The term undiscovered gem is so overworked it’s become a cliche.
But applied to Japanese fly fishing it is true!
When I moved to Japan in 2010, I brought my fly fishing gear but didn’t think it would get much use.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth as I chased taimen, rainbow trout, char and salmon in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, sea bass in Tokyo Bay and various other species.
In this article I am going to break down fishing for each of these targets. It is possible to get great fishing guides in Japan and this is highly recommended to make the most of your time fly fishing.
You can hear me discussing fishing in Japan in detail on these podcasts:
- Fly Fishing 97 podcast (June 2021)
- Ask About Fly Fishing Podcast (2020)
- The Itinerate Angler (April 2014)
Rainbow trout in Japan
Introduced in 1877 from California, rainbow trout are now endemic in many parts of Japan and are the main trout species in most areas, along with various char species, including the amemasu, which we will discuss further on in this article.
One notable point about rainbow trout in Japan is their wiliness. In New Zealand and Argentina, rainbows are regarded as the “dumb” cousin of the wily browns. But in Japan, you need to fish well to fool these big rainbows, who are also so strong they take a lot of skill and good gear to land.
Rainbow trout fishing in Honshu
Early on in my stay in Japan we fished for rainbow trout an hour or two from Tokyo in the mountains of Gifu prefecture. Honsho is Japan’s most heavily populated island and you drive through miles of suburbia before reaching the rice paddies on the outskirts at the foot of the mountains. Up in the hills the population thins out and we fished a lake not far from a ski resort. You paid a fee and rented a boat and putted around looking for rises. The lake was in forested country and there was usually a reliable beetle fall on the wooded shores. This was intriguing fishing to wary fish and very addictive.
But as soon as I had got that under my belt my Japanese fishing buddies felt I was ready for more adventures. And that meant Hokkaido.
Hokkaido Rainbow Trout Fishing
Hokkaido is a large, remote island that sits between Japan and Russia and is surrounded in all four directions by the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. The capital, Sapporo, sits at 43 degrees north in terms of latitude.
By the standards of highly urbanised Japan, Hokkaido is the wild frontier in many ways. Think Alaska in a US context or Siberia in a Russia context.
Despite accounting for 20% of Japan’s land mass, it is home to just 5 million people, the majority of whom live in the capital.
It’s a land of big mountains, forests, volcanoes and valleys. Home to grizzly bears and a wide variety of salmonid species.
Courtesy of its northerly latitude, Hokkaido gets a short, sharp summer and the insect life is very aware of this. Come to fish in Hokkaido in July and the skies are buzzing with a variety of insects taking advantage of the warmth before turning their minds to reproduction.
For the fishing, this means rivers full of big rainbow trout (24″ and bigger sometimes) looking upwards for their next meal to fall from the skies. The rivers often have a canopy of trees that are home to variety of big beetles, caterpillars and spiders – all of which are on the menu.
But these are not easy fish to fool, especially in the clear rivers of high summer. Think 5x leaders and drag free drifts to even get a look in and then hang on! Many of these fish are 20″ plus and can pull hard enough to test your knots in these mountain streams.
Different forms of rainbow fishing are also practised at other times. Friends swing steelhead flies in the larger rivers for some bows that are more like steelhead. I haven’t been lucky enough to do one of these trips yet, but certainly plan to!
Taimen fishing in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is home to a few unique sport fish and none are more notable than the taimen. This mostly anadromous species of taimen (hucho perryi) is native to Japan and parts of Russia, including Sakhalin Island, which is visible from the northerly tip of Hokkaido.
Taimen fishing is great fun and I was addicted to it from my very first trip, which I wrote about for FlyLife. Although there a few places to fish for these large and rare fish, we always fished an estuary on the northeast coast. It is a relative small waterway, shallow enough to walk across in sections. The taimen live in the lower section and hunt baitfish expertly by herding them into the shallows where they pick them off in smash and grab raids.
You can fish them in a few ways. Blasting big casts across the river with streamer patterns or topwater gurglers and stripping them back. Or finding their ambush points and either setting a trap with a suspending fly fish stationary or casting to boils. Both ways are effective, although I prefer the latter because it is so exciting. I had hoped to become possibly the only non-Japanese to join the 1m (40″) Club by catching a taimen on fly in excess of this length, but alas I would be broken off by two such specimens (one of these was captured on film by Nick Reygaert is his film Predator) and would have to settle for a 95cm fish as my personal best.
Taimen fishing is possible from May through to December with conditions the most comfortable in the high summer of July and August. As with all the fishing here – except the salmon fishing – catch and release is practised by fly fishers.
Amemasu or White-Spotted Char fishing
One of the other unique species in Hokkaido is the native white spotted char, or amemasu. This beautiful fish exists in both anadromous form and non anadromous. It can be caught in a range of rivers or lakes, with the most famous fishing occurring in Lake Akan, a lake that lies in the shadow of the Akan volcano in Hokkaido.
Every summer on Lake Akan in June there is a two-week long hatch of a large mayfly called the monkagerou, which the char feast on making for some wonderful dry fly fishing. I loved fishing this hatch watching the lake come alive with amemasu slurping down big duns and emergers and fishing for them with big mayfly patterns in a size 8. I wrote about it for FlyLife back in 2013. Again, these fish aren’t foolish and drag-free crosswind drifts are required in most cases.
Amemasu can be caught outside of this period of course, often with nymphs. They are found in streams across Hokkaido – where the smaller versions are called iwana char – and you would go a long way to find a prettier salmonid species.
The sea-run version can be caught off the beaches and in large rivers at certain times of the season with steelhead and flies. These fish reach 24″ or so.
Salmon fishing in Japan
Hokkaido is also the scene for the bulk of Japan’s salmon fishing. Japan gets runs of the main Pacific salmon species – Cherry Salmon, Pink Salmon and Chum Salmon the main types, although, King Salmon and Coho Salmon also exist.
Fishing for them in Japan is a little different to salmon fishing in the US and Canada, or the UK and Scotland.
As a general (with just a couple of exceptions) it is illegal to purposefully fish for salmon once they enter a river, so you are really talking about surf fishing for them.
The Sea of Okhotsk is relatively calm most of the time and you won’t have big waves to contend with. But the salmon aren’t always easy to fool.
You need to find a small river or stream draining into the ocean and cast into the waves nearby. Japanese fisherman use a variety of different sparsely dressed flies, often pink and red in color, that are very effective. The trick is striking in a timely fashion and ensuring the hook penetrates the hard mouths of these fish.
The Pink Salmon run from July to September and the chum salmon from late August through to December. The cherry salmon run in spring, but it is illegal to fish for them.
I only spent a couple of sessions fishing for salmon in Hokkaido, so I am far from an expert, but you can find some more information in English here.
Iwana and Yamame Fishing in Japanese Mountain Streams
While the rainbow trout, char and taimen fishing in Hokkaido are the undiscovered gems of Japanese fly fishing in my opinion, Japan is perhaps most famous for its small stream fishing for the beautiful iwana char and yamame species.
This ultralight fly fishing is great fun, creeping up steep mountain valleys with a two or three weight and patch full of small dry flies casting to rising yamame and iwana is a great way to spend a summer’s day.
The yamame is a river-resident version of the sea-running Cherry Salmon and the iwana is the landlocked form of the white-spotted char.
Both favour the same sort of cool mountain streams. This is true “twig water” as they say in Australia – perfect territory for a two or three weight. The fish don’t get any bigger than 12 inches and the bigger rainbows, which would really test and outfit like this, don’t come up these little streams much.
You can fish dry flies for these fish all day. Again, they aren’t silly and sloppy presentations and drifts with drag can go ignored. A good fly fisher, though, can expect to catch solid numbers of these gorgeous little fish.
Tenkara fishing in Japan
Of course this kind of fishing is also the domain of the Tenkara brigade. I am not a tenkara expert – in fact I have never done it – so won’t attempt to write much about it here, other than a brief explanation.
Tenkara fishing originated in the days of the samurai in Japan and involves using a long rod with no reel to position the fly on the water via a line that is about as long as the rod itself with a short leader attached.
Tenkara has become popular in other parts of the world and tenkara gear has become more specialised using modern materials rather than the bamboo rods and silk line of the samurai in their tenkara fishing.
Sea bass fishing on Tokyo Bay
The most accessible fly fishing opportunity in Japan – which is ideal for those visiting Tokyo on business – is fishing for sea bass. The sea bass, or suzuki, is a long, aggressive saltwater fish that thrives in urbanized environments.
The sea bass love taking surface flies, particularly at night. I’ve done a couple of night trips cruising Tokyo Bay with an 8 weight and floating line blasting surface flies into the illuminated patches of water beneath spotlights. In among the freighters, docks and oil refineries you can have same terrific fishing and 40+ fish a night is not uncommon. It is a world away from strolling a mountain stream for landlocked yamame, but it is a unique form of fishing experience that has its own charms.
Fly tying in Japan
If there was any activity better suited to the Japanese character than fly tying, it is hard to think of it. The combination of persistence, devotion, innovation and attention to detail that has given the world bonzai and Toyota is perfect for fly fishing.
Japanese fly tyers learned from their Western peers in the 20th century, but have also adapted these techniques to the local insect population.
Most Japanese flies are exquisitely tied (I had the opportunity to interview one of Japan’s best fly tyers, Mitsugu Bizen, for this story) and often feature natural materials, particularly CDC and peacock herl. CDC is a feature of many Japanese flies and I can personally vouch for these flies easily outfishing flies tied with synthetic wing materials such as Hi-Vis or Aero-Wing on the often picky salmonids.
Final thoughts on fly fishing in Japan
So there you have it – a whole host of fly fishing opportunities in this beautiful country. Put aside your mental picture of fishing elbow to elbow with a host of competing fly fishers – fly fishing remains a niche sport in Japan and there are many places to get away from the competition.
Consider using a guide to make the most of your time. A good starting point is Trout & King, run by Motohiro Ebusidani (or ‘Ebi’), a devoted fly fisher who can set you up with English-speaking guides and advise on best times and places to fish throughout Japan.
Perhaps the only other thing to be aware in fishing Hokkaido is brown bears. Hokkaido is home to a reasonable population of these bears – equivalent to the North American grizzly bear. While most encounters are harmless, there are occasional fatalities and it is wise to take a bell and bear spray if heading into the mountains.