It’s early morning, the sun not yet rising over the Inyo Mountains to the east of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Central California. This is high desert—tumbleweed country—and the air is brisk as 11-year-old Sets Tomita and his older brother Makio set off toward the Sierra Nevada, west of the concentration camp.
Following a creek ravine that intersects a corner of the camp, the pair time the sweeping lights of the guard towers above them as if playing double Dutch, before eventually dipping under the barbed wire fence circling the camp.
Their sights are set on one of the three creeks that snake out of the mountains above Manzanar. Between whispers heard in the camp, their instincts and recon missions beyond the wire, the boys have discovered the creeks hold healthy populations of brook, rainbow and brown trout.
The year was 1943, and the Tomita brothers were among 10,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned at Manzanar. All told, they’d be there for nearly four years during the Second World War—collateral damage in an increasingly paranoid post-Pearl-Harbor America.
“My brother had gotten a job that allowed him to drive outside of camp when he was 14,” Sets, now 90, says during a recent phone interview from his home in Granada Hills, California. “I don’t know how he got that job, but one day he told me, ‘You know when you look at Manzanar from the highway, you can see three green lines heading towards the mountain.’
“Those green lines were where the creeks were. Then [Makio] said, ‘You know, I have heard about guys going fishing.’
“We’d walk along the dry creek bed until we got as far from the towers as we could, and then we’d walk to those green lines,” Sets continues, adding that they’d usually pack sandwiches from the mess hall or balls of rice from the previous night’s dinner to eat during the day. They had no flashlights, no maps and only the most rudimentary equipment. “We’d just cut a piece of willow branch maybe 8 feet tall, tie a leader to that, then a hook.”
Sneaking under the camp’s barbed wire fence for a day of fishing—all while dodging the watchful eyes and rifles of the guards—was a risky undertaking. However, the risk didn’t seem to register much for the brothers. “I don’t think we were afraid to get caught, it was just an adventure for us,” he says. “They couldn’t see us, and we couldn’t see them.”
Now a National Historic Site, the former Manzanar War Relocation Center was located on an 814-acre plot of land in the shadow of Mount Williamson, along a desolate stretch of Highway 395 in Central California. The climate here is extreme, with brutally hot summers giving way to dry, cold winters and an average of just 4 to 6 inches of rain per year in the valley. But for Sets, the most memorable thing about the valley was the dust.
“[Nothing was] as brutal as the constant wind and dust,” Sets says. “When we’d wake up in the morning, the whole floor was covered with dust.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941—as the United States seethed with wartime hysteria—President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, directing 120,000 Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed from their homes across the country and placed in “relocation centers,” 10 in total. Two-thirds of those interned in these concentration camps were American citizens. There were no trials, no due process and few questions were asked—Congress debated the issue for only 90 minutes. Some families had only a day or two to pack what they could carry, leaving behind businesses, friends, homes and the vibrant lives they’d created in the US.
The people of Manzanar arrived from all over the West Coast—from fishing villages like Terminal Island near Los Angeles, and from as far away as Bainbridge Island, Washington. They were farmers, fishermen, artists, truckers and countless other professions. When they arrived at Manzanar in 1942 with no more than they could carry, they were housed in what the US government referred to as “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.” Floors of wooden slats did little to stop the incessant dust. Privacy was a rare—if not nonexistent—commodity, as families of all sizes were housed in 20-by-25 foot partitioned “apartments,” with just cots, straw mattresses and communal toilets.
“The reality of it was very, very disturbing for me,” says Sets, who was 10 when he arrived at Manzanar with his parents and five siblings. “Although my parents were there, I felt abandoned. We lost everything we had.”
Sets arrived at Manzanar following a nine-hour bus ride from Los Angeles, 220 miles to the south. He was tasked with carrying the family’s suitcase full of shoes, too young to carry much more.
“We got there at dusk and could see the outline of the buildings,” he says. “We were from a city where there was foliage along the streets, you know, trees all over. And we got there and it was a very stark landscape.”
The boys acquired hooks, leaders and split shot from Sears catalogs that the families in camp could order from once a post office opened within the camp. Rods and bait were more DIY—many in camp whittled the handles of bamboo broomsticks and rakes into their own rods.
Sets never fished with anyone but his brother, never saw anyone else fishing, and they had vowed to keep their spots a secret from their friends in camp. But unbeknownst to them, countless others had also seen those three green lines—and had gone under the wire to explore what lay beyond the confines of their internment.
Cory Shiozaki, a filmmaker who set out to document the fishermen of Manzanar through his film The Manzanar Fishing Club, estimates that some 300 of the 10,000 total prisoners had fished while at Manzanar. The idea for the film came about in the late 1990s when Shiozaki first saw an image of an unknown fisherman holding a string of trout inside the camp’s barbed wire.
Known for nearly 75 years as “Ishikawa–Fisherman,” the man in the photograph is wearing a leather jacket and has an age-creased brow and calloused hands. He is around 55 years old at the time of the image, and exudes a clear sense of pride. For good reason—he’s holding a string of golden trout he’d spent upward of two weeks pursuing beyond the barbed wire, deep in the Sierra Nevada.
The image was taken by 46-year-old professional photographer Toyo Miyatake, who had brought a camera lens to the camp and then enlisted a carpenter and mechanic to build out the rest of the camera with scrap wood and drain pipes. Eventually, he became the camp’s official photographer. Miyatake’s single image of this mysterious angler prompted many to wonder where Ishikawa had found golden trout in the vicinity of Manzanar—none of the creeks or alpine lakes within a day or two walk of Manzanar had California golden trout, so it was clear that Ishikawa had gone further afield to find them. And on top of it all, the mystery of his identity persisted; they still didn’t have a first name for the angler.
“Then I was at a fundraiser [for the forthcoming film on the Manzanar anglers] in 2009 and I had this poster with this guy’s picture on it. And this woman working at the reception desk looks at this big poster and says, ‘Oh, that’s my grandfather,’” Shiozaki says. A few months later, they had the man’s death certificate and, after nearly 70 years, a first name: Heihachi. Heihachi Ishikawa—the fisherman.
The fishing at Manzanar didn’t begin with Ishikawa’s golden trout from the high country. It started with a reserved curiosity, an inkling of instinct and the eventual discovery of small trout in the creeks near the camp, like those the Tomita brothers would have pursued on their short stints outside of the camp. Having been stocked by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the three creeks—Bairs, Shepherd and George—flow from high-alpine lakes and provided almost all of the water supply for the camp. Shepherd Creek and George Creek lay to the north and south of the camp’s edges, respectively. Bairs Creek, however, intersected the southwest corner of the camp, its deep ravine—carved of violent snowmelt—serving not only as a refuge from the sun on hot summer days, but as the definitive escape route for the anglers.
The first internees to discover trout in the creeks hadn’t used the ravine to escape, though. Many of them had been members of the water crew—allowing them to leave camp to work on the reservoir that stored water used for laundry, cooking, drinking and bathing. Others had picked up on the presence of trout from the whisperings of members on the farm and reservoir crews who were allowed to leave the camp’s confines. Some had even offered members of the water reservoir crew money to be smuggled out for a chance at the trout. This was still early in the prisoners’ internment. Camp security was high and leaving camp was very risky. The anglers were occasionally shot at from the towers. A handful were put into the camp’s jail for crawling under the wire.
Despite the risk, the fishing continued—and only got more elaborate as the months of internment went on, becoming a progressively more challenging exploration deep into the backcountry. Shiozaki’s film outlines this experience well, through research and interviews with multiple former internees. Emboldened by increasingly relaxed camp security and the kind of grit that can only be born of injustice, the interviewees speak of casual day trips giving way to multiday or even week-long trips into the mountains in the later years of the camp. The anglers would have followed ancient Paiute trails that snaked along the edges of the waterways, which eventually lead to Shepherd Pass at 12,000 feet—now known as one of the toughest 14er approaches in the Sierra Nevada, as it’s the primary means for climbers to access Mount Williamson. Others who were featured in the film chose the more direct route, scrambling up the incline of the Sierra following the Williamson Creek fork of Shepherd Creek directly into the basin below Mount Williamson. From camp, this approach was marked by a massive granite slab to the left of the towering Mount Williamson. The approach to the alpine lakes was anywhere from 20 to 40 miles round trip, depending on the route taken and lakes fished, and gained nearly 6,000 feet from the valley floor to the basin. Given this ascent, one of the first lakes that would have greeted the anglers in the basin below Mount Williamson was aptly named: Lake Misery.
Interviews with Manzanar internees (available through the Manzanar Oral History Project) indicate that most anglers fished this basin exclusively, often sleeping in a cave nearby and surviving on rice from the camp and fish caught in the lakes. Once at the lakes, they used worms, eggs and rice balls to catch rainbows or Colorado cutthroat trout that had been stocked throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some would bring sleeping bags, but the grueling hike necessitated a light pack. As such, the anglers had also made significant gains in what gear they had available to them; whether ordered from the catalogs in camp or crafted by hand, the necessity of rods that were either telescopic or could be broken into smaller sections became critical to accessing higher lakes and, ultimately, bigger fish.
There was some confusion among the anglers in discerning between Colorado cutthroat and golden trout, the latter of which wouldn’t have been found in the lakes most often fished by the majority of the Manzanar anglers. But with just one image, Miyatake immortalized the effort by at least one angler—Heihachi Ishikawa—to seek out and ultimately discover golden trout in the vicinity of Manzanar.
Ishikawa’s remarkable journey would have required him to scale the scree and snowfields of Shepherd Pass, cross the crest of the Sierra Nevada into the western slope, and find trout in the uppermost reaches of the golden’s historic range within the Kern River or Tyndall basins above 10,000 feet. Put more simply, Ishikawa’s string of goldens required a solo, two-week-long epic into the high country of the Sierra with limited gear—all done at nearly 55 years old, no less.
The internees lost everything when they were sent to Manzanar—the many businesses, homes and lives they’d worked hard to foster. They never knew how long their imprisonment would last and received comparatively meager reparations for the injustices they’d experienced. When they were finally released, they had no choice but to accept those myriad, irreparable injustices and carve out new lives that, for most, looked nothing like those they’d had before their imprisonment. Sets Tomita spoke of living in a rural barn for years following Manzanar; his family was unable to afford a home or apartment for years after internment.
Through the thick of the war, they fished—a small part of the overall experience, but simultaneously a small yet mighty act of resistance that they’d remember fondly for decades, against all odds. Some deep instinct had told them that those three green lines held a bastion of their past lives, and in these many small acts of subversion they had found a taste of what they’d been missing in their imprisonment: something like freedom.