AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Gone fishin’ for sweetfish

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 17, 2008

MANY FISH BITES, the old song goes, when you got good bait. That’s always been true, but sometimes the clever fisherman doesn’t need bait. The Japanese figured out a more relaxed way to catch sweetfish several centuries ago without worming any hooks at all. They just put something in their way!

Ayu a sweetfish?

Ayu a sweet fish?

The use of the name sweetfish is no hyperbole, incidentally. That’s what all the dictionaries say is the English term for the ayu. No, I’d never heard of sweetfish before I came to Japan either, but somebody somewhere must call them that. They’re certainly very tasty, but “sweet” is not the best way to describe their flavor.

The Japanese have always liked the ayu; in ancient times, they appeared as a good omen in stories. Maybe that’s why they sometimes name girls after them.

Has anyone ever used “my little sweetfish” as a term of endearment, I wonder?

Back to the story, the photo shows a traditional fish trap for catching the ayu that come barreling downriver every year to mate. It was placed on the Hidaka River in Ryujin-mura, Wakayama. (Ryujin means “dragon god”, by the way, but that’s a different kettle of fish.)

The trap is supposed to be quite simple. The fisherfolk stretch ropes across the river and tie straw to the ropes at regular intervals. This blocks the passage of the ayu, who dislike obstacles. Now that makes sense–if you were swimming downstream to mate with someone particularly sweet, you wouldn’t want anything to get in your way, either. It’s assembled in such a way as to guide the frustrated little guys into a sack-like area, where they’re scooped up. Some of the more energetic fishermen use nets instead.

A little research turned up still another way to catch ayu. The fish aggressively protect their turf—or should I say surf—and will pugnaciously try to drive out any other creatures foolish enough to fin their way into their territory. The fishermen take advantage of this trait in a technique called tomozuri, or decoy fishing. The ayu fall for the bait every time. Except there isn’t any bait to fall for.

These traps look effective, but alas, the Hidaka River Fishing Cooperative reports the ayu aren’t all that interested in coming downstream this year. Not enough rain.

Now who would have guessed that it took rain to get a sweetfish into the mood?

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One Response to “Gone fishin’ for sweetfish”

  1. Durf said

    When I lived in Tochigi I was taken fishing for ayu a few times. Tomozuri is actually a fascinating (and sort of cruel) way to fish. You catch one ayu and then make it into your lure, with a double-hooked lead that you stick into your living lure’s mouth and belly. That fish gets dragged through the 縄張り of another fish, who attacks it only to impale itself on the external hook protruding from the belly attachment. When your lure tires out and gets close to death you pick a fresh one from your bucket and continue.

    Personally I don’t think ayu are as tasty as some other freshwater fish (yamame, kajika, and of course the trout) but salted and broiled by a riverside fire they’re certainly nothing to turn down!

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