A Japanese fly-fishing art comes to life

Centuries-old tenkara is becoming a hit on streams in the American West.

  • Tenkara, which roughly means "from heaven," is a centuries-old Japanese fishing technique that is simpler than modern fly-fishing.

    Ryan Sanchez
  • Tenkara, which roughly means "from heaven," is a centuries-old Japanese fishing technique that is simpler than modern fly-fishing.

    Ryan Sanchez
 

Page 2

"Today, there are more people fishing tenkara in the U.S. than in Japan," Chouinard said. "You don't need an $800 rod to catch a fish. We keep thinking we need to get more and more complex, when in fact there are a lot of lessons from the past that we need to relearn." To Chouinard, true mastery of any skill requires freedom from gear and extra stuff. He called tenkara "the savior of fly fishing ... it is simple and inexpensive, and I can teach an 8-year-old in minutes."

I realized that my niece would be a perfect test subject for Chouinard's thesis when I saw her pretending to fish with a chopstick. Mayli is small for her age, with more than enough guts to make up for it. She's the kind of girl who brings goggles to the river to dive after bugs, but until today, she had never actually seen anyone – except maybe cartoon bears – go fishing

Now I am watching her, a diminutive angler bundled in pastel snow gear, cast a real rod for the first time. Galhardo shows her how to grip it with her index finger on top, and then move her arm from 10 to 12 o'clock, with her elbow bent at her side.

The basic tenkara cast looks a lot like a Western fly cast, with the advantage that a tenkara angler can cast tight, aerodynamic loops with just one hand. Because it relies on the rod's flexibility, it requires a lot less power. This allows even an inexperienced angler to cast a fly softly and control the line in the current more deftly than is possible with a Western rod. A tenkara rod is so responsive that even the softest nibble sends a visible quiver, while a fight bends it into a deep arc. It is an unfiltered way to experience the best part of fishing, proponents say. At times, it feels almost like catching fish with your hands – minus the trouble of getting wet.

At first, Mayli's casts flutter limply, but within a couple minutes, as Chouinard predicted, she has figured out how quickly to move on her back cast, and then how long to wait for the tip of the rod and the line to catch up before starting the forward cast. When she adds a subtle wrist-flick at either end, the fly circles in a graceful loop overhead and settles silently on the surface of the water.

She joins Galhardo on top of the boulder and starts looking keenly for fish. In a small pool, they spot a brown trout, maybe nine inches long, circling lethargically in the near-freezing water. Within a few tries, Mayli's beginner's mind has her casting about three inches in front of the trout's face. After a few more, she's figured out how to twitch the rod to make the fly dance. Suddenly, she crouches in a low stance, using all of her strength to pull back on the rod and keep the line taut. The rod bends over her head and twitches fiercely.

"Fish on!" Galhardo shouts. "Set the hook!" As the fish twists and fights, Mayli exuberantly uses the rod to swing the fish high in the air, instead of finishing in the traditional way, reaching for the line to pull it in. She lands it with a triumphant thump at our feet.

Galhardo scoops her catch in his net and holds it in the water so we can all get a good look at the fish's bright copper flanks, which glisten with blushes of moss green and the red streaks of sunset. We watch until its movements and breathing calm, and then Mayli turns out the net. With a last glint, the fish wriggles towards the opposite bank and disappears.

What was that like? I ask her. I'm expecting her to say something profound about the experience, as happens in all the stories I've ever read about catching fish.

Mayli looks down at the water and says, "It felt heavy."

She spends the rest of the day fishing, too busy to talk.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Tienlon Ho lives in San Francisco and writes about food, technology, and the environment for a range of publications including Lucky Peach, The New York Times, and GQ.

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