Iwana (Dolly Varden Char) are one of Hokkaido’s most celebrated cold-water fish.
I have an incurable habit of looking into water for fish. It doesn’t matter what kind of water. At the beach I check the translucent prisms of waves for whatever might be cruising the surf. Coming upon pools on rivers during hikes I make efforts to position myself so that I’m looking into shade rather than glare so that I can maybe catch a glimpse of something with fins. I’ll even check out coin fountains in the off chance that a carp or even a goldfish might be swimming around. But bridges on quiet country roads crossing pretty little trout streams are especially inviting. There’s almost always a pool below the bridge, and if the water has a population of trout, there are often a few of them hanging out right there. No matter how hard-fished the water might be, it’s worth a look.
Yamame could literally be translated as “Mountain Girl” – a lovely name for a lovely fish. More commonly the stream-dwelling form of this species is called “Cherry Trout.” Similar to Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout of the Pacific Northwest, (to which yamame are related), some go to sea where they attain sizes measured in pounds and return to their natal rivers to spawn bright as polished chrome – Cherry Salmon.
And so there we were, mid-afternoon, straddling our bikes and leaning over the the concrete side of a bridge on a quiet road running through a mix of forest and farmland somewhere in Hokkaido. The water was perfectly clear, but the trout and char are so adeptly camouflaged to match the stony bottoms of these streams that unless one moves they are all but impossible to pick out.
One moved. As it rose to take something off the surface I could even see its spots. A char of some type. I hadn’t done any fishing yet in Hokkaido. This fish was telling me it was time I did.
I didn’t expect the fish to be large and they weren’t. But in the space of about two hours I covered a couple hundred yards of this silvery mountain stream and caught two dozen or so fish About half of them were iwana. The others were yamame. A few came to a parachute Adams – my favorite dry fly searching pattern. A lot more came to a pheasant tail nymph – my favorite nymph. A couple of overly eager types tried to eat the pea-sized orange strike indicator I was using.
A younger version of myself would have kept a few of these fish for the frying pan. But these days I fish for trout in part to simply confirm that they are present, and I wanted these fish to remain present. So Barbra took a couple of photos and I released everything to continue living out their lives in this silvery piece of water and light somewhere in Hokkaido.
There wasn’t a single human footprint along the banks, much less a path. Knee deep in a cold mountain stream full of trout and char – sitting on top of the world, legs hanging free.