“Go to tenkara with us?” That was the subject line of an unsolicited email I received earlier this Spring. A simple note that spawned about five months of long distance correspondence, one memorable weekend in the Rockies, and three new friends that live halfway around the world.
Enter Hiroyuki Ishii & Friends
Hiroyuki Ishii, (Hiro), was on the other end of the email. He was representing himself and two friends looking to fish with American tenkara anglers. Their interest was to better understand American tenkara, while providing the opportunity to present and preserve the traditions of Nikko-style Japanese tenkara.
Akihiro Hoshino (Aki) operates Ametsuchi, a guide service specializing in fishing, trail running, and trekking within Nikko National Park. Akihiro is a seasoned angler of all disciplines, including lure, fly, and tenkara. He has studied tenkara under the guidance of Master Yuzo Sebata and is very skilled with a fixed line rod.
Finally, Takashi Sakauchi (Taka) is the operator of Nature Planet, one of the leading nature tour services within Nikko National Park. His team of guides lead hikes, camping, mountain bike, kayak and SUP outings that are family (and pet) friendly.
The three are in the early stages of establishing a tour/guiding service for traveling anglers who are interested in having an authentic tenkara experience in their home region of Nikko City. (More about that in another post…)
With the season for genryu tenkara in Japan closing for the winter, the three wanted to visit the Western United States to fish… and thanks to the powers of Google, they found and contacted me… of all people…
Hosting Japanese tenkara anglers in the United States… in a region I don’t live in…. It’s more than a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I know I’d kick myself later if I said no. A few emails and a somewhat awkward Zoom call later, dates were selected, flights were booked, and this was happening. O.M.G.!!!
Planning for the Unknown
What did I just get myself into? I’m not a vacation planner… I don’t live in Colorado… and I don’t speak Japanese! I needed to enlist some tenkara friends to help balance the numbers and provide some emotional support.
Surveying the Tenkara Angler team, Matt Sment leapt at the opportunity to join this adventure. He had the opening in his schedule and the desire to get back out to the Rockies. Plus, Matt is one of my closest fishing friends, I always enjoy being around him and sharing in introspective conversation. I knew our guests would like Matt’s company too.
Looking next for a local connection, Jonathan Antunez immediately came to mind. A student and historian of all things fixed line, an exceptional fly tyer, and a damn good angler, he would round out the crew nicely. He also enjoys many aspects of Japanese culture outside of tenkara, so this really was in his wheelhouse.
Once the roster was set, finding an airbnb with 6 beds and ample parking in the Estes Park area was a little more difficult than anticipated, but eventually accomplished. We were able to score a nicely equipped house in the hills outside of town, an ideal basecamp for our Rocky Mountain National Park excursion. Safety deposit paid, there was no looking back now.
Touchdown in Colorado
My flight landed on Thursday morning at Denver International around 8:30 am local time. There was a crisp, refreshing chill in the air that reminded me that I wasn’t in Florida any more. Quickly gathering my gear and rental car, I was off to meet our guests. The trio had arrived the evening before and stayed the night at a Denver hotel. The plan was to meet them in Boulder, caravan over to a fly shop in Longmont, and grab some lunch before heading up to Estes Park where we’d meet Matt & Jonathan at the rental house.
Laughing Grizzly & The Pumphouse
In texting with Jonathan that morning, he more or less said, “take them to Laughing Grizzly in Longmont, my friend Mike should be working today.”
About a half hour later we arrived at Laughing Grizzly and were greeted at the front door by Mike Kruise, the shop owner, who couldn’t have been more accommodating to our group. See, my new friends needed Colorado fishing licenses, and I suppose entering all of the needed information into the computer from Japanese passports and IDs isn’t the easiest task. But Mike not only cheerfully powered through with a smile, but also recommended some flies, and signed a copy of “A Fly Fishing Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park“ for Aki. (Mike happens to be featured in the cover photo. I’d link to it on Amazon, but would rather you contact Mike at his shop to get a copy.)
Before moving on with the rest of the story, this is where I need to plug Mike and Laughing Grizzly. I can’t thank him enough for his patience and friendly demeanor. I mean I’m sure we weren’t the easiest customers he had that day. Mike’s earned a customer for life, and if you happen to be in the area, you absolutely must stop by Laughing Grizzly.
Licensed up and with flies and shop swag purchased, Mike recommended we visit The Pumphouse Brewery just down the road for lunch. He made a great selection as the cold drinks and big burgers were a huge hit with Hiro, Aki, & Taka. After a busy morning, it was nice to sit down with the guys, exchange background stories, and just get to know them all a little bit better. There was a small language barrier, but far from the one I had imagined. That alone eased my nerves about the weekend ahead.
Parking in Estes
Exiting Longmont it was an hour and change’s drive before we reached our rental in Estes Park. Matt was already there, awaiting our arrival. We found that Matt actually had a few friends with him, as a handful of mule deer also congregated in the driveway. This was the view from our backyard!
Once inside the house, we all scattered into our rooms and settled in as we waited for Jonathan to arrive.
As we unpacked, we took the opportunity to exchange gifts. We presented them with Tenkara USA Amago rods and accessory kits to use on some of the larger water we planned to fish later that weekend. They returned the favor, generously presenting us with a Buff from Aki’s outdoor business featuring a scene from Nikko National Park, an amazing Sebatake-kun t-shirt, and best of all, an authentic kebari tied by Yuzo Sebata himself. What a treasure!
Jonathan arrived a bit on the later side, a touch after sundown and was quickly assimilated into the group. Now all under one roof, the Japanese guys graciously surprised us with a dinner of salad and sausages. Good food and drink made for a great venue to tell fishing stories, discuss our differing styles of tenkara, and plan the following day’s fishing. Bellies full, Matt built a fire and we all watched Jonathan put on a fly tying clinic. It was a great way to close out what was quite an eventful day.
Friday: Wild Basin & the Big T
We awoke to very cold weather on Friday morning. The temperatures had dropped to the 20s overnight and the day’s high was only to be in the mid 40s. We took that opportunity to have a bit of a lazy morning at the house to allow the water and fishing to warm up. Our timed passes for RMNP didn’t allow us admittance until noon anyway.
The plan for the day was to give the headwaters fishing in Wild Basin a go. On the way to the trailhead we got to take in our first bit of wildlife on the day, as a bashful moose was meandering through the bushes and trees right along the road.
After reaching the parking lot, we quickly donned our waders and posed for a group picture. It’s a photo I would have never envisioned being possible a few months earlier. Three Americans, three Japanese, fishing tenkara together in Rocky Mountain National Park. Wild!
Hiking in to Copeland Falls, our sextet split into smaller pairs and spread out along the river while Jonathan played amateur botanist along the way.
I’d be lying if I said the fishing was great. It wasn’t. It was cold, slow, and the trout just hadn’t gotten the message that they had visitors from another continent that wanted to say hello.
That said, Matt & I took some time just watching Aki cast beautifully, meticulously presenting his kebari to every pocket, pool, and riffle.
Observing the technique of a very skilled tenkara angler is the kind of education one simply can’t get online. We were in awe of his effortless motion and the graceful maneuvering of his long line.
I think a few fish were caught after 2 or 3 hours of dedicated angling, but an audible was made to try and salvage the day… back to the cars and on to the Big Thompson River (below the dam).
With a few more hours of sunlight adding additional energy to the river, our new location quickly yielded fish for all of us! A simple change of venue was all it took. This photo of Taka landing his first Colorado trout visually sums up how our spirits were quickly lifted by tight lines and fish to hand.
After a successful afternoon, we picked up pizzas and headed back to the house to relax and unwind. (Shout-out to Antonio’s Real NY Pizza for making a mean slice.) More storytelling and fly tying ensued, but we all wanted to get to bed early, as a predawn wake up call loomed heavily in the morning.
Saturday: Sightseeing and Fern Lake Trail
I don’t know what the idiot who got the 5 am – 7 am timed entry passes to RMNP was thinking (even though I’m that idiot), but Saturday was going to be an early morning with time to kill in the park before the weather warmed things up.
We took the morning opportunity to play tourists, visiting some of the notable landmarks along the Bear Lake Corridor. Upon arrival, the elk were out in the meadows of Moraine Park, so some light photography was our first activity. It’s opportunities like this that make you wish you had a real camera, rather than a cell phone, but if you squint hard enough, you might be able to make out the bull elk in this photo.
After that we headed to Bear Lake to take a lap around the namesake body of water. The cold temperatures on Thursday evening had dropped some snow in the higher altitudes and the trail was very slippery and icy. However, the views were equally as beautiful and it made for some nice photos during our circuit.
After Bear Lake we headed to Sprague Lake for a look around. It didn’t take long for us to find some brook trout holding in a small feeder creek that paralleled a walkway by the parking area. And well, it didn’t take much for us to head back to the cars and grab our rods. Before heading out to the lake, Hiro tried to get a take from those walkway brookies to no avail. Makes you wonder how many people those trout see each day.
When we got to the lake’s perimeter we embarked on a fool’s errand of trying to fish with tenkara rods into the wind and into a largely iced over lake. Probably wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have time to kill, but it served its purpose as a diversion.
Coincidentally, there was also a solar eclipse taking place that morning, so I’ll blame the poor fishing on that. (And yet another shout-out, this time to the photographer who let us use her eclipse viewing ring to take a peek at the natural phenomenon.)
But Enough of Sightseeing, Lets go Fishing!
Touristy stuff now out of the way, we headed over to Fern Lake Trail to fish the Big Thompson through the park. This is what we came to do.
After a 10 or so minute hike in, we split into groups, Taka and I entering the stream first, while Jonathan, Hiro, and Aki dropped in a bit upstream. Feeling a bit under the weather Matt bounced between the groups, taking photos, enjoying the surroundings, and doing a little bit of fishing in between.
In my group it didn’t take long for Taka to get into his first fish, a beautiful brook trout.
I quickly caught a brown and that pattern of hookups followed as we meandered up the river. I let him fish above me with about 20-30 yards of distance between us. By the time we caught up to Jonathan, Hiro, & Aki I had brought seven or eight trout to hand, two being browns with the balance brooks. The winning fly for me was a small midge that Mike from Laughing Grizzly recommended.
From what I understand, the trio were also into fish that afternoon, each successfully bringing multiple trout to hand. Aki caught his first brook trout, which had a sentimental meaning to him. He explained that the brook trout stocked in his home water in Japan came from eggs imported from Colorado. No matter how you feel about brook trout in the American West (or Japan) it was a special full-circle moment for him that was impossible not to appreciate.
We closed out the day with a few more hours of fishing. It was during that window Taka caught the group’s first cutthroat trout adding punctuation to a phenomenal day.
Back at the house, the trio once again treated us to a home cooked meal of Japanese curry rice. Japanese curry is so tasty and quite a bit different from Indian curry. The warm and hearty dish really hit the spot after being outside in the elements all day. We cleansed our palates with a dessert of fruiche, which resembles a chilled and fruity milk-based pudding. It was just enough to take the heat off the curry. Everything tasted so good!
We spent the rest of the night discussing American tenkara, Italian tenkara, Nikko tenkara, JDM rods, and their guide services. This was our last night at the house, the reality that this special weekend was almost over was slowly sinking in.
Sunday: Hitting the Deck
Packing up and leaving our rental in the morning, our plan for the day was to head south to fish the South Platte at Deckers. Jonathan has become quite the regular there, frequently harassing the resident giants and posting his exploits to Instagram. We were looking forward to fishing in this mainstream (honryu) environment, and the Japanese guys were excited to put a bend in their new Tenkara USA Amago rods.
It didn’t take long at all for Aki to get the group on the board with a gorgeous brown! He proceeded to catch many more fish that day… he even switched over to a rod and reel later in the afternoon just to change things up.
Everyone caught fish afterward all over the river. Jonathan displayed his local knowledge and cleaned up on some sizable trout.
Hiro’s persistence paid off with solid fish, including a stubborn trout that was rising (and refusing) fellow anglers all day.
Matt caught a few fish and spent the rest of the late afternoon documenting the action from a perch above the river. He enjoyed the water so much that he vowed to come back and spend some extended time there in the future.
Taka may have caught the fish of the day, landing a THICK brown. I think his “Colorado creel” was filled to the top with huge smiles and diverse fish.
Even I managed a handful, the chunkiest being this cutthroat with a crooked smile. He’s clearly been caught before, but I have no problem admitting to catching unintelligent fish.
Unfortunately, and before you knew it, the sun was setting and our final group outing was over. Goodbye handshakes and hugs were exchanged back at the parking area, promises were made to fish together again in the future, and then we went our own separate ways. The Japanese trio and I headed to a hotel near the Denver airport, Matt stuck around and spent the night at the river before heading back to the Midwest, and being the “local”, Jonathan drove home.
A Whirlwind Weekend
I really don’t have the words to adequately summarize this long weekend. I’ll admit to some trepidation heading in. The nervousness about the language barrier. The anxiety of being a good host… and maybe most importantly, about getting our guests on to fish. But looking back, all of those fears were unwarranted.
I guess at the end of the day, fishing, specifically in this case tenkara, served as a perfect translator and created a comfortable common ground for all of us to enjoy. It’s amazing what opportunities can present themselves by replying to a simple email. In this case, that exchange blossomed into a collection of new memories, a better understanding of our respective cultures, and of course, new, life-long friendships for each of us.
Tenkara… man, it never disappoints.
Do you have a story to tell? A photo to share? A fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to Tenkara Angler, click HERE for more details.
When you buy something using the retail links within our articles or Gear Shop, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Tenkara Angler does not accept money for editorial gear reviews. Read more about our policy.