Tokara – The Pilgrimage
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The pursuit of Caranx is one of the true sports where the hunter, losing line rapidly to his quarry, becomes like the hunted. There are only a handful of places in the world where monster GT can be encountered with some degree of regularity. These areas offer GT fishing at its prime, each with it’s own distinct environment and unique challenges in respect to fishing methodologies and techniques.
My trip to Tokara was a pilgrimage. I was being drawn as a GT follower to reach the motherland, dreamed of by many, but visited by few. These waters are the roots to the GT fishing movement, and just like the blues draws music lovers to the American deep south, Tokara is my Mecca. What was to unfold was a journey rich in GT folklore, history and phenomenal real-time events.
A tanned, muscular forearm gestured from his body as he bowed. “Fukui-San!” I exclaimed. His head rose back up swiftly with a welcoming smile.
This was the first time I met Kenzaburo Fukui, or, Fukui-San – a proverbial legend of Amami, Tokara and GT fishing worldwide. His welcome was most comforting for a westerner who had made the pilgrimage to southern Japan solo, not even so much as knowing the names of his to be fishing companions for the next 10 days. I made my introduction, bowed, and was quickly shuffled into the vehicle, complete with my 2nd family for the remainder of the trip. It was certainly one of the most generous and warm experiences I have ever had abroad on a GT expedition, and things were to only get better.
The vehicle snaked through rustic, modest townships between expanses of sugar cane and breathtaking views of the coral fringed island of Amami. Only harbour break-walls and headlands stood in the way –shores that have seen many a giant swim past their many points.
We travelled north along the single, humble road towards the northeast Cape Kasarizaki. After a short trip we had reached Captain Fukui’s homestead –a modern home located stunningly along the beach break-wall with unobstructed views and access to the coastal beach and reef. Who knows how many GTs have been caught from this beach alone over the years. The day before, a 20kg specimen rolled upon Fukui-San’s Gamma as he cast from shore early in the morning. Very cool.
It’s rare enough to see several Carpenter Gamma 160’s in a fisherman’s toolbox, but how about a whole room where each wall is floor to ceiling full of them? There were Gammas of each and every size, shape, and variation ever made –new ones, mauled ones, pink ones, yellow ones, and some sporting the battle scars of GT’s over 50kg. Amazing. There are only a couple places
in the whole world where you could see such a sight. Then there were the roof rafters stacked to the limit with an assortment of GT fishing rods from over the ages, some bamboo, others crafted with copious amounts of fibreglass from the 80’s. This was a GT fishing museum.
Rigging rods in anticipation of epic battles was difficult enough as we sat outside Fukui’s fishing cave. I found it hard to resist perusing each and every variety of Gamma on the wall. I even found one decorated with a Kangaroo and Aboriginal pattern, and thought, surely I must make an offer to Fukui-San on that bit of history next time. I was admiring and reliving the moments of phenomenal catches framed along the wall – none more so impressive than a 100lb+ GT taken 20 years ago from a Tokara harbour breakwall on a homemade popper before all the technologically advanced fishing wares that us modern day anglers take for granted existed. There is little doubt of the value that Fukui-San has provided to companies such as Shimano and Carpenter in their quest to be the ultimate fishing manufacturers. Sorting and analysing a variety of Tokara nautical charts, you could get lost in this place and never wet a line.
Captain Fukui’s boat, Big Dipper, is the ultimate fishing machine. The beast is 52ft long and powered by twin turbo diesel engines that hiss at a high pitch and can max 40 knots at full throttle. That’s the best way to travel the 100km to Tokara from Amami when the sea conditions allow it.
Arriving at Tokara is akin to frontier explorers hacking through dense jungle up into mist shrouded mountains where ancient treasure awaits. Substitute explorer for angler, dense jungle for expanses of remote ocean, mountains for active, smouldering volcanoes, and treasures for colossal GT and Dogtooth, and your scene is set.
It’s an amazing site to see a smouldering volcano anywhere let alone a remote fishing destination. You wake up from your huddle in the boat’s cabin, having passed time enroute. Mintues later, the boat is going the way of the current, lurching and swaying along the island mountain topography. Looking up reveals a majestic rock face, and sites where small landslides dropped directly into the cobalt blue water.
Motoring towards the first island in diminishing light, several long and elongated rocky outcrops converged with the ocean, and current swept past furiously. A flock of Carpenter Gamma stickbaits filled the air and showered the water as they landed, creating the ultimate attraction for GT in this area – a school of skittish, fleeing bait fish.
The most common lure used by Fukui’s patrons in Tokara is the Carpenter Gamma. Large profile sizes such as the 160 and 250 are most common to match typically large bait patterns. Lengths from 200 to 300mm create the perfect presence for GTs to acquire, lock and destroy the presented target.
Fluid-like mending from front to side (like a sweep) gets this famous lure dancing. Add a quarter second pause to get a slight head bob, and repeat. A little bit of slack line whilst pulling the lure through the water in a wiggle-esq fashion is my hint for anglers to create their own Gamma magic. It’s not easy to master, but with practice (and soft rod tip), success can be achieved.
Arm the Gamma with 6/0 trebles (160 size) and 8/0 trebles (250 size). These are Gamakatsu sizes, although I feel that one can experiment with 1 size up in Decoy trebles if desired. The Gamma certainly deserves the hook exposure but do be careful not to ruin the extremely sensitive built-in action.
Carpenter Pandora sinking stickbaits are also popular when GT activity is quiet. The lure simply sinks to desired depth and is retrieved with a regular, constant wind. I also had success with the Orion Crazy Dog, nailing a healthy 25kg GT on the first morning. Orion Big Nambas and Big Foot will also experience success in the appropriate conditions.
On this trip to Tokara it was evident that Flying Fish were more present than Fusilier (Gurukun). Flashy, metallic winged lures received the majority of attention. When half a dozen Gammas entered the GT arena, it was easy to see that these flashy lures behaved in much the same way that small schools of flying fish would. The flying fish were densely concentrated and fluttered in a panic out of the water for several metres before making a commotion on re-entry. With the lures being retrieved in such a fashion back to the boat in one group it’s no wonder they are such a powerful fish attracting magnet. It’s interesting to note that little or no-flash lures received practically no attention during hot bites.
After a hard day’s fishing, the Big Dipper would retreat into the nearest safe harbour. We visited 3 different islands during the trip, staying in a different guesthouse each night. The variety was most welcome for a westerner wanting to soak up as much Tokara history as possible. Shared lodging was more than adequate, a futon and a pillow being all that was required to rest weary bones and muscles after a hard day on the ocean. Meals were homemade and nothing short of superb with no less than six individual and unique dishes including meat, seafood, and rice. Seaweed made each meal something to look forward to, and the accompaniment of a Japanese beer (or six) helped me to relax even more.
We did not fish from shore during the night as it was not season for Flying Fish spawning. Flying Fish spawn during the cooler months, entering the harbour breakwalls, attracted by big, bright floodlights. GT are in turn attracted to this favourite fare of theirs like a magnet. Throwing poppers and stickbaits through these breeding melee’s is almost a sure bet for encountering a big or even epic GT. The current all tackle world record, 72.3 kg GT was taken from a harbour breakwall on the island of Takara. I hope to take a shot at one of these occurrences in 2011.
Efforts during the main part of the day yielded little result. The occasional Mahi and Bluefin Trevally would make an appearance but the GT remained rather elusive. Each day, it was not until the last hour of light that GT would come into their element and begin to hunt. Each afternoon would see 5 important factors combine to create a prime hunting window: low light, current against tide, wind, swell/chop and baitfish high in the water column. A submerged reef several kilometres off the island of Akusekijima was a proverbial boiling pot of GT activity. The bottom could be seen in most instances, a depth rarely deeper than 15 metres. The Big Dipper would lazily, but safely, float over the biggest of unbroken swell and chop, allowing anglers precious time in the strike zone. Captain Fukui’s eye remained on the guard as pressure waves in excess of 6 feet made rogue appearances, prompting the twin engines to fire into action, and taking affirmative action to keep the vessel and her occupants safe and free from harm.
In fading light, the monsters could be seen stalking Gammas as they hopped, skipped, bumped and sometimes cut straight through the wavy washing machine. Fish would rise through the swell, swipe or tail slap the lure as the unpredictable sea prevented the precision normally possible during more amicable conditions. The fish were lit with a deep, golden brown hue as their flanks came to life in displays of feeding and territorial aggression. It was duly noted that the fish were holding in one area and preferred to attack at 90 degrees to the lure path – never directly behind or in front, and always seemingly from the one side.
There was high activity, but the commitment ratio was low. Despite the rough conditions, Tokara anglers need to remain calm and keep their lure actions precise. As the conditions worsened, it was like a gambling game, high stakes and risk. My heart beat increased as one eye remained on the breakers to the aft of the boat and the other eye strained in the last remnants of light to identify the lure and possible attacking fish. Breakers could be heard and felt spraying and rattling of the hull, but the cool and collected Fukui-San handled his vessel with ease and poise, and kept the boat in the safest position for the compromising conditions.
Despite all the that I have learnt over the years in respect to fishing in general and GT pursuit my gamble was identified and bluffed. I had my shot at a pedigree fish, possibly in the 50’s. All I could see was a walloping tail at the end of an attack, high in the air, waving vigorously as it re-entered the frothing mess. Acknowledging the head-high spray from an impacting breaker, a few colourful words spoken out aloud in frustration, saw me take my eye of the prize for a moment and pay very dearly. My fishing companions painfully described the size of the fish. Bitterness followed. Tokara return ticket booked.