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Tenkara: Fly Fishing, Philosophy, Both?

Tenkara: Fly Fishing, Philosophy, Both?

by June 2, 2014 0 comments

Tenkara is in my opinion one of the most esthetically beautiful styles of fly fishing in existence today in my personal experience. There are some styles of fly fishing I still have not tried like Spey Casting and salt water fly fishing so don’t get to jumpy with me yet.

Tenkara Guide Network Image Courtesy of Tenkara USA
Tenkara Guide Network
Image Courtesy of Tenkara USA

As a Tenkara USA Certified Guide, I have been leading some newbies on Tenkara trips around Colorado recently and have been asked some very interesting questions that led me to write this post. Some things I had thought about in the past and let them go some have come up more recently even for me.

First off let me debunk a some commonly heard myths:

1. The Samuari Practiced Tenkara: There is very little written about the ancient practice of Tenkara in the highlands of Japan by the professional mountain angler. I have a theory and only a theory about where this myth might have come from. I do not believe, nor do many practitioners of Tenkara that the samurai used Tenkara as a martial art. That being said, I do believe that over time as the samurai class was broken down over time ultimately leading to the utter destruction of the samurai class, that some of these individuals may have used Tenkara as way of feeding themselves when the jobs as a body guard or warrior disappeared. Some may have even used Tenkara while actively fighting for a Shogun as a way to feed themselves while traveling from Point A to Point B.

2. Tenkara is only for small fish: Yes, Tenkara was originally designed for only catching smaller fish for in the moutain streams of Japan. But, with modern technology and great research on the part of modern Tenkara anglers there is a distinct possibility of catching larger fish like pike and carp. Yes, you can catch carp on a Tenkara rod.

Jacob Johnson in Utah with a Tiny Fish Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA
Jacob Johnson in Utah with a Tiny Fish
Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA

This is just the short list of common myths that I hear frequently. And please remember that my samurai theory is only a theory not fact!!!

A number of clients and some readers of my blog have asked whether Tenkara is really fly fishing. I can tell you with 100% certainty that Tenkara is fly fishing. Any modern day Tenkara rod, let alone the bamboo Tenkara rods that the professional Tenkara angler used, are and were made for casting a line. You can also dap with a Tenkara rod just like you can dap with a Western rod and reel. A Tenkara rod is not just for dapping though, there is plenty of casting involved.

Tenkara uses flies which are tied using a hook and any of a combination of feathers and fur to build them. The kebari, a traditional Tenkara fly, uses a reversed hackle at the eye of the hook. Some kebari patterns “match-the-hatch” and some patterns do nothing of the sort, they “look like nothing, yet look like everything”. In my humble opinion, a feather and fur covered hook that is tied to resemble some kind of bug makes Tenkara fly fishing.

Tenkara TNMK (Teenage Mutant Ninja Kebari) Photo Courtesy of Tenkara Grasshopper Media Services
Tenkara TNMK (Teenage Mutant Ninja Kebari)
Photo Courtesy of Tenkara Grasshopper Media Services

Tenkara requires that the fly be cast across or onto the water to present a fly to a fish. Tenkara can be practiced either on still water or rivers and streams. It can be practiced from a drift boat as well as a float tube and even from a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). Many of the same techniques that a fly angler uses with a rod and reel can also be done with a Tenkara rod although there might be limitations like no Spey casting or double hauling that can be performed on a Tenkara rod, but that is not what a Tenkara rod was ever designed for.

So is Tenkara a form of fly fishing? Yes, and every Tenkara angler I know would agree with me on this fact. Casting a fly that consists of a hook and feathers makes this fly fishing to me, no ifs, ands, or buts about it!

I sometimes get asked if Tenkara is a philosophy and I have been thinking long and hard on this question and have come to a conclusion that I now want to share with you. Some might agree with me on this and some may disagree so if you feel either way please feel free to start a conversation here by posting a comment. I only ask that if you do post a comment that you keep it cordial and respectful.

In my opinion I believe that Tenkara can be a philosophy in that one of the central tenets of Tenkara is Simplicity! The simplicity of Tenkara comes from the fact that there is only a rod, a line, and a fly without the confusion of a reel. Also the typical Tenkara flies, or kebari, used by Tenkara anglers or tied using the most basic of materials. One fly in particular, the Ishigaki Kebari, consists of nothing more that a hook, black cotton thread, and a hackle.

The more I practice Tenkara the more that I have come to realize that Tenkara has become a life philosophy for me in more ways than one. One area is the limited amount of gear that I carry with me for an average day of fishing. Below is an image of what little I carry with me for most days of Tenkara fishing.

Tenkara USA 12' Iwana, #3.5 Level Line, Kebari Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA
Tenkara USA 12′ Iwana, #3.5 Level Line, Kebari
Photo Courtesy of Tenkara USA

Because of how little gear that is required for Tenkara I have also come to take the simplicity of Tenkara and I am starting to take on the same attitude in my personal life. What I mean is that Tenkara has taught me that you do not need tons of stuff to live a fulfilling life. By getting rid of things that I do not use on a daily basis I have become happier by not having insane amounts of stuff just lying around gathering dust.

In some round about way my feelings on simplicity have also affected my lovely wife, Elizabeth, which was not something I had originally intended to happen. We are both going thru some of our mutual belongings and seeing if we both are willing to part with them. When we do find something that we agree we do not need we are donating those items to the church thrift store.

Tenkara has become a physical philosophy for me but it has also become a mental and spiritual philosophy as well. Tenkara allows the anglers mind to slow down and in a way become a blank slate for a period of time. Because there is so little gear required the Tenkara angler can focus on the action of casting and presentation without having to manage extra line or other pieces of equipment.

When I hold a Tenkara rod and am casting that rod my mind clears itself of all the extraneous garbage that each and every person deals with on a daily basis i.e. taxes, bills, what to eat for dinner, how much beer I should or should not drink tonight. Tenkara allows me to listen to God, or the Universe if you prefer, and contemplate what a wonderful thing it is to experience the wonders of nature in such a tactile way that Tenkara allows the angler to feel.

If Tenkara is a philosophy for me does it require that I sit cross-legged on the bank of a river and meditate on nothingness? Not at all, in fact if I actively concentrate on targeting a fish in a piece of pocket water and catch that fish I have achieved one of many goals primarily that of catching and bringing a fish to net. At the same time, I find that the act of simply walking along the banks of a river, moving from one stretch of river to another, can be a form of meditation if I so desire, while at other times that walk is nothing more than a way to go from Point A to Point B.

Does Tenkara have to be a philosophy for every angler that tries it out and finds that they enjoy it? Not in the slightest most minute way does the new Tenkara angler have to treat this form of fly fishing as a philosophy if they do not wish to. If an angler wishes to make it a philosophy then so be it and they might even find one of the Ten Colors of Tenkara. The non-philosophical Tenkara angler will probably find a color that comes to resemble their preferred style of Tenkara as well. (Sorry, just had to throw in a shameless plug on some of my other writings. Follow the link if you wish, but I warn you of the dangers of following everything that I say whether in person or online.)

In conclusion I want to say that Tenkara for me is a form of fly fishing as well as a philosophy and will be the way I experience Tenkara till the end of my days. If you, as a reader of this blog and a Tenkara angler yourself, decide that it is both to you as well, welcome to my crazy silly world. If Tenkara is strictly a form of fly fishing to you then enjoy it to the fullest in that way as well. Enjoyment is enjoyment is enjoyment!

I hope that all my readers will get something out of this post, but if you don’t I can also respect that.

The TenkaraGrasshopper humbly takes leave of you now to return at a later date to speak more on those things that occur to him about Tenkara and maybe life in general. Until then, Adios Amigos and Amigas!

In the Immortal Words of Mr. Myagi

Wax On, Wax Off!!!

Miyagi Catches a Fly
Miyagi Catches a Fly
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