Tenkara Fly Fishing
May 19, 2014
"Fish learn from history," Yvon Chouinard observed, looking out the window at an Idaho sunrise. He referenced the notoriously difficult trout inhabiting the nearby Henry's Fork River—fish that have seen many flies, and have learned to be selective. The trout have evolved. They have adapted, and in doing so have worked their way onto nearly every fly fisher's "bucket list" worldwide.
Maybe it is time for anglers to undergo a little evolution of their own.
We sat on a small goat ranch near Ashton, Idaho, watching the sun climb into the sky over the Fall River, dappling the river with light and greening the autumnal grasses. Chouinard, dressed immaculately in vintage—very vintage—Patagonia, was tucked in with a cup of tea and talking fishing.
Like groupies to a rock star, a group gathered around and listened, attention rapt.
"Fly fishing has built itself into a corner," Chouinard reflected. "There's a dad with so much gear, the kid looks at it all and goes 'forget it.' The daughter looks at macho fly-fishing magazines and doesn't want to do it."
"For many years now, there has been an aging undercurrent in the sport of fly fishing. As older anglers leave the sport, who will take up the mantle from the aging vanguard? Where are the six-year-olds with their Superman rods and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Where are the young women who keep a tub of Mucilin next to their lip gloss in their purse? The young men, who, instead of spending nights out partying at the pub, prefer to go home and tie up a new batch of Royal Wulffs?" As Chouinard, so prominent in the industry for decades, addressed the issue, the room grew silent.
"That's why I'm writing this book. It's a metaphor for society," he said.
Sustainable Fly Fishing
The Patagonia, Inc., founder talked about simplicity. He spoke of the unsustainability of the modern "consume-and-discard" society. Patagonia has made a multitude of efforts to alleviate some of their environmental burden—the company is legendary for those efforts, and has a dedicated consumer following as a result. Patagonia uses its website to promote "Environmental and Social Responsibility," and has spearheaded countless programs to fulfill that promise, including the ever-popular "Worn Wear" program. The program encourages customers to submit photographs of generations-old gear they are still using.
And Chouinard's company is dedicated to many other environmental efforts, many of them fly-fishing related. The latest among hundreds of grassroots projects is the new film DamNation (sponsored by Patagonia), a documentary calling for the removal of high-cost, low-value dams to restore free-flowing rivers, and recover fish stocks. Clearly, to Chouinard, more rivers and more fish means better opportunities to the next generation of fly fishers.
Much of the company's mission is centered on reducing its environmental footprint, and encouraging people to use, repair, and then reuse product they already have. At first it seems a counterintuitive mission for a retail business, but the Patagonia team confirms business has done nothing but increase with the implementation of such programs.
"The more I try to green my own company, the more we sell," he grinned ruefully. "I don't get it." He hopes to "give ammunition" to the customers to be more responsible, to help encourage sustainable decisions.
But, Chouinard noted, no matter how green you make your product, it's not sustainable. More intelligent decisions help, but don't solve the problem. At the end of the day something is still being taken away and not replenished. So what is the solution?
"The only answer is simplicity. We have to go back to living a simple life. The more you know, the less you need," Chouinard informed us. "A Zen master would say the only way to master anything is to go to simplicity."
People adapt and change as they become masters of their sport. Chouinard uses the example of a hunter. A good hunter, seeking a challenge, transitions from a rifle to a compound bow. Mastering the compound, he may switch to a recurve bow, a traditional longbow, or even to fletching his own arrows. The better he is at the craft, the more of an art form it becomes. As he becomes a master of his sport, he becomes more satisfied by the hunt itself, and relies less on store-bought technology.
Many anglers first learn to fish with conventional tackle, and then move up the ladder from there. Many new fly fishers learn at the side of a guide, and the guide ties the knots, rigs the rod, and handles fish. Eventually we must all take steps forward where we challenge ourselves, depend more on our own skills, and become more attuned to our surroundings.
Chouinard argues that to truly master a sport you learn to do more with less.
He details his own enlightenment in Simple Fly Fishing (Patagonia Books, 2014):
"Twenty-five years ago, a Japanese friend gave me a telescoping fiberglass rod with no reel seat. It was a beautiful, precious gift; light, sensitive, and elegant. When I received this rod, I didn't really understand what I was getting, and I stored it on a shelf in my cabin for fifteen years. I have since learned that it is called a tenkara rod, which means 'from the heavens,' and is used in Japan to fish for yamame, amago, and iwana trout in small mountain streams."
So started a new journey of a lifetime passion for the man renowned for reshaping rock climbing, and for the modern era of ice climbing.
Tenkara USA introduced a full line of rods, lines, and flies to this continent several years ago. Chouinard used his original Japanese gift as a benchmark to produce (with Temple Fork Outfitters) two Patagonia-branded tenkara rods. And beginning in April 2014, every U.S. Patagonia retail store will sell a Simple Fly Fishing kit for $280, which includes a tenkara rod, a box of 12 flies (recommended by Yvon Chouinard), line & leader, and the new book Simple Fly Fishing, coauthored by Craig Mathews and Mauro Mazzo.
The Next Generation
Chouinard sees tenkara as perhaps an unlikely savior for the fly-fishing industry because it's easy to learn, and highly effective.
"What started out as a novelty turned out to be the most effective way of catching fish," he noted. "I've had 60-fish days, including two doubles on these rods."
(Chouinard doesn't exaggerate. When trying tenkara for the first time, I had the single best "fish count" day of my life, including my first double.)
The techniques in the book have been adapted from traditional Japanese tenkara fishing and modified to suit American waters and larger fish. Yvon regularly chases after the famed Henry's Fork rainbow trout with his tenkara rod, and has successfully pursued salmon.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of tenkara is its ability to teach the younger generation. Due to its incredible simplicity, kids find tenkara fishing far less intimidating and easier to pick up. There is no reel to manage, no excess of stripped line to juggle. It's simply a rod with a string tied to the end of it, with flies tied to the end of that.
While tenkara has been unfairly characterized as "dapping," there is casting involved but with a very manageable length of line. When you are dry-fly fishing you raise the rod tip to remove slack or to mend line.
Chouinard gets newbies started with the traditional wet-fly swing. His only adaptation is a rhythmic pulsing of the rod tip that brings his soft-hackles to life, and drives trout crazy.
"We've had unbelievable results with this tenkara system in teaching kids to fish," Mark Harbaugh, Patagonia's fishing sales manager, told me. "That's what we need: these younger people in at a grassroots level. Once you catch your first fish and watch it swim away . . ." he trailed off. "Ah, hell, I'm getting choked up."
Some longtime fly fishers are hesitant to touch the rods, preferring the comfort of a reel and traditional gear. That's just how they've always done it.
For those willing to step outside their comfort zone, however, the method seems to form an entirely new addiction.
Tenkara is also capturing the attention of a new vanguard of female anglers. While some women have been turned off by the frat-boy mentality that seems to pervade the sport in places—who can cast the farthest or catch the biggest fish is all too common in some circles—tenkara offers an artful, quieter take.
"Women are natural for fishing; they really are," Chouinard said with almost a rueful grin. "A lot of them are turned off by the macho-ness of what's happened in fly fishing. It used to be contemplative, now it's a combat sport."
Patagonia just recently unveiled a whole line of women's clothing including waders, but once again, Chouinard talks down his own products.
"You can fish in gym shorts; you don't need this stuff," he laughs. For Chouinard, whether in the mountains or on the river, it's all about the experience, and less about the fluff.
A simple life is not an unaccomplished life, he said. He addresses the phenomenon in the introduction to Simple Fly Fishing:
"I would offer that this proliferation of gear is supported by busy people who lack for nothing in their lives except time. Our 'time-saving' communication devices, like tablets and smartphones, make slaves of their owners. We are unwilling, or unable, to put in the 10,000 hours needed to become a master fisher, hunter, or mountain climber. Instead, we load up with all the latest stuff and hire guides to do everything for us—including tying on the fly and releasing the fish. The guides have become enablers rather than teachers. How many bonefish would average anglers catch if they had to work out the tides and wade and spot fish themselves instead of waiting for a guide to bark, 'ten o'clock, forty-foot cast now! Wait . . . strip . . . strip'? The guides leave clients so unsure of themselves that they think there must be some secret, unattainable knowledge that only the guide possesses.
"As author Sheridan Anderson says in the Curtis Creek Manifesto, the objective of fishing is to catch fish, but in the pursuit of the catch you will gain so much more. The higher purpose of practicing a sport such as fly fishing, hunting, or mountain climbing is to affect a spiritual and physical gain. But if the process is compromised, there is no transformation.
"Fishing with a fly can be such an incredibly complex and passionate sport that no one can fully master all the different disciplines in one lifetime. Some anglers prefer to limit themselves to only fishing with dry flies, while others specialize in perfecting their casting, fly tying, or even learning the Latin names and life history of all the insects. These can be legitimate endeavors in themselves, and there are untold books written about these subjects. This book is not one of them."
In the book's afterword, Chouinard sums up his philosophy in a few powerful paragraphs:
"The lesson we learn from fishing with a tenkara rod is that we shouldn't fear that a simpler life will be an impoverished life. Rather, simplicity leads to a richer and more satisfying way of fishing—and more importantly, living."
For many anglers, fishing and living intertwine into a deeply melded combination.