High-tech meets homespun simplicity.

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White

We were in my kitchen in northern Colorado on a warm August evening. I was at the stove stirring a pot of elk spaghetti sauce; Susan McCann, the journalist and editor I’ve lived with for the past 20 years, was constructing an enormous salad and Ed Engle, the fishing writer and my oldest continuous friend, was slicing French bread. Daniel Galhardo, owner and founder of Tenkara USA, had offered to help several times, but it was a small, crowded kitchen with cats underfoot and there was nothing left to do, so he’d settled for volunteering to wash the dishes.

For the past few days, Ed and Daniel had been staying at the house and the three of us had been tenkara fishing in some nearby small trout streams. The plan for the next day was to four-wheel up to 9,000 feet to a brook trout creek Ed and I like and to that end I’d drive to a friend’s house after dinner to borrow his Jeep CJ-5. In the 30-some years that Ed and I have been fishing this stream, the road has deteriorated to the point that my 4-wheel-drive pickup with its long wheelbase will no longer make it without bottoming out.

Tenkara is a traditional Japanese method of fixed-line fly-fishing that uses only a long, light rod with a length of line attached and a single fly. No guides, no extra line, no reel. Think of it as the fly-fishing equivalent of haiku. It’s been practiced in the mountain streams of Japan for at least several hundred years and may date back as far as the eighth or ninth century.

The original rods were un-split bamboo and the lines were braided horsehair. They were similar to the rods described in the Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle in 1496 and by any number of other cultures around the world that used artificial flies, although the advantage Japan had over Europe was that they could use bamboo instead of hardwood, so from the beginning the rods were lighter and more delicate. It’s conceivable that there was some cross-pollination between cultures, but it seems more likely that when first confronted by the question of how to deliver a feathered hook to a fish using available technology, the universal answer has always been: Get a long stick and a string.

Tenkara wouldn’t have been considered a sport at first. It’s said to have been developed by people who simply wanted fish to eat or sell, so there was no need for the embellishments you find in things that are done more for fun than results. The mountain streams these anglers fished were small and so were the trout and char they caught, so there was also no need for more than a rod’s length of line. A tenkara rod was a tool: as utilitarian as a hoe or a shovel and no more complicated than it had to be. Even the apparently ornamental wraps may have been originally intended to camouflage the outline of the rod rather than to look pretty.

The modern incarnation of tenkara is considered a sport, but although it’s gone somewhat high-tech, it hasn’t lost its homespun simplicity. The rods are now telescoping graphite, usually between 11 and 13 feet long, inspired by some of the traditional bamboo versions where smaller sections were stored inside larger ones to make the rods more portable. The lines are either braided fluorocarbon—like a long furled leader—or sometimes just level lengths of fluorocarbon line that are said to cast better in the wind. But high-tech or not, a Japanese angler from 300 years ago would still recognize the tackle.

Daniel said he learned to fly-fish with a conventional rod and reel in his native Brazil as a teenager. Later, while living in San Francisco, he got interested in Japanese styles of fly-fishing and first learned about tenkara from an old pamphlet published by the English Board of Tourism in 1939. When he traveled to Japan with his wife, Margaret Kuwata, in 2008, he saw tenkara firsthand and was smitten by its elegant simplicity. He doesn’t describe this as a conversion experience, but he’s now a true believer and fishes exclusively with tenkara tackle, although he’s held onto his old rod and reel for sentimental reasons.

Daniel started Tenkara USA in 2009, marketing the few things a tenkara fisherman needs: rod, line, a handful of flies and not much else. (Tenkara is a traditional Japanese method, but oddly—though maybe not surprisingly—the rods are made in China.) It was also in that year that Daniel met the renowned tenkara fisherman Dr. Hisao Ishigaki when the doctor spoke at the Catskill Fly-Fishing Center in New York. Daniel and Dr. Ishigaki hit it off and now jokingly refer to each other as tenkara no otto-san and tenkara no musuko, or “tenkara father” and “tenkara son.”

Dr. Ishigaki is sometimes referred to as a “tenkara master,” but that’s an unofficial title. In fact, he makes no special claims for himself or for tenkara beyond the method’s efficiency and simplicity. When Daniel asked him if there was a Zen aspect to tenkara, Ishigaki laughed and said, “No Zen, just a nice way to catch fish”—which of course is exactly what a Zen master would say.

Daniel himself is young, lean and fit, and seems shy at first, but then turns out to only be soft spoken. He comes off as a kind of low-key evangelist and his enthusiasm can be quietly infectious, but he’s not unaware of the difficulties of introducing something small, quiet and simple to a country that likes things big, loud and complicated. So far he hasn’t launched the big media blitz, which I suspect is equal parts economics and temperament, but he has the obligatory Web site, he’s run a few ads and has done a few interviews.

Tenkara isn’t widely known in America, but word of mouth is spreading and in certain circles it has a kind of underground buzz, or what Ed calls “sizzle.” Over the last year or so I’ve run into a number of fly fishers who have heard of tenkara and a small handful who’ve tried it. Attitudes run from shrugging indifference through various levels of interest to a newfound dedication to simplicity, though this isn’t widespread enough to have flooded the market with used rods and reels. Most said they learned about it on the Internet and when I searched “tenkara” recently out of curiosity, I got just short of 40,000 results.

A collapsed tenkara rod is only about 20 inches long—a stubby graphite shaft with a cork grip and no reel seat that you might not immediately recognize as a fly rod. When you first extend one it just seems to keep coming and coming until it begins to feel unwieldy. The line is attached by girth-looping the butt end to a short piece of knotted cord called a “lillian” that sticks straight out of the end of the tip section. The leader is attached to the line with a loop-to-loop connection. You can use whatever length leader you want, but it’s best to start with a tippet that doesn’t extend much more than a foot or two past the butt of the rod. It’s all pretty much self-evident, but it doesn’t hurt to read the instructions.

The cast is a familiar fly cast, but with a shorter, softer stroke. It’s easy to overpower the rod and your inbred tendency to shoot an extra foot or two, even on a short forward cast, is stymied by the fixed line. At the end of every cast your left hand reflexively reaches for the loose line off the reel that isn’t there. This may get annoying enough that you’ll put your line hand in your pocket to make it stop.

The first time I fished a tenkara rod was in March on a small local tailwater. The long, whippy rod and fixed line were awkward at first, but I got used to them quickly. The usual repertoire of overhead, sidearm, tuck and pile casts worked, as well as that flipping aerial roll cast small stream fishers use and that no one I know has a name for. This was actually the same way I often fish pocket water with the usual 7-foot 9-inch or 8-foot rod: making short casts and high-stick drifts with little more than a rod’s length of line. The only difference was that with a 13-foot rod, a short cast was noticeably longer and I could hold more line off the water for a better, longer drift.

Playing and landing small fish was the kind of thing you’d work out on your own even if you hadn’t been told how to do it. You fight the fish against the bend of the rod and when it’s played out, you lift the rod until you can reach the line, hold the line against the rod with one hand and run the other hand down to your trout. Some tenkara fishermen carry a small landing net, but nine times out of 10 it’s not necessary.

It’s been said that anyone can learn to fish with a tenkara rod in a few hours and that may not be an exaggeration. These things are recognizable fly rods and the more you know about fly-fishing the more you can get out of them, but they still bear a vague family resemblance to a cane pole and string and are therefore something a seven-year-old could master almost instinctively. In fact, Daniel said he sells a fair number of rods to hikers and backpackers who aren’t exactly dedicated fly fishermen, but who like the idea of a complete fishing outfit that’s easy to use, packs down small and only weighs a few ounces.

He’s also careful to point out that tenkara rods are intended specifically for small water and fish no more than a foot long, so I wasn’t sure that tailwater would be entirely tenkara friendly. It was a little too wide to be called a small stream and although the average trout is around 10 or 12 inches long, you could easily hook a bigger fish. But as it turned out, the water was still low in March, the wading was easy, and with a little more than 26 feet of rod and line, there weren’t many places I couldn’t reach. I also didn’t hook a trout longer than 10 inches on that first day.

But it was only a week or so later on the same river that I did hook a fish I couldn’t land. It was a rainbow I’ll guess at around 17 inches and when it made a strong run, I automatically pointed the rod at him to give him line, remembering too late that I didn’t have any more line to give. Of course with the rod pointed straight at the fish, he came up tight, neatly snapped off the fly and kept going. I’ve lost countless fish over the years and none of them were the end of the world, although they all felt like it at the time. This isn’t the old cliché about the big one getting away; it’s just that the one that does get away is suddenly the one you really wanted.

Sometime later Ed explained that you should keep your rod up even on a heavy fish, and that this wasn’t just a case of horse ’em and hope for the best. Between the flex of the long, light rod, a little stretch in the braided line and the cushion of your own wrist and elbow, you can actually lay into a bigger trout much harder than you think. Also, a fish can only go in the direction he’s pointed, and the reach of the long rod lets you deflect a run and detour the fish into slack water. It does take practice, but finally boils down to a little knowledge of fish behavior, a feel for the capabilities of the tackle and the accurate snap judgment. You can still hook a fish you can’t land, but once you know how to use the rod, that fish gets considerably larger.

As it turned out, Ed and I had stumbled on tenkara independently, which was no surprise to me. We’ve known each other for something like 35 years and share, among other things, a long-running interest in traditional Japanese art, poetry and philosophy that dates back to our counter-culture days in the 1970s. It was only natural that with something like this in the air, we’d have both caught the same scent. It was also just like him to have worked out some things that I’d missed.

I fished tenkara rods off and on through the season, taking plenty of time off for bigger water and bigger fish where I wanted a longer cast, a reel with a good drag or both. Switching back and forth became seamless and the decision was easy. Like any highly specialized tackle, a tenkara rod is versatile and efficient in the narrow range of conditions it was intended for, but it becomes less so as you deviate from the ideal until eventually its advantages become frustrations.

I was surprised at how quickly I absorbed the novelty of it and ended up just fishing. Early on I’d sometimes giggle out loud at the long reach I had and the beautiful drifts I was getting in normally difficult pocket water, but then I just got used to it. Playing and landing most of the trout I hooked was simple enough and now and then I’d get one that provided the kind of drama that keeps you fishing. I don’t think I caught any more fish than usual, but on the right kind of water I was more likely to do it with that elusive smoothness we all strive for.

By the time Daniel came out to fish in August, I’d become a reasonably adept tenkara fisherman. (As I said, it’s not that hard.) I’d learned to cast in fairly tight quarters, to keep my fly out of the trees (usually), and to play and land fish deftly. I’d also picked up the neat trick of collapsing the rod and coiling the line around my hand to bushwhack through thick bank-side brush, which alone is worth the price of admission. I’d lost a few fish, but I couldn’t blame any of them on the tackle. I’d also landed trout up to 15 inches in fast current and had watched Ed land a 16-inch splake.

I’d prepared a succinct explanation about this strange rod I was using for fishermen who were curious, but oddly, no one ever asked. Maybe no one noticed, or they did, but didn’t care. Or maybe fishermen just don’t talk to each other like they used to.

I’d been fishing the usual sparse selection of flies in my small-stream box on an upstream or across-stream dead drift—usually a single dry fly, sometimes with a nymph dropper. I’d also done well a few times fishing a wet fly on a short down- and across-current swing. It had occurred to me more than once that the reach of the long rod would be deadly with a brace of nymphs, a pinch of weight on the leader and a strike indicator, but I’d never gotten around to trying it.

Daniel said he also started out with his old favorite patterns, but after a second trip to Japan he switched to tenkara flies. These are the simplest imaginable patterns, often just a thread or floss body with a reversed hackle that flares forward over the eye of the hook. A few of these patterns have a flash of color, but most are drab and plain as dirt. What Daniel calls a “pure tenkara fisherman” is a total “presentationist” and may do all his fishing with a single one of these patterns, carrying two or three spare flies in a small glass vial with a cork stopper and fishing them dry or wet as needed.

I’d been carrying a few tenkara flies from the beginning, but had never used them. Fishing a single fly pattern would have carried the whole minimalist motif to its logical conclusion and would have made the entire operation authentic. But then Daniel said that if tenkara has a philosophy at all, it has to do with nothing more than simplicity and efficiency, and fishing the flies that are known to work seemed entirely in that spirit.

In the end, I liked the way I could gracefully pick apart a small stream with the long tenkara rod and light line, and I enjoyed the refreshing lack of clutter. But otherwise, tenkara was so much like the fly-fishing I’m used to that I began to think of it less as a new method and more as a thought experiment in which you ask not, How much do I need? but, How little can I get away with? Maybe this causes you to become a tenkara purist, or maybe you simply realize that the annoying complications in your life have nothing to do with having reels on your fly rods. Along those same lines, you may eventually stumble on the obvious paradox that in the ongoing search for a kind of blissful simplicity, you’ve gone ahead and gotten yourself yet another rod.

John Gierach is the author of Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing and other best-selling books.