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A Different Kind of Fishing

How do you catch fish in water over ten meters deep using a rod that does not have a reel, or even guides for your line? Simple: fashion the rod from bamboo, hollow out the centre and run the line through the middle and out the very end of the rod. Wrap your spare line around a couple of pegs at the other end, and you are ready to indulge in the traditional Japanese fishing technique known as tebane.

I first started using this technique to catch a fish known in Japanese as haze. Its scientific name is Acanthogobius flavimanus; however, there appears to be a lack of consensus over its common name in English, with references calling it spiny goby, yellowfin goby or spotted goby. For the sake of simplicity, from here on I will refer to the creatures as just ‘goby’. Gobies are a small, seasonal fish widespread throughout Pacific Asia, and grow up to 20cm in size; they favor muddy habitats and are tolerant of a wide range of temperature and salinity. The traditional goby fishing season starts in September, when the fish migrate from rivers and estuaries to the sea, in order to spawn. Boats packed with goby fans leave port early in the morning from all over Tokyo and Yokohama, and head to sheltered coves and bay areas where the gobies are known to congregate; although the general regions are fairly well known, each skipper has his own secret spot, usually well-managed and handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The best goby points are those that are inaccessible from land, preventing others from casting or throwing nets from the shore, and where the waters and tides are relatively calm. When I go fishing for goby, I always use the services of a boathouse called Fukagawa Fujimi, which is located in the southeast of Tokyo. Fujimi is one of the longest-running such businesses in Japan: they have been a family-run affair since before the beginning of the Edo Period, over four hundred years ago. The skipper, a lean, sun-tanned Tokyoite known to regulars as ‘Captain Beard’ due to his whiskers, is famous for both his prowess at catching gobies (which is quite fearsome) and for his no-nonsense, old school approach to not just fishing, but to life in general. Although his countenance is often intimidating to newcomers, he is always happy to take the time to teach beginners – in his thick, east Tokyo accent – the science of traditional goby fishing with bamboo rods, and as a novice I count myself lucky to be able to learn from his vast experience.

A typical goby fishing trip starts at 6am; after checking the weather reports on the internet, I gather my gear and jump on the Tokyo Metro. The nearest station to the boathouse is four stops south from mine, and then it is a brisk 20-minute walk. After paying my fee, I make a quick trip to the local shop to buy breakfast, lunch and drinks for the day, fill my cooler with ice and then it’s onto the boat to prepare for the trip. The boat leaves at 7:50am prompt, and it is a 40-minute journey at high-speed south on Tokyo Bay to an area called Kisarazu, which is actually in the neighbouring prefecture (Chiba). On reaching the correct area the skipper gives the OK and every fisherman prepares his tackle. Most bamboo rods are split into two, three or more sections for ease of transportation, and after putting the rod together and baiting the hook, one can get down to the business of fishing. The tackle is simple; a small lead sinker on the end of a thick nylon line, and a single hook suspended 5 – 15cm from the sinker. Gobies are benthic (bottom-dwelling) so the general idea is to rest your sinker on the sea floor, and using small, subtle upward flicking movements of one’s rod, make one’s bait ‘dance’ in a fashion to tempt gobies in the vicinity into taking it. They are a rather inquisitive fish, and using one’s sinker to kick up small clouds of mud or sand from the bottom will attract them; some fishermen also paint their weights in fluorescent colours or fashion them from abalone shells or mother-of-pearl to catch the fish’s fancy (such devices are often the subject of much debate – usually good-natured – among goby fishermen). Gobies can hit in a variety of ways, sometimes attacking the bait with great gusto, sometimes very subtly; the trick is to set the hook just as the goby bites, before it realises something is up and spits out the bait. Using a tebane rod, since the line passes through the centre of the rod, even very small tension on the bait can be felt in one’s hand. In Japanese this is called myaku tsuri, or ‘vein fishing’: rather than clasping the rod in one’s fist, one feels it in the gentle manner of a nurse holding a patient’s wrist to take his pulse. The correct method is outwardly similar to a pistol grip, but with the tips of the thumb and forefinger resting on the rod, and the butt held in the palm, which is turned slightly downwards. One of my friends, a veteran with more than fifty years experience, says he ‘reads’ the sea floor with his rod, being able to recognise not just subtle changes in the depth, but also features in the bottom such as rock outcrops or sandy pits. Modern rods made from synthetic polymers or metal alloys tend to be too heavy or dense, and consequently the ‘message’ is not transferred to the fisherman’s hand in the same way as a bamboo rod (the typical bamboo goby rod is 2.7 to 3 metres long, but weighs only about 70 to 100 grams). Whilst goby fishing is possible with modern tackle, not only is tebane the traditional method, it is far more effective: even in my beginner’s hands, the latter technique consistently yields a bigger catch. In winter, when the gobies have grown bigger (about 20cm or more) they tend to be much more cautious, and often play with the bait, hold it in their mouths for long periods of time or investigate it thoroughly (sometimes by quite literally sitting on it, to hide it from its peers; it is not uncommon to land a goby to find the hook set in its belly or fins) before trying to swallow it; a tebane rod is a decided advantage when picking up these very subtle signals.

Gobies have rather tough mouths, and to make sure the hook sets nice and firmly, a good, quick, upwards action with the rod is needed. Here again the superiority of bamboo becomes evident, since bamboo has just the right balance of stiffness with elasticity. A brisk, upward motion of the hook is easily achieved by using one’s wrist to angle the rod upwards from horizontal to about 45°, to set the hook in the tough upper lip of the fish. The recent trend among the big Japanese tackle companies for making elastic, flexible rods is undoubtedly suited to modern lure or bait fishing but these rods are not good for those who want to catch some of Tokyo Bay’s famous gobies.

After setting the hook, one then gradually raises the rod till it points vertically skyward, which brings the line within reach, and grasps the line in one hand, and with the other, puts the rod in a rest and with a quick, hand-over-hand action, pulls in the line until the goby arrives in your hands. After removing the hook and putting the fish away in a bucket, a quick check of the bait (replacing it if necessary) the line goes back in the water, and starts the process all over again. Since the gobies generally come on in groups, one must maximize the amount of time the tackle is in the water as soon as you hit a purple patch, so good prior preparation – plenty of bait cut to the right size and close at hand, bucket for the fish on the deck between one’s legs, pliers, knife, spare hooks and towel within arm’s reach – is a must. Also, it is easy to become fatigued from fishing in this way for long periods, so a good posture (back straight, rod held out to front low and parallel with the water) and economy of movement is necessary. Since the rods do not have reels, it is possible to use two rods at the same time. One can always tell the experienced old hands at a glance, those who sit still, staring intently at the rod tips, with only their hands rhythmically flicking the rods upwards one after the other, left-right, left-right, like some kind of terrible goby fishing machine. On a good day, a seasoned fisherman can take up to a hundred gobies, although a catch of twenty to sixty is more the norm. Seasonal records can be upwards of three hundred. Being an out-and-out beginner, my personal best for a day is forty-two. On days when things just don’t go right at all for me, it has been known in the past for Captain Beard to surreptitiously put some of his own catch in my bucket; he also sometimes drops off bags of fish with Tokyo City municipal workers who happen to be out on Tokyo Bay working on the surrounding sea walls or docks.

Most goby fishing boats head back to port at around 3pm. Here, it is time to put one’s feet up and enjoy the views of Tokyo Bay as the boat heads off home at high speed. After a quick count of the catch – relayed to the skipper – I often like to indulge in a beer and watch the sun go down over the Yokohama shore, and reflect on the day’s amusements: those particularly memorable catches, the ones that got away (always the big ones) and if one’s luck is in, gloat over any surprise catches such as flounder, octopus or eel which occasionally make an appearance.

After reaching home, a hot shower and if the catch is good, a small gift of fresh fish to the neighbors or some of the local restaurants I regularly frequent, then it is time for the day’s exertions to bear their real fruit: the preparation and consumption of goby. Westerners may consider gobies too small or fiddly to even be considered eating material, but in reality they are easy to fillet and possess a firm, clear white flesh, making a most delicious and versatile ingredient. However, some purists would argue that tempura is the only way to go. Tempura made with goby, eel, cuttlefish or whiting has been consumed as a delicacy in Tokyo for nearly two hundred years, and the best is deep-fried just as it was in the old days: in sesame oil, without salt, and then dunked in hot tuna stock into which grated ginger and daikon radish have been mixed. At the peak of the season, I may eat goby this way twice a week, but despite this, it is a taste and texture of which I will never tire: a golden crispy outer coat concealing a delicate, flaky, melt-in-the-mouth fish, the whole parcel perfumed with nutty sesame oil and off-set with spicy, pungent radish and ginger flavours. For larger gobies however, the gourmand can indulge himself in goby sashimi. The fish’s lifespan and habits (gobies are seasonal, and live in freshwater for the first half of their lives) mean that sashimi can only be really prepared during November and December, and one’s luck need be in too, as at least two or three large (18cm or more) gobies are required for each serving. After filleting the fish, removing the skin and a quick wash in brine, the traditional method is to slice the flesh in needle-thin, longitudinal strips. This is called ito tsukuri, or ‘thread sashimi’. Served on top of a bed of shiso (a kind of fragrant, edible nettle native to Japan) leaves, or tossed with a sprinkling of peppery shiso flowers, it is eaten with freshly grated wasabi and soy sauce, which can be complimented beautifully with hot sake, or a chilled white wine. Needless to say, this is my favourite way of partaking gobies. Since there are very few restaurants willing to serve this sashimi (a kilogram bucket of live gobies will set back the chef a staggering 15,000 yen ($150) at Tsukiji wholesale fish market) goby fishermen can consider themselves privileged to be able to indulge such a delicacy. Another method of eating goby raw is called arai, which simply means ‘to wash’: here, whole fillets, with the skin left on, are placed in ice water for ten to twenty minutes, until the flesh whitens slightly and begins to curl up at the edges. After patting dry with a towel, arranging the fillets in a pretty fashion upon a bed of ice cubes, with heaps of finely shredded white gourd in between, makes a spectacular dish, as delicious to the eyes as the palate. Some people like to put grated ginger instead of wasabi in their soy sauce for this dish. Of course when such fish is served this way, a pot of sake or shōchū, a strong Japanese distilled spirit made from rice, barley or sweet potato, on the side is a most able companion.

Other recipes for goby include yanagawa, where fillets of the fish are boiled in a sweetened soy sauce stock with burdock roots and whisked eggs, or kara-age, deep-fried whole in a batter of cornstarch and grated ginger, until crisp. The fish may be sun-dried, so that they can be eaten all year round, and the roe can be pickled in salt and sake, a particularly indulgent luxury. Even the spine is not wasted: it can be dusted with flour and deep-fried to make a crispy �biscuit� that is a most delicious and nutritious accompaniment to beer or wine.

Although I often fish alone, if I am with friends I may prepare the ‘ultimate’ sashimi: as soon as the fish is caught, on board the fishing boat. When goby flesh is refrigerated, is becomes slightly opaque and shrunken; whilst not at all detrimental to the taste, it loses its sparkle, the texture changes and it becomes slightly tougher. Instead, the fish is killed with a quick, firm blow to the neck, then a cut to the artery supplying its gills (to drain the fish of its blood) and filleted whilst literally still twitching; the flesh is never cooled and retains its transparent quality as it was when the fish was still alive. A smear of wasabi and a dash of soy sauce on top, eaten with one’s hands with the brisk sea air about is a fisherman’s ultimate luxury and as far as I am concerned, the utmost compliment to the unfortunate fish and his untimely demise. I always make sure to prepare a little extra, and hand a portion over to Captain Beard; even his tough, normally impenetrable features usually break out into a smile after a mouthful of sashimi prepared this way.

One of the great things about goby fishing is its hidden complexity; on the surface, it appears a simple and undemanding target, a small fish suitable for beginners or children, perhaps almost boring to those accustomed to big game fishing. However, this is quite deceptive: the more one fishes for gobies, the more one is drawn into its own little world. Indeed there is a saying in Japanese: ‘a saltwater fisherman’s life begins with goby fishing, and ends with goby fishing’. The very first fish I caught when I started fishing in Japan was goby, but I have yet to grow tired of it. One is always left looking forward to the next trip, striving for a greater catch, or that perfect tackle, or the best technique for different conditions. In particular, gobies hold a special place in the hearts of natives of Tokyo, being a much-loved food fish here for centuries. For example, the official mascot of the Tokyo Bay Sport Fishing Association is the goby, the current Emperor of Japan, Akihito, earned a doctorate degree studying its biology when he was Crown Prince, and gobies caught in the Bay during the Autumnal Equinox are said to make a potent pick-me-up medicine for the elderly or infirm. The fish also happen to have a quite humorous appearance (I personally find them immensely cute), lending themselves to many artistic uses: gobies feature in traditional Japanese watercolour art, in various pottery motifs and there are even wooden chopstick rests carved into the shape of the fish.

It is December now, and the goby season ends generally at the end of the month; the fish soon become sexually mature and with the onset of the spawning season, stop feeding and so no longer take bait. In Japan, the advent of the New Year is a holiday of great significance and on the morning of New Year’s Day, Japanese homes prepare a celebratory dish called o-zōni, which is a delicate soup containing vegetables, herbs, chicken and roasted dumplings made from pounded glutinous rice. In Tokyo, the home of traditional goby fishing, the broth is made from gobies that have been lightly grilled and then thoroughly sun-dried. One must be sure to include one or two of these gobies in each persons bowl of o-zōni, as whole fish at one’s table bring good fortune. As for the gobies that have survived the fishing season, out at sea the mature fish pair off and spawn, burrowing deep nests in the mud of the seafloor. During this time, the parents do not eat at all for a period of several months, instead guarding their fry from predators. After enduring starvation and numerous perils to ensure the next generation, the parents die soon afterwards. For goby fishermen, the time has come to clean, wax and stow away one’s bamboo goby rods, and wait nine months till the start of the next season. I normally make a trip to my local temple, and make some offerings of money and incense to Ebisu, the Japanese God of among other things, fishing and good luck at sea (he is always depicted with a bamboo fishing rod over his shoulder, and an enormous red sea bream tucked under his arm) to thank the gobies for their sacrifice, and to wish for another bountiful season in the coming year.

On a lucky day in Tokyo,
December 2005

Adam GuyAdam Guy

After growing up in London (England) Adam has now returned to the city of his birth, Tokyo, where he lives and works as a biologist. He enjoys cooking in the evening with the day’s catch, using both Japanese recipes and those of his own creation, almost as much as he enjoys the actual fishing. Choosing what sake rice wine to go with the fish is another pleasure. Although Japan is probably more famous among fishermen in the West for its high-technology fishing tackle companies, recently he has become interested in traditional Japanese fishing techniques, using older tackle such as bamboo rods. In between fishing trips, he also enjoys reading, traveling and painting.