Sotobo Top Water Yellowtail
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Article by “The Angler – GPC”
with permission by Abdel Ibrahim.
When milestones in human achievement are described there’s often an accompanying, “nobody thought this was possible” to go along with it. Such is the case for top water yellowtail fishing in Japan.
It’s not inconceivable that a yellowtail in the shallows would strike a plug on the surface, but until recently there was no identifiable targeting pattern, which was universally recognized in Japan.
Part of the reason has to do with the spatial constraints on fishing vessels, which are designed for vertical methods like jigging or bottom bouncing. Another, perhaps more serious, issue in Japanese waters is whether skippers are given access to areas that hold targetable fish in numbers.
The reefs dotting the Pacific coastline of Chiba Prefecture, known as Sotobo are a textbook case of how the need to innovate constantly drives Japanese anglers to figure out new ways to put fish on the boat. To be brief, these grounds are a pressure cooker. The amount of commercial and sport fishing activity in Sotobo is probably greater than any other place in Japan. This in no way means that the reefs are fished out, but rather that the game fish that occupy them won’t bite at just anything.
Enter Captain Toru Yamaguchi –a Sotobo native, former GT guide, and world class lure angler. Yamaguchi had already become the most popular jig game captain in the Kanto region and had for some time been the center of talented cadre of anglers who fished with him week in and week out. He knew that large yellowtail occupied the shallows and could be taken on top water gear, but as a guide he needed to come up with a way his patrons could effectively cast for them. After a short period of experimenting with several drifting patterns and varieties of plugs he hit pay dirt.
The winning technique is pretty sensible but somewhat unorthodox for Japan. At most crowded points like those in Sotobo, regulations stipulate that all vessels face into the wind, deploy a spanker sail and keep their engines idling. Instead, Yamaguchi sought points away from other vessels giving him the ability to cut off his engine and drift over points silently with the direction of the wind. He also chose reefs less than 20 meters deep that were either too shallow or had currents too swift for commercial operators nets. By Sotobo standards the results have been astounding.
Since 2008 when Yamaguchi began focusing on top water casting with equal or greater emphasis to jigging, his patrons have been gradually pulling up larger and larger fish. The fall of 2009 saw sizes never recorded for lure anglers in Japan –the biggest being a 49.5 kilo yellowtail caught in early November.
Despite the sizes of catches increasing, Sotobo lure fishing is not a numbers game. Timing and technique are crucial, and only anglers who know precisely how to use their tackle, and stay sharp get a fish on. It’s game fishing approached like trophy whitetail hunting.
Ideal rods for top water fishing in Sotobo have three characteristics; short length for underhanded casts -a necessity due to the number of patrons on most vessels making overhead casting unsafe, strong butt sections for fighting fish that run straight for the jagged reefs as soon as they’re hooked, and a soft tip for finesse intensive retrieval of pencil baits. An ideal length is between 6 and 7 feet.
In high pressure grounds like Sotobo the yellowtail are very picky about what they will strike at, and as such, regulars have come to put their trust in only one or two types of lures. These are almost all handmade pencil baits in the 16-21 centimeter range. Line wise, most anglers spool PE 4-5, but some have gone as high as 8 to have as much power to yank hooked fish away from the rocky bottom.
The long term effectiveness of casting for yellowtail over successive seasons has yet to be determined, but the last two years have been viewed by many as a new beginning for the Sotobo fishery. Commercial fishermen in the area have on occasion pulled up fish large the 60 kilos from the same reefs, so it’s totally conceivable that at least a line class record is eminent. The possibility of boating such a fish is likely to keep both Sotobo’s die hard veterans as well as new to the game anglers on their toes this fall.