The cherry trout (Oncorhynchus masou) is a member of the salmon family found in Asia. These beautiful fish go by many names including cherry trout and yamame. To further complicate things there is a sea run variety of this species that is called cherry salmon, masu salmon or sakura masu. Here we will focus on the cherry trout which spends its life in fresh water.
No matter the name most anglers can agree that these are wonderful fish. They tend to be quite colorful and shimmer in the sun like a gemstone. Inhabiting clean flowing waters, these fish are referred to as “the queen of mountain streams” in Japan where they are a popular game fish. They’re fun to catch and provide good sport and table fare.
Cherry trout identification
Cherry trout are slick silvery fish that resemble their rainbow trout cousins. They normally have a dark olive back with silver sides and a light or white stomach. Their bodies are covered with large oval parr marks on both sides. Unlike other trout species cherry trout do not usually grow out of their parr marks as they age. Cherry trout also have smaller black spots scattered on their bodies.
Cherry trout tend to stay on the small side. The average cherry trout is somewhere between 5 and 8 inches (13 and 20 cm). A 12 inch (30.5 cm) cherry trout is considered a trophy fish in Japan. Individual specimens can of course grow larger than that.
This nice yamame took a dry fly
There is a red spotted subspecies of the cherry trout with a limited range in western Japan called amago. There is another subspecies of this fish limited to the large Lake Biwa called the Biwa trout. Finally, there is a morph of cherry trout lacking parr marks on their lateral lines that are refered to as iwame.
This all applies to the cherry trout or yamame which spends its life in freshwater streams and rivers. The sea run variant of the species known as the cherry salmon or sakura masu gets much larger and tends to take on a blander silver coloration. They will be covered elsewhere in more detail.
The world record “masu trout” recorded by the IGFA weighed 11 pounds 9 ounces (5.25 kg) but it was almost certain a sea run fish. The IGFA record for “red spotted masu” which is a landlocked variety is 3 pounds 11 ounces (1.69 kg). That is still quite a large fish but it shows the vast differences in the freshwater and sea run varieties of this species.
Cherry trout range and habitat
Cherry trout are native to parts of the western pacific. These fish can be found in mountain streams and rivers all over Japan and in parts of Russia and the Korean Peninsula. The sea run variant can be found in the Sea of Okhotsk and Sea of Japan between spawning runs. Like most trout these fish require clean and cool water.
We’ve caught cherry trout in the Tanzawa Mountains and Kanna River of Japan. They are plentiful in those and other parts of Japan. They are not as common elsewhere, though they can and are caught in parts of Russia and South Korea.
There is also a rare subspecies of cherry trout called the Formosan landlocked salmon that is limited to a few fresh water mountain streams in Taiwan. These fish are critically endangered. It is thought there are a few hundred left on earth.
How to fish for cherry trout
Cherry trout are for the most part stream dwelling fish that feed on aquatic insects like mayflies and midges. Larger specimens tend to focus more on eating other fish. But cherry trout of all sizes have been known to chase down and eat bait fish.
In Japan, fishing for cherry trout is typically done in one of four ways: fly fishing, lure fishing, bait fishing and tenkara fishing. Of all these methods bait fishing is probably the most popular though lure fishing is up there. That might be surprising to some in parts of the US who imagine that trout fishing always means — or should always mean — fly fishing.
This big cherry trout took a nymph in Japan’s Kanna River
A popular way of bait fishing in Japan is to use what are called keiryu or mountain fishing rods. These are long telescopic rods that are usually well made and quite light. Keiryu rods can be over 30 feet (9.14 meters) long yet weight just a few ounces. A length of line is attached to the lillian at the tip of the rod. Below that a few light markers are placed on the line. Then a hook is tied at the end. Anglers then use this setup to fish live bait like small red worms, mayfly nymphs and caddis larva through likely spots in mountain streams. The goal is to keep the line off the water and allow for a natural drift. If the markers move upstream or hesitate it usually means a fish has taken the bait. This works well for cherry trout.
Tenkara fishing is much more widely known worldwide than keiryu fishing. Tenkara fishing originated in Japan and it is certainly popular there. But it is not as popular as bait fishing. Tenkara fishing is done with a shorter telescopic rod typically in the 9 to 12 foot (3-4 m) range. A length of line is attached to the lillian at the end of the pole. Flies are worked through likely spots in mountain streams. Tenkara can work very well for cherry trout. Normally the presentation is much more important than the specific fly or rod being used. To illustrate this point, most flies used for tenkara fishing in Japan are not even named. Of course this is also true of much trout fishing worldwide, but don’t tell the purists.
Fly fishing as it is known and practiced in most of the world is definitely done in Japan. But it is not as popular in Japan as it in countries like the United States. Most people who do fly fish in Japan will target cherry trout regularly. Seven to nine foot 3 or 4 weight rods work well in most situations. Standard patterns like Adam’s Parachutes in sizes 14-20 and Pheasant Tail Nymphs in sizes 16-22 are popular and effective. Stay concealed as well as possible. Mountain trout are easy to spook. A natural presentation to unpressured cherry trout in a mountain stream will often elicit a strike.
Another nice yamame from the Kanna River
Finally there is lure fishing. The name says it all. Anglers use light action rods to work small lures through pockets and seams in mountain streams. This is a fun and very effective way to catch cherry trout along with other trout and salmon species. Trout are predators, and once they reach a certain length they often turn to eating other fish. Lure fishing plays into that fact and allows you to cover a lot of water.
Japan has a much wider variety of small plugs and spoons than can be found in most other countries including the United States. Spinners are also available but they are less popular. Many lures come with single hooks to allow for the safe release of fish. Lures like the Duo Spearhead Ryuki and Issen 45s Max are fantastic for catching cherry trout as well as other species. Spoons like the Forrest Miu are also popular.
Of course you are not limited to what is popular or always done when fishing. As long as you follow the regulations you are free to fish whichever way you’d like. There are times and places where a certain approach will work better than others. We hope to practice our trout spin fishing tactics for cherry trout in Japan more in the future. Small soft plastics meant for keiryu fishing are actually manufactured in Japan by the Nikko company. They work well for trout of all kinds when drifted on a small jig under a float.
Lures that look like cherry trout
Cherry trout don’t generally live more than a few years. They usually don’t get very big either. It is more common to find small cherry trout than large fish. It only makes sense that small cherry trout would end up as food for other larger fish. Or even other cherry trout. This is well known in Japan, so many lures have been created or colored to look like a small cherry trout. They usually have the word “yamame” in the name somewhere.
This red belly yamame Spearhead Ryuki looks like a cherry trout
Japanese lures that resemble young cherry trout quite well include the Duo Spearhead Ryuki Vib 45S in Yamame, the Issen 45s Max in Yamamae, and Forest Native Realize in Aka-kin Yamame.
Western lures like Countdown Rapala in Rainbow Trout color sort of resemble young cherry trout. But they’re not perfect. Special colors of these lures made for other markets are a closer match. For example there is a Countdown Rapala color called GJTR sold in some parts of the world that resembles a young cherry trout more closely.
While lures that look like cherry trout can work well in Japan don’t discount their use elsewhere. Young yamame look a lot like young rainbow trout and other fish that are readily gobbled up by predators. We’ve caught fish on yamame colored lures in countries that don’t even have trout. The action and general look of the lures was enough to entice predators like snakehead and Hampala barb to bite.