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.

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A Niche Within a Niche, Within a Niche, Within a Niche

A Niche Within a Niche, Within a Niche, Within a Niche
By Chris Stewart

I almost entitled this article “The Next Big Thing is Little” but calling micro fishing the next big thing may be a bit of a stretch.  Micro fishing is still small. Fly fishing for micros – micro tenkara – is smaller yet.

Still, interest is increasing, as witnessed by the recently established Tenkara Micro Fishing Facebook page.

Fishing for little fish is not new. Dame Juliana  Berners wrote in 1486 that you should fish “for the Menowe with a lyne of one heare” [one horsehair].  I am sure it is older than that, though. People have been fishing for little fish ever since they realized that a little fish on a hook could catch a big fish.

tanago
Tanago

Fishing for little fish solely for sport isn’t new either. Tanago fishing in Japan dates back at least as far as the Edo period (1603-1868). For that matter, even fly fishing for little fish (which really is the niche within a niche within a niche) is not new.  While the first written record of what is now called tenkara was in 1877, the first written record of Japanese fishing with artificial flies was two hundred years earlier! One could argue that it wasn’t tenkara because the fish were chubs and dace rather than trout and it wasn’t in a mountain stream.

I have no desire to argue about what is and what isn’t tenkara. My point is that fly fishing for micros is not new. A micro, by the way, according to the two guys who coined the term “micro fishing,” is a fish that fully grown does not reach a pound in weight; but I have no desire to argue about that, either. There’s a guy I know, although only online, who as near as I can tell fishes only for little sunfish.

bluegill sunfish
Bluegill sunfish

A Bluegill Sunfish can reach well over a pound, so according to the purists, it isn’t a micro. I’m not a purist and to me, a little fish is a little fish. Whether it is a micro or a baby macro, I don’t really care (and neither does he). However, I will freely admit that catching micros other than sunfish is more interesting – unless you catch very rare sunfish, like perhaps a mud sunfish or banded sunfish, which in New Jersey you can’t legally fish for and in New York if you happen to catch by accident you can’t legally photograph.

There is one term that I would define pretty narrowly, though. If you happen to catch a micro while fishing for trout or bass or other big fish, it’s not microfishing. Microfishing, to my way of thinking, is specifically trying to catch micros. Thus, Coach’s splendid common shiner in full breeding colors doesn’t qualify as microfishing. He was fishing for trout at the time.

common shiner
Common shiner

Although Coach’s common shiner was caught on a size 12 fly, and I have caught several micros on size 12 and 14 flies, if you want to catch micros I would strongly suggest a smaller fly. Although I have caught baby smallmouth bass with a size 32 Stewart Black Spider, I would guess I’ve had my best luck with a size 20 bead head Black Killer Bugger. It is about the right size to represent any small nymph and the bead helps to get it down to where the fish are. If you are sight fishing, which I often do with micros, the gold bead allows you to watch the fly, and to watch it disappear as a fish takes it.

size 26 blue killer bug
Size 26 blue Killer Bug

I have done quite well with size 26 Killer Bugs also (even if they are blue, as is the one shown in the photo, taken by a creek chub during my Blue Fly Challenge in 2013). Really, just about any really small fly will work for many micros, and will take much larger fish as well.

The chance for larger than expected fish can be a potential problem for micro fishers. On the one hand, you would want to use a rod that is soft enough and delicate enough to allow you to feel the fight of a 3” fish.  On the other hand, though, you would want to use a rod that will not break if you hook a fish that is larger than you expect. I truly thought my Shimotsuke Miyako tanago rod would break when I hooked a six-inch brookie.

miyako brookie
Miyako brookie

It didn’t break but I know of a guy who broke his twice, once when he hooked a potential state record warmouth and again when a 12” bullhead ate the micro he had hooked before he had a chance to get it in. I no longer carry the Miyako although I do still carry a Nissin Gokoro tanago rod.  Many new micro fishers choose a Nissin Sasuke or Shimotsuke Kiyotaki, either of which may be overkill for a 2 incher, but they should survive the unexpected 12 incher. I often suggest a Suntech Kurenai, which to me is the nicest rod that can be used for both micros and trout. That said, you can use your current tenkara rod, and I would much rather you start micro fishing with the rod you have than not start because you think you have to buy a new one.

One nice feature of the Kurenai is that it can cast a very light line. The lighter the line, the more likely the strike of a micro will register. I am pretty sure that hits that would cause a size 2.5 line to twitch wouldn’t even show with a heavy furled line. I would also go with a light tippet. The flies are small and the rod is delicate. You might hook a much larger than expected fish. When fishing for micros, my heaviest tippet is 7X and I often use 8X.

Micro tenkara has been on the fringes for some time now, but it is coming into the mainstream. It is fun, it is challenging and it is convenient. There are micros (or at least “little fish”) in just about every body of water that doesn’t dry up in the summer or freeze solid in the winter. You almost certainly have places to fish close enough that you don’t have to plan a weekend or even a full day just to wet a line. All you have to do is use your most sensitive rod, your lightest line, your smallest flies, and be satisfied catching your smallest fish.

Do it very much and you will almost certainly catch fish you’ve never caught before. You’ll almost certainly catch fish you’ve never heard of before! That’s part of the fun of it. I won’t say trout are boring, but catching something you’ve never caught before and then trying to figure out what you’ve just caught is intriguing and is a large part of the attraction of micro tenkara. As with tenkara in the early days, the guys who pooh-pooh it are the guys who haven’t tried it.

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

The TenkaraBum Streamer Challenge

The latest TenkaraBum challenge was announced on Friday, and as such, streamers should be a key ingredient in every tenkara angler’s fly box for the next few months. With great prizes such as a Nissin 2-Way rod and a $145 store credit up for grabs, one would have to think the competition will be fierce!

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Photo: TenkaraBum

Contest Rules:

1. The contest begins 12:01 AM eastern time May 28, 2016. All fish entered into the contest must be caught after that time. The contest ends 11:59 PM eastern time October 30, 2016. All entries must be received by then.

2. All fish entered into the contest must be caught on a fixed line rod (tenkara, keiryu, seiryu, carp, tanago, mebaru, crappie, cane pole, loop rod or willow switch, etc.) with a streamer or bucktail as defined above. I will be sole judge on whether the fly used qualifies as a streamer or bucktail.

3. All entries must include a photo of the fish (along with something for reference to determine size) and a separate photo of the streamer or bucktail used to catch it. Please photograph the fly before you fish it, so we can see what it looks like dry. Photos must be emailed to chris at tenkarabum dot com and the fish photos must have a time stamp in the metadata that is after the contest begins.

4. There are two categories: largest fish and most species. The prize for the largest fish is a Nissin 2-Way 450ZX stiff. The prize for the most species is store credit of $145.

5. No rules changes are anticipated, but all contest rules are subject to change.

For more details, visit TenkaraBum.com.

Good luck!!!

TenkaraBum: Suntech Kurenai HM39R

Chris Stewart wrote a post over at his TenkaraBum shop regarding consumer purchasing habits that was quite fascinating. While Chris claims that the Suntech Kurenai HM30R is a wildly popular (and briskly selling rod), conversely people don’t seem to have the same affection, or perhaps awareness, for its bigger brother the HM39R.

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Photo: Chris Stewart

Check out the entry: “The Best Rod Nobody Buys” for more on this overlooked rod.