Essay by David West Beale
Nana korobi ya oki – fall down seven times, stand up eight.
In these days of challenge, we find out who we really are.
My rivers were flooded out and un-fishable for the most part all winter and fall. For this and for other reasons that warrant no place in an angling journal, I have never yearned for spring so badly. Yet here we all are, in different stages of different versions of an indeterminate ‘lockdown’.
The version of lockdown we are in here says that we can’t go fishing at all. For most that would be the least of worries, while for others it feels like a profound spiritual dislocation. We can try to deal with this by distraction – I’ve cleaned my rods and checked my tippet caddy (again), tied many flies (too many), read and re-read the tenkara sources (illuminating) and I’ve browsed the online tenkara stores (dangerous).
Which is all good. Which is all enjoyable. But actually, fishing tenkara, it is not. So, at least for the foreseeable future, my tenkara trips will be journeys of the mind – made from re-living the highlights of my fishing diary and borrowed from fragments of memory laying around in my chaotic tenkara mind-movie archive.
So, for those, who like me, can’t now fish tenkara in their favorite places – I thought I’d share a few entries from last summer…
May 2019 – upland headwater
As we watch, the fly skips and flutters in the air just above the surface of the water… It touches down onto the surface film, pausing momentarily before lifting off and flying back across the pool. On the edge of the current, the fly drops onto the water again, lifting and re-settling in a hopping motion, perhaps laying eggs into the stream.
Exhausted now, it’s stuck in the film, lacking the strength to lift off again, and the fly’s struggles to get airborne send little concentric ripples radiating out across the water. The fly is dead center now of a bull’s eye of its own making, and as we watch, a trout hurtles up from the depths to snatch it down. In one last Herculean effort the fly manages to rise from the water, but the trout propels upwards like a little torpedo and intercepts the fly in midair, a few inches above the water, turning with its prize in a flash of bronze and butter.
But all is not quite as it seems, for the fly is a kebari and it’s attached, tippet to line to tenkara rod, and after a spirited fight the trout comes quickly to hand. In this little stream it’s a good fish too and probably King of the Pool. I’m dead chuffed.
This is my first visit to this particular headwater, and I’m here today with John Pearson. The lively upstream breeze this morning is a gift from the Gods. And though some anglers may think that the blustery conditions would wreck tenkara, we just can’t believe our luck. It’s a chance to fish aerial presentations to the trout – a whole added dimension to surface fishing…
June 2019 – lowland river
This moment was inevitable, and my heart is in my mouth… The fly lands just ahead of the fish, off to one side. A tail twitch but no take and I’m wondering if the crimson hothead is too much today as the fly swiftly drifts back towards me, unmolested. But for some reason the fish turns at the last second, pursuing the kebari downstream, jaws open, hunting it down, hooking itself, I can’t miss.
A good fish, a couple of pounds and the first proper test of the horsehair line and of the bamboo rod now bucking in my grip. There is no time to wonder now if either are up to the job, as the fish pulls strongly towards the snags. Rod over to the side, parallel to the water, turn the fish, another run, same again then rod held high, get the fishes head up, tire it quickly. Fish in the net, breathe, sense of relief then a realization that my fishing system of bamboo & horsehair was never really challenged at all. Evolved, tried, tested and used for generations by those who know.
So it works, surprisingly well, and thinking about that last statement, there shouldn’t really be any surprise at all. But there is more. While I’m not sure if this system will enable me to do more or different things on stream (though time alone will tell on that) there is another dimension to the experience of fishing with bamboo and horsehair, in that it feels different, both physically and metaphysically..
July 2019 – chalkstream
A dazzling glare on the water serves to disguise me from the grayling pod finning about downstream. I’m drifting my stiff hackle kebari down the feeding lane, letting it pause at the end of the drift, pulling it back and feeding the kebari down again on a new line. An emphatic take as a grayling turns on the fly and it’s on – careering and a leaping, twisting and turning on the end of the line as only grayling can.
Adrenaline spikes as hours of zero convert to hero in a few seconds. I’m happy how the bamboo rod absorbs the lunges, cushions the horsehair line and tippet. I bring the grayling to the net twice but it’s strong and not yet a ready. A good trout and a much bigger grayling have followed it in towards the net, out of curiosity I guess, fading back again as my fish makes another run.
I’m fishing a line longer than the rod and I’m hand lining the grayling into the net now, keen to show my friend. He’s never seen a grayling before and I’m keen to inspire him with this Narnian-looking fish. But the grayling twists right at the net and wins just enough slack that the hook drops free.
I’m happy enough though. Maybe I did rush it a bit but I’m not a fan of playing a good fish to a standstill, particularly in such hot weather.
A second cast and this time a really walloping take off the top, I fancy from the big grayling that just followed my last one in. A long broad back and sail-like fin breach the surface as the fish rolls, easily my biggest grayling to date – by any method, but that image is short lived. The rod thumps round, cane flexing into its fighting curve, side strain applied with rod held over… the big fish kites for a second just under the surface and across the flow and… twang!.. the fly pings skyward back towards me and all is quiet and still again…
August 2019 – lowland river
There is no breeze and the flat calm surface is like glass, so that any slight movement scares the little fish, causing them to dart this way and that. No place for false casts or flies stuck in branches. Each cast must be placed, fly only, in the feeding lane tight to the woodwork. I’m using a small drab brown jun kebari I tied up a few days ago, and I’m keen to try it here because I think a subtle fly is called for. It gets hit by a tiny chub on my first cast, and I quickly draw the fish out from the shoal and release it.
Today I don’t want a numbers game, just a big fish, and crazy little chublets careering about the pool with my kebari will put my fish down. So short drifts, show them the fly to work up some interest amongst the smaller fish, but lift off and recast before a take. Hopefully the little commotion I’m causing will seem enough like a feeding frenzy to tempt the bigger fish out to investigate.
Perhaps it’s more luck today than judgment, but it works. A dark shape fins out sideways from the shadow, a white flash as a mouth opens where I think my submerged kebari drifts. My heart skips a beat, but my hand flicks the rod up without thought, the rod bounces, not a casting stick but a shock absorber now.
I shan’t tell of all the fight because it would feel too much like writing fishing-porn, but powerful lunges and runs and tangles in branches all feature. So does an even bigger chub that emerges from deep within the shade to learn what all the fuss is about. But despite the drama my fish does come safely to hand, so big and beautiful and brassy is he, and right back on the feeding station he goes, soon after release. It’s such a perfect day after all…
Though only last summer, these adventures now seem to belong to another time, another life even, and I wonder how well they might fit in to an uncertain future. But it occurs to me too, reading through these entries again, that so much of fishing is looking forward while looking back. It’s just that right now we are having to look forward much further than we are accustomed. But the good times will come back, and though we may be knocked off our stride, knocked down even, we’ll get back up.
Although the rocks may be slippery – nana korobi ya oki.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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