Updated: Apr 1
"Only those with patience to do simple things perfectly will acquire the skill to do difficult things easily."
A quiet morning in January began in the usual way; a reheated cup of coffee as I open my laptop to check and return emails. It had snowed heavily throughout January. Watching the snow continue to fall out the window by my desk, I read a new client inquiry to book a trip when summer finally arrives here in the mountains. The inquiry was additionally interesting because the client requested to incorporate Japanese Tenkara style fishing techniques into our days on the water.
I purchased my Tenkara rod in 2015 with the dream of carrying it with me backpacking to fish high mountain streams as we came across them on our way to summit. I quickly learned that I hate backpacking. I struggled to make the ascents with asthma, migraines and an overstuffed pack full of things I might need. Eventually, after a nasty fall descending Wheeler Peak, tearing the MCL in my left knee requiring months of recovery and painful rehab, I declared my backpacking days over. Prior to that unfortunate collision with gravity, I had taken my Tenkara rod to some local rivers several times and managed to pluck some eager stocked rainbows, wild rainbows and a chub or two from their watery homes using a mix of traditional flies as well as Japanese kebari flies. At the end of the season, I placed the collapsable rod back into its tube and let the Tenkara gather dust in the closet, nestled next to my now banished backpacking gear. When springtime finally arrived the next year, I didn't reach for it again. I instead chose to continue to pursue the more familiar and traditional form of fly fishing here in the west. I haven't looked back at my Tenkara rod for years. Until that recent morning in January, I hadn't considered reuniting with it.
Tenkara is a traditional Japanese method of fixed-line fly fishing that uses a long casting line attached to a rod which is devoid of guides and reel. This type of fly fishing in Japan dates back to the 15th century. Lines were hand braided from horse hair or silks and the rods were made of light, lithe, delicate bamboo. There was often a 5 year apprenticeship required to tie the minimalist kebari style flies. Kebari flies were artfully crafted using exceptional silk threads, bits of gold foil, flowering fern and peacock feathers for the nobility and aristocrats. Manufacturers of sewing needles produced fine hooks to later be adorned as flies. The most popular style of kebari is the minimalist sakasa kebari, tied with a reverse hackle and meant to be pulsed with the rod tip as it dead drifts.
(This is my attempt at tying a simple sakasa kebari for you on a Tiemco TMC 2488 size 14, with black UTC 70 Ultra Thread and Hungarian Partridge feather ...I could use the 5 years of apprenticeship)
Tenkara was perfected by the mountain dwellers of Japan who made a subsistence living from selling fish caught from the small mountain streams. Horsehair lines were more practical for them than the silk lines and the delicacy and efficiency of the Tenkara rod was perfect for their needs. Resembling the brook trout found in the US, Japan has the beautiful iwana. The amago trout is very similar to the rainbow trout with the addition of tiny red or orange spots and, the most precious of them all, the yamame trout. Yamame meaning "lady of the mountains" or also called cherry salmon; named for the timing of its anadromous travel up the rivers to spawn during the spring when the famous cherry blossoms fill the trees lining the rivers of Japan. Reflecting pink on the water, petals floating effortlessly in the current.
Tenkara translates to "fishing from heaven." It is considered elegant in its simplicity and poetic in its ability to remain unspoiled by the unnecessary additions of modern fly angling gear. With ambassadors like Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, famed fly fishing writer John Gierach, owner of Tenkara USA, Daniel Galhardo, as well as female owner of Zen Tenkara, Karin Miller, the sport of Tenkara took gentle root in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Italy and Switzerland. Mountain fishing in the United States is not dissimilar to the small mountain streams found in Japan. Today, 9-15 foot long telescoping graphite Tenkara rods, that pack down to around 20 inches in length and weighing just 2-4 ounces, replace the early bamboo versions. These rods appeal to backpackers and hikers who don't have the extra room to carry traditional fly gear. Setting up to fish Tenkara requires only extending the rod, attaching the line, stored on a small wooden spool and now typically made of braided fluorocarbon, to the lilian ( a small piece of red braided line at the tip of the rod) with a hitch knot, attaching a length of tippet to the end of the line and finally tying on a single impressionistic kebari fly. The long, balanced Tenkara rods encourage the angler to keep most of the line off of the water allowing the fly to get the most natural drift, much like the high-sticking technique used when fly fishing. Casting can be either with overhead cast, roll cast or by water loading. The casts are similar to fly casting but calls for a gentler casting stoke.
It is March now and I continue to watch snow fall outside my window. Summer will be here soon; although maybe not soon enough to save the scraps of my mental health after a long winter spent indoors too much of the time. I've got serious plans to dust off my Tenkara rod and do some fishing with it before my clients arrive in a few months. As someone who carries an entire fly shop worth of products and gear in my hip pack, perhaps the simplicity of the Tenkara set up and the one or two patterns of kebari will feel liberating for the day, casting away the extraneous tackle and letting my mind settle on the open spaces that surround me as well as the gift of fishing.
....as long as I'm catching fish. If I fail to be effective at catching fish, I will be no doubt second guessing my decision not to have packed a 4wt, several spools of tippet and 5 boxes of flies. Truth be told, I do that anyway. Overpacking gives me a feeling of security. In the case of an unexpected hatch, the need to start an emergency signal fire, a client who requires sunscreen or the necessity to change leaders when a client shows up with a 20 year old 5x leader, I am ready. Learning to be ok with less will, for me, require a change of mentality. Tenkara is given as a simpler, harmonious alternative to traditional fly fishing, not as a superior method meant for everyone.
"Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves."
Thich Nhat Hanh
From a guide's perspective, I am excited to spend time with a new client using a different technique for a few days. We tend to get trapped in a thought process that says one way of doing things is right and forget that there is an entire world outside of ourselves. I'm eager to learn from my clients and their experiences and to grow as a guide. I don't think it will require much more than an open mind, in addition to my typical guide duties, and I bring that with me regardless if my client has a reel or not. Let this be the summer of crushing barriers between people, techniques and ideas.
Are you familiar with Tenkara? Have you tried it? What's your favorite aspect of fishing Tenkara? Let me know your thoughts.