Smelt fishing is a Japanese winter tradition. While many may picture smelt fishing as a long, winter morning wait in front of a hole in the ice, there is actually a much easier way to enjoy smelt fishing by using a “dome boat”.
This time I tried smelt fishing from a dome boat, with the Lake Suwa Fishing Boat Center (Lake Suwa Leisure Center) in Suwa city, Nagano Prefecture! I will report on how it went, tips for smelt fishing, and the recommended time of the year. The experience also has a service, where you can have the fish you caught cooked into a tempura!
Smelt fishing on Lake Suwa, Nagano's biggest lake
Lake Suwa view from the side of the reception office
Lake Suwa boasts the largest size in Nagano with about a 16km circumference. It is located around the middle of Nagano Prefecture.
A famous scenery of Lake Suwa’s winter is the “Omiwatari”. It is a natural phenomenon when Lake Suwa freezes and ridged ice cracks form on the surface. It is said that the ridged cracks are a passageway for the male god of Suwa Taisha shrine to reach the female god of the lower shrine. In recent years, possibly due to the effects of global warming, it is becoming rarer to see the lake completely freeze over, making this scenery even more of a cherished one.
Due to a warm winter in 2019, we will not have a chance to see “Omiwatari”. Instead we have the good luck to enjoy smelt fishing on a domeboat throughout winter. If the surface does not freeze, smelt fishing can be enjoyed for the whole season from September to March.
Great for beginners! Enjoy smelt fishing on a dome boat
Domeboat for smelt fishing
For this article, I have gone and tried out dome boat smelt fishing firsthand; this happens to be my first time ever smelt fishing.
What you need for smelt fishing
■Things to bring
To fish smelt with the Lake Suwa Fishing Boat Center, you do not need to bring any special items. You can rent everything that you need including the fishing poles and bait, so you just need to bring some money for the rental gear. However, if you can I recommend preparing a small pair of scissors for cutting the insects for bait.
Weekends and holidays here can get quite busy, so I recommend packing light. If you put your valuable items in a small backpack, then you do not need to worry about space on the boat.
If the weather is sunny, the inside of the dome boat might get hot. However, the shuttle boat also gets quite cold while moving so I suggest that you bring warm clothes with removable layers.
After registering, go to the dome boat
Lake Suwa Fishing Boat Center reception office
At the reception office you first need to fill out the registration form for the smelt fishing and pay the fee. This time I selected the 2 hour sightseeing and fishing experience course. The fee was 4,000 yen for one adult including the fishing pole rental and other items. I recommend this course for beginners.
If you prefer to go longer, there is a one day course which includes the recreational fishing license for 4,200 yen per person. For this course too, rental gear is available for an extra charge.
Life jacket. Child size is also available.
Fishing pole, bait, everything is included in the 2 hour experience course.
After registration, you will receive your fishing gear and go to the boat dock. A boat will depart every hour between 10:00 to 15:00, so I recommend that you confirm your return time. You will put on your life jacket before boarding the boat.
Shuttle boat takes us to the domeboat
When ready, we will go to the domeboat. The speedy cruise over Lake Suwa feels great.
The domeboat from a shuttle boat
After riding the shuttle boat for a few minutes, you will see what looks like a vinyl greenhouse. This is the dome boat, where you can enjoy smelt fishing inside.
It’s finally time to fish some smelt!
Inside a dome boat
You will see a bit of a strange sight inside the dome boat, with many stools and holes in the floor. Please be careful not to drop your cell phone or other belongings in the hole.
A long tube contains the fishing line and hook
First, you decide the hole where you will fish and prepare your fishing pole. Then take out the already prepared line and hook from the long tube. If you turn the tube upside down, the hook and fishing line will get tangled, so open the lid and try to pull out the fishing pole while keeping it right-side up. We will use the rubber band attached to the fishing pole, so please try not to lose it.
Next, put the bait on the hook. You need to be careful to not prick yourself with it. The small hook is barbed to prevent the fish from escaping so be careful to not catch it on your clothes or hook yourself. Please be especially careful with children. If you keep the hook on the floor while putting on the bait you can avoid any trouble.
The bait is larvae called “beni sashi”
This is a small red-dyed insect called “benisashi”, a clean insect that was farmed to be fish bait.
Stick the hook into the bait. The hook should securely grip the bait.
You need to stick the hook into the maggot’s lower section. The black dots on the slender part indicate the head and the wider part is the bottom. Securely dig the hook into the bottom-side of the bait. If you tightly pinch the bait between your fingers, you can smoothly stick the hook into it. If you feel it is too difficult, you can ask the crew for help.
After you finish attaching the bait onto the hooks finally you can put the fishing line into the hole. Your rod will come with the line looped around the handle, so unwind it slowly and put it through the hole. The proper length is when you can feel the weight touch the bottom. You can use the rubber band that I mentioned before to hold the line and prevent it from coming loose.
For a beginner, it is difficult to know the proper length of the line so it might be better to ask the crew or experienced fishers for assistance.
Lay down the fishing pole without holding it
You should place your fishing pole on the floor. If you hold it in your hands, it will be difficult to notice when a fish bites. I heard that it is good to jig the pole sometimes to lure the fish.
Now we are ready. From now on we just wait for a fish to get on. A secret to smelt fishing is patient waiting until you can get a bite.
Smelt are schooling fish. Even if you keep jigging your pole, if there are no schools around you will not catch any fish. That also means no special skills are needed to lure the fish in, so smelt fishing is quite approachable for beginners. Sometimes repeat customers bring their own fish finder and tell you “Now the fish are coming”. It is fun to watch the fish finder too.
Finally catching a smelt!
After waiting for a while, a repeat customer got a bite. Almost at the same time, I also felt a fish biting. As soon as you see the top of the pole slightly moving, you immediately raise the pole to properly hook the smelt.
Then you raise the line carefully to avoid a tangle. One good way to do it is to place the rod behind yourself and pull the line in with your hands.
A hooked smelt
After I carefully pulled the line, I could see one smelt was hooked on! This was my first smelt to catch in my life.
If you pull the fish while holding the hook you can release the smelt from the hook. Just like when you were attaching the bait, this process is safer if you place the rod on the floor. Once you put the smelt in the strainer, go right back to the hole and put the line in again. The chance to catch fish is while the school of fish is present, so you should try to get the next one immediately before the school leaves. If there is no fish on the hook, release the line from your hand and let it drop into the hole.
Repeat customer caught three smelt at one time
The schools happened to be small on the day I tried. However, I heard that if you find a large school you can continue catching, sometimes hooking four or five fish at one time.
When is the timing to change the bait?
One of the crew told me that we should not change the bait frequently. While there is a school of fish you should keep trying to catch fish, and after the school leaves and you are not having bites, then it is time to check your bait. They say that the intervals are roughly 30-40 minutes. Otherwise, your bait will show when it is losing its freshness by gradually turning pale. That is also a sign that the bait should be changed.
Bring scissors for halving the maggot. A small pair is fine.
If you prepare your own scissors, please try “halving”. “Halving” means to cut the head off of the maggot and use it for bait. I heard that smelt will come more readily to this type of bait. It is not absolutely necessary but you can try if you like.
I was also told that a good strategy is to keep your bait whole for the first while, and then cutting the head off.
When is the best time to fish for smelt?
When is the best time to fish for smelt on the dome boat at Lake Suwa? I asked the crew.
The good season to fish for smelt is from October to early December. They tell me that this season has the most consistent catch. From February to March, smelt are carrying eggs bites happen less frequently. While you still will be able to catch some smelt, the frequency is much less consistent compared to earlier in the winter.
The recommended time of the day is morning. I started fishing around 9:00 am, but I could feel the catch getting smaller and smaller towards noon. You can start fishing from 7:00 am here, so if possible I recommend you start early. Of course, the amount of fish you catch will vary greatly by the day. On some days, you will even have consistent bites throughout the day.
The best weather condition for fishing was surprising. I heard that smelt fishing is better with slightly poor weather. The day I tried fishing had clear skies and calm seas, which I thought to be perfect fishing conditions; it turns out that a bit of rain, wind, and waves makes for a better fishing day. However, if the weather is too bad, the boat fishing itself might be cancelled, so it would be a good idea to confirm the boat status beforehand.
How to spend the time inside the dome boat
Food and beverages are fully allowed on the dome boat. You can bring your own meals too. There is also a heated kettle on a stove, from which you can take hot water to make coffee. I’m also told that there are some people who enjoy alcohol while fishing. However, you should carry out your own garbage.
Lake Suwa from domeboat
If you go out on the deck, you can take in the view of Lake Suwa. Enjoy the beautiful landscape, and be careful not to fall! During the autumn you can also fish from the deck.
Restroom prepared on the domeboat
On the domeboat there is a restroom too. If you want to spend your whole day here, that’s one less thing to worry about!
What did I get from the two hour fishing experience?
Now that the two hours have passed, it’s time to look at my catch.
The smelt I caught
I wish I could say that I caught a lot, but the reality was harsh. The number of fish I caught were under 10. I did not notice, but the crew of the boat and some of the repeat customers seemed to have added fish to my strainer. Fishing conditions on this day were unfavorable throughout Lake Suwa, making my catch somewhere around average, but a good day can yield almost 100 fish in two hours. I would like to try again during the better season.
A family from Tokyo was also having trouble getting any bites that day. It was just before their timer ran out, that both of them were able to catch one smelt each. Everyone on the dome boat was ecstatic, and shared in their happiness! The conversation and interaction that happens between the visitors is another great thing about dome boat-fishing.
Tempura service! The fish you caught can be immediately cooked.
After fishing the smelt, you can have them cooked into tempura. The fish are cooked in the reception building.
This time I asked for a few smelt to be cooked as tempura and to take the rest home. A to-go bag is prepared for you, and you can buy some ice and a styrofoam box if needed.
After I washed my hands at the outside faucet and returned to the reception office, my smelt tempura was ready!
Smelt tempura. This is a free service only on weekdays.
I tried some freshly fried tempura with salt. The tempura had a crunchy coating, and the smelt inside was evidently fresh, being juicy and fluffy without the raw scent of fish. The tempura cooking at the reception office is a weekday-only service. If you happen to go on a weekday, please enjoy the taste of fresh caught and cooked smelt.
How should you cook the smelt that you go home with? Another fisher’s recommendation was a sweet braise. Although tempura and deep frying are also great, whenever he has a big catch, he told me that he likes to put the smelt in a pot along with soy sauce, sugar, and a generous amount of ginger. He says that this breaks down the scales and bones, making them soft enough to eat whole!
Deep fried smelt
Since I could not catch very many, I made deep fried smelt. Smelt can be cooked whole, without removing the organs and head. You only need to rinse the fish with water before cooking.
Lake Suwa’s smelt fishing experience is a beginner-friendly one!
I had tried to fish for smelt before on ice but I had never successfully caught one. I thought that smelt fishing is very difficult and they are not easy to catch. However, this time I tried smelt fishing for the first time on a dome boat. I got hooked on the ease of the experience, and the satisfaction of catching the fish! I wish I could have stayed the whole day.
Once you learn how to attach the bait, there is nothing else difficult to the fishing. Even though it was a long wait to catch smelt, I could enjoy the time by chatting with other visitors of the domeboat.
Furthermore, only this company offers the fresh tempura service immediately after catching the smelt. Smelt fishing with the Lake Suwa Fishing Boat Centre was an amazing experience! It’s a great one for families too, so be sure to check them out!