Essay by Isaac Tait
“The angler forgets most of the fish he catches, but he does not forget the streams and lakes in which they were caught.” – Charles K. Fox
In the years that I have pursued Tenkara I’ve caught several thousand fish. While I certainly don’t remember them all, I will never forget the places that I went with my Tenkara rod. Sometimes a special fish or a unique landscape comes along though and leaves a mark upon my soul. The others become an amalgamation and collage of feelings, sensations, emotions, and observations organized into one part of my brain -set aside for moments of quiet introspection.
My first Brook and Rainbow Trout were caught in a small mountain stream near Thurmont, Maryland – within the boundaries of Catoctin Mountain Park; my first Brown Trout was caught not too far away from there in Beaver Creek; and then there was my first Golden Trout, which was caught in a tributary of the Middle Fork Kings River near Le Conte Canyon, California.
These were special fish; accomplishments that required hours, sometimes even several days of quiet patience to attain. However, the thing that has really left an indelible imprint on me has been Japan.
I will never forget the first native trout I caught in Japan. I was kneeling in a shallow pool, frigid water running across my legs sending a constant chill down my spine. Above me mountains capped with snow scraped the sky, while all around me the alpine jungle emitted an incessant cacophony of a million birds in song, the wind rustling the leaves, and the roar of water cascading over rock. All of this was pushed to the back of my mind though as I concentrated on the pool four meters in front of me. A tree had fallen into the river over the winter, creating a perfect habitat for my quarry – the Japanese trout known as Iwana.
My kebari splashed lightly into the water and began to tumble and twirl in the current. Suddenly I felt the slightest of tugs – was it a leaf, maybe a branch? I lifted the rod and the eruption of the tranquil water confirmed that it was not floating detritus but my first Iwana! A minute or so later I was cradling her in my hands, careful to keep her submerged while my friends dug for their cameras. Once her likeness had been saved as a series of ones and zeroes I released her back into the wild – a little more tired and little wiser than she was a few minutes ago.
Japan is an empire of such intense beauty that sometimes I wonder if I am on another planet, and it has affected me more deeply than I could have ever imagined. The people, the food, the landscape, the history, the culture, and of course its fish; everything just defies all that I have come to know and think as an American. The Japanese way of life is one of peaceful, meek, and tenacious introspection, and is difficult for my ‘Western’ brain to understand sometimes. In immersing myself in the cultural differences I have come to a greater understanding of not just myself, but the God who I believe created all of the landscapes, experiences, and wildlife that I have come to cherish.
Over the last season, I have traveled all over Japan – Tenkara fishing, hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking. I was struck by how many foreigners never ventured too far from the shrines, geisha girls, onsens, ryokans, and groomed ski slopes. While those things are inherently Japanese, the wild side of Japan is something to behold, and yet it falls by the wayside. In a way, it is as if the untamed beauty of Japan has succumbed to the bright lights, chaos, and short skirts of Tokyo. During the last year, I traveled to Chiba, Yamanashi, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Nagano, Niigata, Gunma, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Tochigi, and Fukushima Prefectures. I could count on one hand how many foreigners I came across in some of the more remote, yet unfathomably beautiful locations I visited there. Once I got off the beaten path in Japan the majority of people I came across were Japanese. And I think that is a great travesty.
Charles Fox said that, “The roots of fly-fishing encompass a poetic heritage and that there is a power and sacredness in all living things…” I could not agree more and as a fly angler, I believe we all understand that in a way most others do not. Fish are the only animals that humans hunt and then release. Catch and release, while certainly not an exclusive practice of fly anglers, we certainly do make up a majority of the practitioners of this methodology. But why?
I think the answer lies in not just the type of people who are attracted to catching fish on the fly but their unique desire to preserve, yet still enjoy, a landscape. Deep inside we grasp the power, fragility, and sacredness of not only the landscapes we find ourselves in but the animals that call it home. However, in the last several decades we have come to realize that not all of mankind has the same ideals. Organizations like Trout Unlimited, Orvis, and the multitude of non-profits have been created to protect specific rivers, watersheds, and even fish species that are vital to communities and our nation. If we just stepped aside and let the greed machine run unimpeded there would soon be nothing left.
One of the biggest weapons in the conservation arsenal is the money that tourism and the outdoor industry bring not only to communities but our nation. But it is much more than just the money that makes nature important, it is the quality of life that nature brings. And this quality of life is what keeps everything going – even the greed machines. The industries of logging, mining, and energy resource extraction are necessary; I won’t try and argue that they are not. However, when these necessary “evils” destroy our quality of life, it is just plain wrong and short-sighted. Once the resource is gone what are we left with? A huge hole in the ground or an erosion plagued hillside devoid of what once was. Before there were streams, springs, trees, and wildlife. Now there is an ugly scar that will poison our water and air for centuries to come, and for what? This shiny MacBook Air I write on? The sofa I’m sitting on while writing this? The scotch I’m sipping on to lubricate my creative side? All of this is necessary, or at least that is what I’ve convinced myself of, but there should be a balance and an understanding of the true cost of what we consume in the pursuit of happiness.
In Maryland, the need for conservation sprang primarily from the damage done by farms, pollution, and too much pavement. The first caused erosion due to deforestation to create farmland and then was exacerbated by runoff of fertilizer and pesticides into the ecosystem. The second was a byproduct of unchecked greed, plain and simple. The last caused unprecedented flooding because the ground that had once been able to absorb water was now paved over. This caused more water than the ecosystem could handle too flow into the rivers, which then increased flooding and erosion. Many of the streams I fished in Maryland that were purported to have once been rocky now had sandy bottoms. Because of these, and many other reasons I won’t go into now, these streams were no longer suitable for the native flora and fauna to flourish.
However, these issues have begun to be addressed through the education of the public, the introduction of riparian buffers that helped mitigate runoff, warming water, and pollution, and by a new method of paving that allows water to be absorbed yet still provide a durable surface.
No matter where you go, there is a threat to nature and Japan is no different. For example, rivers that once flowed unimpeded into the ocean are now dammed; illegal dumping and pollution is a big problem; both freshwater and ocean overfishing is becoming (or is already) an issue; and new roads, tunnels, weirs, dams, and bridges are being built at a very high rate – often times causing irreversible damage to natural habitats.
The biggest threat, in my opinion, for the numerous keiryu (mountain streams) and genryū (headwaters) that I have explored and fished are first and foremost the dams followed closely by the cultural fishing ethics. “There are currently 2,800 dams in Japan. Structures over 15 meters tall are considered dams in Japan. If we include smaller structures, it is said there are close to 100,000 dams.” For a country smaller than California (which has 1400 named dams), that is a lot of dams. These dams, or weirs, have partially solved the flooding issues in Japan and because of that are necessary – but not to the extent at which they have been built. You don’t need a weir, let alone a dozen, on a stream that is in an unpopulated area – yet there they are.
There are many problems caused by these dams and weirs. First, they isolate the population of fish. With no way to swim upstream they are cut off, they can go down but they can never come back up. They also increase silt, gravel and rock buildups, which is their purpose because these man-made floodplains slow down flood water thus mitigating their damaging effects. However, the valley widens as it fills up with debris behind the manmade blockade. Once fast-moving streams that used to be shaded by trees, now slowly meander through a wasteland of sand and rock where no substantial foliage can protect them from warming under the direct sunlight.
These structures also reduce a river’s suitable habitat for fish to live and hide from predators in. Consequently, fish seek out smaller portions of a stream to inhabit. This then makes them more susceptible to disease, provides less access to food, and the warming water just exacerbates these issues.
Furthermore, the only way to replenish these streams with fish is to carry them in. This is mostly done by fishing co-ops which then require that you pay for a license to fish. The main difference though is that while in America when you pay for a license you know that the money is not just going to stocking but offsetting the tax burden and conservation efforts by state biologists, this is not the case in Japan. Typically, the money is earmarked for profit first and then stocking second. And since these rivers are routinely stocked the sense of personal responsibility is lessened and the perceived right to consume is heightened.
With that change in perspective, the fishing ethics, by and large, has become a belief that, “All fish should be kept no matter how small they are.” And I don’t need to explain how this mentality can do some serious damage.
Having observed all of this, I have been searching for ways that I could affect a real change in Japan. As a foreigner though my options are limited. However, the answer I keep coming back to over and over against tourism. If more foreign visitors ventured into the backcountry, the out-of-the-way areas and the back roads of Japan – the influx of tourism interest and dollars spent would surely get noticed. Suddenly flooding a valley that had been enjoyed for centuries would not just inconvenience the local residents (not to mention the wildlife) but the people who came from Europe, Australia, and America to fish, backpack, camp, and explore it too–then, of course, there is the fact that the influx of foreigner expenditures in these communities would cease. My hope is that the influence of “outsiders” would help to highlight the necessity of the wild places and wild animals of Japan.
Japan is a country of such immense beauty, yet most of those who travel here to visit only see a tiny sliver of what Japan has to offer. “The essential human experience requires a deep connection to our lands and waters. Anything less and we risk the sort of social psychosis characterized by video game addiction and the destruction of our planetary life support systems. In other words, if we lose our link to nature, we risk losing everything else.”
This idea for solving the issues in Japan through “adventure tourism” though isn’t without one glaring problem – there is a significant shortage of English speaking guides here. In nearly every form of outdoor adventure, English-speaking guides are almost non-existent. Those that one can find often advertise their services on websites that look like they were created in the early 90’s using Japanese/English translations that are hard to interpret, maps that are nearly impossible to decipher, and URLs that do not facilitate quick and easy google searches. In other words, traveling to Japan and ‘getting off the grid’ is going to be an adventure – it may even be a bit scary, but the reward is absolutely worth it. Trust me.
Right now is a perfect time to travel to Japan. The experience will be rife with opportunity to regain one’s lost sense of adventure, self-reliance, and self-awareness. It is something that our ancestors had in spades when they settled the world, sailed across the oceans without maps or charts, and climbed mountains that no one had ever summited before – but we have lost touch with this in our present culture. The golden age of human exploration and sense of adventure has been replaced by television, ‘smart’ devices, hashtags, inflated opinions, and laziness. We’ve become so intently focused on pursuing comfort above all things that we have isolated ourselves but yet still claim true balance, perspective, and open-mindedness, which we somehow acquire from social media, entertainment, and the “news.” It is when we are stretched, tested, and tried (three things that are very prevalent when seeking to live in a culture different from our own) that we truly develop character and a sense of self not rooted in ourselves.
My introduction to the heritage of “Western” fly fishing (author’s note: Western fly fishing I define as fly fishing with a reel), came from the book “Simple Fly Fishing” by Yvon Chouinard, Craig Mathews, and Mauro Mazzo. The book begins by explaining how Western fly fishing as we have come to know it, was an elitist activity engaged in by a privileged class of landholders.
On the opposite end of this spectrum of privilege and class is the Japanese Tenkara anglers of old who for centuries did not have the luxury to pursue fishing as a pastime or a sport. It was most certainly not an elitist activity practiced by the privileged, but rather was engaged in by peasants, farmers, and artisans as a matter of survival. Time spent fiddling with equipment or tying on a new fly every few minutes could result in their untimely demise. Up until the late 1960s and early 70s, parts of Japan were cut off from the rest of the country during the winter. So much snow fell in the mountains that the roads were unsafe to pass for as much as five to six months out of the year! Because of the harsh Japanese winters, entire communities had to rely on their ingenuity, foraging, farming, preserving, and of course their fishing skills to survive. It was in this environment of bare-bones necessity, yet still maintaining a level of dignity and meekness not commonly found in those circumstances, that Tenkara was born.
For much of my life, I had been told that a new iPhone, a new car or clothes, maybe a new pair of seamless waders, or that sleek new graphite fly rod would make me happy. Basically consuming would fulfill me, or at least cloud the sense of purposelessness in it all. Gradually over the years, when the happiness didn’t come, I began to search deeper within myself for answers. The catalyst that brought about true discovery and understanding was the stupendous and beauteous landscape of Japan.
Tenkara translated literally means “from heaven,” but maybe it is not just the image of a fly falling from the heavens into the water to attract a meal that sparked the name – but the fact that it is so counter to our culture that it awakens a side of ourselves that we have subdued for too long. In that discovery, we find a whole new way of seeing and thinking about the world that had been closed off to us before.
Isaac Tait is an angling and outdoors enthusiast who has spent time fishing across the world. He was fortunate to have spent an extensive residency in Japan, where he chased amago, iwana, and yamame in the magnificent backcountry keiryu. He recorded many of those experiences on this website Fallfish Tenkara.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015-16 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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