Heaven in Hokkaido: A fly fisherman's paradise
This story first appeared in the April 21, 2018 issue of The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2018/04/20/travel/fly-fishing-remote-reaches-hokkaido/#.W0-tES2ZPrI
We meet at midday in the hamlet of Akanko Onsen in Hokkaido and pile into Shigeru (Dameon) Takada’s Honda Insight, a hybrid vehicle that he drives like a race car along a gravel road that leads to a fish hatchery on the north side of Lake Akan. This region is protected as part of Akan National Park, but Takada is a permitted guide and we are allowed to enter. We are alone on the road and slow down only for crossing deer and particularly sharp turns.
Paralleling the road is a beautiful stream that feeds the lake and is one of Takada’s favorite — and secret — places to fish. He stops often to point out his favorite fishing holes and scenic spots, where we are sure to see schools of trout and salmon circling in the clear waters.
Takada is intimately connected to the land, and when we stop, he scans the area for deer, bear and birds. Together, these animals contribute to the habitat that supports the fish below, he says. The interplay between flora and fauna is critical to a healthy fish population, a mutually dependent relationship that he, and the Ainu people of this region, respects.
“When I was young, I came here with my father. He heard noises when he was fishing and called out to me: ‘What are you doing?’ He thought I was in the water, splashing and scaring the fish. I told him I wasn’t. Then two hunters came by and asked: ‘Did you see the bear?’ ”
While father and son had been fishing, the bear had been too, Takada explains.
By day, Takada is an executive at a chain of hotels in Hokkaido that are owned by the Tsuruga Group. He wears fitted suits and speaks excellent English that he learned as an exchange student living in Canada years ago. At his hotels, he proudly points out exquisite Ainu carvings in the lobby, museum-quality sculptures and historical artifacts that are displayed there.
But it is when he is surrounded by the natural environment that Takada truly comes to life. In place of his suit, he wears a windbreaker and quick-dry trousers. Rather than a tie, he wears a collection of whistles around his neck to call ducks, deer and other wildlife.
Here, casting a line into the clear waters that make this national park an international fly-fishing destination, he is most at home.
“I started fly-fishing when I was 8 years old,” says Takada, now 55. “It is because of my father that I started, he was a strong influence on me. When I was young, my father may have been the only fly-fisherman in Hokkaido.”
But not anymore. Takada and other flyfishing enthusiasts have worked to educate the world on this region’s rich fishing opportunities. The lessons he learned from his father — how to coax a trout to the surface or fight a kokanee salmon to the end of his line — are now being shared with visitors from around the world. He is but one of a number of guides in the region who knows where the best places are for fly-fishing.
Today, Hokkaido is renowned for some of the best fly-fishing in all of Japan. The Lake Akan region is particularly productive. Mount Oakan flanks the eastern side of the lake and, after the long, snowy winters, the nutrient-dense runoff from the mountain feeds the lakes and streams, creating an ideal habitat for several species of fish. Lake Akan boasts char, rainbow trout, taimen, carp and cherry salmon, all of which can be fished at varying times of the year, ranging from May 1 to Nov. 30, depending on location and species. Kokanee are a landlocked salmon native to Lake Akan, and the char — also called Japanese char, white-spotted char or golden char for their telltale golden hue — are one of the most prized fish.
“Because the Lake Akan area was designated a national park, the fish in the lake and rivers are still in their pure, natural shape,” Takada says. The golden char, he says, are particularly special. “The average size is 45 to 50 centimeters, and sometimes you can fish big, golden char as long as 90 centimeters,” he says.
Deep below the surface, the lake holds another treasure. Marimo are a rare species of algae that grow only in two places in the world: Lake Akan in Hokkaido and Lake Myvatn in Iceland. They form perfectly sculpted furry green spheres and, when left alone for long periods, can reach the size of soccer balls. In fact, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has included marimo among its extensive list of Special Natural Monuments, reserved for the naturally occurring flora and fauna of Japan. Around Akanko Onsen, tiny marimo replicas are sold in the shops as souvenirs of the area.
However, the bountiful fish of this region are the true draw, Takada says. For productive spring fishing, visit the area in late May to early June, when the mayflies emerge from the bottom of the lake, swarming to the surface and taunting the fish below. As summer progresses, the fish feed on the abundance of cicadas, caterpillars and spiders that thrive there, and floating man-made flies imitating these tasty treats is enough to nab a feisty rainbow trout or elusive golden char.
The fishing continues into October, with the best species to target being salmon and trout. Anglers on Lake Akan may keep their catch but on the Akan River, there are stricter catch and release rules. This is because the river is where the fish breed; keeping the population healthy is a goal among local conservationists, Takada says. The season ends Oct. 31 on the Akan River, he adds, but lakes Akan, Taro and Jiro, and Hyotan Pond are open through Nov. 30.
“In autumn, floating minnows work best,” Takada says. “There is not much snow in November, but any that does fall sticks to the tree branches and makes the area look majestic. The temperatures are freezing but we can still do top-water fishing.”
The main problem at this time of year, Takada warns, is that the guide on the fishing rod can freeze up with accumulated water droplets, making casting and reeling a challenge.
When I visit in October, the frigid days have not yet arrived. Lake Akan is clear and inviting, the leaves are still colorful on the trees. The temperatures are still warm enough that fishermen in waders can brave the lake’s cool waters.
We do not have the opportunity to wet a line — but Takada insists on showing us a collection of his favorite fishing holes to which he takes clients seeking an insider’s knowledge. He tells stories at each stop and his adventurous personality is infectious.
He says he wants his clients to have stories to tell too so, last fall, he created the “Lake Akan Fishing Passport,” which can be used to stow a fishing license, record catch and take notes on the details of the day. This is not just a flimsy flyer, rather a thickly bound, write-in-the-rain booklet made to last.
“I did not want to create a brochure that would be thrown away,” he says. “I made it in the style of a passport so that people can keep it, record in it and bring it each time they come back to Lake Akan. It will keep each memory in your pocket.”
At one of our last stops, we pile out of the Honda, bushwhack across some tall weeds and reach a fallen tree over the water. Takada pulls out his deer whistle and blows it to see if a buck will appear. I walk to the water’s edge and look into an eddy where, sure enough, trout linger. Our whirlwind tour doesn’t allow us to stay long. Still, I imagine spending hours here, plying this stretch of water, amid the rippling creek and bright autumn hues.
Just as Takada predicts, the spot stays in my mind, becoming my own memory to savor, one that will lure me back to this area again one day, much like the salmon that return every year.
Lake Akan is located in eastern Hokkaido, a one-hour bus ride (¥2,150 one way) from Kushiro Airport. Due to its remoteness, the park is best accessed by personal transportation. For guiding, Shigeru Takada can be contacted through hotels run by the Tsuruga Group.