Peter learns plenty from the contrasts between flyfishing in Japan and New Zealand.
A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a 10 day flyfishing trip to Japan, during what was pretty much the start of their summer. This is the second time in 5 years I’ve visited this very special country, and I’m sure I should spend more time there. I’d forgotten how good Japan is in so many ways. I travelled with my 18 year old son Lachie, Nick Taransky (the legendary cane rod maker who needs no introduction to FlyStream readers) and Dave Hemmings, a dear friend and fellow guide in Tasmania.
For me, this trip was primarily about learning to flyfish. Yes, that’s right, even though I’ve been at it now for 43 years, I still believe I have so much more to learn. Being ‘forever the student’ is an important aspect of my life. A second and maybe slightly less important reason was to experience the great Japanese culture once again. Nick had previously spent a month immersed in both flyfishing and the culture, and this had him yearning for more. A few years ago, Lachie had a couple of weeks as an exchange student in Japan and also looked forward to going back. That left Dave as the only first-timer in our party.
We began our trip in Tokyo, hosted by our friend Bill Higashi. Bill is a Master Casting Instructor of some note and we’d formed a friendship over the previous 10 years as we found ourselves at the same events in Florida, Melbourne, the Maldives and Japan. Bill is also a professional translator, which makes him a very handy companion in a country where few locals speak fluent English.
Our first casts were at night on one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world. Giant container ships towered over our comparatively small skiffs and we cast along the light/shadow interface to busting-up sea bass, feeding on sardines attracted to the bright wharf lights. This was fun and it is something that every flyfisher should do if visiting Tokyo.
We then travelled by slow train, followed by 280kph bullet train until we reached the mountains in northern Japan. This is where I learnt more about fishing in fast water than I had ever learnt before.
I’d had a few sniffs over the years of highly-skilled Japanese flyfishers with a totally different approach to fishing fast mountain rivers with a dry fly. Nick had previously met the main man, Naoto Shibuya, and was in awe of his abilities and a technique he had refined to the nth degree.
We also used a second guide, Sato-san. It was interesting how his approach was very different to that of Shibuya-san, but similarly successful. If I could sum up the difference between the two, I might say Shibuya-san is more refined and precise with the cast, while Sato-san puts more emphasis on the mend.
To cut a very long story short, I was so impressed with what I saw and learnt, next season I’ll be bringing Shibuya-san (along with Bill Higashi) to Tasmania, where we will fish and run some on-water clinics together. Keep an eye out for the dates on my website.
But back to the main point of the story. In December, Lachie and I celebrated his 99.15 ATAR score (he is obviously much smarter than his dad!) with a flyfishing trip to New Zealand’s South Island. So, it was on the flight back from Japan that the contrasts in flyfishing the two countries (both coincidentally in the first week of summer) struck me.
I’ve fished the South Island’s legendary rivers and lakes many, many times but never with my flyfishing-mad son. I was so looking forward to it. Whilst I’m a guide myself, for the past 10 years or so I’ve always tried to book some time with guides Dean Bell or Steve Carey when I’m in New Zealand. I have the utmost respect for these two and can’t recommend them highly enough. This time round I booked Steve for a few days, who is based out of Twizel.
Validation of this decision was almost immediate when Lachie’s first cast (with a cane rod, a 16-foot leader, and size 16 Paradun) was to a monster brown. A head the size of a Sherrin football lifted from the water like a breeching whale and engulfed the fly. Lachie struck perfectly and 10 minutes later we took a photo of the 8¼ pound trout that he caught on his first cast in New Zealand!
Now, here is where the contrasts start. My first fish in Japan (which incidentally was also caught on my first cast) was a mere 13cm long. That turned out to be around 5cm shorter than average: a real trophy in the mountain streams in Japan is 30cm; and in that week the biggest any of us caught was 29 cm.
Lachie and I fished in near perfect weather in the South Island. Light winds and blue skies made polaroiding easy for us. We roamed from Tekapo in the north to Lumsden and Te Anau in the south. We were guided on some days and fished unguided on others. We also had some days off to do things like jetboating.
The first and most obvious difference between the two fisheries is the nature of the streams themselves. Typically, the rivers we fish in NZ are many times the size of the Japanese streams. However, the Japanese streams are often steeper in gradient and for their size, faster flowing. The currents we had to manage and the drifts we had to achieve in Japan were a lot more complex than those in NZ. The waters were gin-clear in both cases.
In NZ, the species are basically rainbow and brown trout. We’ve had a lifetime chasing these fish and know lots about their behaviour and habits. This knowledge greatly enhanced our ability to catch them, assuming we got the cast right.
It might sound like a guide’s story here, but I wouldn’t be too far from the truth if I told you the average fish we polaroid in NZ is 4 pounds, and that mostly, they are relatively easy to see and sitting in places we expected them to be.
The fish in Japan are the magnificent and regal Yamame – this is a Pacific salmon species that looks and behaves a little like a rainbow. They enjoy the faster flows and love a dry fly. They are relatively easy to catch IF you can get a perfect drift.
The other main species is the Iwana, a type of char (related to brook trout). This fish tends to sit in the quietest water. The takes are ever so slow and subtle, and happen at the very last second of the drift deep into a back eddy. It’s as if these little beauties are the laziest fish on earth. You need great skill to catch them. Sometimes they require tempting with very long drift periods in the slowest ‘lazy Susan’ rotating backwaters on the other side of the most vigorous and complex rapids you can imagine.
In NZ, the standard go to pattern is often a Blowfly. What a horrid (albeit successful) fly this is. A bright, gawdy show-off of a fly that can contain lots of artificial ingredients. I’m sorry, but it’s just not me and I don’t want to cast them on my cane rod! Sometimes, when the Blowfly doesn’t work, the guides will swap it for a Black Spider, a wicked-looking creation with knotted black rubber legs. It’s a horror too but sometimes works a treat. It’s nice when you can raise a fish on a standard Klinkhammer or Parachute Adams-type pattern, but this isn’t always doable.
If I had to guess, something in the order of 50% of the trout we fished to in NZ would not take the dry fly, but instantly took a small nymph hung behind a nylon indicator.
By comparison, we only used dry flies in Japan and there seemed no need to ever tie a nymph on. Shibuya-san and Sato-san were ever so particular about the flies they used. Their flies were tied with a care and precision that you can imagine only a passionate and skilled Japanese flyfisher could muster. I wish I had the skill and ability to make flies like these guys. If I did, there wouldn’t be a fish left in Tasmania I hadn’t hooked!
The fly was an integral part of the Japanese fishing technique. It had to act like a parachute and STOP the leader from fully turning over. Much CDC was used and the flies were only ever proofed with Shimakazi spray. Shibuya-san had his own range of super lightweight, barbless hooks made to suit this method of fishing. How detailed is that!
Leaders, lines and rods
Sometimes, any old leader sufficed in NZ; although it was often best if it was a fast taper to help FULLY turn over the indicator and weighted nymph into strong downstream winds. A length of 12 feet or so was helpful but you could get by with a shorter length. Mostly, you were sight fishing and if you were able to cast accurately, you rarely required long drifts.
A 5 or 6 weight line would be standard in NZ, fished on a 9 foot medium/ fast action rod. Big winds and heavy flies require these heavier outfits.
In Japan, we used a base leader length of 15-16 feet. Then we added 6 feet of 6X tippet. This made 21 or 22 feet. As you might expect, any old leader is not good enough for Shibuya-san. He has a company produce his specialised leaders as a commercial product. I could bore you with the design but suffice to say, they are designed for 3 or 4 weight lines and are designed to NOT turnover when lengthened to 21 feet. While these leaders were cast by us on 4 weight lines, I am very much of the opinion that one of the reasons Shibuya-san only uses a 3 weight, is the mass of a 4 weight is too great and we were getting too good a turnover with this heavier line.
With this long-drift-leader (LDL) technique, the rod action plays as important a role as the leader and the fly. A deep flexing action is best so the loop is torn open with the deep counter-flex of the forward stop. Shibuya-san makes his own exquisite cane rods, based somewhat on a Paul Young Perfectionist. He likes a 3 weight of 8’2” or so, in a 2 piece.
After a long hot day of walking and wading New Zealand streams catching monsters, we often end up in a local pub swilling down schooners of cold beer, then eating huge rump steaks with salad and chips.
In Japan we always ended the day at a local Onsen (a thermal hot pool/bathhouse). Here we sat on a little stool and soaped and scrubbed. This was followed by the healing and soothing hot pool, before a plunge into ice-cold water. Next, we headed to one of the many small, family-owned dining houses where the food and drink was sensational to say the least. In my opinion Japanese food is the best in the world.
On one occasion, we stayed at a traditional and historic family-owned mountain inn, in a particularly remote area. The elderly owner greeted us in an immaculate 3-piece suit and told us he was the 17th generation of his family to own the inn and that he was here to look after us. When we left a couple of days later, he and his wife bowed to us and continued to bow to us for as long as the taxi took to turn onto another street.
At lunch in Tokyo, our host said the family of the chef and owner of the tiny family hole-in-the-wall restaurant, had served his family for 3 generations! Where else in the world can you experience this?
I’m of course simplifying a little bit, but if you want come home from a fishing holiday with hero photos after you have visited a country much like our own, then by all means book a trip to New Zealand.
On the other hand, if you won’t cringe when you show your fishing friends photos of the most beautiful fish that are literally smaller than the palm of your hand, and you are happy to catch just a few of these beauties each day, then you might consider Japan for your next (and really educational) flyfishing adventure. I assure you, the people are the most humble, kind and considerate of any in the world. They are perfectionists with great pride. Their food and culture is something to behold. I for one wish to take a great many leaves from their book.