Article by Chris Stewart
The path that lead me to tenkara was circuitous, and it started with a North Country Spider. The term “North Country Spider” generally refers to a style of fly that was developed primarily in the north of England, particularly in Yorkshire. The North Country Spider is a sparsely dressed, soft hackled, wingless wet fly whose hackle looks for all the world like the ribs of an umbrella. They don’t angle forward like a sakasa kebari, but they certainly don’t angle sharply backwards either. The fly bodies are also sparse, often consisting of just the silk trying thread. The flies that are dubbed mostly have just a wisp of dubbing that allows the silk thread to show through.
The first photo I ever saw of a North Country Spider was striking. It had an austere beauty that I found captivating. The saying “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” describes North Country Spiders perfectly.
I don’t remember what pattern it was that I saw – it could have been a Partridge and Orange – but it could have been a Snipe and Purple or a Waterhen Bloa or really, just about any North Country Spider. All I know is that as soon as I saw it I wanted to learn not only about the flies but also about how such a little nothing of a fly could catch fish.
For much of their early history, North Country Spiders were fished with loop rods. If you Google “loop rod” you will get pages and pages of hits about some unfortunately named Swedish fly rod company. If you dig deeply enough you may eventually get a hit that describes a long wooden rod with a loop of horsehair at the rod tip, to which a horsehair line was attached.
That knowledge set me on two tracks, one researching loop rods and one researching horsehair lines. As suggested by the Google results above, researching loop rods was an exercise in frustration. One day, though, going deep into Google listings looking for information on horsehair lines I came across a page showing that horsehair line had been used by the early tenkara anglers in Japan. Tenkara? What’s that?
Google translation was as bad then as it is now, but it was possible to learn just enough to know that tenkara also used a long rod with a line tied to the rod tip. The best part, though, by far, was that the rods were commercially available! I didn’t have to make a 14’ wooden rod, which would have been extremely difficult since I had no access to a woodshop. I could finally fish my North Country Spiders the way they were designed to be fished!
Even though it was horsehair line and a North Country Spider that first connected me with tenkara, once I really got into the fishing and then the business, I got distracted by hi-vis fluorocarbon and sakasa kebari. Lately I have been moving to a more stealthy approach, prompted to a large extent by Rob Worthing’s experiments in Tactical Nymphing. I’ve gone full circle, though, and am again making horsehair lines. They really are quite stealthy and they are also very traditional.
I’m going full circle on flies, too. The latest round of Facebook discussions on what a fly has to be to be a tenkara fly is pushing me further (and faster) away from the whole controversy about what is and what is not tenkara. There is a much longer history of fishing with just a rod, a line and a fly in Europe than there is in Japan. Perhaps it’s time to explore traditional European fly fishing.
Light Spanish Needle (left), Dark Snipe & Purple (right), tied by Adam Rieger
Robert L. Smith, in his book The North Country Fly, writes that “In all probability, the earliest North Country patterns were imported to England by the Romans and later adapted by both Christian monks and French stonemasons who (prior to the dissolution of the monasteries from 1536 to 1541), had established and inhabited the great monastic centres of the north from the 11th and 12th centuries.” That statement supports the comments of a fishing historian friend who told me wherever the Romans went they took fly fishing with them.
Do you suppose one of the Portuguese Jesuit monks who served in Japan between 1549 and 1600 took fly fishing with him? The first clear indication of fishing with a fly in Japan was almost 40 years after the Jesuits arrived. Probably just a coincidence, but you never know. The Jesuits would have known of fly fishing, and the Daimyos who recommended their samurai practice kagashira fishing (with long rod and fly, but outside the definition of tenkara) would have known of the Jesuits. Apparently, Japan imported fly fishing hooks from Portugal in 1635 – more than 240 years before Ernest Satow’s dairy mentioned tenkara fishing. Probably just a coincidence, but you never know.
Back to reality. A tenkara rod is a perfect modern reincarnation of the loop rods with which North Country Spiders were first fished. The horsehair line that Charles Cotton recommended in 1676 casts very nicely with a soft tenkara rod like a Daiwa Expert L LL45M. He wrote that you could “cast your fly to any certain place, to which the hand and eye shall direct it.” I have fished with a line made to his specifications, and he was right. On the other hand, the much heavier horsehair lines the Valsesian anglers use to this very day with long rods of Arundo cane (very similar to bamboo) cast nicely with the firmer tenkara rods like a Daiwa Expert LT H44.
The lists of North Country Spiders, from John Lister’s 1712 diary on down, encompass dozens and dozens of flies. You couldn’t tie them all, but if you enjoy tying and if you enjoy the traditional aspect of simple fly fishing, you have a lot of patterns to choose from. Some of the feathers are no longer legal and some of the furs are not sold commercially but many of the flies can be tied with readily available materials
And as for the fishing, I remember watching an excellent Oliver Edwards DVD on fishing North Country Spiders in rivers. He described how one should fish a short line and keep the rod tip elevated to keep as much line as possible off the water. Sound familiar? I couldn’t help but think how much easier a time he’d have if he just fished with a tenkara rod rather than his 9’ 4 wt.
From the Macedonians on down, there’s almost 2000 years of traditional European fly fishing to explore. The North Country Spiders are beautiful and beautifully simple. They’ve been catching fish since London was Londinium. Give ‘em a try.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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