Ayu Fishing: How a Peacetime Samurai Training Exercise Created a New Sport
Ayu Fishing by Debbie Kay
The ayu is not much to look at. However, this tiny silver smelt with golden fins has played a large part in Japanese history. It is the inspiration for the modified fly fishing technique of ayu fishing, which has served not only as a way to catch these tasty “sweetfish” but also as a way to keep samurai skills sharp during the two and a half centuries of the Edo period, when samurai swordplay was rare. Instead, the technique that requires a rod 30-40 feet long is believed to have been developed specifically for this purpose. While this theory is not entirely proven, it is a favorite of fishing historians.
The Edo Period
In Japan, the Edo Period was known as a two and a half century period of peace and isolationism. Samurai served as guards for noblemen, but rarely if ever saw war. Samurai enjoyed a high status similar to the knights of medieval Europe. Because of this, they were one of the few groups of people who were allowed to fish the rivers. As many of them were stationed to nobles who lived in country manors far from any action or other forms of entertainment, fishing was a very popular activity for them. They created specialized rods, used scraps of silk kimonos as tied flies, and even bent their own sewing needles as hooks. If the legend is true, the techniques in ayu fishing mimicked many aspects of swordplay, and fishing barefoot along the rocks with a moving current developed balance.
How Ayu Fishing Works
Today, ayu is a very popular fish and is raised in hatcheries for sport fishing. Today, it typically takes place at a wood and stone weir called a Yana. Ayu is highly territorial, and the trick to catching them is to make them feel like their territory is being encroached upon. This can be done by presentation or by using live bait. Hooks are not taken by mouth, but instead the flies and bait have them along the belly and gills to accidentally hook the territorial fish when it comes to fight for its property. If you are using live bait, then typically the bait fish is switched out each time with the new fish to keep any of them from being too worn out.
The fish are highly valued for culinary purposes, and they are nicknamed sweetfish because they have notes of fruit in their flavor. They are believed by some to be the tastiest fish in all of Japan.
Invention or Imitation?
While it is widely believed that ayu fishing was the sport of samurai, it is not clear whether they invented the technique or brought it over from Korea after a series of raids. A very similar technique called cheonde existed there, though the historical records are not clear as to which technique predated the other. Whatever you believe, if you have the opportunity to try ayu fishing, it can be fun to imagine yourself following in the footsteps of these iconic warriors.