Beyond the barbed wire, a string of skinny goldens

Special to The Times

The angler in this photograph has no smile and no first name known to us. He's remembered only as Ishikawa, Fisherman — a sweet and haunting mystery from a dark chapter in U.S. history.

Toyo Miyatake made this portrait during World War II at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. It is on display at the Eastern California Museum in Independence, Calif., with other images that Miyatake made inside the camp.

No one knows exactly how Ishikawa slipped away to go fishing. He holds the only evidence of his travels, freedom in a string of trout. His portrait embodies the vibe of Cole Porter's 1944 song "Don't Fence Me In."

Oh give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above Don't fence me in

Ishikawa had the face of those who "suddenly and deliberately" attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Within three months, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans. Two-thirds were American citizens. Manzanar, 220 miles north of Los Angeles, was the first of 10 camps constructed of wood and tar paper. FDR called them concentration camps.

Manzanar would house 10,000 people and become the biggest city between Los Angeles and Reno for the duration of the war. Ninety percent of its residents came from the Los Angeles area. There were some newlyweds too, Jack and Masa Kunitomi, my parents.

The curtain of time obscures Ishikawa's full identity. Archie Miyatake, the photographer's son, recalls Ishikawa. "He lived in our block, but I never knew his first name. He fished a lot. He was gone for two weeks at a time."

The War Relocation Authority recorded 156 Ishikawas throughout the 10 camps; seven men his age, with that name, were at Manzanar. The man in Archie's block had a birth date of 1899, making him around 55 at mid-war. His first name was Heihachi, but we can't be sure he's the fisherman.

Send me off forever, but I ask you please, Don't fence me in

Ishikawa found himself between a rock (Mt. Whitney, highest point in the Lower 48) and a hard place (Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest). He must have looked at the six-strand barbed-wire fence and dreamed and schemed, finally obsessing. And he left.

"He must have gone at night," says the younger Miyatake. "That's what we did. But we only went up the stream, Shepherd Creek. We didn't go where he went." Native American guide Richard Stewart says, "No one knows exactly where he went."

Perhaps a guard dozed when Ishikawa snaked past the machine guns and rifles in the towers, climbed the alluvial fans through scrub brush, then followed an ancient Paiute trail in Shepherd Canyon that eased the nearly vertical pitch of the Sierran escarpment.

The fine brace he displays are the state fish, the riotously hued golden trout that exist at high elevations. Ishikawa may have fished the lakes at 11,000 feet, where there is but sky and rock, water and ice, where every granitic ledge is as sharp as a 1950s Cadillac fin.

It is a supremely spare landscape, mind-bending, almost psychedelic in the scarce air. It has the stark beauty of a Zen garden, the perfect retreat for a prisoner of his ancestry. He went a ways to find it: He left the wire behind at 3,900 feet.

These are trophy-size goldens. They're a species known for overpopulating and having stunted growth. He must be holding lake fish, fish that have wintered over a few years but bear snaky bodies and oversized heads. There isn't much for a fish to eat where Ishikawa explored.

So he caught a bunch, probably with grasshoppers — that irresistible trout bait — then lugged the catch down the mountain and back through the wire. Miyatake then took the photo inside the camp. He also took the memory of Ishikawa's first name with him when he died in 1979.

Others tell fish tales earned by slipping away from camps like Heart Mountain, hard by the side of the Shoshone River in Wyoming. But no man seems to have gone so far, so high and so alone as Ishikawa, Fisherman.

Ishikawa must have felt he was on the roof of the world, compared to his government quarters below at Manzanar. I hope he found peace of mind and the happy loneliness common to solitary fishers. Local lore tells of Japanese characters inscribed on rocks up there. Maybe he left us his first name on the rocks of the Sierra.

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences, Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses

In my mind's eye I see him sitting by a fire miles above the camp his country forced him into. He's picking at a golden he's cooked, wrapped in grasses, encased in mud, steamed to succulent perfection in the coals. He's using pine twigs as chopsticks.

His fire lights the boulders around him, and he's made a bed of soft pine boughs and will sleep with only a wool blanket issued by Uncle Sam. Maybe he smiles at the heavens above.

He's all alone under the Milky Way. He's watching shooting stars. And, as the poet said, he looks up in perfect silence, free.

"Ishikawa, Fisherman" is on display through Aug. 1 at the Eastern California Museum in Independence, Calif. It's part of a 76-photo exhibition titled "Personal Responsibility: The Camp Photographs of Toyo Miyatake." Darrell Kunitomi is an avid fly fisherman who lives in Echo Park. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times