Japan Alps, Monami River

Zen trout and higher learning

While others have forsaken the delicate native trout for bigger, flashier species, some remain obsessed with the wild, indigenous fish of the Japan Alps. Yamame and iwana somehow survive here by inhabiting the remote corners of remaining wilderness.

Tethered by invisible 7X tippet, the immaculately tied #18 CDC emerger floats softly to the surface, then glides downstream into a glassy tailout. Nothing. "Try again," Hisashi says, "ten centimeter closer to rock." Again, the fly alights and begins to drift.

Monami River
Iwana in hand The road less traveled Box of CDC flies Small but rewarding

A shadow edges out from behind the rock, rising slowly, the predator tracking its prey. A swirl of current catches the line, and for a fraction of a second, the fly drags. Instantly, the trout recoils, a brief flash of reflected sunlight, and disappears. It does not return on the next cast. Or the next. This particular trout-wary, educated, skittish-would have stretched the tape measure a full five inches...

While others have forsaken the delicate native trout for bigger, flashier imports-rainbows from California, browns from Germany-Hisashi Suzuki remains obsessed with the wild, indigenous fish of the Japan Alps. Yamame and iwana somehow survive here, in a densely populated and famously fish-hungry country, by inhabiting the remote corners of remaining wilderness. They are not easy to find. And they're even tougher to catch, demanding precise presentations and exacting patterns. For Hisashi, it's a pursuit that's absorbed his waking thoughts for nearly 25 years now.

We've been on the road for the better part of the morning, first on massive, traffic-choked freeways, then through small, country villages where uniformed children march to school between vibrant green rice fields. Finally, a torturous, corkscrewing descent along the face of nearly vertical, cloud-draped mountain walls. Hinoki cypress, cedar and wild chestnuts tower over the road, layered with stands of white-barked birch and lacy Japanese maples. At the bottom lies the Monami River, River of 10,000 Waves. To get there, we only have to make it down the Road of 10,000 Potholes.

As we slowly beat our way closer to the stream, the road disintegrates further. Our host, Shin Katsuragi,leans over the steering wheel, chain smoking cigarettes, straining to find a way through the minefield of rocks and water-filled holes. At some point, we leave Hisashi's car behind and pile into Shin's four-wheel drive, and still, reaching our destination appears questionable. Shin rolls the window down and a blast of heat and tropical humidity pours in. As if to underscore our sense of dislocation, a strange chorus of cicadas, frogs and unfamiliar birds fills the air, a humming, squawking, symphony from an equatorial jungle, it seems. Are we really going trout fishing?

We have come to the jagged peaks of Central Japan to find living jewels, trout the color of butterflies, as our friend Bill McMillan might say. And here, in the tumbling, boulderfilled headwaters, at the end of long and rocky roads, is where they thrive. Not technically a trout, the iwana is, in fact, a stunning native char, dressed in gold with pale vermiculate spots and flanks punctuated by splashes of scarlet. Translated literally, iwana means fish of rocks, and to catch them, you must somehow achieve perfect,pinpoint casts and drag-free drifts among the granite slabs and swirling plunge-pools.

Lower in these same watersheds, as they flow west toward the Sea of Japan, we will search for yamame, the luminous, distinctively parr marked, non-migratory version of cherry salmon. If iwana are known for their selectiveness, yamame take it to another level entirely, a direct result of their closer proximity to human population. A ten-inch yamame can be more educated-and correspondingly tougher to fool-than a four pound spring creek brown back home. Better bring your A-game.

Small fish, yes. Tiny, really. A twelve-incher here achieves trophy status. But with their radiant beauty and discerning habits, to Hisashi, each individual yamame or iwana-regardless of size-is something to be savored. Which comes as no surprise, really. In a country that holds aesthetic beauty in highest regard, where attention to detail and meticulous craftsmanship pervade every aspect of life, this fishery-and fly fishing in general-fits the cultural ethic perfectly.

The truck crawls forward, dives into an axel-deep rut and bounces out, pounding our heads against the ceiling. Someone asks, "Are we there yet?" Nobody laughs. The monks at the ancient temple a few miles back would remind us the path is the goal, and that seems to make sense here. Our task is to simply soak in the surroundings, learn everything we can, and if we're lucky, catch a few fish along the way. But if that path could be just a little smoother, you wouldn't hear any complaints from the Westerners.

Who travels halfway around the world in search of fingerlings? That would be us. But there is so much more to discover here: Anglers dedicated to their craft and conservation of extremely limited resources. The infinite generosity of our hosts. Thousands of years of accumulated culture and perspective... Fishing is only the beginning.

The truck finally lurches to a halt in a small clearing and we step out into steamy air alive with the buzzing of insects. That we are actually about to fish at all, feels like something of a miracle. Our path to this point has given us an entirely new understanding of what it mean to be foreigners. The written language appears impenetrable to our Western eyes. Spoken words come without subtitles. Left-lane driving brings moments of sheer panic. All of it, of course, experienced through a haze of jet lag. Hisashi and Shin lean against the truck, conferring in rapid-fire Japanese, while we stare up into the vast forest canopy in wonder. "Watch out for monkey," Hisashi says cryptically. Is this something we should hope for, or fear? We aren't on Bainbridge Island anymore, that's for sure.

We assemble rods, tie tippets, select flies, and then...we are fishing. Suddenly, there is the familiar scent of wet alders and river silt in sunshine, the push of cool water on waders, the feel of stones worn smooth by thousands of years of descending snowmelt. A small dark caddis skitters across the surface. The world shrinks to the complexity of braiding currents, seams and riffles. Just upstream, a trout rises. It's good to be home.

While others have forsaken the delicate native trout for bigger, flashier species, some remain obsessed with the wild, indigenous fish of the Japan Alps.