I made the trip to Nakaminato, Ibaraki Prefecture, to go offshore fishing with gentleman skipper Captain Yutaka, this time hoping to snag some hirame (bastard halibut). Click through for the full story.
All fishing trips on the Yutaka-maru start the previous day, with a train journey to Nakaminato that takes about 90 minutes. I have covered this journey in previous reports and as always, the train ride was smooth and without delay, although once I arrived at Nakaminato station I was met with an unusual scene.
A number of folk from the local residents’ assocation and the ticket collector, a dark-eyed young person, were greeting passengers in the station, handing out new train timetables for 2013; one of the men was playing Spanish guitar and another gave me a discount voucher I could redeem at the Nakaminato fish market “In case you aren’t in luck when fishing”, he said with a knowing leer. I was also given a tourist map of Nakaminato, two postcards depicting railway scenes and a description of the two station cats, Osamu and Mini-Samu, whom the station attendants have adopted.
The cats seemed to be neglecting their station duties and were absent, no doubt sunning themselves somewhere; despite it being mid-winter it was sunny and without a breath of wind in the air and it was actually hot under all my fishing clothes. The men with pamphlets, the young person and the guitarist wished me good luck for my fishing and saw me off from the station waiting room. A short walk from the station and I was at Captain Yutaka’s seaside shack and since he was not there I let myself in. Hirame fishing requires the largest of my cool-boxes and the heaviest tackle I own, so I was grateful for the rest after my journey. Anyway, soon after the Captain arrived and after we squared away some of the terrible mess of his room he showed me how to tie a hirame rig, one of his own invention and that is best suited to the kind of fishing on his boat. He went off to deliver some hirame he had caught that day to a neighbour to whom he had promised some fish, and then we left his place to see to the serious business of dinner at a local izakaya at which he is a regular.
The staff remembered me from my last visit, curiously enough, and the owner heaped a great deal of complementary little dishes at our places before we had even ordered: soy sauce-stewed satoimo potatoes, sea bass in a dressing of cream and mushrooms, konbu kelp salad, some chicken wings. The owner is particular about his fish and we went for a mix of sashimi, the crowning glory, produced under Captain Yutaka’s insistence that we eat no hirame so as not to draw a curse upon our fishing the next day: sea-snail, octopus, baby sardine, chutoro tuna, yellowtail, swordfish and ark shellfish.
I helped these down with some beers and shochu whilst the Captain stuck to whiskey, and after the amazing sashimi I ordered some yakitori, some fried things and between us we insisted the boss had a beer himself on our tab, after producing such a dish of fish. After thoroughly refreshing ourselves, we ordered another of the restaurant’s specialties: ramen. The menu at this place is not limited to izakaya dishes and the owner will make you almost anything you want, including yakisoba, soba in hot dashi broth, many kinds of pasta, baked dishes and things for kids, but the ramen is particularly tasty and a good way to end a night’s drinking. The ramen arrived; was rapidly despatched, and then we paid up and headed home.
As always, we had an early start for the next morning so we turned in early. Whether it is the time of year or the great amount of whiskey he consumed, Captain Yutaka’s greatest infamy, his snoring, was not so bad and my sleep was only disturbed by a vivid, ludicrous dream featuring men in tiger outfits in a boxing ring trying to cut each other with very small butter knives. Just as the reigning champion, a Siberian tiger, became entangled in the ropes in his corner I was interrupted by the alarm on my wristwatch and it was 4am and time to get ready. There was not much conversation to be had from either of us as we donned our fishing suits and the next step was to drive across the Naka River, to Oarai port, to buy livebait for our fishing. For me buying livebait from the sardine-sellers for hirame fishing is always an experience since the sardine fishermen are a hardbitten no-nonsense bunch of men and appear even more so since in the night they pile up a huge bonfire of broken timber and driftwood on the quay next to their trawler to light their activities, and the orange glow and rising sparks in the half-light give their hard faces a decidedly menacing look. However, their menace is not entirely genuine, for as I watched the boat’s purser making notes in a book at a small table a small white ship’s cat sat happily munching through a large number of sardines, eating better than most humans. Another aspect that always fascinates me is how they conduct their business: there seems to be almost no communication between buyer and seller other than a very discreet, rapid exchange of some cant or pre-agreed words and signals, in the fashion of the gemstone dealers of Araby, after which both quantity and price is settled, cash is handed over to the purser at his cat-table and a couple of young enormous hands haul buckets of live sardines from the boat over to the waiting live well or aerated water tanks. I would take photos if I dared, but I don’t think the flash would be appreciated by the sardine-men or their customers. Anyway, Captain Yutaka appears to be admitted to the fraternity of live sardine-buying at this particular port despite his nice car and white collar background, perhaps due to his fluency in local dialect or maybe just his year-round sunburn, his collection of gurry-sores and rolling sailor’s walk. Whatever the reason, he always boasts of the good price he gets from the sardiners and the baitfish are always the best, most lively fish. It is a short drive to the Yutaka-maru’s moorings on the north shore of the Naka River, and after greeting the other anglers, eight in all, and the rather laborious process of carrying the sardines over from the car to the boat’s live well, all in the dark of night, went aboard her and prepared for the day’s fishing. We cast off at about 5:30, maybe an hour before dawn, and with the ebbing tide it did not take long to reach the sea proper where we were met with a stiff northerly wind, but my barometer read over 1020mb so it was very likely the weather would be good later in the day. There were a number of squid boats already out fishing, and our course took us straight toward a rising Venus, twinkling low in the night sky. Anyway, the method of fishing I have described in my post about Sagami Bay: in essence it is a wait-and-see method till the fish has fully swallowed the live sardine bait and rather hooks itself. The skipper will keep an eye on his sonar for schools of sardine, as the hirame’s main diet at this time of year is sardine and wherever you get a big school there will usually be hirame underneath it. In Ibaraki, famous for its sardines of all variety and the little baby ones that are eaten as the delicacy shirasu, the schools reach monstrous sizes, sometimes so thick a fishfinder sonar can’t penetrate it and will read the school as the seafloor. For a bit of fun, Captain Yutaka gave me an extra rod with a sabiki rig on it and told me to catch some sardines as he wanted to know what species they were: I came up with a mixed bag of anchovy and pilchard (new species added to the list!).
Another great feaster on sardines is the Bleeker’s squid, so much like hirame if you find a big sardine school there will be squid in the periphery looking for lunch. I reeled in my line on one occasion to find a squid very much attached to my sardine bait, but it was not hooked and swam off before I could net it. Squid take their prey from above, so you can tell when a squid has had a go on your bait:
Once the sun was up the fish started really biting and most anglers on board landed at least one hirame. My first was a good fighter but boated without mishap (thanks to Captain Yutaka for the photo).
As the day progressed, the wind suddenly died and we were left with practically a dead calm, under a bright sunny clear sky. My Russian hat and thermal waterproof jacket were too warm so I took off both, unthinkable just a few hours earlier in the day when the cold numbed your hands and feet to blocks and the rail, deck and all lines on board were covered in a coat of ice. In this state of undress I took another hirame, and helped the angler next to me and netted his catch for him, a hirame of monstrous proportions.
We carried on fishing and I refreshed myself with some kanchuhai spirits, then as the tide was at its utmost ebb and the water slack for an hour or so, Captain Yutaka asked me to lend a hand below deck and we prepared the on board snack that he lays on for all anglers at his own expense. This time it was piping-hot Japanese curry in a cup, with a piece of toasted mochi floating in it – a perfect pick-me-up for the hirame angler. After the snack and the beginning of floodwater I lost a couple of good fish, one a line break and the other a take but no hookset, but with the brace of hirame already in my bag, the amazing weather and the Japanese curry and the shochu spirits in my belly I was in a philosophical mood and able to bear these misfortunes without any dent in my good humour. Whilst turning over in my head how I should eat my hirame I got another hit – the poor hooked sardine on the end of your line suddenly goes bananas trying to escape the attentions of the hirame, before being chomped on and devoured and the length of your rod bends over into the sea…I caught my third hirame and after that, I decided to call it a day and did not fish for the next hour or so till we were due to head back to port at midday. Since there is no deckhand on the Yutaka-maru and four of the anglers aboard were fishing for hirame for the first time, I helped out where needed, such as netting fish, till our trip was over. In total I think 30 or so hirame were boated, all of keeping size or over. It was a remarkable day’s fishing and we were blessed with excellent conditions and weather. The ghostly calm on the water was broken by Captain Yutaka having a conversation with one of his friends, another hirame boat on our starboard beam, roared across the water at immense volume, till it was concluded with some immense witticism and then we headed back for Nakaminato.
On our way back to moorings I showed some of the new anglers how to butcher a hirame and bleed it properly, using a knife and piano wire just like they do at Tsukiji fish market, and how to pack the fish in icewater so the flesh isn’t burnt or ruined by the water. Then Captain Yutaka said since he was not going out the next day, we should empty the live wells fore and aft and that we were welcome to keep the bait sardines if we wanted them. I divided the aft well between the four of us and it was with a full cool-box, packed with hirame and sardines, we returned to moorings on the Naka River. After setting the Yutaka-maru to rights all the anglers made their thanks and their farewells, and Captain Yutaka kindly offered me a lift to the station via the local tackle shop where he goes to report the day’s fishing to the owner. Once more here I was exposed to the immense kindness of the northern Japanese people, when the owner’s son brought us some tea his mother appeared from within and asked, since they were having their lunch now, would we like to eat also? Despite our various excuses and ploys to escape imposing upon their hospitality, in the end they had their way and Captain Yutaka and I sat outside the tackle shop on a bench in the sunshine, to eat our way through a large plate of rice and stir-fried seafood and vegetables whilst the son looked on, ready to offer us more food, more rice, more tea or attend any other culinary whim that we may have.
It would never do to impose upon such kind folk for too long, and since I had a train to catch shortly after finishing our plates we made our excuses, said our thanks and headed off to the station. Captain Yutaka said goodbye and I promised to return when the karei flounder season starts. The man on Spanish guitar was not there, but some of the men bearing pamphlets were and the station attendants all asked how my day fishing was. How pleasant and friendly the locals are, compared to Tokyo! With every visit I am smitten further with the people of north Japan. It was twenty minutes to Katsuta then an hour and a quarter to Ueno, and I was in my hot bath at home by 5pm, with the delicious prospect of dealing with my hirame and sardine haul.
The hirame were dealt with in the orthodox fashion, cut into four fillets with great care taken to preserve the engawa, or wings of the fillets. These fillets, when wrapped with a layer of kitchen paper and placed in a Ziplock bag will keep in the fridge for three or four day easily, and indeed many anglers prefer to eat the hirame the day after it is caught.
On the other hand the sardines need to be either eaten that day or preserved somehow; raw sardines don’t keep. I ate two, roasted over a fire and seasoned with nothing more than sea-salt, and the rest I am currently making into the Spanish dish boquerones, a process that takes a couple of days. These creatures were whizzing about in the Yutaka-maru’s live well only four hours previously, and were about the freshest you can get without you chew on the sardines whilst they are alive. They were beheaded, gutted and pickled in salt then vinegar overnight in my fridge:
Then the Mediterranean part comes in: the pickled sardines are laid out, their spines plucked out by hand, and the fillets are submerged in olive oil with a great quantity of finely chopped flat leaf parsley and chopped garlic. These need another night for the flavours to really infuse the flesh of the sardines but the one I tried was already delicious after a couple of hours.
Anyway, after a long day angling (and a long night drinking the previous day) and an early start, and the labour of filletting the hirame, one craves the simple dishes and a great deal of chilled shochu spirits and then an early night. So I put together a quick Bechemel sauce with some parsley and white wine added, boiled up some potatoes and made an angler’s fish pie; whilst in the oven I could have a quick plate of sashimi, the angler’s perquisite, this time flavoured with a new dressing, something called shio-ponzu. I have prated before on how I believe soy sauce-flavoured ponzu must be one of the great flavourings of world cuisine yet so little known, but this is a new variant available in the shops, where the sour sauce is seasoned not with soy sauce but sea salt, and qualified with some grated citrus zest and its juice:
The sashimi went down well, although the shio-ponzu was a little sweet for my liking so halfway through I changed to good old grated wasabi and soy sauce. Captain Yutaka taught me another way to eat sashimi, in a confiding, secretive manner, which I may try tomorrow.
The fish pie was ready by the time I had finished the sashimi and a few cans of shochu:
I only managed a small portion, being overcome perhaps by the day’s exertions, the various combinations of shochu and beer, and by the just-cooked-through white, melting fish with buttery mash, the whole bathed in its white wine and parsley sauce.
Thanks as always to Captain Yutaka, sailing from Nakaminato, Ibaraki Prefecture, for everything! I look forward to visiting again in flounder season.