Fishing Tokyo’s Tama River

Jun 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Outdoor Activities & Sporting Events, Tokyo and Vicinity

It isn’t always necessary to travel far to have an outdoor adventure, even in the world’s most populated metropolis. For Tokyo area fisherman a unique angling opportunity can be just a couple of train stops or a short bicycle ride away. Tokyo’s Tama River spring run of Far Eastern dace is one of those opportunities.

The Tama River begins in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture and flows 138 kilometers eastward through Tokyo Prefecture emptying into Tokyo Bay next to Haneda Airport. The lower portion of the river forms the boundary between Tokyo and the neighboring city of Kawasaki.

Fishing in Japan Tama River

Rapid post-war urbanization made the Tama River uninhabitable for many types of fish. Pollution control measures, the fitting of weirs with fish ladders, and the river’s official designation as a wildlife protection zone have greatly improved conditions, and have lead to a return of many species. Among them is the Far Eastern dace or maruta in Japanese.

Among anglers there are a number of fish that have been called “the poor man’s salmon” – easily available fish that offer some of the great sport of catching that aristocratic fish, but without the time, travel and expense required to pursue salmon. My nominee for the Japanese title is the maruta (Tribolodon brandti).
The Far Eastern dace is a member of the minnow family, but a minnow with pretensions. Like salmon, maruta spend most of their adult lives in saltwater migrating upriver to spawn and like salmon, they can be caught by sports fishermen with flies and lures. These mega-minnows grow to over 60 centimeters in length and are strong hard-fighters.

For much of the year the Far Eastern dace is silver-colored, but when spawning season arrives, this fish dresses for the occasion. Its color darkens and the maruta develops a black racing stripe with bright orange trim.

Fishing in Japan Maruta

I found fishing for maruta very similar to stream fishing for pink salmon in Hokkaido and Alaska. Dace favor similar stretches of fast shallow water and the deeper pockets above and below them. As with salmon, it is necessary to cast above a school of fish bringing the fly or lure through it while keeping a tight line. The dace are more interested in spawning, so the fly must come with in a couple centimeters of the fish’s mouth if you hope to get a strike. Pulling the line up through the school from behind will result in snagging fish in the back or tail.

Fly Fishing in Japan Tama River

On a 3 hour Tama River fly fishing outing, I landed 43 maruta from 40 to 58 centimeters long. I also caught 4 carp which were following the spawning maruta to feed on their eggs. I was joined by my friend Ramon who met me at the river. There were several anglers on the Kawasaki side, but we had the Tokyo side to ourselves. Even though he is a beginner at fly fishing Ramon managed to land 11 fish.

Fly Fishing in Japan Tama River ABRamon kept fishing after I left. Afterwards he claimed that one of the dace that he caught looked bigger than the Japan Game Fishing Association record, a 2 kilogram fish from the Tama River, but because he didn’t know about the record at the time, he released the fish without weighing or measuring it. Ramon may still be a novice when it comes to the catching part of fishing, but he is definitely well on his way to mastering the storytelling part.

Far Eastern dace can also be caught with lures. Six pound (2.7 kg) or eight pound (3.6 kg) class spinning gear is a good choice. While they can be caught on plugs and spinners, spoons get the best results. Use a 5 to 7 gram spoon in silver or some combination of silver. Daiwa Chinook spoons and Daiwa Crusader spoons are good selections. Replace the treble hook with a single hook. Single hooks are less damaging to the fish and are less likely to get hung up on rocks.

The dace is a food fish in China and parts of Europe, but in my opinion, as table fare, the maruta is a fish that is probably best to release. They are extremely boney. If you want to cook dace, some style of deep-frying that will soften the bones such as tatsuda-age would be the way to go.

The breeding season for maruta is March through May. The main part of the Tama River’s spawning run seems to coincide with the blooming of the cherry blossoms. The best fishing spots are from around the Tomei Highway bridge up to the Shukugawara weir. By public transportation the area can be reached from the Nambu Line’s Kuji, Shukugawara, or Noborito Stations, or the Odakyu Line’s Noborito or Izumi-Tamagawa Stations. The river is about a 15 minute walk from the stations. If you are in Tokyo when spring rolls around, give Japan’s poor man’s salmon a try.

This article was written by long-time Tokyo resident and life-long fishing fanatic, Alan Bergman. The images are from his personal collection.

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  1. Great story and photos, Alan; keep it up !

  2. Hi Alan,

    I am going to be traveling to Hokkaido at the end of August and would like to know if you have any info about trout streams there? I flyfish, practice catch and release and I’m looking for small to medium sized streams where I can use dry flies. How do the regulations work there? Do I need a Hokkaido fishing license or is the license specific to each stream?



  3. The first photo of the fish is indeed amazing. Many fishermen prefer on doing fly fishing on fresh waters and rivers. Its because they are dependent on the current of the water. Fishing on Asian lakes is definitely fun. Huge breed of freshwater carps nowadays are becoming so popular on Angler’s catches withing these rivers.

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