To the untrained eye, tenkara is a stick, some string and a fly, and ease of entry is not how I would describe my attempt to introduce it to North American audiences a number of years ago.
I found myself trying to sell the virtue of this effective and efficient genre of fishing to no avail. I aired a show that had been shot in Japan for my series What A Catch showcasing sleepy mountain streams and small (OK very small, but beautifully marked) wild trout called Iwana, Amago and Yamame, via a fringe technique of fly-fishing called tenkara. As our group made the short trek toward the river, I was told about how the Samurai used this method of fly-casting in the Edo period (1603-1868). But later I was told it was the local poor farmers who practiced this ancient way of harvesting fish for market. I like the romantic notion that the Samurai fished tenkara as an alternative to martial arts training during periods when they were not allowed to carry swords. But I have come under fire for reinforcing this notion.
The tenkara rod of that time was a straight lightweight piece of bamboo (cane). The emphasis of tenkara flies was not to be a perfect imitation as we endeavor, but rather achieving a perfect presentation with a sparsely tied reverse-hackle fly. Every tenkara master has his own fly and style. That's why the Japanese playfully refer to tenkara as 10 colours.
The line was similar to what was used by Charles Cotton or Dame Juliana Berners, which is fun to think about. You see, many cultures have fished with fixed line over the ages; Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Russia, etc. Yes I was romanced by the idea of Samurai fishing in this way and I was excited to introduce tenkara to North American audiences.
"Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing." -- Oscar Wilde.
Tenkara fly fishing, by definition, is the cornerstone of simplicity and efficiency. But it is human nature to make things more complex than they need to be.
Tenkara, roughly translated, means from heaven or from the sky, and that is where my head was until the show aired. The tenkara feature was airing at a time when viewers had an appetite for watching monster, man-eating, Goliath fish. Emails soon followed critical of the 24:06-minute show where I espoused the glories of these small, wild, mountain fish caught with 11 feet of line, one fly and a "wristy" presentation.
I left what had been a great angling experience in Japan, for Spain and giant wels catfish. Sources say the Silurus glanis were not indigenous to Spain. A German businessman illegally and intentionally transplanted a handful of German game fish into the Spanish reservoir some 20 years ago. Eating everything in sight to satisfy their growing bulk, the aliens decimated the local species. I caught a catfish almost twice my weight that day. A trophy. I cast the rod once and placed the rod in the holder until the bell rang. I set the hook and winched in a fish as long as a car. "A hollow accomplishment," I remember thinking.
Clearly, I didn't have a connection to the big fish in the way I'd had when fishing the mountain streams. Rod, line and fly as an extension of my arm gave me a connection to the fish's world in a way I couldn't experience by fishing long line from a river bank in deep, dark water via a rod holder.
Since then, I am pleased to report that tenkara has achieved a cult following in North America, thanks in part to the affordability and accessibility of tenkara gear. More importantly there is a shift in popular culture to a simpler, kinder way of living; celebrating quality not quantity. We are still using technology to enhance our lives but we are trying to live more modestly. We are growing our own food, recycling and taking more time to appreciate things around us.
It's good to know that I won't be the only one packing my kit with all the appropriate technologies: Fly Rods, Spey Rods, Conventional Gear, and Tenkara Rods, along with all my favorite flies. These are just tools we use to get to the same result... to catch a fish worth talking about so we can let him go to catch another day.