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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

June 1, 2012 at 6:08 PM

Manzanar Fishing Club film reveals how Japanese American camp internees risked their lives to go trout fishing

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I went to watch the Seattle debut of the Manzanar Fishing Club documentary, which hits home for me as my grandparents and mom were interned during World War II.

While my relatives were all sent to Camp Minidoka near Hunt, Idaho, this documentary directed by Cory Shiozaki with the screenplay by Richard Imamura was a must see to learn about what other Japanese Americans along the West Coast faced in this dark time of American history.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it changed the lives of the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were taken from the hometowns and relocated to 10 internment camps along the West Coast.

This documentary Manzanar Fishing Club (84 minutes) offers an important story of people who were imprisoned against their will at Camp Manzanar in southeastern California, but found ways to escape and enjoy their love of fishing.

The movie starts with a short history of where many of these people came from and the lifestyles they lived and what occurred shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It then follows the Japanese Americans as they were hastily sent to live in 36 barracks in a residential area that covered a mere one square mile, and they faced constant dust storms along with extreme heat in the summer and freezing cold during winter.

While life went on for many of the camp inhabitants others sought out their lifelong hobbies like fishing. Since the camp was set near the Sierra Nevada mountains, which were rich with trout streams and high mountain lakes.

Some of the men were lucky enough to be on water crews or farming jobs, which allowed them to go beyond the barbed wire guarded by armed guards and sentries on watch towers.

It was these men like Ken Miyamoto who brought some fishing gear with him, Heihachi Ishikawa (the oldest of the fishing group at age 53), Tadao Kobata, Sets Tomita and others who defied being locked up to go fishing in the nearby rich trout streams such as Bairs Creek, George Creek and Shepherds Creek.

In fact Bairs Creek flowed right inside the camp, and some of the kids actually got drop lines to fish with from Army guards who sympathized with them.

“It was a good feeling because we put one over the government,” said one person who was interviewed in the documentary.

Folks likes Miyamoto recalled going fishing just about every day while in camp, and they would cook their fish over the kerosene stoves, and people walking by outside could smell the fish all over the camp.

Some of the men got clever in designing fishing poles from bamboo rakes and kendo sticks. They used paper clips for rod guides, and would break down the poles into six pieces to make them easy to take out and conceal.

Others would also order fishing gear from the Sears Roebuck and Herter’s catalogs. Worms and salmon eggs were the bait of choice as you could easily dig them all over camp.

The film reveals how the men would sneak out at night under darkness and risked their lives to go fishing. Some were even caught by sentry guards.

While the majority of those who ventured out to go fishing were men, there was also some women and children who took their chances as well.

Tami Takeuchi of Venice, California, whose husband was a camp truck driver would sneak her out of camp under an army blanket on the floor of the truck so she could catch a few fish.

As time went on camp life became relaxed, and others took extended long trips into the high mountains like Mount Williamson to the high altitude lakes to seek out the rare golden trout, rainbow trout and Colorado cutthroats.

The film includes many excellent interviews of internees and family members to recall their accounts of life in Manzanar and their quest to go fishing.

The documentary will be aired at Seattle’s Varsity Theater in the University District now until Thursday, June 7 at 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5:20 p.m., 7:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

(Photo courtesy of Barbed Wire to Barbed Hooks, and pictured is Tadao Kobata from an image in the film Manzanar Fishing Club.)

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