On the drive up Blacksmith Fork Canyon, I keep glancing over at my new Tenkara rod like it’s some exciting passenger, and even though I’ve driven up this way lots of times, it feels like a whole new road.
It’s one I started down last weekend, when I and some guys from my Trout Unlimited chapter worked as volunteers in Salt Lake City at the Wasatch Fly Tying Expo, a big fundraiser for TU chapters in Utah. Unfortunately, one of our volunteers got in a car accident on his way there. He wasn’t injured, thank goodness, but it left us shorthanded, and I ended up working the registration table by myself for the whole day.
So, I sit there watching TenkaraUSA founder Daniel Galhardo work his own booth, preaching the Tenkara Way to dozens of passing anglers. TenkaraUSA is a fast-emerging fly fishing company that produces fly rods modeled after traditional Japanese fly rods, which employ no line guides or reels. Tenkara rods are long for leverage and reach, and the line is fastened to the rod tip.
Tenkara’s main selling point is simplicity: “Only rod, line, and fly.” It’s an appealing doctrine—I used to carry just my rod and a few flies, but now I wear a fly vest that rattles like a toybox and weighs enough to negatively affect my gas mileage.
As the Expo wraps up, we shut down the registration table and I beeline for the TenkaraUSA booth. The best way I can describe the Tenkara guys is equal parts samurai and evangelist—tranquil, yet fervent. I tell Galhardo and his disciples I want the full sermon, and I don’t have to ask twice. They never say their way is better, but they’re careful always to maintain the distinction between what I do and what they do. They refer to my way as “western-style fly fishing.”
“It’s the best way we’ve come up with to distinguish it from Tenkara-style fly fishing,” says Galhardo.
Intentional or otherwise, it’s canny marketing. It puts me and millions of other fly anglers, who see themselves as contemplative and down-to-earth, into the same box as all those brand-conscious, hawgs-only, lip-ripping pagans. Almost feels like I should go out and get some crankbait or a dozen nightcrawlers.
I say, “Tell me more.”
So, they tell me stories. They show me videos. They put a 14-foot rod in my hand.
I cry, “Halleluiah!”
A few days later, I haul up State Route 101 to baptize my new Tenkara rod (an 11-foot Iwana, which I purchased from the RoundRocks booth) in a small mountain creek steeped in local fly-fishing lore. It’s a somewhat isolated place, often fabulously productive, always serene.
I unpack the sleek, collapsed Tenkara rod and try to recall all the things I’ve recently learned from Galhardo and his Tenkara videos. I’m a little giddy, so I fumble with the tackle and drop things. The Tenkara rod seems too fragile for mountain duty, but it’s eventually ready to fish.
Then, a moment of weakness: I sheepishly set up my “western” 4-weight and carry both rods to the stream. I feel like the guy in that joke who prays to Jesus, Buddha, and Allah all at the same time, just to be safe.
A small caddisfly is on the wing and I spot a rising trout. I stop just short of a bend pool I’ve visited many times. I know just how to fish it western style. I know where to stand, which tree branch will catch my fly when I backcast too far, but I lean the 4-weight against some brush and false-cast the Tenkara rod a few times.
The geometry is all different—rod much longer, line much shorter. The action is quiet and dreamy. Even the finest western fly lines rattle in the guides and hiss through the air, but the Tenkara line is dead quiet. I keep looking up to see if I’m really casting. I can cover that fish in the bend pool with the Tenkara rod, but I’ll need to get closer, and to get closer I’ll need to be on my knees. This seems fitting.
I creep into position on all fours and make my first Tenkara casts. My Elk Hair Caddis falls not exactly where I want it, but close. A few more attempts and I get a vague feeling for the power I need to cast, and I don’t need much. I get the fly where I want it, and this time a fish snatches it from the surface.
Landing fish with a Tenkara rod requires faith. Without control over line length, there is an overwhelming impulse to hoist the fish straight up out of the water, but the disciple must resist this temptation—the rod could break or (more likely) the fish will shake the hook in the open air. Each fish must be played thoughtfully, even small ones, with total trust in the rod to absorb the fight.
With my first Tenkara fish in the net, I exhale. I examine the little cutthroat, take his picture, and rest him in the current for much longer than he needs. It’s not a miracle, but it feels like an accomplishment of some lesser order. I check the rod and line connections, and they’re all intact. I fish some more.
Turns out all this elegant simplicity can be a lot of work. I’ve done the “Curtis-Creek sneak” to hide from fish before, and I often cast from bended knee. But just as often I simply stay back and cast farther. That’s not an option with the Tenkara rod, so I crawl and crouch. My knees get more shaky at each pool. I put my hands in desiccated thistles and damp deershit, but the caddisfly hatch gathers strength, and the fish start jumping.
There’s not a fish behind every rock, but fortunately there are lots of rocks. I miss a few fish and catch a few, and it’s starting to come to me—the new angles, the casting action. What impresses me most is the way a Tenkara rod presents a dry fly. It’s not just a natural presentation, it’s authentic, sincere. It’s also obscenely easy to keep the line off the water. The fish respond with nearly instant takes, as though they’ve committed to strike the fly before it touches down.
I have no logical reason to attribute all of this to the Tenkara Way, of course. The fish might have reacted the same way to a fly cast from my old 4-weight, but I’m trying to exercise a bit of faith here.
That’s when I realize I left my 4-weight back at that first bend pool. There’s a moment of panic, but leaving the old and familiar behind feels like another minor accomplishment. The sun comes low and my shadow has grown so long it’s hard to keep it off the water in front of me. I’ve fished most of the water I came for, and I got my Tenkara proof-of-concept.
I doubt I’ll permanently leave my western angling brethren, but I can see why others have—we are noisy and quite foolish at times, and there are things Tenkara cannot do. No hauling line, stripping streamers, or stack mending. You’ll never throw a sixty-foot cast with a Tenkara rod, and hook a fish longer than twenty inches at your peril. Small-stream anglers don’t catch a lot of fish at that range or of that size, but I’ve caught creek-dwelling 17-inchers at half that distance, a feat that would surely daunt my Iwana.
The Tenkara samurai would commit seppuku before referring to these aspects as “limitations.” Galhardo himself doesn’t talk much about (let alone apologize for) the things his Tenkara rods can’t do. There are plenty of workarounds and substitute methods, some furnished by TenkaraUSA, others by the growing number of at-large Tenkra anglers. However, discussing them is really beside the point. Tenkara enthusiasts don’t reluctantly trade down and then make up the difference with workarounds, they willingly exchange fly fishing’s many useless complexities (and the useful ones, too) for a more direct and elegant connection to the fish.
As for the casting range issue, I’m just a novice, but the only way I got around it was crawling on the ground—not everything associated with Tenkara is elegant, I guess.
I’m still stalking fish when the sun goes down. There’s one more good bend right in front of me, then a big beaver pond, and a few good holes a hundred yards up from there. I figure I’ve still got thirty minutes before it’s too dark to find my 4-weight, so I cast into the bend. A mid-channel brown calmly mouths the seemingly guileless fly. I lift the rod tip. The fish bolts and the Iwana hoops over, signaling a bit of heft in this one. It occurs to me that here would be a good place to say “amen.” I work the fish onto a sandbar, unhook him, and sit on the bank. The beaver pond and the good water beyond can wait.