Essay by Paul Gaskell, Photos by John Pearson
There was a char. It lay in the cold, clear water draining the slopes of Mount Hakusan in Japan. In the deeper pools, the water took on a deep green, blue hue. In the shallow water around the fish, it was as clear as tap-water. From above, you could easily see each individual stone on the stream-bed. Here and there a large, smooth rock broke and eddied the flow of water. The smaller boulders and cobbles formed a jumble of crevices and shady bolt-holes. In the lee of one large rock the char angled and trimmed its fins to hold station in the softer flow. It watched the flat lens of water above its head and waited.
There was a trout. It lay in transparent, tea-stained water seeping out of the beds of moss and peat of an English Pennine moor. On days of high rainfall the water took the colour of a dark beer. In dry periods, it was a pale amber. The large, angular rocks were slabs of gritstone – broken off from sheets of bedrock. This was the same stone used for centuries to make grinding wheels that sharpened blades. In the stream, the smaller and more rounded cobbles and gravels were worn-down fragments of those same large blocks. Just at the place where one big gritstone block parted the current, it caused drifting insects to be funnelled into the gentle, circling flow in its lee. Beneath, the trout lay and watched.
Beside the Japanese stream an angler crept softly towards the water. Placing his left knee on the ground allowed him to brace one forearm against his raised right knee. He remained some way back from the water’s edge – so as to avoid spooking the fish he hoped to catch. Holding this position, he watched the water. While he waited he held a long, supple rod in his left hand. Because this was his non-fishing hand and because it was furthest from the stream; he used it to hold the rod low and parallel to the ground well away from the water. In this way, the rod should not give any cause for alarm to any fish in the stream. A length of wiry orange fluorocarbon stretched from the rod tip to the palm of his left hand where it gripped the rod handle. Behind the knuckles, the rest of his casting line and his tippet were wrapped neatly around the meaty part of this hand – with the fly and coiled line pressed into his palm by the handle of the rod. Looking out over the stream he saw where the current curled around the smooth rock jutting out of the water.
The same angler – separated by a short time and a long journey – crouched by a tea-stained Pennine stream. Turning his back to the water and carefully passing the rod, still held low to the ground, to his right hand; the angler slowly uncoiled the line and stretched out any curls right the way up to the fly. Whenever he does this, his left thumb holds the fly in place against the palm of that same hand. The fly itself is always a simple creation of speckled feather and thick sewing thread. The thread is strong – of the type used in sewing machines. Its thickness means that only a few turns are ever needed to build up the body of the fly. Having stretched out the coil memory from the line, he always knows that it will extend straight and true when cast across the stream. So when, on this occasion, he turned back to face the water he deftly flicked his back-cast high and straight above the sloping bank.
By the Japanese stream the rod loaded by the momentum of the back-cast and – before it could straighten – a squeeze on the handle sent the line neatly out over the stream. The loop unfurled and dropped the fly and the last three inches of tippet gently onto the water’s surface.
In the peat-stained Pennine water the fly was pulled downstream by the current and the angler tracked that movement faithfully. He allowed it to lick along the quicker seam of flow on the near side of the rock.
As the fly reached the end of its Japanese drift a single pick-up, back-cast and delivery cycle dropped the fly right into the exact point where the current curled back on itself around the rock. The fibres of hackle locked into the current and the fly swirled gently in stasis – anchored between the light tension in the line and the push of the eddying current. Each hackle barb was pushed and buffeted by the ever-changing currents as the fly remained trapped in the lens of water in the lee of the boulder.
In both streams a fish-eye swivels in its socket. Each retina receives an imprint of the proportions and outline of “prey” struggling to free itself from the eddying lens of water overhead. An angle of fin and tail are altered – flaring in the current and raising each fish from the stream bed. A kick of a tail and the flash of open mouth are followed by each fish turning down in the current to return to the safety of ambush.
The angler sees the dull flash of flank through the lens of water. Each version of this angler taps his rod up and back and sets the hook with suddenness. His rod hoops over and the fish flash, kick and turn into the main flow before breaking the surface with a spray of foam. Turning, cutting angles, diving and running – each kick is felt through the taut cushion of the rod. Soon enough, the rod can be angled back and the casting line drawn into the waiting hand. Gathering this line carefully, each fish is guided within reach of the simple wooden net that can, only at this point, be unhitched from the waist-belt. A scoop of the net and an admiring glance – the privilege of encountered wildness is completed by slipping the barbless hook free of the jaw.
A wetted hand and a photo to seal the memory, the fish is released. The experience behind those memories is the addiction that guides the life of the angler.
Thankfully there is no cure.
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 Summer 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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