2010/11/17 Cherry Salmon / Yamame or Sakura Masu

Yamame (landlocked) or Sakura-masu (sea-run) [jp] /
Cherry Salmon or Seema [eg]
Oncorhynchus masou (Brevoort, 1856)

One of the most popular species for Japanese stream anglers are no doubt cherry salmon. Landlocked chery salmon or yamame excites the hearts of dry fly anglers and sea/lake-run grow to full salmon attracts spey anglers into large coastal rivers. Landlocked fish show large par mark with black speckles with particle of red along its lateral line and this remarkable colourization give them the name: jewel of mountains.



1. Life of Cherry Salmon

Cherry Salmon in native habitat is unique salmon whose majority of sea-run are female who go down to ocean in spring time. Almost all male stay in rivers in yamame-status waiting for returning female in spring for mating. And they spend 2 years out of 3 year life in rivers only which makes them travel far upstream to lay eggs than any other salmon.

This heavy dependency on river system makes full life cherry salmon difficult to adopt in today’s urbanized environment in Japan while they survive by becoming land-locked or lake-run depending on how water temperature stays under 20 degree or how much space is given. Hokkaido Island prohibits fishing for sea-run cherry salmon in rivers all year and make off season for yamame to protect female born to be sea run.

2-A. Yamame – Landlocked Cherry Salmon

Yamame, grow to 25-35cm is well known for its wariness and some reports that yamame ran away from angler by only looking down from 30 feet above. However, newly stocked fish, especially the one grown to adult then released, are relatively easier to catch. Fishing technique requires both stalking and natural presentation of fly drifting freely on current.


Kanagawa is the southern most location where you could find yamame, and west bound from Shizuoka, you will find her kin, amago instead. Many streams within the main island sets the open season for yamame from March to September which makes it evern more difficult to catch in native condition.

Yamame has superb dynamic vision towards the surface of water in rivers or lakes. Although they are in immature metamorphosis, it is still a salmon who can swim very fast to catch its prey even low-flying in the air.  They use this speed in competing with other fish and in visually sampling drifting object several times in fast current. At the same time, they are team players and keep each other’s  feeding zone. And finally, yamame has a great manoeuvrability to turn back at the very last moment.

Fly selection and presentation needs to consider that.

Yamame normally grows to around 25-30cm.

2-B. Ginke Yamame aka Smolt Cherry Salmon

After territorial combat for zoning in spring, lost fishes are pushed downstream. At certain condition, those lost fish become smolt and make ready to run downstream whether that is lake or ocean. When they are denied access to ocean, they remain smolt and become larger than yamame.


Smolt cherry salmon in the river of Hokkaido with passage to ocean blocked. It is only half matured yet grown grow beyond yamame size looking “hybrid” between yamame and sakuramasu.

3. Sakura-masu | Sea/Lake-run Cherry Salmon

Sea-run fish. It has strong black colourization at eyes, lower jaw, and fins.

Sea-run are more abundant on the side of Sea of Japan from Fukui Prefecture northbound. Kuzuryu River in Fukui opens in February then other areas. For the Pacific side, sea-run are caught in abundance from Miyagi Prefecutre northbound. Yet you do have runs as south as Chiba’s Tone River, only if you are lucky enough. Please check with local authority for open season.

As adult fish with full speed swimming capability, their feeding selection tilts to more small fish than drifting insects. Lake fish has stronger tendency to feed on insect, nevertheless, it depends on each population of fish and what’s available. In any case, streamer needs to swim like naturals continue freeing predator and pausing in between only increases chance of fish to turn back.  For smaller bait size, selection for swimming nymph in variety of sizes are effective.

Catching adult cherry salmon in the rivers of Hokkaido is strictly prohibited just as other salmons, so please make precaution if you fish in there to avoid prosecution.

4. Subspecies of Oncorhynchus masou

There are 3 subspecies of cherry salmon who are still under the debate that they may be separate species after obvious distinctions.

Amago: Oncorhynchus masou ishikawae (Jordan and McGregor, 1925)

Original habitat is in Western Japan, amago is easily identifiable by its red/orange speckles all over her body making distinctive from yamame. Sea-run amago is called Satsuki-masu. They are separated by a million years of evolution during the Ice Age when sea level went low and today’s Sea of Japan was land-locked as huge loch which regained as sea only 17,000 years ago.

Japan during the Ice Age (Courtesy of Tohoku University)

Yamame was descendant of ancient loch fish, and amago stayed in the Pacific side. Not only “red-spot”, but characteristics of amago is more sus

Biawa-masu/Biwa-Salmon: Oncorhynchus masou rhodurus (Jordan and McGregor, 1925)

Endemic to Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Introduced to Lake Chuzenji and Lake Kizaki.

Taiwan-masu / Formosa Landlocked Salmon: Oncorhynchus masou formosaunus (Jordan and Oshima, 1919)

Endemic to Taiwan where cold water creek fit for reproduction are limited which makes this species critically endangered. This is the southern most habitat for native salmonidae in the Northern Hemisphere.

5. Other Salmon in Japan

Common salmons in the northern water in Japan are chum salmon and pink salmon. There are occasional migration of coho salmon from border disputed territory and king salmon when current brings wondering fish.

Please see: Salmons in Japan

6. Cherry “Salmon” or Cherry “Trout”?

I don’t think the debate is over about this fish is very much salmon by the standard definition. Please see: