Fishing The Other Side Of The Pacific

Merry Christmas everyone! Here’s a neat holiday read from our Southern California angler Lance Sawa, now living the expat life in Japan with a memorable fishing experience on the other side of the world. This story appears in the December issue of California Sportsman.


The author with a Sea of Japan cutlassfish. (LANCE SAWA)

Story and Photos By Lance Sawa

When planning a fishing trip, one of the first things I do is check the weather.

I know that some people check the moon phases and the tides. Wave height, rain, wind and snow is what I check and watch out for. But that was when I lived in California, when I could show up at a charter boat without a reservation and still get on.

Now in Japan I need to make a reservation sometimes months in advance, and that makes predicting the weather close to impossible.

Before, if the weather was not good off the Southern California coast, I could instead fish in Santa Monica Bay, even if it was a short day trip just fishing the kelp or bottomfishing.

It was close to home and I had boats I was a regular on. It was my safe haven for when I really wanted to go fishing but the weather stopped me from going elsewhere.

Another place I was regular at was Oxnard and Ventura. If I had taken the hour drive to get there but the weather turned, it almost always meant fishing Anacapa Island. The area around the shore is so exposed you have to run to one of the islands for shelter. Yes, the Channel Islands are a chain of eight, but Anacapa is the closest, at just about an hour away. I loved fishing there because there was always a chance at a large yellowtail or white sea bass. Those were fun days. It’s a lot different now in Japan.

Praying for good weather and a lot of fish at a shrine.
Some blue skies greeted the charter in Toyama Bay, located in a protected harbor on the Sea of Japan, or west, side of the island nation. Still, rain, wind and even some snow flurries were in the forecast on this night.

FOR THIS PARTICULAR TRIP on the other side of the Pacific, I had to make reservations well in advance if I wanted to get prime fishing times. Lately, I have had two ships cancel because of bad weather. The first time, I was at a hotel about to go to sleep after a three-hour drive and with my alarm set for 2 a.m. when I got the call that it was cancelled because of wind, waves and snow!

I slept in the next day and headed home defeated by September snow. I tried again a week later, but the same weather pattern that stopped me before halted me once more. There was no snow this time, but the slow- moving pattern was getting stronger from the warm water in the Sea of Japan. The winds were howling-mad, with the shore covered in sea spray. So I decided to go even farther away, to Toyama Bay on the west coast of the island nation, to escape the weather. It is even more protected than Santa Monica Bay back in Southern California. I was pretty excited to go fishing after all the failed trips. Also, because I would be trying for a fish that I had never caught before, the cutlassfish, which in Japan is called the hairtail. I had eaten it once before and remembered that it was delicious.

The season for cutlassfish is long, but the best times to fish are spring and late fall, with the fish counts and pictures seemingly proving it.

The Shinminato Bridge and naval heritage vessel Kaiwomaru lit up the night in the harbor.

WHEN I GOT TO the port, the ship was waiting and I was able to find parking. Once I settled down from the long drive, the captain came and confirmed my reservation. We were planning on leaving at 5:30 p.m., so I had 30 minutes to organize and get my limited gear together. I also prayed at a nearby shrine for safety on the boat that night.

As the sun began to set and with the boat’s lights turned on, everyone was ready to go. I loaded a cooler and a bucket and we pulled away and slowly made our way out, passing under the lit up Shinminato Bridge. The beautiful merchant training and naval heritage vessel Kaiwomaru was also lit up in the dark skies.

As the boat passed the breakwater I noticed two things. First, the weather was much worse than forecasted. Also, the boat was moving slowly, at about the same no-wake speed as inside the harbor. With the rain and waves getting worse, I knew something wasn’t right. We passed through a squall as the rain and waves picked up and even snow fell. Again.

The captain expertly navigated us safely through the weather to the fishing spot. A large trolling motor was lowered, which helped us stay pointed in the correct direction all night long. It kept the 3-foot waves mostly at bay, but a couple whitecaps got over the side and dumped water into the boat.

I was set up with a rental rod, and under the watchful eye of the captain I dropped the cut bait into the water to 60 meters, or almost 200 feet deep.

Going into the trip I thought that cutlassfish would be aggressive hunters. I quickly learned that was not the case. They are slow to eat and fast to drop the bait if they didn’t like something about your presentation.

It became a game of drop the bait and wait. Pull the bait and jig it a bit – but don’t jerk it wildly – then wait. I was also told I could also very slowly reel the setup up through the water column. Once at the top of the fish column, which was 30 meters this day, I’d drop it back down to 60 meters and go again. A meter up, then another meter up. I was at about 50 meters when I got my first bite.

“Wait but don’t move,” the captain said as I waited for the final take. A full minute went by as the fish slowly picked away at the bait. All this time the captain patiently told me to wait. Finally, the biting stopped and I was instructed to slowly pull up. The fish was on the hook and no hookset was needed.

Fifty meters of line later and I had my first cutlassfish. Its colors were wonderful; the fins were thin and reflected rainbows in the light. As the thin silver body danced in my hands, I was warned of the fish’s long, sharp teeth. They have nothing on barracuda or lingcod, though!

I caught my next one about an hour later without any help. Luckily, the weather got better as the night went on, but the cold rain and wind slowed the bite. The uphill current was making it difficult for me to keep my footing on the narrow boat too.

Cutlassfish, known as the hairtail in Japan, proved to be more of a challenge for the less experienced Sawa than others who had more fish in the boat. But generous veterans and the ship’s skipper offered him a few extra fillets to take home.

I CAUGHT MY THIRD and final cutlassfish minutes before the boat headed in. The man jigging on the bow landed five fish, and a man on the other side managed to catch 19, with the woman with him getting 11 of her own.

Once again the locals outfished me, but I was so happy to get any. Most of all, I was thrilled with taking

home a new fish that I hadn’t caught before. Everyone said that this had been a slow night, with one regular admitting that on a normal night he’d catch about 60 fish, and on a good night he’d land 100!

Just as I was putting ice in with my three cutlasses, two other men aboard gave me extra fish. As I thanked them, the captain gave me two more. My cooler now had nine fish, more than enough for a few dinners.

It was midnight by the time we returned to port and I cleaned up and packed my car. I watched as the

captain pulled the boat out of the water. It only took about 15 minutes, but I can’t imagine having to dry dock the vessel after every trip. Man, did he have it down, though. Not once did I get worried for him or his boat. After the dry-dock show, I thanked him for the great trip and headed to the hotel to sleep.

This is what these trips – bad weather and all – are about. Sawa and his family enjoyed some pan-fried cutlassfish for dinner, and even tried some served raw.

ONCE HOME THE NEXT day, it was time to clean the fish. Cutlassfish is one of the easiest to clean: Cut a bit of the tail off, as there is not much meat there, just bone and skin. The head with the guts come off too, followed by a final rinse of clean freshwater and you are done. You can also cut them into more manageable pieces for cooking. The skin can be eaten, which is full of delicious fat and collagen.

I pan-fried some fillets with butter and soy sauce, and it came out great. The white, creamy, flaky flesh looked a bit like halibut, with bones only around the ribcage.

I had seen that cutlassfish is also great eaten raw, so I cut and prepared one of the fish that way. It was such a big hit with the family that I served another raw.

Cutlassfish season is long, so I will look into going again. If the weather allows me to go, that is. CS