Countdown To Fishmas: Visiting Japan’s Best Trout Farm

We’re counting down the days to Saturday’s statewide trout opener. Today: Our “American Angler in Japan” columnist visit’s the country’s best trout farms. 

Photos by Lance Sawa

By Lance Sawa

Out of nowhere I had a sudden urge to go trout fishing. Maybe not out of nowhere – I spent a lot of days back in California in the Eastern Sierra’s trout fisheries – but the long Japanese winter full of snow and ice had until then put a chill on my ability to target trout. The year before, flooded local rivers had hampered my attempts to fish, adding to the pressure. So now I had an itch that only catching a trout would scratch.

Those same local rivers were out of the question because it was the rainy season. The rain relentlessly fell day after day. This aided the snowmelt, which again flooded a local river to the point where it washed out the main bridge in and out of my area. I had to give up and look elsewhere.

After researching online, I happened to find a managed fishing area not far from Lake Kisaki, where I went smelt fishing for the first time (California Sportsman, March 2022). It looked large – and the fish within its waters were large as well.

I had been fooled by pictures of large fish at managed areas in the past, only to find smaller fish when I arrived. But the online reviews seemed to show large trout here as well, so I took the chance on going the next day, as we had good weather. The hour-and-a-half drive there was thankfully uneventful, even if the GPS had interesting ideas about what a road truly is. Once again, I understood why so many people loved this area of Nagano; it is breathtaking. The mountains are used for skiing, snowboarding and other snow sports in the winter. The large setting reminded me a bit of the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas feeling.

AS I DROVE ALONG the road next to the trout farm, I could see the three main large ponds and a lot of people fishing them. I was surprised by the sheer number of anglers and groups fishing together. This actually made me feel better that it wasn’t some fly-by-night place. I found the entrance easily and parking was plentiful.

I got a map that showed me the basics and pointed out where I should be fishing. Two of the ponds, the upper and the lower, are strictly catch- and-release. The third, a larger pond between the two and with an artificial island, is filled with fish you can take home. There is a stocked side stream from which you can take home fish you catch as well. There is also a small area for bait fishing for beginners and children to fish, where you can grill the fish you catch. Bait fishing is prohibited everywhere else here.

I began at the lowest pond, since it had the fewest people – just one fly angler. (This is another rarity in Japan – that fly fishermen are welcome; in most places fly fishing is thought to be almost dangerous.) He was catching a few trout and I settled into the other side to give him room.

I STARTED OUT THROWING some lures, casting around in hopes of a strike. Since it was catch and release, it was not as easy as I expected. The fish refused to even look at the minnow lure I fished with. My spinners would get some looks, but then quickly the fish would swim away without a bite.

Next, I tried a flat blade with a green pattern that I had bought at the shop’s suggestion. And this offering got me my first bite of the day, a beautiful, healthy rainbow.

It took another 15 minutes before the next strike, but I didn’t quite manage to hook it. All the while I was watching the other man catching fish after fish with his flies. I counted 10 fish in those 15 minutes, while I got just one hit. I had to change tactics, so I looked through my tackle for something I had bought last spring but never got around to using, a random fly set. This was my salvation.

With the flies and a bobber for casting, I started to catch some fish. My first one on a fly was another healthy rainbow. Then a wonderfully colored brook trout. All throughout I would catch random fish that I couldn’t 100 percent ID, but one was an iwana, a type of char and a familiar fish from my local streams.

After some time I left that pond to go up to the largest pond, which also holds the biggest fish. Here, the river is diverted to help feed the ponds with fresh, clean oxygenated water. Some of the largest trout were right where the river flows into the pond. They were fearless and did not move, even as I got closer; even my shadow didn’t scare them.

THESE FISH WANTED NOTHING to do with me. Lures, flies, even a grasshopper that I threw into the water didn’t even get a peek. After some time, I left them to try another part of the upper pond. Another fly fisherman joined me and he started catching fish immediately. I was being outfished again.

Slowly, we started getting closer as we walked around the pond; he’d caught 10 fish to my one. Curiosity got the best of me, so I struck up a conversation with him and I finally asked what fly he was using. He asked to see mine, which right then was a streamer, which I had just changed back to after my dry flies got zero strikes.

The man then showed me his fly, which was nothing more than a round bit of fluff. It was not red or yellow like an egg, but a light brown. It was made to look like the fish food that is fed to the trout. He was even kind enough to give me one to try.

Man, it was like day and night. As soon as the fluff ball went into the water, all the fish that could see it swarmed it. I hooked a trout within a minute of tying on that fly. The large fish by the inlet even looked at it, but they decided not to take a bite.

As we continued our chat, the angler told me that this fish farm stocked the largest trout in all of Japan. I knew they grew them here but that all these fish were stocked and not sold was surprising. You pass the long, large breeding and rearing canals right next to the main building when you go into the facility.

He told me he travels around Japan to a bunch of these farms while just fishing and sleeping in his RV. We parted ways when I went to the middle pond with the artificial island and he stayed at the upper pond. I wanted to get my fish to take home and get going before it got too dark. Here, with his fly I caught so many fish I lost count.

MOST OF THE TROUT here were rainbows, but I waited until I caught some of the other strains. Mostly I was looking for the most beautiful trout I could catch. Albino trout get stocked here, so one of those must be great to catch, though I didn’t end up with one in the end. I got a large iwana and the rest were rainbow hybrids.

After weighing my fish, I was offered to have them cleaned for a small charge, which I thought would be for the best, as I didn’t want to deal with cleaning them that day. She pointed out that the iwana could be eaten raw because they test the water and are careful about maintaining it. She guaranteed that there were no parasites to be concerned about. Their fish-cleaning service included a quick cooldown in ice water for freshness.

In the shop I spied a cheat sheet with all the types of fish and how to ID them. When I got mine back, they looked great and were ice-cold, even though only a few minutes had passed. Inside the shop I could hear a thunderstorm starting up again. Everyone still fishing debated if the rainstorm was going to stop soon or not.

My ride home was uneventful, with the rain falling all the way back and continuing into the next day. I was lucky that I had left at the perfect time, at least for me.

Even though I usually clean my catch at home, my wife, Yumi, was happy that it was already done. My son Nico didn’t care either way, but he loved to see the slightly different fish.

That night I cut the iwana into sashimi. It cut nicely and had a great deal of oil in the flesh. I learned that you can eat the thin pin bones as well for texture, which I was not sold on. The flesh was great and tasted better than most salmon that I have eaten raw. I was so glad to fish in this trout paradise. CS