A few years back, when I first ventured into the world of fly-fishing, I remember my friend sending me an advertisement for something called a “Tenkara” rod, accompanied by a message that we should check these rods out for our backcountry adventures. I also recall my immediate rejection of the idea of tackling a new style of fishing. My immersion into fly-fishing was still very fresh, and shedding the comfort of my reel not only seemed unappealing, it was out of the question. Easily brushing off the idea of experimenting with a new type of rod, I sank deeper into the world of fly-fishing I had first fallen in love with. I fished every chance presented to me, read blogs, stalked fly shops, mimicked anglers around me, and talked fish to anyone who would listen. As I fulfilled my quest to learn all I could about angling, something became very clear to me, this Tenkara my friend had mentioned wasn’t going away. In fact, it seemed to be gaining momentum. I began to hear the name so frequently, that I couldn’t help but begin to explore this Japanese tradition that was rapidly gaining ground in American culture.
Before I began my research, my knowledge of Tenkara was very limited. To be honest, all I really knew was Tenkara was a Japanese style of fly-fishing that somehow did not involve a reel. As I scoured articles and various websites, I realized the style of fishing I had ignorantly dubbed trendy was actually rich in Japanese tradition. Tenkara originated in Japan more than 200 years ago, and its transformation into the modern form remains mysterious due to a reliance on oral tradition for information. Literally meaning “from heaven” or “from the skies,” Tenkara is distinct from other forms of angling because it originated out of necessity rather than a sport for the leisure class. This notion of a style of fishing being essential to survival challenged my perspective of sport fly-fishing and shed light on why I was continuously reading about the “elegant simplicity” of Tenkara. My intrigue for learning and experimenting with Tenkara was paired with a looming feeling of intimidation about undertaking a practice seemingly meant for the elite angler. Fortunately, my curiosity prevailed, and I decided to withdraw my initial rejection and embrace this new style of fishing.
After deciding to take on Tenkara, I enlisted help from fellow anglers on selecting the right rod and began planning a trip with a friend I considered a “Tenkara enthusiast.” After deliberation, we determined our destination was Northwest Colorado, in search of the elusive grayling, cold weather camping and my inaugural Tenkara experience. After arriving at Joe Wright Reservoir on a brisk mountain morning, I shivered my way out of the car and prayed for the sun to bring us a little warmth because I realized we had a long day of fishing ahead. With luck, we secured a campsite and shifted our attention to the day’s adventure.
My friend patiently gave me a Tenkara tutorial, and we set off, Tenkara rod in hand, to hunt a seemingly unattainable fish with an unfamiliar rod. To avoid the embarrassment of others witnessing my first awkward attempts at casting, I set off by myself to explore the reservoir and surrounding creeks. To be honest, I was surprised how quickly I forgot I was using a foreign rod and settled into my fishing rhythm.
I’d love to report that I discovered a newfound peace or enrichment by taking part in this simplistic form of fly-fishing, but the reality is it was a spectacularly ordinary day of fishing. Tree branches wrestled me for my line, we scaled a dam, my friend stumbled into the creek, and we lost and landed some exquisite trout. As I grew comfortable with the Tenkara rod, I reveled in practicing my casting and attempting to find the perfect drift. When I landed my first fish of the day, I loved that the lightweight Tenkara made my 8-inch Tiger Trout feel like it could put up a good fight, (never mind how my rod felt when shortly after, I hooked into the an 18-inch Rainbow in the unlikeliest of holes).
When evening arrived, we hadn’t so much as spotted a grayling, but I no longer felt intimidated by Tenkara. My original notion that Tenkara should be reserved for the “dry fly cultural purists” was replaced with the confidence that it had a place in my life as well. The evening ended just as every fishing trip should, sitting around the crackling fire, shooting stars overhead, watching dinner cook, and listening to laughter and, of course, fish stories.
I’ve been fishing several times since the opening Tenkara adventure, and I must admit my Tenkara rod has been in hand on every trip. Consequently, I’ve grown accustom to the double take of strangers as I extend this compact device into a full fly rod, and I’m always ready for the inquiry that follows. Fortunately, with the confidence derived from each new experience, I am feeling increasingly equipped to answer positively when asked, “How do you like your Tenkara rod?”