Spreading Tenkara

Simplicity defined and refined.

  • By: Fly Rod and Reel
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From the Spring 2010 Issue…

Simplified to the essentials of line, tippet and fly and well-adapted to a terrain where long hikes and small streams abound, tenkara is a new/old approach to the sport of angling with fur and feathers. San Francisco’s Daniel Galhardo is the country’s leading proponent of tenkara, and through Tenkara USA has begun to make this approach one of the most interesting and most discussed methods since the arrival of the Spey rod on West Coast rivers.—Bud Bynack

Q: Let’s start with the “biography” of the style of fishing known as tenkara. What is it, and what is its history?

Tenkara is a form of fly-fishing that originated in the mountain streams of Japan. It has a very long history. Some speculate that it goes back at least some 400 years. Tenkara was practiced by professional anglers in the mountain villages of Japan. They used long, 12- to-15-foot rods, horsehair lines and simple fly patterns to catch the local trout, yamame and amago. The method was very effective, and innkeepers also used it as a method of catching fresh fish for their guests. Over time, of course, it also became a source of leisure and sport.
How do you want American anglers to perceive and receive tenkara?

As with anything new or different, controversy, intrigue, curiosity and finally interest are to be expected. In the end, fly-fishing is what one wants to make of it, but the use of a reel does not define fly-fishing. In tenkara, a fly is used, and the line, not weight, is what casts the fly forward. I believe it is the purest form of fly-fishing. After all, that’s indeed how it all started. It is similar to what used to be done by Charles Cotton or Dame Juliana Berners, but with modern materials. Though I wasn’t around at the time, I can just imagine the reactions to the introduction of Spey casting to the United States some 30 years ago. The very long two-handed rod capable of effortlessly casting over 70 feet must have sparked a lot of controversy from anglers who used shorter, single-handed rods. After all, nymphing was also criticized when dry flies were the norm for the purist fly angler.

Simplicity is a large part of tenkara’s appeal. If it’s not cane-pole fishing—or fishing with a crappie rod—what’s so distinctive about the rod?

Simplicity is indeed a huge part of the appeal of tenkara. But there are also some practical considerations that give tenkara its appeal, some of which become clear when comparing the tenkara tackle with crappie poles or cane poles. The long, light, and resilient telescoping rods used in tenkara allow for a very light line to be cast and for very delicate presentations. And the way they telescope makes them ideal for backpackers and hikers going fishing in the backcountry.
The main differences between tenkara rods and crappie rods are found in the quality of construction, lighter-weight materials, and some of the design elements of the rod, such as the taper, which allow it to cast a line the way a crappie rod just can’t. A tenkara rod feels much lighter and is comfortable to be used for casting over extended periods of time, whereas a crappie rod is designed to be cast once and then be put to rest until a fish bites. Crappie rods also have a whippier tip that dampens the cast and does not effectively transfer the energy from rod tip to line, which is essential in fly casting.

And the flies? The reverse-hackle tenkara flies are particularly interesting. What can conventional fly-tiers learn from it?

Japan has such an incredibly rich angling history, and fly-tying is an integral part of that. There is as much we can learn from them, just as they can from our innovations in fly tying. One region in Japan, for example, has designated fly tying and bamboo rod making as its official traditional local crafts, with flies exhibited in the local museum alongside thousand-year-old pottery. While visiting Japan last year, I paid homage to the area and visited a family that has been tying flies for over 20 generations, or over 430 years! Actually, the records state that they started tying flies in 1575, about 18 years before Izaak Walton was born. This really impressed me. They still continue to tie their flies in the same shop as they did 400-plus years ago and carry approximately 600 styles of flies, which I later learned are not tenkara flies, but rather ayu flies—a different style of fishing done in the foothills. Each fly pattern has only miniscule differences from the next, differences that are barely distinguishable to the untrained eye, yet each fly has its own name. And when I asked the family member in the shop which flies were his favorite, he quickly went to the fly trays and, among 600 patterns, picked just three of them.

On the other hand, tenkara anglers focus on simplicity and effectiveness, which carries over to their fly-tying philosophy. In May, the leading authority on tenkara in Japan, Dr. Hisao Ishigaki, visited the Catskills to give a presentation on tenkara. He explained how for the last 10 years he’s used only one fly pattern, a simple reverse-hackle fly, and has continued to catch as many fish as he ever had, saying that he likes to focus on his technique, rather than depend on the gear or even the fly used. In tenkara, the main focus is not on perfectly imitating a bug, but on the angling technique and how the fly may be presented and manipulated to entice fish.

How did you discover tenkara, and how did you become its principal American advocate?

A couple of years ago I came across a book called Angling in Japan in a library. It was published in English some 70 years ago by the Japanese Board of Tourism and described the various fishing methods practiced in Japan. Ironically, tenkara, the only traditional fly-fishing method in Japan, as I would later learn, was the smallest chapter in the book. This, and because my wife is Japanese American and I lived in Asia for a few months, prompted me to do more in-depth research on this unique combination of Asian culture and fly fishing. While visiting Japan last year, I stopped at every tackle shop I saw and was amazed when I learned how popular it is becoming in Japan. I was quickly sold on its simplicity and effectiveness, and, being a small-stream aficionado, I really fell in love with it—its potential for the California waters I fish. When I returned, I couldn’t find any tenkara gear and almost no information in English on this style of fishing. Tenkara USA was conceived shortly after my first experiences, and after several months of product design, development, and testing, I launched the company in April of last year.

What sort of future do you see for the sport of fly-fishing?

I really like an observation made by my friend, the renowned writer Gordon Wickstrom. After learning about tenkara, he wrote: “Now the fishing that remains to us—I’m going to call it ‘The New Period’—will be marked, I think, by greater simplicity of gear, technique, style and purpose. It will be done closer to home, more impromptu and with less media attention. It will be gentler, more elegant and less aggressive—in some ways more old fashioned.” Simplicity is an important part of why we fly fish and an important part of our experience. On a recent article in Fly Rod & Reel that was inspired by tenkara and titled “Simple Gifts,” Yvon Chouinard, founder and CEO of Patagonia, wrote: “We yearn for a simpler life based not on refusing all technology, but going back to the appropriate technology.…I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge, hard work and skill.” Tenkara is a manifestation of the simplicity so many of us crave. ?

Bud Bynack writes the “California Confluences” column for California Fly Fisher, from which this interview was adapted.