Essay Tenkara

There Really is a Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara

Opinion by Adam Klagsbrun

Well, It’s Been a While

I’ve been pretty quiet lately. The goal of helping others transform their tenkara experiences beyond the confines of Western angling styles by sharing what I was taught in Japan seemed to be failing. I am sure very few, if any people in the online tenkaraverse really miss my contributions online, and that’s fine. I never wanted to be a thorn in anyone’s side or contribute negativity. So, most of the past year I signed off and lived my tenkara and fishing life mostly offline. But sometimes you must pop your head up and remind people about what is important to you.

I was really planning on staying quiet much longer, but then my first tenkara student shared a recently republished article with me that asked, “Is there a wrong way to fish tenkara?” And the conclusion was basically: “no.” So here I am, back at it, and looking forward to touching on many of the same points made, from a different perspective. Why? Because I think the clear answer is “yes” there is a wrong way to fish tenkara, and tenkara is just one form of fixed line angling (as that article itself stated).

Adam Klagsbrun - Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara - Stream
Photo: Jonathan Antunez

The Tenkara Wars

Online tenkara disagreements are not a “war.” Passionate disagreements about the definition of tenkara and the need for a definition itself are a form of academic discourse. There are books about tenkara, and definitions do exist. The question of ignoring and trying to argue against these definitions was always a source of massive confusion among supporters of modern Japanese tenkara. While many of us are still here to say, “stop resisting learning new stuff (out of laziness, or convenience, or whatever other reasons you have),” we are not here for a war, not even close.

For many who supported the perspective that tenkara has a definition, it felt like there was a misunderstanding between two groups.

On one side were companies looking to sell rods, bolstered by bloggers repeating company taglines looking to make a name for themselves online. Rebranding tenkara’s reach beyond the mountains to warmwater and saltwater environments, and for species in which it was never intended, meant a growing customer base. It also resulted in a lot of cheap Chinese knockoff rods in the marketplace, whose performance was suspect.

On the other side were the people who participated in the sport as it is known in Japan. Including those that introduced it to us (or even contributed to inventing it in its modern form).

Often, when supporters of the different styles of modern Japanese tenkara felt like trying to evolve the public knowledge base about this sport version of tenkara, (of which there is very little written in English,) it was not only frowned upon, but attacked by certain individuals online. Those with a passion for the realities of Japanese tenkara were considered “trouble making” or “spreading negativity.” People who sought to share a deeper understanding of tenkara became the black sheep of the sport itself, especially when that perspective did not align with larger marketing pitches made in the interest of selling more rods.

Furthermore, the lack of any sort of unified Japanese voice online, which is based in cultural differences toward not arguing online as we Americans do, has also contributed to an environment where these arguments persist unchecked.

Today, tenkara has been “lost in translation” and many still seem dogmatic in aligning with a specific tenkara brand or blogger’s marketing-based perspective of tenkara and what that is. We see them online, repeating old perspectives we may now know to be untrue for the purpose of “likes” or the feeling of “belonging” as well as other psychological factors which come into play.

I think the “tenkara wars” as they were referred to are pretty much over now, the side that wanted to alter the realities of tenkara and where it came from in the name of eCommerce were greater in number, had a wider platform, and spoke louder as a group, even if not together.

Adam Klagsbrun - Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara - Furiabo

The Article: Is There a Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara?

The reality is, I absolutely loved much of the article I am only sort of rebutting right now. If you go back and read it on Tenkara Angler, you can see that the first few paragraphs make some good points defining tenkara and subsequently, fixed line angling. The following paragraphs go on to set up the realities that in the United States there are really just a few styles of fixed line fly fishing versus the many styles in Japan, of which tenkara is just one, related to trout.

But then, seemingly out of left field, the next paragraph concludes that because tenkara anglers in the early days dropped the ball and kind of shared false knowledge or did not truly know the deal, that now “tenkara is Kleenex.” After that, frustratingly to me, it devolves into justifying that this means there is no wrong way to fish tenkara. This spreads the idea that there is in fact no need for definitions, even after specifically talking about how definitions are good in an earlier part of the article. Anyone else left scratching their heads on that one? I sure was.

I bet some other readers, not just myself, are wondering why we don’t look inward and attempt to make up for that proverbial dropping of the ball… by engaging in learning more about the origins of this sport and the different styles of modern Japanese tenkara now? I am simply confused about how after certain points were made; the conclusions do not line up with the very points of the article itself. The article is saying two things that oppose each other. Why? Is this to try to appease everyone and make everyone happy for the sake of not stirring the pot? Or, to stir the pot a little and then run away? It just does not add up.

Adam Klagsbrun - Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara - Cutt

Let’s Make Amends

I think that right now is a pivotal moment for tenkara in the West, where we can possibly all come together and say, “we got it wrong” and start again. That is basically the stage set by the first half of the article. If there ever was a moment for a clean slate, one that could truly help propel the evolution of tenkara in the West rather than just misunderstandings and mashed together formats of fixed line angling, is it not now?

I propose that in order to move forward, we all attempt to accept that the evolution of the understanding of fixed line angling in the United States is simply behind the evolution of fixed line fishing in the Eastern world due to a different cultural history and angling evolution. We can try to better understand now that tenkara is one sub-style of fixed line angling that involves trout, whereas other sub-styles of fixed line angling not involving trout, are not called tenkara. Why would that not be the logical next step to help develop both specialized gear and techniques that lend to each style of fishing or each species of fish?

Just because we got it wrong in the early days, should we double down on being wrong now? Is this really going to help anyone learn about tenkara? Or for those that prefer, how to best catch bass or carp on an appropriate fixed line rod? Or will it just help company owners or people who dug in deep on factually incorrect and idealistic non-realities feel better? Which benefits the community more?

For many of us watching from afar, there appears to be a real lull in the tenkara “fad”. My current outsider’s perspective tells me tenkara rod sales are probably mostly down, but that the Tenkara Rod Co. probably had a recently successful Chinese rod copy sale on Kickstarter. I wonder, has embracing #nottenkara,” as I fondly call it, really been a success for the industry? Has dismissing or simply not engaging in the Japanese content on a deep level served the Western tenkara community well? Has it even sold that many additional rods? Has it kept people engaged with the sport itself?

I am not here to criticize anyone, and I want to make that clear. I never was. I probably took it too seriously and phrased my wordings too strongly in some moments. My concern was that we could damage tenkara in the East itself by getting this wrong here. And we can see clearly now that we have. However, that does not mean all is lost.

Adam Klagsbrun - Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara - Shimano

Tenkara’s Future

Tenkara does not truly exist online, it does not exist in the comments section, and it is not just a marketing term to slap on Western designed fixed line rods. There are many right ways to fish tenkara not just one, but they all originate in Japan. We tenkara anglers in the West have only been exposed to a few of these styles, only had a few of them translated and taught here, and it’s time to all accept that there is so much more to learn besides “simplicity”!

What if being open minded in tenkara doesn’t just mean tossing the definitions out the window so you can say tenkara is bluegill fishing, or dogmatically aligning with an entity who didn’t communicate to us correctly what this sport is really all about in the first place? What if tenkara and the story can’t really be “owned” or controlled by branding?

I do not think its heretical or so crazy to hope that tenkara in the West can continue to distance itself from a few specific Western copycat brands, and that those brands will not continue to control the story of tenkara alone. Even better, we can always hope these brands renew their commitment to bringing this sport to the West. They can honor tenkara by investing in new content and sharing (translating) the real stories of modern Japanese tenkara with the rest of us, like some have done in small spurts before. Who will buy into tenkara for real and step up to turn on the faucet full out in terms of Japanese based content?

With the right yearning for knowledge by the angling public, and a renewed support in connecting Japanese knowledge to the West, this could likely be just the beginning of tenkara’s story here. However, by pushing away the actual realities behind this sport created by the Japanese, this could just as likely become the beginning of the end of tenkara’s story in the West as well, and that would surely be a shame.

So yes, there is a wrong way to fish tenkara. But there are many right ways too.

Adam Klagsbrun - Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara - tamo

Adam Klagsbrun is an avid lightweight backpacker and angler of all flavors. Originally fishing small streams in the Northeast USA, Adam has relocated to Colorado where he enjoys all that the outdoors have to offer. Find some of his journals at Of Rock & Riffle

To read additional articles from the Tenkara Angler 2020 Fall Festival, click HERE.

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