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The Master & the Stoneflies

Article by Paul Gaskell

Photos by John Pearson & Uberto Calligarich

May 2016, Itoshiro. Peak tenkara season in Japan and well over a hundred anglers had gathered for a festival dedicated to tenkara culture, tactics and on-stream coaching sessions. The buzz from everyone there was impossible to resist, and (high on this) we were racing around to catch as much of the event on film as possible.

While JP was running two cameras to capture another priceless interview, I had one of the best jobs in the world to do…

We were surrounded by ice-cold clear streams, the Fuji blossom (or “tenkara flower” aka wisteria) was in full bloom; and people say that signals the very best time of year for tenkara. So this was a great chance to get footage of some very special anglers in action. We’d just finished interviewing two of the best in the world and I was about to have the privilege of filming their techniques. The only snag was the success and popularity of the festival! The streams were over-run with anglers happily splashing around and, every once in a long while, someone might catch a fish.

But maybe I should not have been worried, both of these guys standing beside me were incredibly talented anglers…

What I am working around to saying is that this is how come, while JP nailed down more interview footage, I got to spend the afternoon with Yoshiyuki Mushu and Uberto Calligarich; capturing their fishing styles on video.

The Master & the Stoneflies - Paul Gaskell - Yoshiyuki Mushu
Yoshiyuki Mushu

For this article, I need to focus on Mushu-san’s tenkara, and I have to say, to watch it in person is just astonishing. But as much as that is true, the effect of his calm confidence and warm personality is every bit as remarkable. It sort of washes off him in waves. His quiet, kind and supremely competent air is the definition of charisma.

A kind and intelligent face shows a hint of a half-smile just below the surface in his dark brown eyes almost all of the time. Often found wearing a favourite baseball cap and, when fishing, his black, neatly-fitting fishing vest adds to an air of compact efficiency. There is a strange mix of easy-going – yet at times laser-focused – confidence and humility with Mushu-san. It is a wonderful thing.

You want to know about his technique? Seeing him go to work, there is no mistaking the fluid casting, poise and sure-footed balance of a high-level master. His drifts, line control and fly movement were incredibly impressive…but that is actually only a small snapshot of the story. It doesn’t give you the full picture. Instead, you needed to see the whole thing unfold – from the beginning to the end – before you understand what was really happening.

For starters, I need to give his demo some context. Mushu-san was there to support the tenkara festival in a very active role. This large gathering of masters, enthusiasts and newcomers was a complicated event. Over the weekend Mushu-san gave many on-stream lessons to lucky groups of anglers. He didn’t (really) have time to spare and, instead, should have been taking some rest between his duties.  So you can see how I was incredibly honored that he agreed to let me film a one-on-one demonstration of his actual fishing. This was going to be a private audience with him completely in his element, without needing to dilute his fishing with a responsibility to teach.

So the river was covered in anglers and a quick discussion over the best options between experienced hands Ubi and Mushu-san saw us heading to a challenging spot – known to hold some larger fish. As we jumped out of the car and began to approach the river, I realised where the guys were taking me – and it made me happy. Here, a good-sized side stream entered the main Itoshiro River; full of features and attractive, complex currents formed by the combined action of both branches of the river.

Since my visits in previous years to this spot, the most recent winter floods had moved the confluence of a tributary to the main stem maybe 100 yards further downstream. That is the power of these waters.  As we hopped off the access track fish and walked down a shingle and cobble “beach” towards the place the guys planned to fish, I was even happier. I recognised the patch of water where a large amago had “buzzed” my own kebari twice a few days earlier without ever grabbing it (sadly it never returned for a third look).

But I was about to get a masterclass in how to convert those kind of chances…

Even outside the main festival area, the streams were loaded with regular anglers as well as festival students itching to put their tuition into practice. Our planned spot was no exception. A young angler was working the pool that Mushu-san had picked out, with a western fly fisher just downstream. Even more figures dotted the channel upstream. Ubi headed up there to wait for some water to open up and I followed Mushu-san to see where he wanted to begin.

The Master & the Stoneflies - Paul Gaskell - Shikake Maki Yoshiyuki Mushu
Festival Goods: Hand Carved Shikake Maki

First of all he patiently watched the young Tenkara Festival student fishing in the spot he’d chosen. When the youngster paused, Mushu-san went over to have a short, polite conversation. Then he retreated again to let the student try his luck in a few more spots around the pool. After about 20 minutes, the young man gradually worked his way upstream. Mushu-san strung up his rod (using an orange fluorocarbon level line), short tippet of around 3ft and a large kebari with longish hen pheasant hackle.

In all Mushu-san waited and rested the pool for probably 15 to 20 minutes after its previous occupant had failed to catch and left before beginning to fish himself. During that waiting time, he’d tried just a cast or two in a few of the more overlooked/unusual spots before getting started in earnest. Soon enough though, it was time for Mushu-san to fish with conviction…and I was in for a treat.

What followed was a complete masterclass. That word is overused and does sound sort of lame I agree. It’s just that “Masterclass” is the only sensible word for it.  Sliding soundlessly into position and adopting a solid, well-balanced kneeling stance, the fishing machine that Mushu-san had morphed into began deftly flicking pinpoint casts to set up a series of sublime dead drifts. His kebari seemed magnetically drawn right along the most “fishy” looking current seams; drag free and helpless-looking. In the next moment he was then working a wicked pulsation through his line on a “one-two” beat – the orange line straight on the draw and then a series soft coils on each “off-beat”.  It looked like a rubber band but I knew his line was wiry fluorocarbon. Even so the illusion was not easy to shake.

Watching through the viewfinder, the closest thing it reminded me of was one of those kids who can do unbelievable things with a yoyo on a string. That controlled “zing” and a length of “string” that jumps between tension and slack by turns. The bottled urgency that he worked into his fly – without ever allowing it to jerk free of the water – well, that was incredible.

These opening tactical plays were followed by a retreat from the water every bit as careful as his first, silent, approach. That was both impressive – and vital – for working these productive (and so popular) catch and release streams.

You see, C&R is still vanishingly rare in Japan. Even in Itoshiro with the pioneering introduction of it by Shouichi Saitou and the president of the local Fisheries Co-Op – the aptly-named “Itoshiro-san”, there are still many Catch & Kill sections. The much higher numbers of fish – including more large fish – make the C&R sections popular. And this, in turn, means those wild fish see plenty of flies and plenty of angler traffic. So, at popular times, you need to have high level tactics to enjoy success.

That first “silent retreat” gave one of the big secrets to success in this situation. It was a fishing version of “crop rotation”… Actively working some areas while resting others to improve them. Because of his regular and astonishingly-nimble stream crossing, I was often crossing the wide, boulder-strewn river myself to get shots of Mushu-san facing the lens.  Of course, by doing this I couldn’t capture everything that happened during his session – but even seeing what I did was fantastic.

It broke down into a complex rhythm of him working (neatly and thoroughly) a feature on the far side of the wide, boulder-strewn channel. Then he’d re-cross and carefully enter a different spot on the near-side of the stream. Like keeping spinning plates in the air – the rotation around each spot on the pool let Mushu-san work through a defined sequence of enticing manipulations and presentations.

That sequence let him act like a head waiter – offering the fish tempting little options from his menu of presentation tactics. All the while, perfectly balancing each new presentation attempt with sequential resting of all the prime real estate around the pool. For this session, I guess Mushu-san worked a piece of river Maybe 50 or 60 yards wide by around 80 yards long. It is tough to say exactly from memory.

From time to time, a swift hook-set and a nice amago or iwana came kicking to the net. Although I was crossing back and forth too to get the shots we needed, I still saw him land at least 3 fish out of a section that had been CRAWLING with anglers all day. Some really nice-sized resident fish too (definitely not the “low hanging fruit” specimens!). The first amago I saw him catch was a beauty and it fought strongly – carving and kiting around trying to get into the faster flow. Maybe this was the fish that had checked out my kebari and said “nah, try again buster” a few days earlier?

So, yes, “Masterclass” is an overused term; but that is exactly what I’d seen – and yet there was still time for the most perfect of endings to the day…

As the light became too poor to film any more. I stashed my camera in its waterproof bag – along with my tripod – in some bank-side bushes and scurried upstream above the confluence to try my luck in the fading light.

The Master & the Stoneflies - Paul Gaskell - Yoshiyuki Mushu

Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked, there were fish rising in a slick glide.

I quickly strung up my rod and, using Ubi’s “ari kebari” (ant-fly), a fast succession of fish came kicking to the net – including an incredible rarity for Itoshiro – a yamame. Uberto was even kind enough to snap a picture in the twilight with his phone, thank you for a wonderful memory Ubi!

The Master & the Stoneflies - Paul Gaskell - Yamame Yoshiyuki Mushu

It is worth saying that, in Japan, it goes dark FAST in the mountains. I soon found myself picking a path carefully across the tricky fast-flowing channel and retracing my steps downriver with my headtorch in the gathering dark. I needed to find and retrieve my camera bag and tripod before getting back to the car so everyone could meet for a hot springs bath (onsen). Chuckling nervously to myself as I hunted through the undergrowth, I found my stuff and then enjoyed the peculiar thrill of crossing deep, fast water at night. As long as I took my time, I could easily manage the crossing, but by doing that there is always an undeniably pleasant “giddy” sensation. It feels like ditching class or maybe asking for a first date I think.

Looking up into the last of the light, I could just about make out the contrast between dark mountain and paler sky. Above me, an amazing sight; the outlines of hundreds of huge stoneflies – big enough to span my palm – steadily nosing into the light breeze.

I stood still, watched and felt utterly alive.

Sitting here writing this, I can feel the ghost of that same sensation as it mingles with my excitement for sharing the footage we shot that day – and much, much more in our free online TV program “Tenkara in Focus”. Episode 1 even includes Tenkara Angler’s very own Mike Agneta, so check it out!

Paul Gaskell (along with John Pearson) blog at Discover Tenkara and have a free email tutorial service that teaches tenkara step-by-step. He is also one of the hosts of the video series, Tenkara in Focus and founders of Fishing Discoveries.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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