Nanae’s most unique winter activity, wakasagi tsuri, or smelt fishing, takes place on the frozen lakes surrounding Mt. Komagatake in the northern village of Onuma.
With my mother’s family hailing from northern Wisconsin, I was already familiar with smelt fishing. In fact, my great aunt was the first ever Smelt Queen in 1936 in Marinette, Wisconsin, a town whose smelt popularity spawned an annual festival.
That said, I had never eaten smelt before coming to Japan, let alone Hokkaido-style wakasagi, deep-fried, bones and all, on the center of a frozen lake.
On a particularly beautiful Saturday in February, I headed out to Lake Junsainuma with CIR Ben Haydock, who will hereto be referred to as “Senpai Ben” (in Japan a senpai is an older co-worker/mentor). We were joined by some of our co-workers from the Nanae Town Office and Board of Education to partake in a friendly wakasagi tsuri competition.
I was paired off with Mase-san from the town office, who was coming out onto the ice for the first time. Mastering the right ice fishing methods and strategies takes a little time, but having fished two weeks earlier, I was ready to take on and soundly defeat the two opposing teams. Facing off against us was Senpai Ben and Manabe-san – a Board of Education staffer who hails from Miki, Shikoku – on one team, and my supervisor, Miura-san, along with Ben’s co-worker Tezuka-san, on the other.
There are five key components to a successful wakasagi catch, listed here in ascending order:
1) Freshness of bait: wakasagi fishing poles are simple in design, with a hand fed spool and line that holds six tiny hooks, on each of which is hooked a tiny pink maggot. The most common method is to bisect the maggot with scissors to attract more fish, a method I found at first to be displeasing and later effective. The bait loses its color after less than thirty minutes in the water, and you’ll be lucky to catch even a bite after it’s been in for an hour, so the occasional change-up is essential to winning a wakasagi competition.
2) Pole placement and reaction time: wakasagi are quick enough to bite the bait and bounce without getting caught on the hook, so like any other type of fishing you have to be ready to yank up the pole as soon as you get a substantial nibble. After an hour of practice one can get a very good sense of the wakasagi’s size based on the pull of the bite. But, these bites are still very light, and unless you have extremely calm hands, it is best to rest the pole on the ice or on your live-well bucket, watching the line for pulls and standing ready to react as soon as contact is made.
3) Depth: wakasagi are generally found within a meter of the surface, and with fresh bait on hand can be found literally within arm’s reach. However, the successful ice fisherman is one who embraces adaptability, so when the wakasagi aren’t biting, it’s time to go deeper… or switch locations.
4) Location: unless you’re keen to wake up and hit the ice very early in the dead of winter during prime feeding time, you are unlikely to hit the wakasagi jackpot without changing holes at least once. Half of the group committed the grave error of succumbing to inertia, reeling in only a fraction of the total day’s catch. And yet, even with fresh bait, changing depths and occasional movement, there is one skillset that still remains inherent, and will make the difference between gold and an A-for-effort ribbon, which brings us to #5
5) I am a Wakasagi Whisperer
Before any of this could be considered, we arrived at the first empty designated spot more than 800 meters from shore (the lake was packed that day), and, in a group of six, found only four open holes. Using a hand powered ice auger doesn’t look difficult until you start cranking away, and five minutes later find that you have created nothing more than a single centimeter dent. This was the situation I found myself in after insisting on taking over for Senpai Ben, so I quickly handed it back and made myself useful by giving encouraging remarks and watching attentively.
I was thoroughly impressed with my wakasagi teammate Mase-san, who drilled an even faster hole, but as soon as the lines were dropped in, it became clear that my teammate was more adept in the art of drilling than fishing, and at the twenty minute mark I was the individual leader with a dozen fish, but carrying the team on my back, my partner coming in at zero.
The team quickly emerging as a powerhouse was undoubtedly Senpai Ben and Manabe-san, the former of whom tailed me at ten wakasagi, but paired with Manabe’s seven smelt, was establishing a decisive lead.
Wakasagi are fast swimmers, and their packs move all over the place, so after one hour my pace was slowing, with twenty total fish, and it was clear that our location was starting to dry up. I looked on in dismay as my teammate continued to hold his pole rather than rest it, likely missing many bites without realizing it. After no action for several minutes on any line, I made the desperate move of drastically increasing my depth from four to nearly ten feet, and this Wakasagi Whisperer quickly collected three unlucky swimmers fin to fin.
By now it was clear that a location change was needed, and so I crossed the ice with Tezuka and Ben in search of more plentiful feeding grounds. It was here that the two of them quickly caught up to my once unbeatable looking individual lead, and I was surpassed by my own senpai after I made the fatal error of leaving my rod unattended to take pictures of nearby Mt. Komagatake.
The wakasagi, sensing their whisperer had abandoned them to seek Instagram fame, now gravitated towards Tezuka and Ben. After two and a half solid hours, we returned to the group, where I paired my 39 wakasagi with a mere 8 from my partner, still holding his rod rather than leaving it alone on the ice, and we finished a distant third to Miura/Tezuka’s total in the upper 60s and Ben/Manabe’s 83.
The last step involved oil, breaded wakasagi, and a deep frier. Itadakimasu!
Here’s a video that captures the highlights: