Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Stories Tenkara Trout & Char

Surrendering to an Ancient Flow

Article by Joshua Daniel

I imagine I’ll always be a student of fishing. There is always something to learn, the wonder of new places, new people to meet, new fish to catch, and new ways (or “new” to me) to catch them. Even on some days when I start as a teacher, I can end up a student with a beginner’s mind. But one thing remains: one must surrender to the flow. That idea is nothing new; it originates long ago in a place far from where I live. 

Fishing permeates human history. The first hooks can be dated back nearly 20,000 years, made from sea shells on the Island of Okinawa, Japan. Early fishers may have even used such hooks to develop tenkara, or “fly fishing.” Coincidentally, when I look back on my life, it’s been about the most consistent interest, with some of my earliest memories of fishing with my dad in southern West Virginia. Although we use different methods, the same spirit found in the mountains of Japan now resides in people all over the world, in my case, the Appalachian Mountains.

When my friend Jeff Muzzerall and I left on a windy April afternoon to hit the creek for a few hours, I was formally the teacher. I would guide him on a local stream and teach him what I knew about some fly-fishing styles: the bobber rig and some euro-nymphing. Before we left, Jeff mentioned he had bought a tenkara rod and would like to know how to set it up correctly and how to fish it. I told him I didn’t know much about tenkara fishing except that it was an old way of fishing, very minimalist in philosophy, but I was willing to help figure out how to set it up to fish here. Since we didn’t have all the tenkara gear needed, we decided to surrender to the flow and use a standard tapered leader and some tippet for extra length to see what would happen.

My depth of tenkara knowledge could stand improvement. I knew it involved long rods (like euro nymphing), a fixed amount of line, no reel, and cool nets, as I always appreciated the minimalist philosophy behind it all. I knew it was super old, dating back to the origins of fishing, and therefore had to rely on some of the most basic principles of all types of fishing, such as – keeping the line tight. If I relied on the most basic principles learned throughout my life, which were probably laid down thousands of years ago, we’d probably figure out how to land a fish.

My closest comparison to tenkara fishing would involve going on a hike at my favorite stream without a rod, then becoming overwhelmed with the need to fish, finding a hook and a long piece of line broken off by some unfortunate fisher, attaching it to a long stick, finding bait, and catching a couple of fish. The rod Jeff had was much nicer. Aside from that, I often fish mountain streams with a small 3-weight fiberglass rod, fly line, leader, tippet and flies without an indicator, keeping the rod high and the line tight. Euro nymphing, which is also relatively new to me, also relies on these same principles but removes the fly line from the equation and gets flies down fast and stealthily, so we’d rely on those ideas. 

After we fished with the new-fangled graphite rods, Jeff broke out the tenkara rod. It was a brand-new Patagonia model designed by founder Yvon Chouinard, 10’6” extended and telescoped to fit nicely in any pack at 20 inches. It had a very appealing bamboo handle. On its tip was a piece of green string with a mono loop, to which we’d attach our leader, tippet, and flies.

Tenkara fishing involved kebari, resembling the simplest soft hackle flies. To the chagrin of many superior anglers, I had none that day. One thing I did have, was a standard worm pattern; a brown chenille worm on a size 16 curved hook. It may have been something other than kebari, but it’s as minimalist as it gets, and nothing is more time-tested and fish-approved than the worm. A true “one fly to rule them all.”

Surrendering to an Ancient Flow - Tenkara Angler - Joshua Daniel - Flies

We’d use those same principles that stand up in many types of fishing:

  • Cast upstream.
  • Let the flies sink.
  • Hold the line tight.
  • Surrender to the flow.

Just as had happened with Jeff earlier with those other methods, I missed a few fish talking with my new friend, sharing memories and engaging in another age-old practice, human connection.

The rod was long enough to easily make short casts into specific currents and feeding lanes, often just by extending your arm, allowing you to pick apart a particular section of water. No fly line meant drifts sank quickly, reducing drag and minimizing chances of spooking fish. It was a reasonably flexible rod with enough sensitivity to detect every tick on the bottom or strike from a fish without relying solely on watching the leader. Still, it could also have enough backbone to handle a small streamer or heavy Pat’s rubber legs. It also would be great for a dry-dropper persuasion.

Before long, I would connect with a fish. The rod efficiently handled a 14-inch rainbow trout, allowing me to land the fish quickly, place it in the net, and release it (mostly) unharmed. I was impressed with the tenkara rod in general. And that is where it all came full circle: teacher becomes student, the student becomes teacher, something ancient became new to me, yet was something I’d been doing most of my life.

I realized how universal and timeless fishing is. A guy from Canada fishing with a guy from southern West Virginia in southwestern Pennsylvania, using a worm fly, with methods from Europe and Japan, developed long ago but only recently gaining (or regaining) popularity in this part of the world.

I thought about how no matter what technology evolves, we will still rely on boiling it down to the most straightforward and oldest principles. I thought about how fishing is within nearly all of us, no matter where we are from or how we do it, and it brings people together. We left that day with a smile and a new arrow in our quiver of ways to catch a fish. I thought about as cliche as it may be, just as in fishing, we must surrender to the flow and figure out ways to move around life’s obstacles and currents to get to our goal even if we don’t know precisely how we’re going to do it.

Surrendering to an Ancient Flow - Tenkara Angler - Joshua Daniel - Trout

Joshua R. Daniel lives and works fishing the finest freshwater rivers and streams in the Northeast. Josh’s serene dedication to flyfishing and conservation is evident in practicing his craft as a Guide at the Orvis-endorsed Flyfishing Lodge at The Nemacolin Field Club.

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