Article by John Vetterli, Tenkara Guides LLC
Now that is a loaded question, isn’t it?
Back in 2009, Tenkara USA was launched and the beginning of a small yet humble revolution within the fly fishing industry was afoot.
Back then, there were no resources of any kind in English and the resources in Japanese were beyond our understanding because we had no experience base to draw from and make any sense out of the information that was available. It was a difficult period in tenkara outside Japan, yet it was full of optimism, hope, and exploration.
There was a single internet forum page on Tenkara USA’s website where all of us were hanging out sharing ideas, experiences, asking questions, it was really cool. Everyone involved was shaping a new sport, industry, and culture.
Now, 7 years later, tenkara is firmly established worldwide. There is an actual industry outside of Japan consisting of multiple rod companies, vendors, accessories and gear makers, destination travel resources, and professional guides. From its humble beginnings of a few fly fishing misfits to a complete industry is quite staggering when you look at how young this sport is outside of Japan.
How did this happen?
It evolved because of the passion and excitement of everyone involved in the sport.
The use of various social media platforms in the past few years has made it explode.
There is a double-edged sword to this massive expansion in such a compressed time frame.
As our collective experience has grown, we are on the edge of falling into the pit of despair that has plagued western fly fishing for several decades. It is called Elitism.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying, using, and thoroughly enjoying a quality built tenkara rod that costs $95.00. Anyone that jumps on Facebook and belittles another angler’s choice in a moderately priced tenkara rod truly represents the worst character our community has to offer.
We all develop personal preferences as our experience grows and deepens. I’ll be the first to admit I have an affinity for really high-performance tenkara rods. My personal favorites are the Oni family of rods. There are a few reasons for this. Masami Sakakibara is my teacher, mentor, and a true friend. I have had the honor of fishing with him a lot over the past few years. My casting style developed in a vacuum just like everyone else’s has outside of Japan. The first time Masami and I met, I realized that my casting style was very similar to his. Learning from him was easy. In fact, it was second nature for me to quickly adapt to his teaching.
So, since I have a natural affinity to my teacher’s style and method, using the rods he developed to match his style and methods really feels good to me. And I’ll admit, these rods have a real sentimental value to me. It’s something that came along with buying them out of the back of his car in a parking lot next to the river in Japan.
I also really like Nissin rods. For some reason, I just like them. I can’t put a finger on the exact reason. I just do.
I also like some more moderately priced rods from domestic vendors such as Dragontail, Tanuki, Badger Tenkara, and the Tenkara Bum Suikei 36. There are really high-quality rods that are available. You don’t have to own a top end Japanese rod to truly enjoy tenkara.
So, knowing myself and my love for things that perform at the highest levels, I try to be cognizant of the audience I might address when it comes to certain questions.
Being one of the owners of the first professional tenkara guide company in the world carries with it another level of responsibility. That is to nurture and grow new tenkara anglers into experienced tenkara anglers. That comes along with the territory. We get clients all the time that bring their shiny new entry-level rod for their guided trip and they are so excited to learn how to use it. The worst thing I could do is tell them that the rod they purchased is a piece of crap.
Just because the rod they have is not something I personally might not use, it does not make their choice wrong or irrelevant. The first rule of being a professional tenkara fly fishing guide is “don’t be a dick.”
Being members of not only a community but a culture, we all share a similar obligation.
Elitism is the poison that has the potential to consume not only an individual tenkara angler but also the entire community. There is the form of elitism regarding the gear you use, the types of waters you fish, or the places you travel to. And the elitism of “tenkara is so much more effective than western fly fishing.” Mix those things together and you have a really volatile cocktail of arrogance, ignorance, and division.
Through our business Tenkara Guides LLC, I spend a lot of my time interacting with the much wider audience of the fly fishing industry. That includes both tenkara and western fly fishing.
Here is a revelation I want to share.
There has always been a rift between western fly fishing and tenkara. In the early days of tenkara, there was a lot of criticism and hostility tenkara anglers faced from fly fishing anglers on the water and from local tackle shops. You mentioned the word tenkara and you were pretty much openly ridiculed on the spot.
That made our little fledgling community pretty punchy and hostile. There were a lot of social media posts put out there on both sides that drove that wedge deep and wide.
We were really good ambassadors within our own community and not necessarily the best outside our community.
The western fly fishing world is now reeling from the tenkara community’s version of tenkara vs. western fly fishing elitism. Believe me, this is real, it’s damaging, and it does nothing but hurt both groups.
This is the chasm that currently exists. The western fly fishing world is on the verge of openly accepting tenkara. The only thing holding it back right now is us.
It’s no secret that fly fishing has been on a steady decline for the past 15 or so years. Tenkara is the shot in the arm this sport needs. It’s relatively easy to learn the basics, the cost of entry is typically less, and it’s fun.
The same thing happened in the ski industry back in the early 1980s. I grew up in Park City Utah, one of the premier ski destination resort towns in the world. I was a part of this ski revolution that occurred in the 80s.
Skiing had become a sport of the wealthy. The gear was expensive, the nice clothing was really expensive, lift tickets are prohibitively expensive, and it’s difficult to learn.
The ski industry was “eliting” itself out of existence.
Then came the snowboarders.
We were a bunch of kids that were not constrained by the rules of civilized ski society. We started out in the backcountry snowboarding big mountains, deep powder, and having a blast on a snowboard that cost $150.00 and a pair of Sorel winter boots with old ski boot liners in them. Quite a contrast to the $900.00 skis, $300.00 bindings, $600.00 boots, $125.00 ski poles, $1,200.00 Bogner one-piece ski suits, and $75.00 lift tickets.
Snowboarding took about 10 years to be openly accepted as a part of the ski industry and sport. In the early days, snowboarders had to have a “chairlift certification” card to buy a lift ticket. A lot has changed in the past 30 years. Snowboarding started as a fringe sport that ended up bringing skiing back from its inevitable decline. It wasn’t an easy road but now people enjoy both disciplines. The most difficult decision for many skiers is “Do I take the snowboard out today or the skis?”
Fast forward a couple of years and tenkara has proven it belongs in the spectrum of fly fishing. It has carved its place and it is here to stay.
Now more than ever, we as a culture of tenkara anglers must be aware that now we have a place within this wider fly fishing culture, and we must learn how to better integrate ourselves and our sport with the longstanding traditions of western fly fishing. Many western fly anglers want to try tenkara but they are hesitant to jump in because they fear a backlash from the tenkara community because they came from the “other” discipline.
It all boils down to basic human decency and respect for all anglers that want to enjoy time on the water. It doesn’t matter if you like fishing for bluegills, bass, trout, whatever. It doesn’t matter if you use a spinning reel, a bait casting reel, a fly reel, or no reel. What matters is that we as a tenkara community take a big bold step and be personable, friendly, and accepting of every fishing discipline we encounter.
Everyone deserves the right to enjoy their fishing. It’s not up to you or me to dictate to them which method is superior or what gear is superior.
We are not all that different. When you break it all down into its most basic components. It’s just trying to catch a fish with a stick, a hook, and a string.
We need to be the best ambassadors of our sport to both those within the tenkara community and those in the greater fly fishing community.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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