narita International Airport plenty of times on layovers, I had never once escaped the steel and glass prison to explore the world famous city of Tokyo.

And that was the only thought on my mind as the glass doors slid open when I exited the airport terminals. My mind was so overwhelmed that I was finally going to be fishing in Japan for the first time, that it actually took a few minutes before some alarm bells in my head went off. Alarm bells that notified me that I had forgotten to obtain any Japanese currency prior to arriving.

Without the ability to read, speak or comprehend Japanese, and with the Japanese ATM stations not accepting my American debit cards, I was more than a little nervous. Luckily, my computer was working just fine on the wifi signal in the airport, so I was able to contact my host in Tokyo and figure out how to get from the terminal to the city of Tokyo.

Once the details were worked out, I was soon on a Tokyo bound limousine shuttle. I settled in for the nearly 2 hour ride and my thoughts drifted to the strange circumstances that had brought me here. Having met a Japanese fisherman residing in Tokyo through a mutual friend, I had spent many years electronically corresponding with him before the opportunity finally came up where I might be able to spend some time in Japan fishing with him. Although only a few years older than me, his natural talent combined with his obsession with lure fishing had served him well and he had mentored me in many fishing techniques over the years. I remember one of the first emails he had written to me, opening with the sentence, “Fishing is like a martial art. The more you learn from the masters it gets easier. There is a very loose but accurate set of guidelines and theories for fishing.” He was known as 闇の息子, roughly translated to “son of the darkness.” I would later find out why he chose to go by such a name, but for now, I’ll abbreviate his name to “Y.”

Arriving just as the sun was setting in the distance, I stepped out of the shuttle just in time to see Y walking towards me, fully decked in a beautifully tailored 3 piece suit and overcoat. We shook hands and I asked what the occasion for the dress code was? He laughed and simply answered, “You’ve got to style in Tokyo. Unless I’m fishing, this how I dress all the time.” Note taken: fashion sense essential in Japan!

After unloading my suitcase, we took off for the closest fishing store, where Y would help me pick out a variety of lures best suited for our fishing destination: Niijima. This is a small island located south of Tokyo where Y had promised that a variety of fish could be found. Although he had warned me that the bitter winter cold could cause the bite to be slow, he also told me that various species could still be caught including the hirame: known to the western world as the Olive Flounder, or my personal favorite name, the Bastard Halibut.

After recovering from seeing the shocking bill for the lures that Y recommended that I pick up, we returned to his place. Note taken: solid finances required in Japan! Back at Y’s place, we spent some time talking fish and gear while I admired the mounds of rods, reels, lures, and tackle packed in every cranny and nook of his high rise apartment.

Our ferry to Niijima was scheduled for the next evening, so I decided to spend the night out in Tokyo with one of my very old friends who had relocated from California back to Japan. We enjoyed a great night out exploring some nighttime eats and night life in Tokyo before I retired back to Y’s place.

Early the next morning, Y had told me that I would have the opportunity to do some tanago fishing. Tanago or Japanese Bitterling are a very interesting family of fish that have spawned an entire specialized form of fishing in Japan designed to catch these hand sized fish. Ranging from ultra sensitive short poles to incredibly tiny microscopic tenkara hooks, the Japanese have once again proved their brilliance by perfecting the methods of capturing even the tiniest of fish by hook and line.

Unfortunately, the ponds that usually contained tanago were devoid of the fish. We were told that the tanago were captured and relocated due to the fear that the fish would perish in the unusually cold fall conditions that Tokyo felt early last year. Instead, the ponds contained a dearth of hardy small carp. Although I have caught the Common Carp before, I’ve actually never officially added them to my lifelist, since I did not have a photo of them.

Quickly rigging up with a small tenkara rod and baiting up a barbless hook with some dough bait, it wasn’t long before my first fish in Japan would be caught: none other than ubiquitous Cyprinus carpio. Villified by some, and praised by other, I can only say that they provide wonderful sport and with the winter sun glinting off their bronze scales and red tinted fins, they aren’t the homeliest looking fish either.

After a short morning of fun messing around with the carp, we soon had to prepare for our trip to the islands. Y’s girlfriend met us at the apartment, where we gathered together all of our gear. Before long, we had boarded the ferry that would soon take us on the overnight voyage to Niijima! In many ways, the entire trip would soon remind me of an extreme version of fishing at Catalina Island. Bidding the port at Tokyo farewell, we settled into the soft reclining seats of the ferry and before long everyone had fallen asleep.

The morning brought an intense sunrise over the waters of the Western Pacific Ocean. Although beautiful, the cold air was so abrupt, this native Californian began to worry about how he would handle the intensely low temperatures. In addition to the cold, the island had been projected to be hit by sporadic winter storms over the next few days that would bring with it bone chilling rains and winds. Note: Winter in Japan is no joke! Dress warmer than you every thought possible!

A few hours into the morning, the ferry docked into port at Niijima. The luminescent aquamarine water beckoned, and all of us eagerly jumped into the small white van that we had rented which would serve as fish mobile, hotel, and restaurant all rolled into one. Y’s girlfriend graciously took the incredibly tiny cramped backseat as her napping/sleeping post, while I was given the honor of having the spacious reclinable front passenger seat to sleep on. Stuffing all of our gear into the back of the van, it was off to fish! 14 hours after leaving Tokyo, we were finally ready to get a fish on the end of the line!

Y and his girlfriend were both immensely familiar with fishing on this island. Having taken multiple trips to the island in pursuit of the many species that pass through, Y quickly decided that our first fishing destination would be a sandy beach cornered between some rocky cliffs. Choosing some long casting plugs, we donned our waders and were soon in the surf casting and hoping for our first hits! I was immensely excited at the prospects of fishing in the rich waters of Japan… however, I was quickly given an abrupt lesson on fishing in Japan: it’s not easy!

Between the three of us, we covered a large portion of the beach within the next few hours without a single hit. In fact, for the entire rest of the day, we would comb the shorelines of the island with various lures without a nibble. Querying Y about this, he replied that although the fishing was a little slow, lure fishing for gamefish in Japan was generally a difficult proposition, period. These fish are highly pressured, finicky, and did not tend to school in high numbers.

After running through a gauntlet of Japanese lures, I looked through my tackle box to see a worn and familiar face. My lucky craft flashminnow. This specific lure has helped me catch an immense number of species throughout the world, and in my mind is without a doubt my lucky number. So, with nothing to lose, I snapped it onto the end of my line and sent it soaring out into the surf. Chatting with Y about the fishing, I stuttered incoherently when I suddenly connected with something large and unhappy at the end of my line! Fish on! But what was it? The famed hirame? Suzuki? Hamachi? The fish went on two powerful runs before I was able to get it into the surfline. As it surfaced on the crest of a wave, I saw it. Long black shadow, immense bucket mouth, huge eyes. My heartbeat quickened. It was a hira-suzuki. Known in the west as Blackfin Seabass, the hira-suzuki is a uniquely Japanese species of seabass that most anglers outside of Japan aren’t even aware exists! Generally only found on remote islands such as Niijima, it would be an amazing addition to my lifelist! Just as these thoughts ran through my head, the fish gave an all mighty somersault through the air while shaking it’s head vigorously, and my lure went sailing through the air. Oh no! It’s off! I’ve lost it! Oh. My. GOD. Many profanities followed.

Luckily, I’m not a pure trophy hunter, and given the opportunity, I’m happy to leap at simply adding some new species to my life list. So, while Y and his girlfriend continued to fish for the prized gamefish in the area, I switched over to a simple dropper loop baited with some krill. I needed to catch something, anything, to heal the heartbreak of losing that absolute prize of a fish. Dropping the rig down, I was surprised at an immediate bite. Setting the hook, I pulled up a brightly colored thrashing little fish. My first fish from Niijima!

This lovely fish was a Red Naped Wrasse, and on subsequent casts, I found them to be quite ubiquitous and willing biters! Placing my rig just a little further away from structure, I received a slightly different type of bite. A series of very hard sharp pecks knocked my rod tip, and I timed myself to strike onto the next hit and up came my next species: a stunning Brown Lined Puffer, complete with fluorescent markings across it’s cheeks, eyes, and fins. Again, this fish seemed to swarm this area so I switched locations once again after catching a handful of them.

Placing my rig towards the deeper water, my bait sat untouched for a few minutes before my rod tip bent hard with a rocketing hit. This fish was the hardest fighting fish I had caught yet, and I peered into the turquoise water to catch a glimpse of flashing silvery bands. Seconds later, the waters parted to reveal one of the coolest fish I have ever caught: a stunningly colored Barred Knifejaw with an equally awesome name. Under the setting sun, a light lavender sheen washed over the bold black and white stripes on the fish. From further down on the jetty, Y peered over at me with my hodgepodge of species and noted, “Wow, not even in Japan for 24 hours and you’re already outfishing the locals!”

Although I knew to a hardcore lure angler like Y, these non-gamefish species were meaningless… but I was having an absolute blast! Next, I relocated towards the base of the jetty where a pile of tetrapods had created eddies and whirlpools. Dropping my rig into one of the eddies, I waited a few minutes then got another hard hit. I pulled up a wriggling fish that looked like it had eaten skittles for breakfast. These fish just kept getting more and more amazing looking, with each catch! This was a Cupid Wrasse, which took me some time to ID because of its uncanny but superficial resemblance to the Surge Wrasse and Rainbow Wrasse.

Soon the bites had tapered off, and Y decided it was time to move on. A fierce winter storm had started to move in, and the blustery winds cut through my 6 layers like an ice cold knife. I could feel myself slowly becoming more and more sluggish as my body began to refuse functioning in the coldness. We relocated to the opposite side of the island in hopes that we could find shelter from the incoming storm, but despite the amazing view, our lure casting efforts continued to come up fruitless.

Then came the rain. Absolute sheets of the freezing ice cold rain that slashed through my clothes and dripped down my sleeves. As darkness fell, the miserable storm slowly abated while we hit in our van in a harbor. With a small break in the weather, we all wandered out to see what nighttime species we might find. Looking into the water under the sodium lamps, I saw a few small fish dancing across the surface of the water. I quickly rigged up a small sabiki and within minutes had another new species! The Japanese anchovy, which conveniently was also the first anchovy species to make it onto my life list! Y meanwhile had set up an egiing rig to pursue one of his favored nighttime targets: the Japanese Flying Squid. His girlfriend, on the other hand, took on her favorite nighttime target: aji or Japanese Jack mackerel.

After bringing up the anchovy, I also noticed some fish hovering around the substrate, so I switched back to my dropper loop rig with krill. Before long, I had a fish on the line, and I swung up a unique Japanese species of fish: a fugu! Specifically, a Grass Puffer.

After catching the fugu, the rain started coming back down so I sat back to watch Y and his girlfriend fish. They are an amazingly talented fishing couple, both completely in tune with the nuances of night fishing. No wonder Y was known as the son of darkness! His girlfriend was having a blast aji fishing, despite not catching anything and I soon went over to inquire about her technique. Although she spoke very little English, we tried our best to communicate. Soon, Y came over to assist and soon I was given a crash course on the art of aji fishing. Aji consist of various species of horse mackerel, all who feed on planktonic prey generally by moonlight. They are designed to suck and spit their prey extremely rapidly, and require lightning fast striking reflexes as well as immensely sensitive outfits to land. On top of this, they hunt in very specific strata in the water column so finding them can be challenging. The preferred method in Japan for hunting aji is soft plastics on jig heads weighing a featherlight 0.5-2 grams. Aji also have a very soft tubular mouth that easily rips under pressure, so hooksets must be fast but fighting pressure must be carefully regulated.

Y let me borrow one of his aji outfits, but despite the great tutelage, none of us were able to find the aji in the harbor. However, while letting my rig drift a little deeper into the harbor waters, I was surprised to find a soft take on the soft plastic. I struck hard and was met with a lovely bulldogging fight. Soon I found a monstrously fat kasago or Marbled Rockfish at the end of my line, swollen with roe. Although not a new species, it provided great action at the end of the night for me.

While Y continued his hunt for fish through the darkness, the wind, cold, and rain had sapped every ounce of strength from my body. I dragged myself into the car and my heavy lids were soon sealed shut. Unbeknownest to me, Y had continued to fish through the night, and only joined me in sleep for a couple of hours before sunrise. Like many of us anglers, his passion for fishing overcomes nearly all of his human needs, and in fact he barely slept more than a few hours every night while we were on the island, instead constantly fishing through the wind, rain, cold, and dark. A true fishing enthusiast!

The next day, I woke to the same rainy gray skies that had sapped my energy so efficiently. My body felt almost immobile it was so devoid of heat. However, I willed myself out of the chair and car and greeted the glorious view of the sunrise. Today would be a new day, today was going to be a good day, I told myself.

12 hours later, the 3 of us sported the ultimate skunk. Despite being placed in the fishiest locations, using the newest, shiniest, most high tech gear, the weather and fish gods simply refused to smile upon us. I will be honest, my strength and passion was drained from the cold and wetness, and I was slowly putting less and less effort into my casts. Y and his girlfriend on the other hand, relentlessly pounded the water, whipping the water with cast after cast.

In an effort to restore some warmth back to my frozen husk of a body, I opted to take a dip at one of the public hot springs on the island. With an amazing view of the shoreline, I stripped down to my swimming shorts and took advantage of the blue skies that had appeared between passing storms. As the steaming water cocooning my body, I slowly felt strength returning to me. Quickly jumping back into my 6 layers of clothing, I watched the sun set over the hills as we returned back to the harbor for some nighttime fishing.

The rain had once again been falling sporadically. Although much more refreshed and comfortable from my hot spring dip, it was still a battle to continue fishing instead of curling into a ball in the van. However, my desire to attempt aji fishing won out, and soon I was clutching an ultra light ultra sensitive aji outfit throwing a 2 g jighead and aji jig. It wasn’t long before I glanced over and saw Y’s girlfriend bendo on a fish. These aji rods were solid carbon tip construction and incredibly sensitive, making these small species of jack feel like a tuna when hooked. After a few determined runs, she was carefully cradling a small aji or Japanese Jack Mackerel in her hands.

She quickly instructed me on where to throw my jig, and how to work it back in. Suddenly a hit, just midway down the water column! I struck, but I was far too late, the fish had spit the jig. The reflexes required to hook these fish were really quite incredible; you literally have a split second to feel the bite and strike into the fish before it spits the jig. Slowly I began to increase my ability to feel and react to the bites. Before long, I had my first aji up. For the big game hunters, these small fish may just look like bait, but the technique and skill required to catch these fish as well as the great fight they put up on ultralight gear is actually very enjoyable for a sport angler.

I managed to catch another aji before the bite shut off. Again, another aspect of aji fishing that can make it addicting: these fish feed only sporadically and are very keyed in on their prey. It becomes quite a game to figure out how to entice these fish. While reeling in my jig, directly below my feet at a shadow line, I suddenly had an intense and violent strike. I missed the strike and reeled up my mangled jig. It’s body had been shredded and half pulled off the jig. This was no mackerel!

I decided to fish the shadow line a little more closely, similar to nighttime snook fishing in Florida. Popping the jig in the line between the light and shadows, it wasn’t long before another violent strike rocked my outfit. Luckily, I struck successfully into the fish, and swung an energetic little fish up to me. I was face to face with one of my favorite fish from Japan! Although I was unable to identify the fish until later returning to the States, Y told me it was called kuromutsu and generally adults were found in deep oceanic waters. I have always, and continue to have a deep fascination with fish that survive in the aphotic zone of the deep ocean and this fish looked exactly like it was made to live there. Huge bulging eyes, enormous gaping mouth filled with razor sharp vicious teeth, dark reddish scales, and a terrible attitude! Not much wonder that after researching the fish later on, I found one of the nicknames of this fish to be the Japanese Bluefish! According to fishbase, however, the common English name is gnomefish.

After admiring the fish, I quickly released it. Continuing to fish in the same matter, I managed to catch another two gnomefishes. Suddenly, a different fish struck my lure as I worked it along the side of the harbor. It was long and silver, and immediately began a frenzied fight as soon as it was hooked. I managed to pull it up but it was fighting so hard it was hard to see what exactly it was! Finally, it calmed down enough that I could make it out, and I realized that I had caught a barracuda species with enormous eyes. Called aka-kamasu in Japanese, I would later determine the English common name to be Red Barracuda.

Finding a little bit of structure near the center of the harbor, I cast out and as the jig fell, I felt a few small taps. Quickly striking and thinking it was an aji biting, I was surprised to feel a frenzied struggle of very little strength. I quickly dragged in my jig and found a curious little fish hooked on my jig. It was my first cardinalfish species! Apparently, cardinalfish species are relatively common in Japan, but this would be my only one, the Doederlein’s Cardinalfish. One thing I’ve noticed among the diverse range of nocturnal species of fish in Japan, is the immense eye size! Almost all the fish I caught at night had eye sizes that would make anime characters jealous!

Eventually, the bite died for most of the species, probably due to tidal movement. I climbed back into the van, and completely fell asleep. Unfortunately, this deep slumber turned out to negative thing because I was woken up at grey light by Y. As previously mentioned, he barely slept during the night, and had woken up to fish for hirame… successfully! Unfortunately, although he had hooked a Bastard Halibut on his swimbait, he was unable to get the fish up the steep walls of the jetty. With both me and his gf asleep and no one to help net the fish, he tried to handline the fish up only to have it saw through the leader with it’s sharp teeth.

With a beautiful sunrise over the horizon, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. It would be our last day here on the island of Niijima, and our ferry was bound to pick us up in just a few hours. Although fairly exhausted from the entire previous day of fruitless casting for big game species, I sucked it up and decided to fish with a heavy metal vibe lure in the deepest water accessible by the jetty. An enormous surge was hitting the sides of the jetty and waves were washing over the cement every minute or so. Y warned me to be cautious and to stay away from the edge.

My first cast was sent out right into the sunrise. I felt the lure drop through the water, deeper, deeper. The current was strong here, and my line was soon going out sideways against the jetty. I closed the bail after a long count and began my jerky retrieve, feeling the vibe lure working hard in the water. Halfway through my retrieve, I suddenly had a hard strike! I was dumbfounded, and it was only through instinct that I managed to strike. After throwing hundreds of casts over the last 3 days without any action, it was an amazing feeling to hear my drag singing! I called out to Y, hookup!!!

The fish made several hard runs as I fought to bring it up from the depths. Meanwhile, I kept a cautious eye on the sea, as it continued pounding the jetty and sending sheets of water over the top. Soon, I saw a hint of a silvery fish appear from the dark turquoise depths. Dai? No, not red enough. Hamachi? Maybe? The silvery form began to take shape, and Y deftly reached down into the water with a long handled net and despite a few last minute runs, managed to scoop up the fish!

Success! 3 days of cold, wind, rain, and miserable conditions were forgotten. This shiny beautiful kampachi laid gasping in Y’s net. Although it was small, this juvenile Greater Amberjack had put up an amazing fight for it’s size. Having been raised by a sushi chef, Y decided that this fish would be sacrificed for our meal, and went about performing ike jime to ensure the meat would be fresh and clean. It would then be placed on ice for the next day or two to firm up the flesh.

As the adrenaline coursing through my veins wore off, I took a seat on the back of the van and watched turquoise waters of the ocean lapping against the black mountains of Niijima. This little island was one of the most famous destinations for Tokyo anglers pursuing large gamefish from the shore. Although I had not managed to hook a hirame, which the island was most famous for, I did land my first gamefish in Japan from the shore. What an amazing journey!

Somewhat drained from the experience, I decided to spend the little amount of time we had left just playing in the protected harbor waters, looking for a new species. In the clear waters, I could see various different types of fish going about with their different behaviors. I noticed one particular group of fish with beautiful large pectoral fins swimming around and decided I had probably not caught that species. Rigging up with the small amount of krill I had left, I cast out to the group, but could only manage to hook more Red Naped Wrasses. These unknown fish were extraordinarily wary and would swim up to my baited hook but reject it. After spending a good hour trying my best to entice them to bite, Y called and told me it was about time to pack it in and get to the ferry terminal.

Giving up hope, I dumped most of the remaining krill into the water. Watching the fish, I noticed they ate the bait indiscriminately. Since we were leaving anyways, I figured I would just try one final time to see what these little fish were. Throwing the last of the bait into the water in a large handful, then sending an unweighted hook with a large glob of krill hiding the hook into the mass, I watched as the fish slowly picked up each piece of bait. Suddenly, one of the shadows raced up to my bait, and inhaled it! I set the hook and the little fish immediately began struggling to get away. For a small fish, it put up one heck of a fight, and it was a battle to keep it from getting back into a rock pile it was heading for. Swinging it up onto the jetty, I was amazed to see that it was a mejina. This is one of two species of fish in Japan that strongly mimic our Californian Opaleye, even down to the blue eyes! Opaleye hunters will probably relate to how finicky, cautious eaters opaleyes can be, and these Japanese Opaleye certainly lived up to that reputation!

Y called once again, and I hurriedly took a picture of the beautiful mejina and released it. We rushed over to the ferry terminal, returned the van, and boarded our ferry to return back to civilization. The warmth of the heated ferry hit my face like a wall. It was the first time I had felt warmth return to my body since the day before and I was immediately drowsy with the enveloping heat. After chatting about the experiences and lessons that were learned on this primitive island of the fishermen, the three of us were soon headed to our seats to take a long 8 hour nap as we waited to land back in Tokyo.

Although my time in Japan was already nearing an end, I was looking forward to one last fishing experience. The son of darkness would soon prove to me how much he really did deserve his nickname on a nighttime expedition to hunt for mebaru, his favorite target…

[i]To be continued…[/i]

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