What is Tenkara? | How To Fish For Trout Using The Power Of Japanese Zen
If you think fishing is an excuse to laze around in the sun, think again
For 99 per cent of my life I had zero interest in fishing. I ski, hike, camp, climb and mountain bike, so dragging a green plastic wheelbarrow full of tackle to the dingy edge of a post-industrial canal in order to slowly stew in hipflask whisky on a creaking fold-out chair was never my idea of an outdoor pursuit.
Then I discovered Tenkara.
It came from a growing interest in bushcraft. Not from a paranoid prepper point of view, but from a desire to somehow connect to the environments I so often take for granted when I’m pedalling or skinning through them. ‘Survival' is an overly-aggressive concept nowadays, but for generations of humans who developed what we might call 'survival techniques' it was simply living. And learning those techniques, reversing the recent divorce between us and nature, is addictive. In the modern parlance it promotes 'mindfulness,' but as we're talking about a Japanese tradition, let's stick with the good old-fashioned word 'zen'.
And Tenkara is quintessentially Japanese. It’s minimalist, elegant, focused, and borne of a somewhat mysterious tradition.
The history of Tenkara is an entirely natural evolution, appearing in different areas of Japan. It was developed through necessity by peasants who had to innovate to eat. As such there is no definitive story to tell, and little written record.
That's not to say there isn't something of a coherent philosophy, and two of its greatest living exponents are Masami Sakakibara and Dr Hisao Ishigaki. Luckily for us Brits, both of these masters have trained and endorsed a couple of Northern lads called John Pearson and Dr Paul Gaskell, who run Discover Tenkara.
"‘Survival' is an overly-aggressive concept nowadays, but for generations of humans who developed what we might call 'survival techniques' it was simply living."
I joined John and Paul for a day's introduction on the rivers criss-crossing the moorland of the Peak District. Sometimes little more than upland streams, and sometimes raging torrents (depending on how much rain water is running off the surrounding hills) these moorland rivers are similar in character to the mountainous terrain in which Tenkara originated. It's an aesthetically pleasing similarity but is perhaps less important than another likeness - they're teeming with trout, one of the primary targets of Tenkara.
John and Paul started the day testing the water, as it were, and I stood back to shoot some photos of them. Watching the guys, it was clear they were in their element.
What struck me immediately was their industrious elegance on the banks. Crouched like stalking ninjas and with a similar efficiency of movement. It was all deft flicks of the wrist rather than an agricultural swinging of the rod, and with a mere three seconds between casts they were able to cover sizeable sections of the river quite quickly.
If, like me, you've looked at fishing as an excuse to laze around in the sun, then reassess. Stillness by a river might be conducive to a certain kind of meditative state, but the zen we search for in the outdoors is much heightened by having a focus. Sportspeople might call it flow, that state where your attention is so consumed by well-practised movements that all else in the world melts away.
"If, like me, you've looked at fishing as an excuse to laze around in the sun, then reassess."
But John and Paul had me hooked well before I got to that point. As soon as John handed over my new Masu rod I realised it would become a near-constant companion for outdoor adventures; it weighs 75 grams and packs down to 55 centimetres. Astonishing for an 11-foot fishing rod.
Once the box of flies (kebari in Japanese) are added, along with a spool of fluorocarbon line, snips and forceps, the whole package weighs in at 153 grams, and the smaller items fit in a pocket. As a survival tool to take along on any multiday hike or wild camping trip, I'd challenge you to find anything with a better weight-to-benefit ratio. After a knife, firesteel and water filter, this may be the next must-have kit.
But of course, Tenkara offers more than a way to survive. Filtering water is not an enjoyable pursuit in itself, and neither is sparking magnesium into a pile of birch bark. But even the most lightweight of camping expeditions will be enhanced by a couple of hours exploring the riverbanks and by a freshly caught Rainbow Trout sizzling over your fire.
The most obvious difference between Tenkara and other forms of fly fishing, and a significant factor in keeping the weight down, is that the line is attached directly to the end of the rod, with no reel involved. In this way Tenkara has stayed true to its humble, improvised origins. But Paul Gaskell gets to the crux of this difference more eloquently when he says: "It's like plugging directly into nature. Less gear means less barriers between you and your surroundings."
From a practical point of view, the longer rod and lack of a long spool of line mean that (with a bit of practise) you can place your fly more precisely in different areas of the stream than you would be able to with Western fly fishing equipment. This makes Tenkara perfect for mountain rivers where fast-flowing water can whip longer lines downstream very quickly.
There's a similarly minimalist approach to the flies themselves, which again owes something to the proletarian beginnings of Tenkara. Kebari literally means 'feathered needle' in Japanese and they were originally made from bent sewing needles and feathers. Whereas Western fly tiers spend way too much time poring over the minutiae of perfectly recreating a myriad of prey, the Japanese approach is simply to make something that looks vaguely insect-like.
"Even the most lightweight of camping expeditions will be enhanced by a couple of hours exploring the riverbanks and by a freshly caught Rainbow Trout sizzling over your fire"
It might seem haphazard, but it makes Tenkara hugely more approachable for those looking for an occasional hobby, a basic skill, or something to tag onto a camping trip, rather than an all-consuming new life of microscopic insect imitation.
Without gear to hide behind, a Tenkara practitioner can only distinguish themselves through their technique. And after half a dozen casts I felt the flush of pride as John and Paul both complimented the accuracy of my casting. I needn't have flushed, apparently it's much easier for a novice to cast Tenkara than for an experienced fly fisherman, as nothing has to be unlearned. Yet another aspect of its accessibility to the uninitiated.
Nevertheless it encouraged me to keep casting. Amongst all the talking, observing and photographing I only managed around an hour of actual fishing, but it was incredible how quickly the meditative effects took hold. The gentle repetition of the cast, the focus on the target, the soft creeping around the bank, and beginning to feel the rhythm of the river through the rod, all contribute to the zen of Tenkara.
And Paul was right about plugging into nature. As with other bushcraft-type skills, I very quickly found myself able to see my surroundings rather than merely look at them. The difference between slow and fast moving areas of water suddenly jumps out, the sheltered areas where fish might feed begin to appear obvious, you're compelled to become part of the environment.
Forget the hippy slogans of the 1960s. If you want to commune with nature, learn how to catch fish. Tie on, plug in, hook out.
***Fishing must only be undertaken with the proper permissions and licences***