Footsteps of the Masters

Footsteps of the Masters
By John Vetterli
Tenkara Guides LLC

June 1st 2014, two American tenkara fly fishing guides, Erik Ostrander and John Vetterli, along with Erik’s wife Ann traveled to Nagoya Japan to begin the tenkara journey that would profoundly change my views on tenkara methods, tools, cultures, and most importantly, is tenkara different in the land and culture of its origin as compared to what we know back home in the United States?

We have been very fortunate to make some fantastic friends in Japan. People who most western tenkara anglers know only by name and reputation. Friends like Eiji Yamakawa, Kiyoshi Ishihara, Masami Tanaka from the Harima Tenkara Club. Hiromichi Fuji, Nissin tenkara rod designer and pioneer of modern tenkara. Dr. Ishigaki, Daiwa tenkara rod designer, and the World Tenkara Ambassador.

And my mentor, teacher, and friend Masami Sakakibara (Tenkara no-Oni) Designer of the famed Oni rods and perhaps the greatest living tenkara angler in the world.

All this name-dropping has a purpose. Erik and I traveled to Japan to meet, fish with, and learn from some the best Japanese tenkara anglers alive today.

When we arrived in Japan, our first adventure was to travel by train from Nagoya to Mazegawa fishing center to meet for the first time, Masami Sakakibara, his wife Kyoko, and Rocky Osaki, our newest bestest buddy and translator.

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Masami Sakakibara is and incredibly humble man. Unassuming, no ego, quick to make a joke, and an incredible caster and angler. We spent time learning about the biology of Iwana and Amago, where they live in the rivers, their personalities and feeding habits and then it was off to the water.

The next several days consisted of early morning breakfasts long days on the water accompanied by lots and lots of skill tweaking and instruction of Masami’s theories about fishing strategies, casting mechanics, bio-mechanical efficiency, and just a hell of a lot of fun. Masami is a true friend who will freely share with you as much of his 35 years of tenkara knowledge as your brain can process.

During one of our many conversations he said something to me that rocked my tenkara world. I asked him “How does someone become a tenkara master in Japan?”

He simply said, “There are no real rules to become a tenkara master. You simply work very hard to develop your skills, innovate whether it be a product like a rod, lines, flies, a casting technique, a method of fly manipulation, etc. Then you must share your knowledge and continue to refine and perfect what you know.”

So I condensed that to Explore, Innovate, Share, and Repeat. It’s a never-ending cycle.

After several days with Masami we hooked up with our old friend Dr. Ishigaki for several more days of fishing at Itoshiro Village and to attend the Itoshiro Fisher’s Holiday. A meeting of all types of mountain stream anglers. Western fly fishers, tenkara anglers, spin casters, keiryu bait fishers, it’s a chance to see the mountain stream fishing spectrum of Japan all in one spot.

We met Dr. Ishigaki at the first Tenkara USA Summit in Montana in 2011. We immediately hit it off with him and a great friendship began to develop. Over the years Dr. Ishigaki has been a great resource of information for me as we kept our friendship alive via email.

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Dr. Ishigaki is the face and voice of tenkara in Japan. If there is a tenkara celebrity, it is Dr. Ishigaki. He appears on television shows, magazine ads, articles and interviews, lectures, and teaches many students. His personality is infectious. This is a guy who takes his fishing very seriously but himself very lightly. A man with a great sense of humor, a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with and just a great all around guy.

We spent long hours discussing the arts of fly manipulation, stream tactics, and a lot of fishing. And I learned that Dr. Ishigaki could probably eat his weight in rice. Man, that guy loves his rice.

During the Itoshiro Fisher’s Holiday we met hundreds of other anglers of all types. Fished side by side with keiryu bait fishers and spin casters. Met some extremely talented western fly rod designers and craftsmen. Talked about what fishing is like in the Western United States. Answered lots of questions about cowboys and Indians.

(Apparently the American Wild West is a fascination of the Japanese). The festival was an amazing experience to meet a lot of people.

I also asked Dr. Ishigaki about how one becomes a tenkara master in Japan. Strangely enough, his answer was the same as Masami Sakakibara’s answer.

Explore, Innovate, Share, Repeat.

After several great days of fishing in Itoshiro, we were on the road with our great friend Eiji Yamakawa headed to Kyoto to meet up with the legendary Hiromichi Fuji.

We met Eiji Yamakawa, Kiyoshi Ishihara, and Masami Tanaka at the 2nd Tenkara Summit our company hosted with Tenkara USA in our hometown of Salt Lake City, UT.

Eiji, Kiyoshi, and Masami are members of the Harima Tenkara Club. One of the oldest tenkara clubs in Japan. These guys are awesome! They are some of the most fun people I have ever fished with. Eiji taught me how to build tapered furled tenkara lines from fluorocarbon. Masami is a supreme stream tactician; Kiyoshi is perhaps the most humble man I have ever met. They each bring their own version of tenkara to the table. Each man has developed his own complete system of tenkara. It includes rod type, kebari patterns, casting methods, stream tactics, line types. Each has his own distinct style.

So, after about a 5-hour drive and an intense trip through Osaka rush hour freeway traffic. (Los Angeles traffic is nothing compared to Osaka Japan). We reached this tiny hut alongside a fairly busy mountain road across the street from this beautiful river that flowed through the valley. As we pulled up to the hut, a small group of about 6 men ranging from ages 20-75 came to the cars to greet us. We were immediately introduced to Hiromichi Fuji. A quiet and unassuming man about 75 years old.

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For a man who is for all intents and purposes, the father of modern tenkara, he is very warm and approachable. He is quick with a joke, a perfectionist in everything he does, and a very patient teacher.

We dumped our gear in the hut and immediately began fishing the river across the street.

Hiromichi Fuji or Sensei as his students refer him to, is the guy who pioneered the use of monofilament line materials for tenkara. He is most likely the first person to use nylon and fluorocarbon materials to build the first furled lines of these products. He is also the designer of the Nissin Airstage Fujiryu family of tenkara rods. These rods were my first true Japanese tenkara rods. If you have never used one, you are missing out on something unique.

Fuji Sensei discussed his casting technique with us and began to immediately teach the subtleties of his methods and his personal tenkara philosophy.

Fishing with Fuji Sensei was one of my life’s greatest honors. He is a living legend, one of the modern sports greatest innovators, a fantastic teacher, and just a fun and interesting man to talk to about everything from his experiences in Japan during World War II and how the country rebuilt itself after the war, tenkara history both ancient and modern. His many different kebari patterns he ties and uses, and most interestingly, how the sport is evolving now that it has left the country of its origin. Fuji Sensei looks to the future of tenkara with great excitement. The West is pushing it in new directions, unexplored regions, new cultural ideals, evolving, and developing new skills. I get the strong feeling that Hiromichi Fuji sees the full circle at this moment. He has seen the evolution of tenkara from mystery and a practically lost art to the modernization of rods from bamboo to fiberglass to carbon fiber, lines from horse hair and silk thread to fluorocarbon level lines and now the surge of new ideas freely flowing from a distant culture that is a bit wild and unencumbered by past history. We are just going to do what we are going to do best. Adapt and make it our own.

One evening Fuji Sensei and I were sitting on the steps of the hut, just the two of us and I asked him my now infamous question “How does someone become a tenkara master?”

Fuji let out a little laugh and said “Learn all you can, explore and make your own tenkara, share it with others, never stop learning.”

The next morning we left the fishing hut and headed to Fuji Sensei’s home in Kyoto to visit his workshop where he ties kebari for Nissin and manufactures the spectacular Nissin PALS furled fluorocarbon tapered tenkara lines.

After spending several hours learning about his line designs and watching him make several lines, he sat at his desk and tied a few of his signature kebari and then it was done. Our time with Hiromichi Fuji was over. We then piled into Eiji’s van and we were off to our next adventure. Somewhere in the middle of the Japanese wilderness. I have no idea of where the hell we were headed, but I was very excited.

We first spent the night at this really cool village an hour or so out of Kyoto. This house we stayed in is around 250 years old. A building that existed during the reign of the Samurai.

The next morning we headed out with Eiji and Masami for a few more days of fishing. We travelled up high into the mountains and explored streams that I cant even do justice trying to describe. Steep canyons, volcanic rock and granite, the clearest water I have ever seen, lush cedar and bamboo forests. After a few semi-rappelling descents into the canyons, we hit the water and started fishing.

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Fishing with Eiji Yamakawa is always a lot of fun. Eiji or “Eddie” as his friends know him, is a legitimate tenkara master in his own right. He has no interest in titles or recognition. I like to refer to Eddie as the “Reluctant Master”. His casting skills are deadly, the way he approaches a section of stream and analyzes it, allows him to pull fish out of the most unlikely places that 99.999% of anglers would pass by. His personality is very laid back and filled with humor.

Masami Tanaka is another “Reluctant Master”. He and Eiji have been fishing partners for decades. They move through a stream together as a seamless team. Each has their own distinct style and methods that equally balance out the other. There are simply no gaps in techniques between the two. They move through the water leaving no potential lie untouched by more than one method of casting, fly manipulation, drifts, or angles. With these two guys in the stream, the fish just simply don’t stand a chance.

So, following the theme of my trip to Japan, I asked Eiji my question “How does someone become a tenkara master?”

Eiji may very well be the originator of the term “The 10 Colors of Tenkara”. He simply said, “You must find your color of tenkara. Take the basic skills and explore them, shape them, make them your own. Find your tenkara.”

And just like that, I was sitting on a Boeing 747 leaving the ground at Nagoya Airport and my first journey to Japan was over.

I had 18 hours of travel time to digest everything that I had experienced in Japan fishing with several of the best and most renowned tenkara master anglers alive today. Met hundreds of people along the way. Ate some of the best food I have ever had. And had a hell of a lot of fun.

These people are just that, people. Here in the West, there has been a tendency to put them on a pedestal and idolize them. Maybe that is just our way of romanticizing tenkara. It has centuries old history based in a distant and exotic culture, in our countries outside of Japan; tenkara is still in its infancy. So it seems natural that we would look to the land of origin for heroes to follow.

So, here is what I really learned from my time both in Japan in 2014 and even as I write this article. Tenkara is not mystical, exotic, Zen, or any of that. It is just simply a method of fly-casting. There are no hard rules. There is no single and correct tenkara method. Tenkara is a reflection of the angler who uses the tools and techniques to suit his/her natural environment, fish species, knowledge and skill base they bring to the table from past fishing experience. Tenkara is just you.

I believe that the next generation of tenkara masters is in the process of being created right now, at this exact moment in time. This next generation will most likely come from the West. We are pushing tenkara in directions it has never been. Carp fishing, warm water species, and ocean fishing. We as a culture are unencumbered by tenkara’s history. We are completely free to Explore, Innovate, Share, and Repeat.

The history of tenkara and its origin is Japan. The future is being forged here in the West. There is no other time in the fly-fishing culture that such a dramatic swing has ever occurred. We are all a part of this paradigm shift.

I had a conversation with Hiromichi Fuji about how he feels about how tenkara is being changed and adapted outside of Japan. He finds this exciting and a necessary evolution of tenkara’s future. The sport was gradually dwindling in popularity in Japan. The peak of its popularity was most likely in the early 1980s. Once tenkara left Japan, a true revolution occurred. There is a lot of speculation among tenkara anglers in Japan that tenkara is vastly more popular in America than it ever was in Japan. There are more tenkara anglers outside of Japan now than inside.

This is the future and we are all taking a part in shaping it.

To follow the footsteps of the masters is impossible. For as soon as every one of the Master’s footsteps are made in the stream, the water washes them away. There is and can be only one tenkara path. Your path.

Go and Explore, Innovate, Share. Find your own tenkara. Make it yours. Share what you know, never stop questioning what you know.

And above all have fun.

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Do you have a story to tell, a photo to share, or a fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to our next issue, click HERE for more details.

What’s Your Code?

What’s Your Code?
by Dave Blackhurst

Lately, while I have been on the river I have been reflecting on why tenkara has been so refreshing to me. I know we all like to get out and land a few fish, but why has this style changed fly fishing forever for me?

I work as the art director for a local magazine and recently we did a photo shoot with two local fishermen about different styles of fishing. While I was taking photos of the fly fisherman, I asked him if he had ever heard of tenkara. He mentioned he had and went on to tell me that he owned a tenkara rod but it was just not his thing. However, he asked me a few more tenkara questions, which gave me the chance to share the reasons I put my reels on the shelf.

I went into detail about the style of tenkara that I have adopted (sometimes I feel like a politician on the stump). I let him know the basics about a fixed line, no weight or indicator on the line, perfect drifts and the same fly pattern used year round. When I share the simplified tenkara approach, it initially sounds appealing to fly fishermen tired of carrying gear and loading up for the river. However, as the conversation continues, I realize that for some the gear enhances the experience. I let my friend know that for the smaller streams and rivers I prefer, tenkara works great.

I gave him a few kebari, said goodbye and he went on his way. His approach to our conversation reminded me of where I was several years ago. I wanted a quicker and simpler method to fish mountain streams in Utah. I loved the lighter fly rods and was simplifying my fly box but I felt I could not simplify any more. Magically tenkara came into view. This was the ticket for me. It was everything I wanted.

Tenkara is not magic, but it can be magical if you let it.

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What I have learned after being a snooty, stuck-up fly fisherman — loaded with gear — for more than 20 years is that fishing is fishing. Fish don’t know how they are caught. There are as many ways to catch a fish as there are fish to catch. My respect for all fishing styles has increased. Many friends of mine think tenkara is cool, but don’t consider it fly fishing.

Wherever tenkara fits in the fishing world, I like it.

And my conversion does not mean it’s as simple as a hook and a stick. Recently I read a great article by Jason Klass on tenkaratalk.com that mentioned the general rule in tenkara of 12-12-12 (don’t get these confused with the code numbers from the TV show LOST 4 8 15 16 23 42), 12-foot rod, 12 feet of line and a size 12 kebari.

This is a great rule of thumb but I wanted to figure out what my secret tenkara code would be.

Two years ago I adopted the practice of fishing only one fly. I tinkered on the vise for a few months, trying different sizes, but still lacked the confidence to commit. Eventually, I realized that when my confidence was lacking on the river, I would always pull out a pheasant tail bead head for trout. I took this into consideration and began tying a size 12 pheasant tail with a reverse kebari hackle. I eventually simplified it even more with a size 14 hook, brown thread, green flash and one Hungarian partridge hackle.

Magically (and with a lot of hard work), my one fly appeared.

Next was my line. Many mountain streams in Utah are small. Sometimes I can step over them. The trout are beautiful but the foliage is frustrating. The 12-foot line and rod just would not work in these places. I needed to dial in my tiny creek tenkara code.

I picked up a Rhodo rod from Daniel Galhardo at Tenkara USA. This zoom rod would fish as small as 8 feet and keep me just under the branches. I had my small creek code now — 8-8-14.

Now I just had one final challenge. Find the code for medium-sized rivers that need a bit more line. The whole point of tenkara is to use the longest rod you can get away with. I absolutely love my Sato rod from Tenkara USA. The zoom ability is great for different lengths but at its longest reach (almost 13 feet) I get all I need. Add 13 feet of line and I’m there. Now I had the final piece to my tenkara puzzle. 13-13-14.

These are my setups. I wish I only had one code but two isn’t bad. They work for 90 percent of fishing situations I face in Utah. Figuring out a code does not take long, but it means more time on the river — don’t worry, your spouse will understand … maybe.

Fishing truly is about confidence. Find your code and be confident.

Now grab your tenkara rod and get figuring your code.
Simple right?

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Do you have a story to tell, a photo to share, or a fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to our next issue, click HERE for more details.

Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing? Which one?

Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing? Which one?
by Chris Stewart 

For years now, every time I’d read the phrase “traditional Japanese fly fishing” I wanted to ask “Yeah, which one?” Of course, the writer always meant tenkara, but tenkara is not THE traditional Japanese fly fishing. It is but one of several traditional fly fishing methods, one or two of which might be hundreds of years older, and perhaps thus even more traditional than tenkara.

You will occasionally, although very rarely, read about a second traditional method – dobuzuri or dobutsuri – which is fly fishing for ayu, although no one in the US ever refers to it as traditional Japanese fly fishing. Actually I don’t think I have ever seen it mentioned other than tangentially – through the flies, never the fishing.

Talk about tradition, Meboso Hachirobei, run by the same family in the same location since 1575, started making ayu flies in the late 1800s.
Talk about tradition, Meboso Hachirobei, run by the same family in the same location since 1575, started making ayu flies in the late 1800s.

Interestingly, the late Robert Behnke, (aka Dr. Trout) who had been a Professor of Fisheries and Wildlife Biology at Colorado State University, fished for yamame and iwana in Japan in 1951-52, and saw only dobuzuri flies and imitations of western fly patterns (Japan at that time was a major exporter of trout flies to the US). He saw no tenkara flies. Of course, that was before tenkara became tenkara and had its resurgence in popularity. Perhaps tenkara flies were rediscovered.

But the third or fourth or fifth traditional Japanese fly fishing methods? I would bet most readers have never heard of them. For example, I remember reading that tenkara anglers didn’t use weights, with the reason given that the flies were too valuable to risk getting snagged on the bottom and lost. However, we know that fly anglers in at least two regions did use weight – either applied to the fly or on the line above the fly. It might not fit the definition of tenkara, so I suppose it might be true that “tenkara” anglers didn’t use weights, but other fly anglers certainly did!

Perhaps even more surprising than a traditional Japanese fly fishing method that used weighted flies was the method that in addition to a fly (tied on the line as a dropper) used a bare treble hook a bit below the fly to possibly snag a fish that rejected the fly and turned back down or that the angler missed while attempting to set the hook. You never hear about that one! Perhaps intentionally snagging fish offends our sensibilities, but recall that ayu fishing, which is probably the pinnacle of fresh water fishing in Japan, uses live “decoy” fish and bare treble hooks to snag ayu.

A fifth method, which survives to this day, is called kebari tsuri. Tenkara, before it was called tenkara, was called kebari tsuri. It may well be that kebari tsuri was a much broader and more inclusive term – possibly encompassing any fishing with a fly. After all, the translation of kebari tsuri is “fly fishing.” The kebari tsuri of today is a method that uses multiple flies, generally either five or seven, tied as droppers on a tippet behind a wooden float. The float is cast across the stream and allowed to swing downstream. Today this is a method for catching oikawa (pale chub) and haya (Japanese dace), not trout, but a fishing method differing only with respect to where on the rig the float was placed historically was used in the Iwate prefecture to catch Yamame.

The Japanese says Kebari Tsuri Shikake. Google translates Shikake as gimmick which is actually a good translation, as the Japanese has the connotation of a device inte.jpg
The Japanese says Kebari Tsuri Shikake. Google translates Shikake as gimmick which is actually a good translation, as the Japanese has the connotation of a device intended to trick or fool.

I guess the most telling piece of information, though, is that the earliest written account of tenkara fishing was in either 1877 or 1878 (two separate accounts, neither of which mention “tenkara” but both of which describe a fishing method that might have been tenkara). However, the earliest written account of fishing with a fly in Japan dates from 1678, a full two hundred years earlier! That fishing was for oikawa and haya rather than trout, so it doesn’t fall into the definition of tenkara. When considering “traditional” Japanese fly fishing, though, one really ought to give the greatest weight to the oldest recorded method – haegashira – which is fishing for chubs and dace, and later ayu, in the lowlands rather than tenkara, which is fishing for trout and char in the mountains.

Realistically, tenkara is probably much older than the written accounts of the late 1870s. Perhaps it is as old as haegashira but we will never know because there are no written records. What we do know, though, is that tenkara is not the only traditional fly fishing of Japan. So next time you string up your seiryu rod and go out to catch a few creek chubs, realize you are carrying on an old if unsung tradition.

And after you return home, fire up the computer and read (or re-read) the wealth of information on traditional Japanese fly fishing that you can find on Yoshikazu Fujioka’s wonderful website My Best Streams. It is mostly about tenkara, but if you read it carefully, you will realize there is much more to traditional Japanese fly fishing than just tenkara.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Do you have a story to tell, a photo to share, or a fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to our next issue, click HERE for more details.

Tenkara Fly Fishing on a Pacific Isle

Tenkara Fly Fishing on a Pacific Isle
by Rory E. Glennie

From its birthplace on an island along the far western edge of the Pacific Ocean, tenkara style fly fishing has successfully emigrated to an island along the far eastern edge. Much like the mountainous Japanese birthplace of tenkara, Vancouver Island is blessed with countless waters particularly suited to this style of fly-fishing. Small streams during normal/low summer flows offer good trout fishing opportunities. Streams like the Englishman, Little Qualicum and her Big Qualicum sister, Tsable, Quinsam and Elk rivers come to mind, as do many tiny mountainous headwater flows of larger rivers.

Tiny Deep Green Pools Hold Surprisingly Big Trout

There are some streams I know, where at places you can actually jump across without getting wet. They hold some surprisingly nice trout in the random deep spots. These are without exception pretty trout in pretty surroundings. This is secretive fishing in intimate surroundings. The nature of tenkara fly fishing is much in keeping with the laid-back lifestyle which comes with living on a small island along the Pacific coast of Canada… no rush, take it as it comes.

A tenkara setup is perfectly suited to handle small trout in small streams. By small I mean our wild, native-born Cutthroat and Rainbow trout in the ten to sixteen inch length, in streams where you can easily maneuver into position to bring the fish to hand. These fish most often strike with wild abandon, once. After making the move to your fly and missing it, they seem to get very cagey about rising again anytime soon. The clarity of the water and the natural survival instinct of these wild trout probably collude against the fisher.

Native Born Rainbow Trout Are the Perfect Tenkara Quarry

Zen in the Art of Stealth

Simplicity in tenkara style fly fishing frees your mind to concentrate on becoming one with the environment. Dress in muted Earth tones to blend in. Move with purpose and dexterity so not to alarm your quarry. Cautiously ease into the water only when absolutely necessary. Visualize the rise before making the cast. Meld with the moment… and enjoy the surprise as the shock of reality snaps you back into being when a good trout takes your fly.

Wading Wet is Refreshing on a Hot Day

Summertime flows limit trout to specific habitats; greenish hued pools where you cannot see the bottom. Undercut banks with overhanging bushes. A washed-out hole in the substrate near a partially submerged log. The dark watery cavern next to a log jam. These are the prime spots to sneak up ninja style, and drop in your fly.

The Excitement Quotient

These are hungry trout that are willing to oblige with a solid surface rise to a dry fly. The principal is the same as in using a traditional kebari. Toss the fly up into the perceived hot-spot. One or two quick twitch-hops to enliven the fly, then repeat to cover all the prospective fish holds. Unfortunately for many tenkara fishers, that often means experiencing a close-combat style reaction to this visual stimulus; as none of the muscle twitching excitement of a good fish rising up in a lazy S-bend to suck in the fly is missed.

It takes a modicum of self-control to not yank the fly out of the fish’s mouth… thankfully, with practice, that response can be learned.

This original entry was penned by Rory Glennie, a resident of Vancouver Island, British Columbia who has been fly fishing the mountain streams for wild, native-born trout since 1970. He is the only Canadian member of the Tenkara USA Guide Network and has been a Staff writer for Island Fisherman Magazine since 2009. His work will also appear in the upcoming Spring issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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One Really Big Hole: A Story of Trout and Tenkara at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

One Really Big Hole.
A Story of Trout and Tenkara at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon
By Rob Worthing, with photos by Kaylan & Phil

“Oh, hell yeah.”

That’s the only logical response when Phil, your best friend from college, calls you up to say he’s got a cabin reserved at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Never mind how he got it – cabin reservations at the canyon’s historic Phantom Ranch book thirteen months in advance and within minutes of opening. After twenty years of talking about fishing the Grand, he’s got reservations. So that’s exactly how I replied. On behalf of both my wife and myself, with zero hesitation.

“Oh, hell yeah.”

THE SOUTH RIM

It’s December, and I’m looking out my window at a really big hole in the ground. Phil, my wife and I are spending the night at Bright Angel Lodge, where the rooms practically fall off Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Tomorrow, we’ll make the seven and a half mile hike down the South Kaibab trail to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.

The South Rim (Copy)

I’m a little nervous for the hike. It’s been a bit since doing something of this scale. Not like my wife, Kaylan, who just finished both the Camino de Santiago and Appalachian Trail. Or Phil, who is the kind of guy that seems to be giving Father Time the perpetual middle finger by growing stronger with age. So I busy myself by going over gear one last time.

The cabins at Phantom Ranch come stocked with linens and the like. No need to carry shelter, ground pad, or a sleeping bag. Two meals a day and a sack lunch at the ranch dining hall means packing a lot less food, too. Normally, that would make for a pretty light pack. But I’m including a few luxuries on this trip. Weather at the rim is cold this time of year, with snow and ice a real possibility on the upper section of the trail. Days are warmer at the bottom, but still cold when the sun goes down. My base pack weight for a winter trip usually comes in around ten pounds. Items like my favorite thick wool shirt with the collar that stands straight up, heavy wool cargo pants to match, a couple cigars, and a healthy dose of quality Kentucky bourbon quickly jack my pack weight to an estimated sixteen pounds or so.

Then comes the fly fishing gear. There’s trout in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. More importantly, there’s trout in Bright Angel Creek, a tenkara-perfect freestone flowing directly past Phantom Ranch and our cabin. Or at least there used to be tout. For the past decade, the Park Service has undertaken the Bright Angel Creek Trout Reduction Project, an attempt to eradicate non-native brown and rainbows inhabiting the creek. The project is one of conservation, with the ultimate goal of restoring native species like the speckled dace, flannelmouth sucker, and the endangered humpback chub. Years of electroshock harvesting while a weir dam traps fish near the creek’s mouth might mean precious few fish for me in Bright Angel. But I plan on being ready anyway.

For this trip, I pack two precision instruments for tenkara fishing in mountain streams – the Oni Type I, and the Oni Type III. At 390cm and 360cm respectfully, the two rods will allow me to cover a wide variety of conditions, and will back each other up in case of a mishap. I pack the two Oni rods along with the Tenkara Bum 36 (an all-arounder, and my wife’s favorite) in my beloved Zimmerbuilt Rod Roll. A single Tacky fly box filled with Ishigaki and Oni kebari, Red Assed Monkeys, and Grave Diggers slides into a Zimmerbuilt Strap Pack along with #3 green level line and my Arizona state license. Combo hemostat scissors and a spool of 5x tippet complete the kit. No wading gear. Just a pair of waterproof Seal Skin socks to keep my feet dry in case I find it necessary to soak my trail runners.

THE SOUTH KAIBAB

I’m more of a backcountry guy. I usually shy away from the main attractions in our National Park system. The South Kaibab and Phantom Ranch are a bit of a main attraction. Though difficult, they stay busy, both with foot traffic and burro trains. At some point during prep for the trip, I guess I had quelled my enthusiasm a bit thinking about piles of hikers and mule shit. Man, was I wrong. Yes, there is plenty of foot traffic. Yes, there are plenty of piles of mule shit. But the vistas are spectacular, truly one of a kind. I am very glad to be exactly where I am.

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Halfway down, I approach a hiker that looks like he could use a break from his uphill slog. He’s carrying a 4wt Sage in a rod tube strapped to the side of his pack, and I happily provide him with an excuse to stop and rest. “Do some fishing? How was it?”

“Yeah . . . did a lot of fishing . . . but no catching”, he replied in between huffs. “Fished Bright Angel Creek for two days. Didn’t get a thing. They’ve got the weir dam up. Fished below it, too, but no luck. Don’t think there’s much left.”

We finish the hike and check in to our cabin. The crew at Phantom Ranch doesn’t do much to improve the fishing forecast. Plenty of people trying, they say. One guy a couple weeks ago that caught some, but nobody else, they say. Guess I’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice casting.

PHANTOM RANCH AND THE MOUTH OF BRIGHT ANGEL

It takes me a whopping ten minutes to catch my first rainbow trout that night. A respectable 12 incher on a size ten Red Assed Monkey delivered with my Oni Type I. I remember a trip my friend and fellow guide, Erik, and I took to Utah’s famed Green River. The water was blown out from a large release. Nobody else thought it was worth the time, and we were the only ones on the water.

Phantom Ranch and the Mouth of Bright Angel 1 (Copy)

We slayed it, catching big brown after big brown on heavy wire worms and massive tungsten scud patterns using fixed line nymphing techniques. We couldn’t help but share our enthusiasm with the proprietors of the local fly shop as we bought up more of the same patterns. For the next two weeks, fish reports for the area talked of nothing but wire worms and tungsten scud patterns, all based on two idiots with tenkara rods that reported one good day. I was repeating that lesson on Bright Angel. Whether good news or bad, don’t pay too much attention to what other fishermen have to say. Fish your own game.

Phantom Ranch adn the Mouth of Bright Angel 3 (Copy)

One hearty stew dinner later and we’re racked out in our cabin. We’ve got two nights at the bottom. For tomorrow, we decide on a twelve-mile round-trip hike along Bright Angel Creek via the North Rim section of the South Kaibab Trail to Ribbon Falls. That first fish was near the confluence of the creek and the Colorado River, below the weir dam. I want to know what the rest of this creek holds.

RIBBON FALLS AND THE BODY OF BRIGHT ANGEL

Nothing about this place disappoints. We get an early start, long before the sun’s rays will reach the canyon bottom. Our reward is a cool, mist-laden hike capped with explosions of bight gold where the early light smashes into the highest peaks and faces. By the time we reach Ribbon Falls, it’s warm enough to enjoy the water. I hadn’t taken advantage of the bath house back at the ranch, and shed my clothes for a quick shower, au natural. Bribing Phil and Kaylan to destroy those pics is gonna cost me.

Ribbon Falls and the Body of Bright Angel 1 (Copy)

Dressed and on trail, but not dry for long. I’m right back in Bright Angel Creek, this perfect freestone stream that my tenkara rig and I have all to our selves. Every ten feet of trail seems to bring another fishy hole in sight. The creek is small enough that I manage to do all my fishing from shore. Over and over, I cut off trail and pick my way through the rock and brush on the path to the perfect presentation. I can’t get enough of it. No sense in stashing the rod at this rate. It stays rigged and at the ready, steadied in my right hand with the tip facing aft for the rest of the hike.

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I don’t catch many brown trout. The browns feed heavily on other fish, and seem to be the primary target of the Trout Reduction Program. But there are enough bows, outnumbering the browns 5 to 1 on my line. One thirteen incher comes out of a picture perfect hole, hugging the rock near the tail of the pool, right where I thought he would be. He takes me downstream where a Russian tamarisk blocks me from dropping my rod to turn him. I quickly make the decision to wet the trail runners, ensuring a gentle, successful, humane landing. We might be in the middle of a Trout Reduction Program, but no sense in breaking good habits with bad substitutions. My Seal Skins will once again prove to be worth their weight in gold with these wet shoes.

BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL

With lush riparian lines along gin clear creeks breaking up layer upon layer of differentially colored rock as old as time, the trail back to the South Rim turns out to be even more impressive than the South Kaibab we took down. My legs turn out to be up to the task of the trip as well. Despite seven and a half miles down, followed by twelve miles along the creek, and a mild hangover to start the morning (turns out they sell beer at Phantom Ranch), we manage to kill the ten-mile uphill grunt in around four hours.

Grand Canyon’s upscale El Tovar restaurant is on the menu for dinner. Steaks and a bottle of red are well earned, and that much more tasty for it. Tomorrow, we fly out. The trip turned out to be beyond great. Better than anticipated, really. And after twenty years, there was a lot of built-up anticipation.

At dinner, I catch myself contemplating the Trout Reduction Program. Back in Utah, we’ve seen successful use of rotenone to clear invasive brown and bows followed by replacement of native Bonneville cutthroat in some of Salt Lake City’s streams. I can understand the need to avoid such a program in the case of Bright Angel, but I can’t help wondering about the limitations of an electroshock strategy. Part of me hopes it isn’t too successful, leaving a few trout to chase. But the better part of me recognizes the importance of such a conservation effort, and looks forward to the day when I can return to Phantom Ranch to chase a not-so-endangered humpback chub on the fly.

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Tenkara in the Clouds

Tenkara in the Clouds
by Andrew M. Wayment

“There is divinity in the clouds.”
-Lailah Gifty Akita, Pearls of Wisdom: Great Mind.

With the Arkansas River totally blown out for the second year in a row, Shawn and I had to find another place to fish on our last day of annual Colorado fishing trip. Our friend, Josh Houchin planned to join us and we met up at Barry’s Den in Texas Creek to discuss our options over breakfast. Their green chili smothered omelets always put a hum in my tum.

During breakfast, we talked about tenkara and all of the negativity it gets from other fly fishers. Brother Shawn has often teased me about tenkara by using that meme with the oriental dude in class that yells out, “HA! GAY!!!”

“I have no opinion on tenkara whatsoever. I just like to give you a hard time,” Josh replied.

I boldy responded, “I really don’t care what others say about tenkara. It’s fun and it works. I let the fish be the judge. ”

When we finally decided to fish Can’t Tell Ya Creek in the Sangre De Cristos Mountains, Josh proclaimed, “That won’t hurt my feelings one bit. That is my favorite place in the whole world.”

Shawn Wayment fights a fish from the top of a waterfall. (Copy)

Josh, a career army man from Kansas, was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs at the time, and had just received word that he was being transferred back east. So he knew his time at this special place was limited. Brother Shawn had introduced Josh to this creek years earlier as he was teaching Josh to fly fish. Both the lesson and the creek obviously stuck.

The Sangre De Cristos, which means “the blood of Christ,” are towering red-tinted mountains with numerous peaks over 14,000 feet. To get to the prime waters on Can’t Tell Ya Creek, you have to hike up quite a ways. The fishing is good all along the way, but especially above treeline.

Shawn and I had fished this creek together two times before, including the previous year. However, on that day, I was worried that the creek was too tight for tenkara and borrowed a fiberglass rod and reel from Shawn. We had a great day and caught a lot of beautiful fish.

This year, I was determined to fish nothing but tenkara come hell or high water. I opted to use my Tenkara USA Rhodo rod as it is adjustable to different lengths, which would come in handy on some of the tighter spots. Having fly fished now for over twenty years, I can attest that tenkara is every bit as effective as traditional fly fishing on small mountain creeks, maybe even more so.

As we drove to our destination, we climbed up quickly in elevation from the valley floor onto a forest road that ended in a patch of quaking aspens. After we parked, we took to the trail and hiked as quickly as we could up into the pines. Along the trail, we saw numerous Columbines, the Colorado state flower, which are some of the prettiest wild flowers I’ve ever seen.

Gorgeous scenery above the clouds. (Copy)

After about a half mile, we crossed the icy-cold creek, and then started to fish a few of the holes. At one point, Josh showed us where he caught “Bob,” a chunky resident brook trout. He let me try for him, but we did not find him. Josh mentioned, “The runoff blew out the log jam that was here and Bob must have moved on.”

We fished many of the creek’s holes on the way up. Renegades and Double Renegades were the perfect fly for this high mountain creek and, after he came up fishless, I gave Josh a Red-butted Double Renegade so he could get the skunk off. I showed Josh and Shawn, a technique that I call “Skittering,” which is when you cast the fly and then drag it either upstream or cross current to trigger a strike. Tenkara is perfect for this technique because with the longer rod, you can get most of your line and leader off the water so that only the hackles of the fly disturb the water’s surface. The cutthroat of this creek went nuts over this technique and I giggled, hooted, and hollered with each fish. I love all cutthroat, but the fish of this creek are the most beautiful cutthroat I have ever seen.

Simply beautiful. (Copy)

The higher we went, the better the fishing. We mostly fished together and cheered each other on. Once we hiked above the treeline, the stream’s gradient leveled out some and the runs were longer and held more fish. The casting was easy and the fishing was excellent. We all took turns at one beautiful run and caught twenty to thirty fish on Renegades. The camaraderie with Josh and Shawn made for as pleasant a day as I have ever had on the stream.

Josh Houchin with an beautiful little cutthroat. (Copy)

I talked Josh into trying tenkara at this open spot overlooking a waterfall with a deep hole below. I showed Josh the skittering technique in the hole below us and told him to go for it. Josh cast a few times, skittered the fly back upstream and quickly caught an eager cutthroat. They can’t resist the skitter! After he lined the fish to hand, he placed the cork grip of the rod in his teeth so he could hold the line in one hand and release the fish with the other. He then grabbed the rod and yelled out, “Good Stuff, man!” I can’t say that Josh will become a tenkara fisherman, but he certainly gained a respect for it and learned firsthand that it is fun.

Once we made it back to the trail above treeline, the clouds in the otherwise blue sky looked so close at such altitude, I almost felt I could reach out and touch them. I can see why Josh and Shawn love this creek so much. I hated to leave.

Like a kid on Christmas every time!

On the way home, we stopped at a nearby Mexican restaurant (can you expect anything different from a Wayment Brothers?). As we enjoyed our food, Josh said, “I had a total blast fishing with you guys today. Andy, I have never fished with anyone who exhibits as much genuine childlike enthusiasm and excitement as you. It was a true pleasure to fish with you.”

For me, I could think of no better compliment. “Right back at you buddy. I’d spend a day on the water with you any time.” I replied.

Isn’t that why we go fishing? To feel that wide-eyed wonder of a child again? Tenkara in the clouds is the perfect way to reconnect with the inner child.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Respecting Our Roots: Making A Case For Modern Japanese Tenkara in the USA

Respecting Our Roots: Making A Case For Modern Japanese Tenkara in the USA
By Adam Klagsbrun

Fixed line fly-fishing may be centuries old, but as it is practiced today, tenkara is new. Tenkara is modern. Tenkara is not from the USA – tenkara is from Japan.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about what tenkara actually is, and what the definition of tenkara should be. There has also been discussion about what tenkara is not, and that seems to have created some really interesting, and in some cases intense, dialogue. What perplexes me the most is why some people immediately get defensive and upset about being told that fishing for bass or crappie in local warm water ponds and slow-moving rivers isn’t “Tenkara.” My goal in this article is to lay a foundation of understanding, to make a case for why it is important to keep tenkara from being re-defined, and to explain why we shouldn’t be the ones to re-define it here and now.

At this point most of us know the story about how Daniel Galhardo started Tenkara USA around 2009. What many do not know, or have not paid attention to, is how he honored tenkara’s roots in Japan and did not try to sell it to us as something that it was not. Sure, he added a more minimalist pitch in his marketing, but it made sense, given that from what I recall, the earliest adopters of this sport here appeared to be, in fact, ultralight backpackers who were largely exposed to Tenkara USA via Ryan Jordan at backpackinglight.com.

What Daniel did was to go spend time with Japanese tenkara anglers who were involved in creating and naming tenkara, the people who actually defined it for modern times, in Japan. He asked them questions. He listened to the answers. He watched the anglers. He learned from them. He got the definition. What he brought and packaged for us here in the USA was very close to tenkara as it was in Japan, and so began our adventures with tenkara here in the USA.

Since that point, Tenkara has grown to encompass a larger group of fishermen and a broader range of styles. As soon as there was a market established, other companies jumped in. Many of them became known as “me too” companies – some survived by producing great quality products at reasonable prices and attained a permanent seat at the “table” of tenkara rod-makers. Others did not. A lot of anglers here “grew up” on these rods when it comes to their personal journeys into discovering tenkara. But there has been a bit of an elephant in the room… Most of these rod companies never looked to the Japanese for anything in creating companies that were selling a Japanese-designed product for a Japanese sport. Does this make any sense?

While some people may have taken advantage of Oni school, most of the owners of these other companies didn’t appear to seek out relationships with the creators of tenkara the sport, they didn’t travel to Japan, but, most importantly, they didn’t learn about what a tenkara rod taper was all about, and they didn’t license any tenkara mandrels from Japan. They still haven’t. The result? The result is that the consumers got the short end of the stick. Many of us never learned what tenkara was, where it really came from, or why any of that matters. Many of them still have never cast a rod that flexes like many of the most popular Japanese tenkara rods do.

As one example, Patagonia made an early impact of this type, offering not only a completely incorrect taper and action in a “Tenkara rod” but then going one step further to apparently take credit for tenkara here in the USA. Chouinard painted a picture of fixed line fishing for his fishing kit that was loosely inspired by Pesca Mosca Valsesiana and tenkara, without truly representing either style in their kit. He calls it “simple fly fishing.” It is not tenkara.

This was particularly disappointing, as Patagonia, usually working hard to truly engage locally with their marketing and environmental/business impact campaigns and to understand what they were getting involved in, didn’t do any of the necessary legwork at all. This helped to create a complete misunderstanding within the market, and helped to foster an idea that somehow, anything could be tenkara. I believe this is just one element of what created a lot of the early anti-tenkara “hate” from other fishing communities online, and is something I’d like to delve into deeper at another time in the future.

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It is clear there was no mal-intent in any of this, but the results were less than stellar on many levels, and some may argue that “damage” has been done. I’m glad to see other companies beginning to put effort into all of this, and I think it will go a long way to undoing some of the damage that may have been done early on. There’s more work to do.

But I digress, this article isn’t really a history lesson on the tenkara industry, it is meant to make people think. Furthermore, I truly love Patagonia as a company for many other reasons… I don’t bring this up to judge any company or person, or to be negative. I bring it up to paint a picture of how tenkara began to lose its way here in the USA, and how tenkara went from a style of fishing to a becoming a marketing term.

I believe that bringing this reality to attention is important, because it has the potential to be dangerous for the knowledge and the future of the sport. If we allow tenkara to simply become a marketing term to sell rods and gear, not only will we dilute the meaning of tenkara, but we will all be personally responsible for undoing decades of work that the masters such as Ishigaki-San, Sakakibara-San and countless others have worked so hard to create. Do we, the USA, want to be known for effectively destroying a well-defined niche sport with established teachers & sponsors, established methods and styles, and be happy about that? I certainly do not think so, and I believe most tenkara anglers here do not want to do that either. Do we?

What is it about? Honor. Honor is important in Japan. Honor is important everywhere. It would surely be dishonorable to have taken this wonderful sport from Japan and to then turn it into something completely different, simply because we don’t want to create new words for what we are doing now, do we? I don’t see how these shortcuts would benefit us, or the sport of tenkara here.

We have all advanced to the point where we understand why tenkara is not cane pole fishing, and how it is not simply dapping. I believe at this point, now, we have finally gotten to a point where we have learned enough to know that tenkara also is not fishing for bass or warm water species in slow and still water. There are enough Japanese anglers, facts and history to support this claim. Ishigaki-San and many others have defined tenkara – so yes, tenkara has a definition already.

As Ishigaki-San and many of the others have confirmed, tenkara means fishing for trout in bubbling brooks and raging rivers with some elevation change, using a fly, utilizing a long rod and a very light line. Tenkara is as much about casting as it is about drifting, something I used to incorrectly speak about by saying pretty much the opposite. I am just as guilty in doing damage to the definition and image of tenkara as any company or blogger or early adopter who decided to use western fly lines, floating lines or dry flies.

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Dr. Hisao Ishigaki
I didn’t mean to dilute tenkara by pitching bead heads, ultra-short lines and nymphing techniques… but I did – heck, they worked! But I now know more about how to cast correctly, how to fish a slightly longer line effectively, how to manipulate flies more effectively, as well as more about what tenkara actually is – and with this knowledge comes new understanding. What follows that for me is just a lot more good old fun while fishing, a lot more success catching the “hard to catch” fish, a more “zen” attitude on the stream, and a mission to spread this all to others.

Tenkara was defined by the most active, important anglers within the sport at that time, many of whom we know of today. They are the “masters.” The word tenkara was chosen by this group of existing, established Japanese tenkara anglers, some of those masters and their teachers, in order to help distinguish between the new western style of Kebari Tsuri (fly fishing,) and the traditional old style with a fixed line… then also called Kebari Tsuri.

Tenkara is not a broadly defined style. It is a niche that was created in order to describe something very specific – something that was evolving both alongside, and separately from, other methods of fly-fishing. So in effect, tenkara has evolved as a niche within a niche. It followed a path to that point that helped to define the techniques and the tools of the sport, and we have barely even begun to scratch the surface of all of this over here in the USA. We are lucky to be exposed to decades, if not centuries, of this knowledge from Japan; lucky to have friends in Japan to teach us the right ways, and lucky to have all found this wonderful sport.

So my question is, given these realities, do we, as a community, really want to go backwards in time and re-define tenkara as something broader that encompasses all kinds of fly-fishing? Do we really want to promote a train of thought that undoes the very ideas of why tenkara was defined in the first place? What good would it serve to be the ones who undermine the very people we are trying to learn from right now? Does this help us, and does this have a positive impact on the sport of tenkara?

Tenkara, as it is defined from Japan, is well established for these reasons – and there is a lot we have left to learn before we are ready to go off and take it to the next level ourselves. For if we cannot first fully learn and understand the myriad of techniques and knowledge that has already been accumulated, all we will be doing is throwing that out the window, by letting tenkara become a marketing term.

In Japan, they define the fishing style by the kind of fishing you do, not the rod you have. Because of that, each style of fishing has developed its own gear… carp fishing for Herabuna carp is called Herabuna fishing. There are “Hera rods” for that. Chub fishing for Hae in mountain streams is called Hae fishing. Did you know there’s a whole category of rods that are sold for this too? The Daiwa Rinfu is one of them. Ayu fishing utilizes insanely expensive and much longer rods, and you use a half of a fish as the bait. Most of us have heard of Keiryu fishing too, as Chris Stewart has largely been responsible for making people aware of this style and marketing it as its own unique thing – as well as selling the rods to us here in the US.

So I believe that it is time for us to begin to communicate more accurately about modern Japanese tenkara, to accept its definition more clearly, to think about using Japanese carp rods for carp, salmon rods for salmon, and calling each method of fishing by its own name as has already been defined. Maybe it is even time for us to be creative and to make our own names as well. There is no reason that anyone cannot use their tenkara rod to fish however they’d like and for whatever species of fish they’d like to fish for. But I do believe it is as good a time as any to begin to re-define that stuff for what it is, instead of pretending that it is all actually called tenkara.

Japanese tenkara anglers I have met and watched interviews about have always seemed to say that we in the USA will have a profound impact on tenkara, and suggested that many of the next great innovations within the sport would come from us here, not from within Japan. I am sure these innovations didn’t involve re-defining the entire sport for the sake of marketing. Do we not want to make the best impact on tenkara that we can? Can’t we still do that while also, at the same time, creating new names for the fishing we like to do with fixed line rods that doesn’t fit the definition of tenkara? I believe that we can.

I’m very much looking forward to the evolution of our fixed line fishing industry here, of Tenkara, Keiryu, and of the people involved in it. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey of knowledge among all of you, no matter what kind of fish you want to catch or what kind of line you like to use. But most importantly, I’m looking forward to doing a better job honoring those from which we took and learned this wonderful Japanese sport here in the USA.

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.