D.T. Pennington

Writer – Photographer – Creative Coach

The Silly Simplicity of Tenkara fishing.

“Heaven knows we fly fishers are suckers for every new gizmo we think will give us a leg up on catching fish,” writes Yvon Chouinard in Simple Fly Fishing (a book I’ve had on my shelf for a long while now, only today realizing I have a signed copy). He paints us a picture of the fly fisherman with the loaded down vest of pockets full of tools and flies, and maybe a waist pack with lord knows what else in it. “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 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.”

A loaded-down angler, circa 2018 on the Eagle River, Colorado

This didn’t hit me hit me until I was cleaning out the back of the Tacoma before we traded it in, forgetting that I had an unused Tenkara rod – a gift from a long-ago client – that was unused and stashed under the back seat compartment. I’m sure when I put it there I thought “this will be great for pulling off the highway and getting a few quick casts in.” This was back in Colorado, where most of the rivers along the highways are either flooded with runoff or bony skeletons of the waterways they used to be. The rod made its way to the top of the pile of the things I stocked in the new (used, new to me) truck we acquired to better haul our camping trailer. Out on the Nolichucky river in Eastern Tennessee this past weekend, the campsite was steps away from the well-flowing river.

How could I not?

A tenkara (Japanese for “from the heavens”) is a telescoping fiberglass rod. The one I have is 10 foot, ten inches and has no seat for a reel. Just like the fishing poles we all made in our childhood; this is little more than a line tied to the end of a pole with a hook on the far end. The setup is outrageously light, when collapsed the whole thing can fit in my back pocket and sets up in about a minute – and that includes the time it takes to tie the knot. The cast is the same, the flies are the same, but you’re working with only the line you need.

The collapsed rod and a wheel to store the line and hook.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing like the satisfying click of a reel or the art of a super-long cast – but the more line, the farther the cast, the less control we ultimately get from it. After a certain distance I can no longer see the fly on the water and if the rod is too heavy, I can’t feel what’s going on with the line. 

I didn’t pack waders or boots. I didn’t even think of how I would get into the water, but I did have some old Keen water shoes in the truck that I had tossed in when the plan was to either raft or tube the river (water was moving too fast for a tube, and we didn’t have enough friends along with us to rent a raft). I threw them on and stepped in. The water was refreshing as all hell.

In Colorado, the mountain streams that are fed by glaciers and snowpack are outrageously cold. To stand in them for any amount of time requires waders. After my knee surgery I took to it as a kind of therapy. The cold compression of the moving water around the waders did wonders for the operation site. I felt a lot of the same in the Nolichucky even though the water was far from hypodermically cold. I would argue that there is a lot to be gained from standing in a river even without a rod in hand. Go in just over knee-deep and stand for ten minutes, you’ll feel what I mean. 

I had a few nibbles and one full catch. It’s trickier bringing in a fish without a reel – a net would have helped wonders. After a few moments the fish – a crappie of about 5 inches – calmed down enough to where I could let him go. Apparently, in Tennessee, a trout license costs extra and I’m only here for a few days.

Like so many of us, I am looking for that simplified version of life. I’ve only just realized that there is no surefire method or theory, just a lot of little things that poke holes and ultimately drain us. The top change I’m making is to not buy anything new. My logic is that I have everything I could possibly need. From here on out the ethos is all about repairing and refurbishing, renting, borrowing. The only exceptions are the obvious consumables (groceries and soaps) and components for repairs – I have a stack of dead or dying tech that could easily get another decade’s worth of use with a new battery/ chip/ port/ etc.

And I, too, am a bit crazy about gear – a lovely consequence of my flavor of ADHD. I know I can dive headlong into something, invest a ton of time and money into it, and then leave it on a shelf (or under the back seat of the truck) after one rough day.

In the grandest of schemes maybe this is all I need.