Tenkara fly fishing is to fly fishing as ultralight backpacking is to backpacking.
In the next 2,000 words, Yvon Chouinard will eloquently spell out the tremendous freedom that comes from disengaging from gear (and specifically, the number of pieces of gear) in order to achieve an experience unburdened by complexity.
As a fishing guide, I find tenkara to be totally exhilirating – I no longer have to spend time teaching clients how to cast, how to select tippet, how to build leaders, or the fine nuances of every individual fly. If you are interested in hiring a so-called “tenkara” guide, be wary of the guide who claims that he can teach you (much) about tenkara gear. They may just add complexity to your experience!
I can therefore focus on helping my clients see the natural world – how to spot fish under the water’s surface, how to notice that a hatch is “on”, how to chase a big fish down a small-stream cattle chute without breaking an ankle (!), how to treat your fly like moving food, instead of incessant line mending exercises, how to see the difference between an osprey and an eagle, or how to build a no-trace fire for a streamside lunch.
There are many lessons to be learned by ultralight backpackers from other disciplines, whether single-speed biking, the one-pot chef, or the tenkara angler. I’m honored to offer Mr. Chouinard’s insight here at BPL, and hope you find some useful philosophy from his article. I also hope you’ll find some inspiration to throw a tenkara rod in your backpack so you can enjoy high country angling on your next ultralight adventure!
– Ryan Jordan
“DESPITE RUMORS TO THE CONTRARY, THE PARAMOUNT OBJECTIVE IS: TO CATCH FISH . . . .” – Sheridan Anderson, The Curtis Creek Manifesto
Since the fifteenth century, every nuance of fly fishing has been written about in the utmost detail, leaving us to endlessly reinvent what has already been discovered. A tiny change on a classic fly and the ‘inventor” gets to name it after himself and collect a dime for each one sold. Many of the books on technique are like business books where a minor theory is spread out over three hundred pages, when all it really merits is a magazine article.
Heaven knows we fly fishers are suckers for every new gizmo we think will give us a leg up on catching fish. We wear vests with twenty pockets and waders with even more storage. And as if that isn’t enough, we have lanyards, waist packs, and backpacks to carry even more impedimenta. Hundreds of fly lines are now available to us, yet I seriously doubt you will catch one more trout with a line fine-tuned to the conditions than with a classic double taper. The no-nonsense fly fisher Rob Brown, from Terrace, British Columbia, looking over a steelheader’s array of fly boxes filled with hundreds of garish flies, said it best when he asked, “When did the green-butt stop working for you?”
Daniela Prestifillippo catches her first fish ever after a few minutes of tenkara lessons with Yvon Chouinard. Cottonwood Creek, Wyoming. Photo: Mauro Mazzo.
I would offer that this proliferation of gear is supported by busy people who lack for nothing in their lives except time. Our “time-saving” communication devices, like tablets and smartphones, make slaves of their owners. We are unwilling, or unable, to put in the 10,000 hours needed to become a master fisher, hunter, or mountain climber. Instead, we load up with all the latest stuff and hire guides to do everything for us – including tying on the fly and releasing the fish. The guides have become enablers rather than teachers. How many bonefish would average anglers catch if they had to work out the tides and wade and spot fish themselves instead of waiting for a guide to bark, “ten o’clock, forty-foot cast now! Wait . . . strip . . . strip”? The guides leave clients so unsure of themselves that they think there must be some secret, unattainable knowledge that only the guide possesses.
As author Sheridan Anderson says in The Curtis Creek Manifesto, the objective of fishing is to catch fish, but in the pursuit of the catch you will gain so much more. The higher purpose of practicing a sport such as fly fishing, hunting or mountain climbing is to affect a spiritual and physical gain. But if the process is compromised, there is no transformation.
Golden Trout. Painted by James Prosek.
Fishing with a fly can be such an incredibly complex and passionate sport that no one can fully master all the different disciplines in one lifetime. Some anglers prefer to limit themselves to only fishing with dry flies, while others specialize in perfecting their casting, fly tying, or even learning the Latin names and life history of all the insects. These can be legitimate endeavors in themselves, and there are untold books written about these subjects. This book is not one of them.
“Simple Fly Fishing” is for the young person who wants to learn but feels intimidated by the complexity, elitism, and expense of the sport. He sees his father who owns multiple thousand-dollar rods and reels, fishes only with guides at five hundred plus dollars a day (plus mandatory tips), and flies all over the world to stay at luxury lodges. And the son thinks, “This is not for me.”
It is also for the woman and her daughter who are put off by the image of the testosterone-fueled “rip-some-lips,” good-old-boy, bass and trout fisherman who has turned the contemplative pastime” into a competitive combat sport.
After a five-minute lesson, nine-year-old Lola proceeded to land seventeen rainbows in a day and a half. Fall River, Idaho. Photo: Jeremy Koreski.
“Simple Fly Fishing” is also for the experienced angler who has all the gadgets and gizmos and discovers he or she wants to replace all that stuff with skill, knowledge, and simplicity. It is for the person who believes that a design or a piece of art or a sporting endeavor is finalized and mastered “not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupery advocated.
It’s for the person who thinks maybe it’s time to look at the raked Zen sand garden with its three stones and see if he or she can convey the same powerful, evocative image of space and balance with only two rocks or even one.
Most anglers soon discover simple fly fishing helps preserve our capacity for wonder. It can teach us to see, smell, and feel the miracles of stream life-with the beauty of nature and serenity all around-as we pursue wild fish.
Aside: The Day I Learned to Kayak
The Gros Ventre River below Slide Lake falls over one hundred feet per mile, and in the spring runoff has few eddies to pull out and rest in. If you bail out of your boat, you can only hope to find it miles downstream where the current slows as it enters the Snake River.
I had just learned to do an Eskimo roll using only my hands and got a wild hair to run the river solo and without a paddle. A kayak paddle is a powerful tool. You can use it to slow down, speed up, or brace to keep from tipping over. And at the last second, you can do a quick sweep or Duffek stroke to avoid a rock or a suck hole.
Without a paddle, I had to sit low in the boat with my hands in the water. Whenever I went over a steep drop, I had to resist the tendency to lean back. I turned by putting the boat on its side and pressing the nose down just like carving with skis. I had to look far ahead to plan my line. It was pointless to fight the current; I had to let the river tell me where to go. That was the day I really learned to kayak.
The Tenkara Rod
Many of us of a certain age remember our first fishing pole. We would go to the local sporting goods store and buy a long bamboo pole-what was then called a Calcutta. A line, with a worm or fly on the end, was attached to the tip. For centuries, perhaps even before the time of Christ, this is the way people all over the world learned to fish-and still do.
Twenty-five years ago, a Japanese friend gave me a telescoping fiberglass road with no reel seat. It was a beautiful, precious gift, light, sensitive, and elegant. When I received this rod, I didn’t really understand what I was getting, and I stored it on a shelf in my cabin for fifteen years. I have since learned that it is called a tenkara rod, which means “from the heavens” and is used in Japan to fish for yamame, amago, and iwana trout in small mountain streams.
Some years later, I fished the Sesia River in Italy with Mauro Mazzo. He mentioned that the traditional way to fish the Sesia is to use an eleven- to sixteen-foot-long rod with no reel and just a horsehair line tied to the tip. The lines, which are about one or one and a half times the length of the rod, are twisted from the tail of a white stallion, starting with fourteen or sixteen hairs and tapering down to three at the tippet end. A short, nylon tippet is added and one to five soft-hackle flies are tied onto the tippet one foot apart. Casting is done using various overhead, roll, and Spey casts. It’s particularly effective in winter with a size 22 purple-body soft hackle for wary and selective grayling. The hackles, made from the very soft feathers of a bird called ciuffolotto, maintain their lifelike action in the river. There are still about twenty practitioners of this technique in Italy, of which ten make their own lines.
The next summer, Mauro and I decided to try the tenkara rod on a willow-lined meadow creek in the Wyoming Range. It was a very windy day in August, and grasshoppers were being blown about, so we put on a muddler and fished it upstream as a hopper and downstream as a sculpin. The thin, heavy horsehair line cut through the wind far better than a floating fly line. Every bend of the creek had a pool, and we moved from pool to pool without having to reel in line and let it out again. We caught fish in every pool: nice cutthroats up to sixteen inches.
At eighty-three years old, Arturo Pugno, the master, needs no polarized glasses to spot fish. Sesia River, Italy. Photo: Mauro Mazzo.
Mauro’s girlfriend, Daniela, who had never fished a day in her life, picked up the rod and in less than five minutes landed the biggest cutthroat of the day. “Easy,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”
I think this centuries-old technique was perfect for fly fishing that day and more effective than anything that has come out of our high-tech fly fishing industry. In fact, this is the same gear and technique traditionally used by French and Japanese market fishers. When your living depends on supplying restaurants and hotels with trout, you’re not going to waste money on seven-hundred-dollar rods, five-hundred-dollar reels, and three-dollar flies.
Learning to fish with a tenkara road and a short line is the easiest way to learn to fly-fish. It can be taught to an eight-year-old in minutes. Put her on a riffle with an old-fashioned soft-hackle fly, and she can out fish dad on the first day. Catching fish right from the start is the way to catch an angler for life. And dad can become a better fisher by applying the lessons learned from this ultimately simple method to fishing with his regular gear.
Other than learning to fish where the fish are, the most important thing an angler can do to catch fish is to control the action of the fly. It’s more important than the color or size of the fly, the time of day, or getting off a perfect cast. Why is a worm so effective? Because it is always moving. Why have soft baits replaced hard spoons and lures? Because they bend and flex in enticing ways.
Too many fly fishers are so fixated on launching long casts that they end up putting the fly beyond where the fish are. And with those long casts, they cannot control what the fly is doing.
This is especially true of steel headers and their long Spey rods: Most steelhead are close to the bank, not in the middle of the river. I once watched the great steel header Harry Lemire fish behind a friend of mine. Lemire was walking the bank, making short casts with a floating line and making his signature fly, the Steelhead Caddis, wake, swim, twitch and flit around on the surface. He was hooking fish just behind my friend who was wading deep, casting long, and not catching anything. Control is everything.
“Simple Fly Fishing” uses the simplest of all fly fishing methods, a pole with a line on the end, to illustrate how to control the fly without the complexity of modern equipment getting in the way. Getting the fly to the depth where the fish are feeding and imparting motion to the fly is critical. This is where the tenkara excels. You will catch fish using simple methods and knowledge, in an elegant and artful way. This is fly fishing at its most basic, and like kayaking without a paddle, it brings you closer to the simple truths of the sport. When you pick up (or go back to) a rod and reel, you will be a more complete angler. I believe you will also enjoy your time on the water more and, to Mr. Anderson’s point, catch more fish.
Simple Fly Fishing: The Book
Excerpted from Simple Fly Fishing, which includes more chapters about trout and their food, fly fishing with wet flies, streamers, nymphs, and dry flies, as well as a summary of a variety of fishing situations of interest to the tenkara angler.
Simple Fly Fishing, by Yvon Chouinard, Craig Matthews, and Mauro Mazzo (Patagonia Books, 2014).