Winter is here, and I’m not fishing all that much quite yet. Instead, I often go on long walks around the neighborhood to get exercise, and in doing so my mind tends to wander towards my hobbies. Recently, it strolled a bit down tenkara memory lane.
For those that have been around the sport for a while, we’ve experienced quite a few highs and lows since tenkara’s introduction outside of Japan in 2009. However, today it feels to me as if most of the prior decade’s momentum has stalled.
It made me wonder what we as a community could do to continue to move things in a positive direction. At the end of this article, I explore a few of those ideas, however before we get there, let’s take a look back at the past.
The year was 2009. For all intents and purposes, tenkara’s birth and introduction to the Western world. Daniel Galhardo introduced a line of reel-less telescopic fly fishing rods and a few accessories through his startup, Tenkara USA using social media and some hypnotically appealing videos. This immediately strikes a chord with anglers who are looking to streamline their gear, perhaps find a better backpacking rod, or scratch an itch they didn’t even know they had.
Perhaps the most the ironic part of this era is that while the rods came from Japan, very little of the unique techniques or culture developed around them made the trip. Perhaps it was due to the immense language barrier, but as this new legion of “tenkara anglers” picked up their new rods they began applying familiar western fly fishing techniques. Dry flies. Nymphs. Tandem rigs. Indicators. There was no playbook, and those anglers eagerly exchanged and developed their findings in online forums and blogs.
This was a very brief chapter in tenkara’s history. Essentially, everyone was getting their feet wet at the same time. There were no self-proclaimed experts, minimally focused business interests, and no perception of what tenkara was or wasn’t. Ignorance was bliss.
It didn’t take long for things to really take off from there. This charming new kid on the block was noticed quickly by the fly fishing mainstream, for better or worse quickly making “tenkara” a buzz word and a way to attract attention. It was difficult to pick up a fly fishing publication without seeing an article describing the basics of tenkara equipment and quoting many early adopters who described it as a more efficient (and perhaps more effective) way to fly fish. Heck, even John Gierach included a tenkara in a chapter of one of his books.
In parallel, many different tenkarapreneurs began staking claims in this fishing land grab. Most of the non-Japanese tenkara companies you’re familiar with today started getting into the game… with perhaps the apex predator being being Patagonia, with Yvon Chouinard’s book “Simple Fly Fishing” and complementary TFO-sourced product line pushing tenkara’s exposure far beyond its previous boundaries.
Unfortunately, and likely due to over-exposure, this was also the time period when the first tenkara “haters” began making themselves heard. It only makes sense, as something gains popularity, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a target to be torn down. Politics, celebrities, athletes… fishing is no different.
However, all was not negative during “The Boom”, as this was also time when our community collectively began learning more and more about the modern sport of tenkara directly from the Japanese.
Daniel Galhardo was the primary catalyst, readily bringing tales and teachings back from Japan… and his teacher, Dr. Ishigaki became everyone’s favorite “Tenkara Master.”
Tenkara Summits and other regional gatherings were organized and information was readily exchanged. We started learning techniques, terminology, and theory, all coming from a wealth of knowledge that the Japanese had built over the prior decades.
And for those looking for perhaps a more “authentic” gear experience, Chris Stewart and TenkaraBum’s product offerings exploded, making all types and brands of tenkara (and other fixed line rods) from Japan readily available to consumers, particularly those in North America.
This era in tenkara’s past was extremely fast paced, with something “new” happening almost daily. It was exciting to be a part of, and at least to this angler’s delight, lasted for quite a few years.
If you follow the stock market, you’re aware that it’s natural that following any sort of boom, you’re bound to have a bust, or what some might call a “correction.” In this case the Western tenkara market became highly saturated. There was just excess everything and the dam began to burst.
Anglers started leaving the fold. Some just felt the need to move on. The novelty had worn off and they decided to look for the next “new” thing.
Others were tired of the omnipresent bickering on social media. These interactions repeatedly called the validity of certain techniques or target species into question. Pointing out to those that practiced them that they were not real tenkara. It really doesn’t matter which side of the fence you sat on during those discussions, the result was the community was fractured for a period of time, creating additional abandonment.
With the dip in novelty and popularity, everything “tenkara” also appeared to follow. First, there was less media coverage, the story had been told. Next, tenkara-related companies began closing their doors or reducing their offerings. The once enthusiastic Patagonia got out completely. Many gatherings and events also ceased due to several of the vendors claiming the inability to turn a profit. The machine that had built the sport up, now ceased to operate.
Coincidentally Daniel Galhardo, tenkara’s biggest champion outside of Japan, has also pulled back his presence dramatically in recent years. While his contributions were once extremely prolific, they have been reduced to a mere trickle. We don’t hear from Daniel as much as we once did, and while he’s done more than his fair share for us as a community already, his absence is definitely noticeable.
The Future Begins Now
So where does that leave us now? Certainly in a bit of a lull. Looking back on the past ten+ years, tenkara probably has the least amount of “buzz” around it than it ever has.
For better or worse, I personally think this creates at a really interesting point of inflection for tenkara outside of Japan (and frankly, within Japan as well). One I hope that is of opportunity.
Today, the strongest tenkara brands have survived to find a far less cluttered playing field. Those looking to get rich quick or capitalize on a trend are largely gone. The gear has also gotten much better and far more specialized, with “me too” or copycat products that don’t really serve a purpose now fewer and far between.
As the tenkara community, we also know a heck of a lot more than we did back in 2009, 2012, or even 2016. A wealth of knowledge has come over from Japan, be it conveyed from Tenkara USA, wonderfully detailed videos and texts by Discover Tenkara, or even accounts from individual anglers or guides who have made the pilgrimage.
We now know that all tenkara flies aren’t sakasa kebari, understand the difference between sasoi and yokobiki, and if not appreciate, are at least aware of the culture of mountain lifestyle that accompanies the sport.
I’ve also noticed we’re far less apt to fight among ourselves these days. It appears with all of that knowledge, more people recognize modern Japanese tenkara for what it is and seem to be willing to acknowledge it as somewhat separate from more “Western” tenkara pursuits. The latter of which have more commonly been referred to as fixed-line fly fishing… or to some, “Amerikara.”
Today, we’ve got a richer, more informed user base combined with a much smaller but steady influx of new anglers, just waiting to become the next batch of tenkara ambassadors… how we treat the next few years will go a long way in deciding if tenkara keeps its foothold outside of Japan, or is relegated to a mere 2010’s sideshow curiosity, like the Kardashians.
In neighborhood walk brainstorming, I pondered three things that I believe will be crucial for the tenkara community not only to survive, but thrive over the next ten years.
1. Continue to Look to Japan
Recognize we don’t know it all. There is still a wealth of tenkara and mountain craft knowledge from Japan to learn, and let’s face it, some of the “Masters” we’ve relied on for guidance aren’t getting any younger. How can we better catalog the lessons that have already been learned for the Western audience? The fact that some of us are only now researching some of the more nuanced forms of tenkara, such as Adam Trahan’s recent plunge into Honryu tenkara, is a perfect example of such information gaps that are looking to be filled.
2. Document the Last Decade
While we didn’t start as experts, we now have more than 10 years’ worth of Western tenkara rod fishing as a community to dissect and conduct a post-mortem upon. Believe it or not, some of you are now “experts” in what you do with a tenkara rod, even if it isn’t exactly the same way they do it in Japan.
Let’s figure out a way to better record these learnings, especially the ones that lie beyond the mountains, trout, and wet flies. Now that most of us have landed on common terminologies, and understandings that tenkara equipment and tenkara techniques can be mutually exclusive, topics such as fixed-line fly fishing for warmwater species deserves a deep dive. Be it modest or ambitious, a short book or perhaps even a quality YouTube video on the subject would certainly educate and be well received. We’ll never successfully move forward until we solidify our launch pad of previous self-learning.
3. Be Selfless and Unafraid
One of the odd byproducts of 2020’s pandemic year is that we’ve now got a new surge of outdoor participation and people are once more picking up tenkara rods for the very first time. As previously mentioned, tenkara, particularly in online discussions, got ugly there for a while. It can’t happen again.
Encourage these new anglers. Let them make mistakes, but don’t be dogmatic when you show them ways to improve and learn. Absolutely don’t let them see us bicker with each other. Tenkara anglers are the sport’s best and most informed ambassador. Be that ambassador you wish you had.
Oh, and if you happen to participate in fly fishing groups, be it in person (such as a Trout Unlimited chapter) or online, don’t be shy about sharing the things you enjoy about tenkara. Sure, there will be some push back from the vocal minority that just don’t want to “get it”, but don’t let their shortcomings take away your pride and enjoyment in fishing with tenkara rods. Yes, you do cast a tenkara rod, it’s not a cane pole, and many times the fish are small. Happiness and enthusiasm is infectious, let’s do our part to spread some of that for a change.
But What Can I Do?
Now perhaps all of the above isn’t for you, which is understandable. You might not have access to Japanese anglers… you might not have much prior experience fishing with a tenkara rod… and you may not belong to a fishing club. You may just want to fish, maybe read an article or two about the subject from time to time (like this one), and be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. We wouldn’t fish if we didn’t enjoy it.
My challenge to the individual angler is simple. Mention tenkara as an enjoyable pastime in casual conversation. Share your positive experiences, but don’t shove tenkara down anyone’s throat. If they take interest in what you’re talking about, maybe point them toward a tenkara-centric website, Facebook group, or favorite Instagram account. Heck, we’d love it if you’d send them here. Even better, once they’re engaged, get a rod in their hand and show them a thing or two.
As for those more so in what I’ll loosely call “the industry”… even us at Tenkara Angler… it’s time we pick up our collective game. If you’ve made some money selling tenkara rods over the years, or even reached some level of tenkara “celebrity” status, it’s time to reinvest that clout back into the community. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard from some of the folks that have been around greater than five years, and we’ve yet to hear from many of the newer voices that have been on the scene for less.
The larger fly fishing media has moved on. We are the ones that need to document our history. We need to reach out to the current lot of Japanese Masters who are aging by the year. We need to create a library of new resources for people to use, both basic and more importantly, advanced. Don’t just post a photo of your latest fly, take a video or write a recipe on how to tie it. Recycling that same content from 2011 on how to attach a line to a lillian just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
And most importantly, don’t do it for the “likes” or “follows.” Don’t do it to sell more rods or accessories. Do it because tenkara has impacted your life in a positive way and because you’d like it to have the same impact for others. If you put the proper thought and effort toward that goal, the sales and/or adulation will certainly follow.
If we can all agree to do this, and actually follow through with doing our part, tenkara will be assured to have a lively future outside of Japan for many years to come.
And if we don’t… well, I’d prefer to not think of that scenario.
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