Passage adapted from Tenkara Today; a book by Morgan Lyle
In 1998, Daniel Galhardo, who would one day introduce tenkara fishing to the western world, was still a teenager in Brazil. But a decade before the launch of Tenkara USA, a few American fly-fishing luminaries had gotten wind of Japanese fixed-line trout fishing and were quietly experimenting on their local streams.
One of them was Dave Hughes, the author of many wonderful fly-fishing books. Another was Yvon Chouinard, founder of the worldwide Patagonia outdoor gear brand and longtime surfer, climber and fly-fisher. And another was Ed Van Put.
Ed is a fixture in the fly-fishing culture of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. He is the author of two wonderful books, The Beaverkill and Trout Fishing in the Catskills.
Before he retired, his day job was fisheries professional for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In that role he advocated for rules that required New York City to release cold water from their reservoirs on dammed Catskills rivers, which created some of the best trout fisheries in the country. Equally if not more important, Ed convinced many landowners in the Catskills to sell easements to New York State so that anglers could legally access the trout streams on their lands. Many miles of exquisite fishing are available to anyone with a fishing license, thanks to his efforts.
Along the course of his career, Van Put came to know as much as anyone, and more than most, about trout and trout fishing, particularly in his home region. When former president Jimmy Carter came to the Catskills to do some fishing, it was Ed who guided him, sharing his knowledge of the local streams.
Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve during the presidencies of Carter and Ronald Reagan, also once engaged Van Put’s services. Tagging along with Volcker was Seiichiro Otsuka, the Japanese ambassador to the United States.
They had such a good time that the ambassador hired Ed again, in June of 1998, to take him, his wife and his son fishing.
“He spoke flawless English, he went to school in America, had stayed with people in Minnesota, and was the ambassador to this country and his office was in Manhattan,” Van Put recalled. “He fished traditional western tackle, was as good as any fly-fisherman I knew with western tackle.”
The fishing party proceeded to Beaverkill Falls, a picturesque pool on a privately owned stretch of the river to which Van Put had access due to his longstanding connections.
At one point, the ambassador “said he wanted to go get a Japanese rod,” Van Put said. “And he came down with two or three rods, made out of telescoping graphite and fiberglass, and from 12 to 18 feet, and he was catching one fish after another. And the large graphite rod — he said, ‘Here, you try it,’ and I just dropped the fly in the water and moved it a little bit and I caught a rainbow trout.”
His first time fishing a fixed-line rod was revelatory for Van Put. At the end of the trip, Ambassador Otsuka gave Ed a keiryu rod made of fiberglass. The novelty and the effectiveness of the Japanese “mountain stream rod,” as the ambassador called it, captured Ed’s fancy for the early summer of 1998.
Ed was taken by the intimacy of the gear. Even more than in regular fly-fishing, the rod and line felt like an extension of his arm and hand. Its primitive design reminded Ed of the way famed 19th century naturalist John Burroughs fished as a boy: “they would cut a willow, tie a piece of line onto it and that’s how they fished. At the end of the day you threw it away.”
No doubt many of the Japanese shokuryoshi, or commercial stream fishermen, fished the same way, halfway around the world, during the same era. Burroughs’ rod was willow, while the Japanese version was bamboo, but either way, it was all that was needed to catch trout in mountain streams.
During the weeks after being given a rod by the Japanese ambassador, Ed’s fly rod collected dust; he went on a fixed-line fishing binge on some of the very streams Burroughs fished as a young man. “It was kind of nice, because I likened what I was doing to the way Burroughs fished,” Ed said.
Ed fished keiryu style, with 12 feet of 5x tippet instead of a casting line, but instead of bait he used a size 12 Royal Coachman wet fly, with a split shot to help it sink. The Japanese rod odyssey culminated in July, with two great days on Trout Brook. Ed, who keeps careful notes on his fishing, then paused to tally his success.
“Here I added up, six days, I caught 76 rainbows, 43 brook trout, and 12 brown trout, a total of 132. So that is like 21 fish a trip. I mean I was going crazy,” he said with a laugh.
He credits the stealth of tenkara for his success. “With fly line, when that line comes down, there’s a disturbance,” he said. “However insignificant it can be, it’s still a disturbance, it’s an unnatural thing. But this split shot, you just lower it into the water. Sometimes you don’t even cast it. It’s sneaky!”
In the late ‘90s, tenkara rods were unavailable for purchase in the United States. Ed contacted Daiwa, which agreed to sell him a batch of six, to make it worth the trouble of shipping overseas. He kept two and gave the rest to his sons and co-workers.
Like Dave Hughes and Yvon Chouinard, Ed Van Put never fully converted to tenkara. His trout rod of choice continues to be a 4-weight fiberglass fly rod. But sometimes in the early season he goes out with his Daiwa keiryu rod and delights in the way it reveals the bounty of the “little rivers” of the Catskills.
“I think my most enjoyable part of this rod was learning how many fish are in some of these streams,” Ed said. “I had fished them all with a fly rod, but never, ever caught what I caught with this rod. Never. Like I said, to me it was like doing a fishery survey. You say, ‘holy Christ, look at all the fish in here.’”
Morgan Lyle is the author of the Tenkara Today book and Simple Flies: 52 Easy-to-Tie Patterns That Catch Fish. He has written dozens of articles for American Angler, Fly Tyer, The Drake, and other magazines. Morgan does most of his fishing in fresh and saltwater in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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