Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tenkara Confidence...

I can remember back all those years ago when my wife assured me she'd packed my fishing rod for a little southwest Colorado anniversary trip--we'd been married for four years, and we were headed to Telluride for a long weekend.

At the time, I only occasionally fly fished--I simply had more confidence in my spinning gear, and fly fishing gear was expensive. And, the only fly rod I'd ever owned was stolen from my garage not too long before this trip to the San Miguel. My options were limited, and my fishing was generally recreational--not the passion it's become since, well, that very day.

After we arrived at the river, I opened the hatchback of our old Subaru station wagon and fished around for my spinning gear. My wife casually allowed me to dig around for a while before she pulled out a long green tube.

My wife, with the tenkara in the background, fishes with my daughter.
"Happy anniversary," she said, handing the plastic tube over to me. The tube, adorned with the name "Orvis" along the side, said it all. My first "quality" fly rod--an Orvis Clearwater nine-foot, five-weight instrument of graphite beauty. I knew then and there that my spin-fishing days were over. But I needed that push--I needed to be forced out of my comfort zone.

Today, as I look at my arsenal of some twenty fly rods of all different lengths, weights and speeds, I'm fairly certain my wife regrets that day long ago. That first rod still stands sentinel duty in the corner, and on the rare occasions I fish with it, it's like slipping on an old pair of shoes... it just fits.

I've become quite adept at fly fishing, and I've become a bona fide "creek freak," willing to wander up any old blue line on the map just to see what's up there. You might find me with a nine-foot rod a couple times a year, and that's usually only for really specialized fishing--say, when I make a surprise trip to the Gulf Coast for redfish or if I'm steelheading on the Salmon River in the shadow of the Sawtooths. Usually, I'm armed with a six- or seven-foot two-weight casting to wild trout in a stream that, with a running start, I can jump across. That's where I'm most comfortable. Most confident.

Not too long a go, I stumbled across a video for tenkara fishing. Not long after that, I watched a friend from Leadville, Colo., put a tenkara rod to use catching greenback cutthroats in a tiny stream in the Holy Cross Wilderness. I knew that, for the type of fishing I loved to do, the tenkara rod would be the next step in my evolution as an angler.

But the tenkara baffled me. It was eleven feet long. It had no reel. It's "fly line" was braided nylon, and the line itself was 10 feet long. In my hands it felt foreign. Its simplicity was too ... complicated.

Naturally, my wife awarded me with a tenkara rod for my birthday, and it sat in its diminutive case for a couple of months until the weather warmed enough to justify a backcountry trip. I cautiously packed the little telescoping rod in its tiny little tube, and placed it carefully in my backpack. In the other rod holder, I packed a seven-foot Scott fiberglass beauty--a soft, slow creek rod that casts like a champ but gives even small, backcountry trout their due.

I arrived at the trailhead and wandered into the backcountry until I felt I was far enough away from civilization that I wouldn't encounter another angler. I propped my pack on a streamside rock and began to take in the water. I identified likely holding runs in the swift-moving canyon stream--pockets of fishy water where trout no doubt waited in ambush for the current to deliver the next meal. Long slicks of soft water where, had the light been a little better, I'm sure I would have been able to see finning, backcountry rainbows lying patiently in wait for the next unsuspecting mayfly.

I reached for the tenkara, but at the last second, I chickened out. I strung up the three-weight. Confidence. In the little creek rod, I oozed confidence. In the long, supple Japanese import, I had none.

The tale relived itself over and over for the next month or so. I'd bring the tenkara with me, but I'd fish with conventional fly gear.

Then my wife, who can generally be credited (or blamed) for most of my outdoor vices, inspired me. We were on a little redband creek not too far from the Salmon River near the town of Riggins, Idaho. We were enjoying one of those dead perfect days--warm, but not stifling, as the weather can often be in the canyon in high summer, and clear as a bell. The creek ran clear and cold, shaded by big firs, ponderosas and spruce trees, and lined by alders. It cascaded over slick rocks, creating plunge pools, and deep tail outs. It was a blue-liner's paradise.

"Are you going to use the tenkara rod?" my wife asked. I shook my head.

"Do you mind if I try it?"

I removed the rod from its case and unsleeved the delicate instrument. I noticed my wife looking at the rod intently. I stretched the telescoping sections to its full eleven-foot length, and I handed it to her. My daughter, also along on this little adventure, was quick to speak up.

"Can I try it, Mommy?" she asked. Wife and daughter disappeared into the alders to ply the little creek with the long rod. I strung up the three-weight and wandered to the stream, relieved, but a little disappointed that I once again remained firmly boxed into my comfort zone.

I fished for a few minutes, and I generally had my way with the creek's pan-sized redbands--and I hooked, but didn't land, a bull trout that might have stretched the tape to sixteen inches or so. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. I walked upstream to where I last saw the girls.

Over the din of the moving water, I could hear the sound of sheer joy. Giggles. Shouts. Pure laughter. I stepped through the alders on the creek's bank and spied my wife standing on a rock midstream, the long tenkara rod stretched out from her hands. She'd cast the rod slightly upstream and let the high-floating Adams drift along a current seam not ten feet from where she stood. On nearly every cast of the long, supple rod, a small redband would charge the fly, triggering a shout of glee. Unfamiliar with the rod's slow action, she wouldn't hook a fish on every cast, but she'd make contact. And the opportunistic fish that almost never see a fly weren't shy at all. If she missed a fish mid-drift, she'd simply leave the fly on the water and let go all the way below her, where she'd then skate it over a slick just before the creek tumbled over a rock on its way to the next small rapid. There, she would almost certainly hook up.

Then it dawned on me. Tenkara fishing is not a fly fishing evolution. It's the opposite--a return to something much more basic. Sure, it's constructed of high-modulus graphite, and it conveniently telescopes into tube about the size of Harry Potter's wand. But it's a devolution. An escape from terminology that, to the inexperienced fly fisher, seems meant to confound and complicate. Line weights, rod lengths, action, flex ... no wonder our sport has a stagnant growth rate and has a tweedy, snooty reputation.

But the tenkara is different. It's perhaps the most basic form of angling, right up there with dunking a worm off a bridge over some sleepy, slow southern river in hopes of latching into a big catfish. The only difference is that it brings with it the fly fishing spirit. It's a moving-water endeavor, where rock-hopping and pioneering pay dividends. It's a simple combination of the fly-fishing soul and the effortlessness that comes with dropping a worm to the bottom of the river.

And watching my wife, and later, my daughter, enjoy something that has gripped my spirit for nearly two decades brought a deeply satisfying feeling to my heart. Hearing the laughter and seeing the smiles stretching across their faces was one of the best moments of my fishing life.

And, yes, the next time I meandered into the backcountry, I left the three-weight in the truck and got to know the simple joy of tenkara angling.

I may never give up my arsenal of fly rods, but I have stepped out into a new realm of fly fishing. It's one where I worry less about perfection. Less about mechanics. Less about the fishing. Instead, it's more about the water and the finned critters that are my target. I've come to truly love the tenkara craft, and the basic bliss that comes with connecting to a wild trout in a wild place.

And that's a zone I'm comfortable with.


  1. The wife would like to have her own Tenkara rod. The wife would leave it in her car all the time, "just in case" she sees a little creek that may or may not have a fishy in it. The wife loves the simplicity of it. It's so uncomplicated! You just flip the line out there and when you pick it up, there's a fish on the end. This is not a paid endorsement of the Tenkara rod - but is definitely an endorsement for simplicity. The wife believes "less is more." <3

  2. Chris, glad to see you finally get the tenkara bug. There is always a spare tenkara rod here for those trips to the sodom on the potomac when you want to cleanse yourself in the clean mountain streams of Va.
    Fish simply my good friend.

  3. Love your blog, and will especially feel much closer to all of you when I can just click on it and see what you are up to. See you soon.

  4. Welcome to the tenkara cult. :)

    I mainly fish small(er) streams and my 11' Iwana has been in tow virtually every trip out for the last year. What a blast!

    That said, I'm not getting rid of the 3-wt anytime soon; the wonderful music the click & pawl reel sings as a bigger fish takes line is something a tenkara rod just can't replicate.

    There's definitely a place for both.

  5. Leave it to a lady to show us men how its done. Great post.

    The Average Joe Fisherman

  6. Indeed... What good can any of us be without a spouse to occasionally point the way?

  7. Very nicely written! I'm always so happy when I run across an article like this, which is nicely written and reinforces how I feel about tenkara- Tom Sadler, Troutrageous and Chris, that includes the many good words you have written too.
    This last week I was asked to write an article for an industry magazine. I had twisted their arms a bit to properly introduce tenkara so they finally let me take a shot at it. One of my main points was very similar to what you wrote "no wonder our sport has a stagnant growth rate and has a tweedy, snooty reputation", and my argument is that fly-fishing simplicity is necessary if we want more people to try the sport. That fly-fishing simplicity came in the form of tenkara is all the better.
    Thanks for writing about it, I enjoyed reading it and will help me start the week energized!
    Daniel - Tenkara USA, founder

  8. Daniel,

    Wow... thanks for that very kind comment. It's much appreciated. As I said, it took me a while to warm up to the rod, but I'm happy to report that it's now a staple when I leave the house. The only thing I regret is that, about six week ago, I banged up my shoulder, so I'm on the shelf 'til spring and won't be doing much casting at all, tenkara or otherwise. Best of luck to Tenkara USA--you have a few fans here in Idaho who wish you nothing but the best (my wife will be getting a tenkara rod for Christmas). You make a great product, and I'm happy this post found its way to you.

    Chris Hunt

  9. welcome to the dark side of simplicity. hope you'll enjoy many days on the river with a rod and line only.

    Goneflyfishing @