Passing On the Fishing Gene
By Gary Yamaguchi
For The North American Post
“The force is strong with this one.”
— Darth Vader in “Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope”
WHAT IS IT that draws some to the sport of fishing? Fishing lures some people in, snagging them, and holding them like the barb on a hook. I submit there must be a special gene, the “fishing gene.”
Most people don’t have it. But it ran strong among the Nisei who taught me. Because of them, my entire life was enriched and soon revolved around thoughts of catching fish.
I was recently reminded of this during an Alaskan fishing trip organized by Long Duong, while sharing a boat with Dr. Jim Sameshima.” Jim is about as dyed-in-the-wool a fisherman as they come, but after five straight days of dawn-to-dusk fishing, he’d actually reached his fill. After tangling up in the kelp (again) in a particularly seaweed-filled, choppy tidal rip current, he announced he was “done.” I gleefully took over his rod, rigged it up with an orange banana-shaped mooching sinker and a purple and black squid-like lure, and threw it back out. Now I had two rods out.
▲Gary with Jim Sameshima outside Gary’s trailer in Stehekin, North Cascades National Park, Washington (July 1975). Fishing attire in those days was pretty simple. Hair was long, cutoff jeans were short. Photos: GY
The experience recalled memories of fishing in our youth with Jim’s entire family out at Westport, Washington. One day, with everyone being seasick except him and me, each of us was charged with watching five rods. We were in heaven, catching fish nonstop all day…
The fishing gene is not passed on from father to son, or mother to son. My children can catch fish, but they don’t have the gene. They don’t live to fish! They’d just as soon climb a rock or try out a new coffee shop instead of standing knee deep in a river searching for steelhead on a cold wintry day. My mother, Hana (Arase), said she was the best at catching shiner perch among her siblings, but I couldn’t say that she had the gene either. She might have been good at the catching part, but I’ve found that that’s only about 10% of the process. People with the fishing gene are simply obsessive about it. They learn to tie good knots and study fish and the life cycles of their food sources. They anticipate going fishing, typically not being able to sleep the night before. After the catch, there’s cleaning, cooking, and most importantly, reliving the catch and the storytelling.
The person with the fishing gene lives for it all. … I’ve come to the conclusion that you either have it or you don’t. If you have the gene, it must be discovered and fanned into life by an older mentor.
▲Gary fly-fishing in salt water for silver salmon outside Point Baker, Alaska (Aug. 2023). Photos: GY (left), Jim (right)
In my boyhood, I was introduced to fishing while on a trip to San Francisco with my father, Kay. His friend took us to Fisherman’s Wharf where I caught a bullhead. No boy was ever more excited about his catch! Unfortunately, Dad, lacking the fishing gene, didn’t know what to do about this newfound fascination. Fortunately, he had fellow Nisei friends who were fantastic fishermen willing to spend time with a little boy both on and off the water.
And I did my part. I made 25 cents an hour working at North Coast Importing Company, our family store. I remember spending all my hard-earned dough on fishing gear.
Fortunately, in those days, it didn’t cost much. My first fly reel cost $2.50 and a level (non-tapered) fly-line another $2.00.
When not working, I was hanging out at Tashiro Hardware in the International District. I’d spend hours there, looking at the varied displays of fine reels and equipment. Nisei fishermen-employees Jiro Yoshioka, Nelson Matsuda and Frank Tashiro – taught me how to tie knots, snell hooks (attach them to fishing-line leaders), and rig up salmon mooching rigs. Nelson also brought me trout fishing on opening day every year. Then, he taught me how to camp in Eastern Washington, to rise before dawn, to embed my egg-shaped hook entirely within a single salmon egg using a toothpick, and to catch shimmering trout using gossamer-thin lines and fly rods for the ultimate in touch and feel.
Nelson even brought me fishing with the Drifters, a Nisei salmon-fishing club that fished regularly out of Westport. Through the Drifters, I got to know many great fishermen, including Shun Yuasa, arguably the best blackmouth fisherman of his generation in Puget Sound. (A blackmouth is an immature Chinook salmon that takes up year-round residence in Puget Sound.)
Some youth who have come fishing with me. My son Jonathan (Above left), daughter Karissa (Above right) and nephew Leo Fukano (left).
Photos: San Juan River, NM (June 2005; GY). ,Logan R., UT (July 2009; Janet Yamaguchi). ,Cook Creek, WA (Dec. 2022; GY)
After his retirement from Boeing, Shun could be seen at every outgoing tide at Point No Point, standing at the back of his rented skiff. Rod in hand and cigar in mouth, he would alternately crank his reel and let line out to entice a king salmon to strike at his twirling, flashing herring. If Shun was out, you knew the fish were there and would be biting. If he wasn’t there, you wouldn’t catch anything. Either the combination of tide and wind was wrong or the fish weren’t in. He knew to the minute when the bite would turn on and when it would turn off. I’d fish with him and Dad, let them off onshore to go play cards, and then go back out by myself to continue fishing. Only once did I ever catch a salmon after Shun said the bite was over.
Katsumi Tanino was a leading consulting engineer, who didn’t play golf, and consequently missed out on a lot of the socializing aspects of the Nisei golf clubs that my parents belonged to. But, he fished! Kat’s biggest target was steelhead. While I never went steelhead fishing with Kats, I spent many a day fishing on Puget Sound with him in his boat, “The Little One”, which he kept up on a hoist above Shilshole Bay. Once I was old enough to drive, he let me fish there any time I wanted, requiring only a phone call to let him know I was taking the boat out.
One of those days, I was out on a dark, foggy morning with Jim, and we drifted into a Native American’s gill net. While untangling the prop, Jim nonchalantly asked me if I knew there was a lighthouse up above us. I didn’t think there was one anywhere nearby… However, on looking up, I saw the bow searchlight of a freighter swiftly and silently bearing down on us! We started up the motor right away and got the heck out of there.
Occasionally, we’d catch a salmon early in the morning and bring it down to North Coast to put it into the walk-in refrigerator. Dad would write me a note saying he was sorry I was late for school and that it wouldn’t happen again. Of course, that worked time after time. He was okay with it as long as my grades were okay (all A’s).
Kat’s best fishing partner was Shig Tanagi. Since my parents did not fish, their friends took us out. When I was really young, Kats, Shig and Bill Komoto took my brother David and I out to Lake Washington to fish for a few hours. I was casting my lure to the logs near the shore and predictably, I got snagged on a log. Shig thought he could walk out on the log and retrieve it, but the log rolled and he fell in! Kerploosh! It’s a good thing he was a good swimmer. All the adults were laughing so much that they wouldn’t have been able to rescue him if he’d needed it.
Jim and I also made the jump to fly fishing, helped along by our Jefferson Park softball coach, Glen Casperson. He caught me one morning before softball practice trying to learn how to fly-cast on the grass from a Boy Scout book, which I’d picked up for a dollar. Coach said, just come with him that weekend. I hiked with him to the Foss Lakes, in the mountains east of Seattle, first. Then he talked Jim and I into going up to the Enchantment Lakes later in the summer along with some other team members. We caught loads of colorful cutthroat trout, and by the end of that trip, we could call ourselves fly-fishers!
We were helped along that path by Linc, Jerry, and Maria Beppu at Linc’s Tackle, who stocked the best fly rod blanks and equipment. Howard Hayden, my Cleveland High School teacher, brought in his fly-tying kit and taught me to tie superb flies that looked beautiful and caught fish! He also took us out hiking and helped us refine our fly-casting.
A lifetime later, Jim has become one of the best tailwater fly-fishers in the West, having mastered tough waters such as the San Juan River, New Mexico. (Tailwater describes the cold outflow immediately downstream from a dam. Large trout are caught there with extremely small flies.) He’s been taught by THE best fly-fisher I’ve ever known and seen, guide Andy Kim, of Korean heritage (nicknamed “The Trout Vacuum” by “Flyfisherman” magazine).
In hard-fished waters such as the San Juan, Andy can catch a trout in seconds whereas a good fly-fisher might catch only one per hour.
I remember Andy instructing me to place a long cast exactly two feet upstream of a feeding trout and six inches above the water, with the line extended perfectly straight – an impossible cast using a light wispy rod and with a blustery crosswind blowing my line all over the place! After struggling to do it, I asked him to demonstrate. He asked me to start counting. Eight seconds later, he had hooked that fish. It took me another year to perfect that cast.
See, I’ve got the fishing gene. I can’t help but relive each memory of fish I’ve fooled into taking my fly or lure. I can picture the way the water flowed past each rocky hideaway, how my fly swept past and how the fish darted out to grab it.
Nowadays, I get a lot of joy in remembering all that my fishing mentors did for me. All of them have either passed away or are becoming quite elderly. How could I ever thank them? I can offer this remembrance telling them that their efforts have not been forgotten. Moreover, to honor what they did for me, I can take a youngster fishing.
The fishing gene in me needs to be passed on. Might you have a young-un who wants to wiggle his or her toes in the mud and dunk their line in the water?