Fisherman Etsuo Tokunaga and canine mate John set out to fish in the Pacific Ocean. The pair haul in a significant catch of alfonsino abord the vessel Etsuryomaru off Muroto cape in Muroto, Kochi Prefecture, on Nov. 30. (Masatoshi Kasahara)

MUROTO, Kochi Prefecture--In the toughest season so far in his 55-year career, fisherman Etsuo Tokunaga and loyal buddy John boarded a vessel named Etsuryomaru at 2:30 a.m. in late November.

The clear winter sky was filled with stars, and Tokunaga pointed to an especially luminous one above the horizon.

“That is the morning star,” he said.

Tokunaga, 78, was seeking any sign for a turnaround in the dismal year. He received it when John stopped barking hours after they left the Karyogo fishery harbor in Nahari in Kochi Prefecture.

John is a “shibainu” dog. But he is more than just a pet for the veteran fisherman.

The two have formed an incredibly tight bond over their 13 years and countless hours on the water together.

“John is my conversation partner when I get bored on the sea,” Tokunaga said. “I spend longer hours with John than I do with my wife.”

After about three hours of watching the fish sonar on the 7.3-ton vessel, they arrived at the fishing ground along the warm Japan Current around 30 kilometers off the Muroto cape.

It was 5 a.m. and still dark. About 50 rival fishing boats were in the same area.

“Today, we have a good tide,” Tokunaga said.

As the sunrise started to light up the horizon, John, who had been barking at sea birds, suddenly became quiet.

“John is not barking, meaning there are no dolphins around. This is good,” Tokunaga said.

He quickly put out a fishing line with 100 hooks attached. His target was alfonsino, or red bream.

“Dolphins and sharks are the enemy of us fishermen,” he said.

The marine creatures will eat the hooked fish before they can be landed. Sharks, in fact, will devour everything, including the hooks.

After a while, Tokunaga reeled in the line. One by one, red fish bodies emerged on the surface and were lifted into the fishing boat.

It was a big catch: 57 alfonsino were hooked on the first line, followed by 75 on the second line, including one that weighed more than 1.5 kilograms.

In the end, he landed 200 alfonsino.

Tokunaga’s deeply wrinkled suntanned face beamed. John barked with delight and snuggled next to Tokunaga, a gesture that usually means, “Let’s go home early.”

Tokunaga’s home is in Nahari.

After graduating from junior high school, he took up pole-and-line fishing for bonito.

Tokunaga adopted John in 2005 when he was a puppy.

John started accompanying Tokunaga on his fishing trips because his now 74-year-old wife, Michiko, did not like animals and asked Tokunaga to take care of the dog.

At the beginning, John suffered from sea sickness and vomited a lot, but he soon developed his sea legs. Their fishing trips often last for 12 hours.

Thirteen years have passed since their first voyage together.

As John snoozed on deck, Tokunaga talked to him: “We made a big catch today. Shall we go home?”

Tokunaga suffered unusual hardships in 2018. For five months since June, he was unable to fish on many days because of the bad current and a series of typhoons and torrential rain storms. The rising price of fuel poured salt on his wounds.

And when he could go fishing, his catches were so low that the trips put him in the red.

“I had never experienced such difficulties in my long life as a fisherman,” Tokunaga said.

“But man is not made for defeat.” Tokunaga demonstrated that signature line from Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The current improved in November, but he could land only 30 to 40 kilograms of fish per day. In the past, he caught around 10 times that amount.

John becomes brisk when a big catch is made, but he gets down when the haul is poor.

Tokunaga, seeing John out of spirits, promised a big catch.

After examining weather charts and wind conditions, he decided that Nov. 30 would be the best date to go fishing.

He and John set off on that day for the first time in a week, and they landed the 100 kg of alfonsino.

The catch was transferred to the Toyosu fish market in Tokyo’s Koto Ward and the Kansai area.

After they arrived home, Michiko thanked Tokunaga and John for their efforts.

The couple had sashimi dishes of fresh alfonsino along with some baked fillets that had been soaked in a special mixture of soy sauce and sweet cooking rice wine. The raw fish pieces were supple while the baked ones had a rich taste.

John, meanwhile, enjoyed eating crusts of bread.

John’s strength has recently declined. His age in human years is nearly 80.

But Tokunaga intends to continue alfonsino fishing with John as long as his partner can board the vessel.

“John is adorable. He is almost my grandchild,” Tokunaga said. “He is my significant buddy.”