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My (Almost) First Year as a Tenkara Angler

Article by Diane Kelly-Riley

…The kind of woman fisherman I mean is a different breed–a lone, perspiring, hair straggling, mosquito-haloed creature wading up to her whizzle string in rough water, all the while casting like crazy and wearing a beatific expression that proclaims to the world what a ball she’s having.

From Trout Magic by Robert Traver

I got a bad case of poison ivy on the first trip trying out my new tenkara rod fishing at Mores Creek along Highway 21 outside of Idaho City. A couple of days earlier, I purchased a Dragontail tenkara rod at Portneuf River Outfitters in Pocatello, Idaho. The salesman sold me a starter package and advised that I watch the various YouTube videos that would show me the basics.

Diane Kelly-Riley - First Year Tenkara Angler - Starter Set
My tenkara starter kit. (I still have no idea how to use the tippet rings)

A Patagonia tenkara video featuring a Matthew McConaughey look alike guided me through the knots and set-up, and the Tenkara USA site also gave clear instructions on casting and techniques. From Boise, I ventured out toward Idaho City to try out the tenkara rod, and found myself on the banks of Mores Creek in mid-May. Little did I know of the adventure that awaited for both tenkara angling and an extended encounter with Toxicodendron radicans (but that’s another story). Let’s just say they’ve both been unforgettable.

Diane Kelly-Riley - First Year Tenkara Angler - Mores Creek
Mores Creek, Idaho

In late May, I headed to my 99-year old grandmother’s funeral in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan in the area where Robert Traver lived and wrote. My uncle who taught me how to fly-fish was also there, and I was anxious to show him my tenkara rod. I informed him of my plan to go to Seney, Michigan, the site of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” There were too many mosquitoes and blackflies in the swamps of Seney, he informed me, as he cautiously tried out the action of the tenkara rod.

He set me up to fish with his brother-in- law, an expert U.P. fisherman who had been at my grandmother’s funeral who might be intrigued by tenkara, and his brother-in-law’s father had either fished with or known people who had fished with Hemingway on the Dead River in the U.P… or something like that… just as good as going to Seney.

We headed out to the Carp River outside of Marquette. Tom was indeed interested by the tenkara rod, but brought along a couple of extra fly rods just in case. The water was brown and high, and spring green ferns carpeted the forest floor of the budding birches. On my second or third cast, the lillian broke off the tip of my rod, and that settled the intrigue for the day. I spent the rest of the day catching little brookies using his fly rod.

The inauspicious start to tenkara angling – both poison ivy and a broken lillian – didn’t deter my interest. There was something about it; the simple, scaled down approach supported by an active community that encouraged #getoutandfish. Fly-fishing for me always felt a bit like playing the violin which requires a lot of technique and skill. I had grown up taking violin lessons and playing in orchestras, and I always found myself seated in the back row of the second violin section. I could read and play the notes, but I couldn’t play the music.  

Diane Kelly-Riley - First Year Tenkara Angler - violin x tenkara
Packing for a work conference in Boise, Idaho

Tenkara felt similar to learning to play fiddle – the same instrument as a violin essentially – but an entirely different approach. I started to play fiddle when my son was five years old. The fiddle teacher taught him to play by ear. I told her if she could provide me the music, I could play along to which she replied, “that would be such a bad example for the children!” because he wouldn’t learn how to play the music and get a feel for it.

As both kids have gotten older, I’ve learned to play fiddle alongside them, and the structure of the fiddle group is one that invites everyone in and expects them to play regardless of level. In a jam session, there’s always a leader for each song, and the group adjusts to the level of the leader of the song. Your place in the group is reinforced by the fact that you simply play, and the structure recognizes that everyone is in a different place, but the emphasis is on playing.

In the last nine months, I’ve fished with more people in more places and have tried more variety of techniques than I ever have fly-fishing. After the U.P. trip, my husband, son, and I ventured to Nelson, British Columbia where we had to worry about stealthy porcupines who might sever our car’s brake lines at Kokanee Glacier National Park. The hike to Kokanee Lake was breathtaking, and it was a pleasure to toss in a line at the lake even with the danger of the porcupines.  

In the summer, I also fished on Lake Chelan, Washington, and in the Puget Sound off of Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. I soon found others who like tenkara too. Jens, a doctoral student in fisheries, showed me how to use tenkara flies, using them to catch small rainbows on the Palouse River and sizable cuttthroats on the St. Joe River, both in Idaho.

Diane Kelly-Riley - First Year Tenkara Angler - Jens Cutthroat
Jens and the cutthroat, St. Joe River, Idaho

This fall, my friend, Ti, had just defended her dissertation, and we went out to celebrate by tenkara fishing the St. Joe. She also had fished extensively with her family in Southern Idaho, and was interested in trying out tenkara. We found a great spot outside of Calder along the St. Joe where I caught a mountain whitefish.  

My neighbor, Theresa, was intrigued in my excitement about tenkara, and had found it difficult to find a person who would show her how to fly-fish as well as the time to learn the technique. She bought a rod and we went to nearby ponds, was overjoyed when she caught her first trout on her tenkara rod after only a couple of casts.

I fished the Boise River in July catching the largest trout on the tenkara rod so far, and spent the early days of December fishing on the Boise River with my friend, Conrad, who introduced me to tenkara, and who is also my most avid tenkara enabler, encouraging me to try to new tenkara rods (he has eight!) and different lines.

Tenkara has made me approach fishing in new ways. My fly-fishing friends are amazed that I’ve been out fishing in the winter. My friend Meagan says that the fish are still out there, there are just fewer people. I fished on December 27th this year, the latest I’ve ever fished, got a beautiful string of diamonds. On February 6th, the earliest I’ve ever been out on the river, I didn’t catch anything but had a close encounter with a fisher, Martes pennanti.

Diane Kelly-Riley - First Year Tenkara Angler - Palouse River
Late December on the Palouse River, Idaho

After nine months in, I’m struck by the joie de vivre that tenkara fosters for me and others. I recently stopped by the Silver Bow Fly Shop in Spokane Valley, and they highlighted (literally) great fishing spots in the Coeur d’Alene River basin and the St. Joe River basin. It felt like someone giving me a map to their secret morel mushroom hunting grounds. Tenkara might be slightly different in technique, but the attitude and approach has been generous and forgiving. I’m hooked.

Diane Kelly-Riley lives and fishes in the Palouse region of northern Idaho.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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