Well after last week’s fishing ended without hirame (but with a tasty fish anyway in the bag) I decided to call on Captain Yutaka of Nakaminato. I always have a good time fishing on his boat, the 5-ton Yutaka-maru, and since now is the season for hirame I rang him to book myself in for Sunday.
For me, fishing on the Yutaka-maru is always fun and this time was no exception. The train ride to Nakaminato station was uneventful; the local line from Katsuta has been relaid and restored, so the trains are back to their pre-earthquake schedule and running, as usual here in Japan, to the minute. The local line uses possibly the smallest diesel train I have ever seen in this country; one carriage about the size of an inner-city bus. Anyway, the skipper’s shed is a short walk from the station and I arrived, with all my luggage, on time. After checking over my tackle for hirame fishing once, and very kindly tying one of his own special hirame rigs for me to use the next day, we set off to our usual schedule, which is to get roaring-drunk at his local izakaya and then turn in early. With the piercing cold of Ibaraki winter night the sky was very clear and on the way to the bar I pointed out Venus and Jupiter and Betelgeuse and Sirius and some other celestial objects; so clear it was I could even make out the Orion Nebula, although the Japanese word for “nebula” failed me and whilst gawking skywards I nearly got run over by a car. The place we went to was different to last year and appeared to have no menu nor any semblence of order; dishes appeared as though by telepathy and we sank a great deal of shochu as the 71 year-old owner-chef went on a great account of Japanese fighting cocks, including a heart-breaking story of a particular bird he raised from the egg. In turn the skipper recounted how he has had bad luck at sea this year, and indeed on New Year’s Day when he went to Oarai Shrine to be exorcised his car broke down halfway. In the spirit of things I mentioned some of the things believed to bring bad luck to those at sea: having a white-handled knife, stepping aboard with one’s left foot first, sailing on a Friday, dugongs, black cats, seeing a ginger-haired man. Anyway, thoroughly oiled we took our leave of the restaurant and headed back home. On the way back I kept an eye out for the white cat that so disapproved of us last time but we arrived home unmolested and after polishing off another bottle of shochu in front of the oil stove we turned in early, at about 9pm. The night was, in no uncertain terms, very cold. I woke once to find my beard and moustache soaking wet, which turned out to be from my nose running down my face; the thermometer on my Casio mariner’s watch read 1.9 degrees Celsius, and at no point in the night could I not see my own breath. Mercifully, the skipper’s grinding and usually incessant snoring seemed to have been cured or perhaps the cold precluded it; anyway I must have slept deeply for I was disturbed by a number of highly eccentric and vivid dreams, no doubt due to the great quantities of fresh fish I had eaten that night. Anyway, my alarm roused us at 4am and after a hot coffee each we were dressed and ready to go fishing. I for one have recently invested in a new suit of winter fishing overalls, my previous set serving me so well since 2005 and largely held together by my stitching and looking very disreputable, and the new one is so warm that I need wear no more than thermal long-johns and a Guersney frock underneath and still remain comfortable.
After securing our sardines as live-bait in the live well, we cast off from our moorings and were soon under way and making good time down the Naka River in the dawn twilight. As soon as we were beyond the Nakaminato breakwaters the skipper remarked, “It is a perfect calm today!” which struck me as a little ironic as the wind had picked up to a howling-level, and we breasted each big Pacific Ocean swell with a surge and then a sickening plunge downwards, with an accompanying clatter of buckets, boxes of fishing tackle and other unsecured paraphernalia falling about on deck. But it is amazing how one becomes habituated to these things and whilst I just about kept my balance with my feet awash with every wave that came over the bows and a hose-like shower of spray, it seemed perfectly natural to me when the skipper produced a small wooden box of his own making that contained an electric drip-coffee maker, and yelled at me to make myself an espresso and one for him too. With the air temperature about 2 or 3 of Celsius’ degrees the hot stuff went down very well, surprisingly good coffee considering the circumstances of its genesis. I’ve been in a worse swell in the terrible seas off Omaezaki, and higher winds on many occasions, but the weather had a particular insistent character because of the winter cold. Indeed it was only with dawn and the rising sun that sensation returned to my hands, and soon we were at the fishing point. Hirame fishing is with live sardine bait and fairly non-taxing, and a wide variety of by-catch seemed to take the bait; I landed a giant gurnard and some various rockfish. As we were fishing, a great number of seabirds seemed to be flying about, and soon were surrounded by a genuine ‘boil’ of baitfish, but this was bigger than I have ever seen. It seemed we were surrounded by seabirds on all sides and the skipper handed me a spare rod with a sabiki rig on it, and the mackerel hooked themselves faster than we could land them. After catching about a dozen of the creatures I ended up feeling sorry for them and stopped fishing, but not after making sure my catch was bled and well-chilled in ice-water. Even if I did not catch a hirame today, I would eat well. Hopefully the Hitchcock-like scale of the bird-mass is evident in the photo:
Anyway, almost as soon as the boil appeared, the seabirds seemed to calm down a little and disperse and the insane mackerel feed was over; coinciding with this the high running sea and winds died down and we were treated to slightly calmer conditions. The wind no longer howled and we could indulge in civilised conversation, and we warmed up a bit as the skipper, as ever, produced some hot grub from the engine room which went down well. It was then I hooked my first hirame; not a beast, but a good eating size:
Anyway, the day wore on but sadly no more hirame were snagged, and even by-catch seemed to stop taking the bait. The skipper snagged a big mebaru that he kindly gave me, but otherwise our game for the day came to an end. With a cool-box filled with mackerel, hirame, gurnard and two kinds of rock-fish, I could not complain when the skipper called it a day at 1pm and we headed back to Nakaminato. As always, he only asked me to pay my share of the fuel for the day, and for the live bait, and very kindly gave me a lift to the train station. I was on my way by 3pm and back in Tokyo at 5:30pm. Of course, passing through Mito on the way back I was obliged to pick up some of the local specialty, natto, which I look forward to consuming.
Well the eating is always good after I have been fishing Nakaminato. First up was the hirame, which I made into a special kind of sashimi, where the fish slices are lightly salted with sea-salt and then drenched in olive oil, lemon juice and capers. The texture of the fish goes very well with the oleic-richness, citrus-tartness and crunchy salt.
Next up was a big plate of conventional sashimi, made from three different species: the soi (bottom left), gurnard (right) and hirame.
Next was shime-saba: mackerel lightly salted and pickled in vinegar before being skinned & sliced & served like sashimi. Being winter, the mackerel were very plump; the layer of rich white fat between skin and flesh can be seen in this photo. Since the popular consensus is that mackerel fish oil is very good for you, this dish can be consumed with no guilt and indeed, it can be regarded as a health food…
With so many fish in the bag, there was plenty to eat the following day. Being in a sushi-eating mood I made nigiri-sushi from hirame. Despite being labelled as a ‘white-fleshed fish’ it has plenty of fat on it this time of year and was very tasty, indeed it is one of my favourite varieties of sushi:
And then some sushi from the remaining shime-saba:
As a death-blow the sushi was concluded with the engawa from the hirame:
Many thanks to Captain Yutaka, sailing from Nakaminato, for the fantastic day’s fishing! I hope to see him again soon.