Angler Breaks The Ice In Japan


The following appears in the March issue of California Sportsman:

By Lance Sawa

Ice fishing always fascinated me as a kid, even as I grew up in Southern California.

You sit around a hole in the ice – sometimes in a wood shanty to keep warm – hoping to catch something. The safety of the ice was the biggest reason I didn’t try it by myself. Another was that I didn’t know of anybody else who was interested in ice fishing. Going out onto a frozen lake alone and most likely not having the correct equipment all made it a bit too daunting for young me.

Sometimes I would read articles about ice fishing and see all the types of fish that were brought up through that tiny hole. With their great taste, crappie and bluegill were the staple catch. Pike, walleye and trout were the large fish that barely fit through the hole and what prompted you to brag about to your fellow fishing buddies. I didn’t think my first ice fishing experience would be for finger-sized fish.

LAST YEAR I WENT fishing for Japanese wakasagi smelt, but it was in a heated enclosed boat – not ice fishing at all. I was so warm that I soon had to take off my jacket and sweater, as I was sweating. There were bathrooms on board and boiling water on hand at all times for your cup of noodles.

It was great fun and I promised myself to go back, but then COVID-19 happened. The thought of spending a full day in an enclosed boat with a bunch of strangers just didn’t sit well with me.

Reisenji Lake in Iizuna is not far from my house in Nagano Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, and has ice fishing. When I went to look for fishing licenses for the year, I noticed that the lake’s ice fishing would start the next day, a Sunday.

I bought bait and picked up a fishing rig with tiny hooks. On Saturday night I went to sleep early and was up well before the sun rose to get to the lake at the opening time of 6 a.m.

Overnight the roads had frozen and snow had begun to fall, so the drive was slower than I planned. I arrived at the lake at 6:30, which was still before the sun came up, though the fishing area was already packed.

Most of the parking lots were full and some people were getting creative with where to park. Luckily, I found a spot at a nearby park. The walk was only about three minutes and I passed the local onsen, or hot springs, resort – their tengu (a mythical Japanese creature) statues were covered in snow.

All the little tents were set up on the ice and many had a light inside. After paying for my day pass to fish, I walked down the ramp onto a frozen lake for the first time.

A worker drilled a hole in the ice for me that I paid for. He directed me to a place he thought had fish. Even though it seemed many people were on the edges of the border, he placed me 20 feet away.

After thanking him I set up my pop-up summer tent with the hope it would keep the wind and snow at bay. It didn’t do a good job.

I set up the mini rod with the fishing rig I had bought earlier and put the cut bait on my hooks. It was time to fish under the ice for the first time. I was so excited that I forgot about the cold weather.

MY LINE WENT STRAIGHT down into the cold, green and clean water. The strikes came fast and quick, but I couldn’t quite hook anything. Then the bite slowed, so I changed the bait because I remembered that these fish were greedy but picky eaters. Afterwards I got more bites, but again was unable to hook any. Perhaps the weight was a bit too much, so I tried a smaller one. Still no luck.

This pattern went on for about an hour; changing baits would get bites but no hook-ups. With the temperature now 10 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind was picking up and snow was blowing into the tent, covering everything and making it hard to even change bait. The air was so cold it froze the rod’s eyelets – and the bait if I left it out of the water long enough. I also couldn’t feel my fingers to even pick up the small maggots I was using as bait.

It was time to head home after being defeated by finger-sized fish on a frozen lake in the mountains of Japan.

Later, after warming up in the shower, I looked into how long the season is open on Reisenji Lake. Year after year I would be too late and the information would say it had just closed for the season. February is the only month it is open for ice fishing.

One month only! This lit a fire under me to quickly head back out when the weather would permit it. That day was a Thursday.

I ARRIVED THIS TIME not at 6 a.m., but a little later, at 8 in the morning. I asked around about which fishing rig to use. The kind woman on site sold me a slightly different one than what I had used the previous outing.

Having only fished for about an hour last time, I still had plenty of bait. They drilled another hole for me near a spot someone had caught 100 fish from that morning. I set up the same tent, which again didn’t do a great job against the weather.

And once again the bites came fast, but this time I actually hooked some of them. One at a time the fish were coming up. The sun was also out and it wasn’t snowing; what a wonderful day to be out. There weren’t as many people because it was a weekday, so the whole atmosphere was more relaxed. The smelt seemed to like the salmon eggs I fished with; maybe it was something they normally don’t eat.

As the morning went on, the weather slowly got worse. First, the wind picked up, which pushed the small tent around. Then, the temperature dropped, or at least the wind-chill factor made it feel that way. Finally, the snow started to fall, but through it all the fish were still biting.

Again and again a bite would bring me back to the hole in the ice to pull up a small fish. A twitch or pull on the line in one direction would tell me a fish was interested in the bait.

In total I fished for about two hours before the weather pushed me out. My thoughts turned to how I was going to eat the few fish I had been catching. Last time I caught these small ones, I tempura-fried them, which was nice. Another option was to make a light stew broth with them as a base to help warm me up. The previous winter I saw a recipe for pickled fish, but decided that was a bit too much.

What I really like to eat is a rich soy sauce base with ginger, creating a slightly spicy fish. It’s something that I can eat with fresh steamy rice, so that was what I made.

I’d caught about 15 wakasagi smelt through the ice, and I lost more due to their paper-thin lips slipping free of the hook. As I was leaving, the owner of the operation came out to chat and asked how it went. I told him I caught about 15, but that the cold was a bit too much for me. He laughed and handed me a few more fish in a bag as a present, and he also offered an invitation to return another day.

I plan to accept as soon as the weather allows me to do so. CS