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.

Tenkara Got The Girl

Tenkara Got The Girl
Words: Jacques LeBrun
Art: Jim Tignor

It was a cool and breezy summer night before a rain. Most of the guests were heading back to their cabins, but John was heading to the only place with electric lights still on in camp – the dining porch, of course.

He sat down at a table and set up his vise, methodically removing some tying materials from his travel kit – hooks, dubbing and grizzly hen hackle, the only kind he used, because it worked.

A father and his two kids stopped over at the table to see what was going on…. “Are you a scientist,” one of the children asked excitedly? “No,” said John,  “I’m not a scientist, only a fisherman.”

The child pressed him: “you should be a scientist.” John chuckled and began to wrap some red silk around the first hook.  “Science is important, but my head is in the fishing game right now,” he said. The child looked puzzled but laughed anyway.

John began to explain what he was doing to the children, who were watching intently as the dubbing was wound onto the thread with a few simple twists of the fingers.  However, a moment later the children were suddenly bored and wandered away, leaving John alone on the dining porch, where he was listening to the sounds of the owls call and the lonely cry of a loon far away.

After tying a few flies up for the week, John heard someone emerging from the staff room. Looking up, he saw her – and they linked eyes for a moment. Thinking nothing of it, he went back to stripping a hen feather and tying it onto the hook, orienting it just so, in order for it to face the right way as he wrapped.

Without a sound, she walked over to the table and surprised John with a question… “What are you doing, can I watch?”

“Sure,” John said, as he awkwardly attempted to explain fly tying in a concise, interesting manner that wouldn’t sound as nerdy as it really was… but there was no way to win on that one, so he asked her if she’d like to try instead.

“What’s your name?” He asked. “Maggie,” she said. Maggie. It was a nice name.

She sat down next to John, accepting the invitation to learn. He explained the process, step by step, as she began to tie her first fly. She was younger than John, he could tell, but not by that much. Her hair was wavy and long, and she had a kind demeanor that instantly pulled him in. She was deliberate, yet soft spoken, and he liked that.

To John’s delight, somewhat surprisingly, Maggie picked up the skills almost immediately – and so he just let her do all the tying, guiding her hand gently only when needed. She moved closer, nervously flipping her hair and laughing.

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As she finished her fly, John remarked at how impressed he was at her first timer skills and wondered jokingly if it was just beginner’s luck.  Removing her first fly from the vise, John wanted to give it to her to keep as a keepsake; however, she wanted to give it to him for the same reason. What to do?

“I have an idea,” said John. “Why don’t you take the one I just tied, and I’ll take the one you just tied. Tomorrow I’ll go fish it after the rain and see if it’s any good.” Maggie liked the idea – he could see it in her eyes. John knew the fly would work, but had to save his own skin just in case the new stream he was scouting was a bust…

It was getting late so they said goodnight and parted ways. John tried not to be too excited, but he was undeniably giddy about the fact that he had somehow just grabbed the interest of a woman using fly tying. What were the chances of that?

The next morning John headed out as the rain was tapering off, making sure to bring Maggie’s fly and some other supplies for the day. Arriving at the stream, he saw it was low, slow, and not exactly what he had been hoping to see. But the water was cold, and so he began fishing the likely spots.

Just a couple of minutes in he had a nice strike, and a fish was on. Bringing it to hand, John noticed how beautiful this particular brook trout was. “It must be the magic of that fly,” he thought. He fished for a couple of hours, picking mushrooms and hooking a few more brookies before it was time to head back for lunch.

After lunch, John found Maggie between her tasks and showed her some photos of the fish he had caught with her fly that morning. Maggie’s face lit up and she seemed excited and happy. Success. Maggie said she’d find him later after work.

John saw Maggie serving dinner that night, but she was nowhere to be found later on. He didn’t want to seem to eager, so he played it as cool as he could in his mind. They locked eyes at breakfast the next morning, but again there was little time off for Maggie, and John knew there was no sense in pushing to hang out while she worked. They exchanged glances, a few short conversations and a desire to spend some more time together late in the week.

It went back and forth like that for a few more days, a few words here, a glance there… until the last night in camp rolled around. After dinner, there was “sing time” and everyone sat on the porch together to listen to some staffers playing guitar and leading everyone through a classic lineup of old songs.

Maggie emerged from the staff room and came to sit down next to John. She moved in close and they shared a songbook together. John felt good singing these songs and sitting with Maggie, it was a refreshing change from the pace of normal city life back home. And Maggie wasn’t a boring city girl, either.

After the songs ended, Maggie announced she would be going for a walk. “Walks are good,” said John, nervously. There was a moment of silence. Finally she asked – “would you like to come?” Of course, he said yes, eagerly.

They walked down the path through North camp, gravel and dirt crunching beneath their feet. Talking quietly about the week, they walked out onto the dock and sat down to look at the stars. Maggie began to recount the story of how she and John had met… among other things she and John had in common. John liked the picture she was painting – it was pretty romantic, after all.

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“We make a good story,” said John. He leaned in and kissed her, not missing the moment that he would have missed too many times as a teen or a younger man. They lay together on the dock watching the shooting stars, counting satellites and listening to loons and owls together. Neither of them wanted the experience to end, but alas, as they say with all good things…

John hoped he’d get to see Maggie again, and they exchanged numbers the next day.  She lived far away, but promised to come visit. As he drove away from camp later that day, John played back these events in his head over and over. He couldn’t believe it… Tenkara actually got the girl!

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Wading Small Streams: Making A Case For Wet Wading

Editor’s Note: While the summer season is winding down for many, it’s still a great opportunity to get out on the water. Adam Klagsbrun wrote this great piece for Tenkara Angler (Winter 2015-16) that provides some different wading options for those looking to enter a small stream fishery.

Wading Small Streams:
Making A Case For Wet Wading
By Adam Klagsbrun

Fishing small streams with a Tenkara rod takes specific form for some, as the “long rod and short line” approach allows for the less-glamorous casting methods needed to present flies to small targets and in tight quarters when there’s no room to backcast at all.

But beyond presenting a fly, there is an issue at hand that many anglers don’t seem to consider quite as readily… that there’s a better way to present themselves on these streams – one that promotes a more comfortable and versatile approach to crawling around the banks and walking through the water.

There are two main reasons to consider a wet wading setup. The first relates to the reality that you are not going to be stepping in water much higher than your knees in a small stream because you don’t need to.

Second, instead of using your expensive waterproof waders that will get torn, poked with thorns, scuffed on rocks, and generally abused while sweating profusely as you get a real work out navigating the stream; rejoice in the knowledge that you now have shin and knee protection, thorn protection, and will generally just experience less discomfort.

Enter the Japanese-inspired idea of wearing a neoprene gaiter on top of a high neoprene sock. This system has a few advantages over wearing waders and is something you’ll encounter if you fish in Japan.

First off, your body regulates the temperature automatically. It works like a wetsuit. Summary: water soaks through, you get wet. Your body heats up the water between your skin and the neoprene, and you are in the comfort zone.

Additionally, you don’t have to be sweaty in your waders. On a hot day, the cool water keeps you much more comfortable than your waders ever could. On a cold day, your body temperature kicks in and keeps you warm.

Sure, there will be moments when you step into some fast water and the warm water gets displaced. Fear not! Your body will remedy the situation quickly. This system works even when temps are down into the 40’s. It becomes more important for you to bring extra layers when it’s colder out, such as a jacket and insulating layer like a fleece in case the cold water begins to sap heat from your core.

The rest of the outfit consists of quick-drying outdoor pants or ¾ length pants. Roll the legs up to your knee, and in the summer you might want to wear shorts. When it gets cold, use a cooler-weather soft shell hiking pant that has a little more thickness and some wind resistance. I can’t say enough great things about the versatility of the setup. If you’d like to try it out, I’ll include a list of some current options. Wet wading socks can be purchased online or at most fly fishing stores around the country. Use your existing wading boots, or size down if you go for the thinner summer wet wading socks.

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Daiwa Neo NG-400 Gaiter – a black, knee-high gaiter with a padded knee and Velcro closure. This gaiter is designed to be used alone, or with a neoprene wading sock (preferable.) It is not wide enough to fit around most waders.

Little Presents Wader Gaiters – These are thicker neoprene, wider circumference and have longer Velcro straps so they are well suited to be used on top of waders – but can also be used alone. If you have extremely skinny legs, these might not be the best option for you, but they work.

Tiemco Foxfire Airista Gaiters & High Socks – These are the ones I’ve been using. They are similar to the Daiwa Neo Gaiters but are a different color and a slightly different cut. They are also not designed to fit over waders, they can be used alone, or with the Airista thigh-high wet wading sock. I highly recommend this combination.

If you enjoyed this article by Adam, you can read more of his work at his blog, Of Rock & Riffle.