Miyakojima Island Traditional Fishing

One interesting thing I find about fishing Japan is discovering local traditional fishing techniques, and having a go for oneself. In my limited experience, most non-Japanese anglers one meets over here tend to go for fly or lure fishing using modern equipment to chase big game like tuna, yellowtail, mahi mahi, sea bass and the like, and not for the more traditional Japanese fishing. With so many different biotopes and varying local conditions – along with the Japanese penchant for eating almost anything from the sea – many specialised fishing techniques have developed over the ages, and often these are restricted to very specific regions. On Miyakojima island, fishermen use a technique called ishimaki-otoshi (lit. ‘wrapped stone drop’) which is well suited to catching large fish from the nooks and crannies that comprise the coral sea floor around the island. No special equipment is required other than a coil of good strong nylon line, a nice big fish hook and some bait fish.  And some stones…

For bait we first chum-fished for some fish known locally as gurukun (they also make excellent eating, almost a national dish of Okinawa).  After snagging a bunch, the skipper took one of the fish out of the live well, scaled it, top’n’tailed it and baited the hook with it. Then he took up a grapefruit-sized stone (out of a basket containing many, stowed on board) and pressed the baited hook onto it and fixed it in place by wrapping the line around both stone and fish chunk about a dozen times. Then, he took up the entrails, head and tail and other offcuts left over of the fish and roughly pressed these against the rock and again, wrapped the whole thing in line about ten times. Finally, the line was looped and tucked into the initial wraps of the line (but not tied) to form a quick-release mechanism, requiring nothing more strenuous than a quick upward pull on the line to release the stone, the entrails and the baited hook from one another.

On reaching the correct fishing point, the stone is thrown into the water. The depth where we were was about 20 fathoms. The technique is to let the stone take your baited hook to the seafloor, and then yank the line once to release the whole contraption. The theory is that the guts, head &c. of the fish form a miniature chum cloud around the baited hook to attract fish. Many of the bottom-dwelling fish targeted by this kind of fishing conceal themselves in nooks and crannies within the coral and rocky seafloor, especially during daytime, and require an extra incentive to take the bait. Using a stone to weigh it all down removes the necessity for lead sinkers, side leaders or any other extra equipment that would simply snag on the coral on the seafloor (both practical and environmentally friendly); even the hook is kept well within the fish bait to stop its point being blunted by or catching on obstacles.

Altogether the set-up might cost about $30 (the nylon line being the most expensive part) and it was gratifying to see the skipper haul in big fish after fish with such simple tackle (sorry Shimano and Daiwa). In particular he snagged a nice steel-blue fish he called aomachi and assured us would make excellent eating (it did). I’ve done a little handline fishing myself – for octopus and rockfish, among other things – but this fishing was different. As obvious from the fish the skipper was bringing in there was an amazing variety of big fish to be taken, and judging by the way his hook was bent back once and his line broken several times there were clearly some real monsters lurking in the water right below us. I put down my rod and had a go. Despite the thickness of the line, you could feel little fish chewing on the bait and even fish bumping into the line in the midst of the chum cloud frenzy. I waited and waited and I got one good hit; sadly I was impatient and didn’t give the fish enough time to swallow the bait, and when I pulled up on my line I didn’t get a hook-up.

It was a half-day charter and our time was coming to a close; my girlfriend had finally got bored of fishing and I was regretting letting that one fish go (definitely a monster, the ones that get away are always the big ones, eh). Suddenly the skipper’s line went out with a big jolt knocking some stuff on the boat flying and having him chasing after it. When he finally got a hold on it, he told me to take the line and so I took his place, and the fight started. I am not a small man, but when I took the line in my hands I felt like a very slight person taking a huge dog for a walk on a leash. The pull on the line was heavy and got stronger in bursts here and there. When the line is really under strain you have to let it out a bit (without putting slack on the line, which can throw the hook) and then pull it in, inch by inch, when the fish lets you. Despite my previous experience with handline fishing at one stage I accidentally got one of my fingers wrapped in the line; a perfect way to lose a finger (fortunately, I did not). After what seemed like ages of letting line out, hauling it back in and then repeating the process over and over again, I saw a shape coming up in the water. I had my polarising fishing sunglasses on and anyway the water around Miyakojima is famous for its clarity: but instead of the red or brown grouper-type fish I was expecting, the fish was silver and whizzing back and forth at immense speed. Usually by the time you bring bottom-feeder fish close to the surface they have swim bladder distension and are in a state of near-paralysis but this thing fought to the last inch of seawater. Well after a little struggle the skipper netted the fish for me and landed it…

a fish known locally as gaara and in English as giant trevally. Not a beast, but with about 8kg on it at least.  These fish can grow to quite hefty sizes – the world record GT was over 50kgs and was caught in the Okinawa islands – so mine was a comparative tiddler, but I was pretty lucky to be able to bring in one on a handline.  When they get big, it is best not to eat them out because of the risk of ciguatera poisoning, but this one was just right for eating.  Its flesh was cut into little strips, coated in batter and deep-fried into quite delicious fritters.

The day was concluded with consuming our catch at our hotel (many varieties of sashimi, deep-fried fish and herb-grilled) and indulging the local puggle, the spirit known as awamori which is distilled from rice.  The skipper had procured, as a treat, one of the rarest brands of awamori on Okinawa, called Awanami.  It was a wonderful gesture and went down well with the excellent fish dishes prepared for us (under his instruction); my experience of genuine Okinawan hospitality will be a most treasured memory.

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