Everybody is in search of some simplicity in life, but perhaps nobody searches harder for it than the fly fisherman.
So it’s no small wonder why tenkara, the most simplistic form of fly-fishing, has been catching on so fast.
“It’s so simple,” West Yellowstone, Mont., fly fisherman Craig Mathews said. “It’s deadly efficient, and it’s so accurate that anybody can pick it up.”
Mathews is one of the sport’s most dedicated proponents of tenkara — translated literally from Japanese as “from the skies” — and his West Yellowstone shop, Blue Ribbon Flies, was one of the first Montana fly shops to start outfitting anglers with tenkara kits.
But while tenkara rods may be new in outfitters’ stockrooms around the country, the method is as old as they come. It’s a pole with a string on the end. There are no reels, no eyelets attached to the rods.
“It’s basically the way Tom Sawyer fished,” said Ryan Foley of Great Falls.
The method goes a bit further back than Mark Twain’s days. According to Mathews, Roman author Aelian wrote of what essentially was tenkara (he called it a “loop rod”) in the second and third centuries. Tenkara is first mentioned by name in British diplomat Earnest Maton Satow’s 19th-century writings from Japan.
“You can fish a river out with one because you can keep all the line off the water and you can get closer,” Mathews said.
Those smaller streams, Foley said, is where tenkara is still best utilized. This is for a number of reasons, mostly the limitations that a fixed-length cast impose.
It’s also a great way to introduce people to fly-fishing.
“For a beginner, I definitely see how it could be as simple as point and cast,” Foley said. “You don’t have to worry about controlling the line in your opposite hand. It’s just about the casting stroke. If I were to introduce somebody to fly-fishing and just casting, it would be a great tool.”
Mathews pointed out that tenkara setups are also much less expensive than a traditional fly-rod outfit. (Some kits start around $100.) Cost can be a big deal, Mathews said, for a sport that is struggling to attract the younger demographic. Tenkara is the solution.
“That’s how we’re saving our sport,” Mathews said.
Of course, it’s not for every fish. The lightweight nature of tenkara, as well as the fixed length of the line, make it a challenge to keep bigger fish on.
“(Tenkara) presents a couple challenges, like what do you do with a big fish and you’re on a set line and there you are? What I do is I’ll just throw the rod,” he said.
Yep. He’ll throw the rod. Into the river.
“I know eventually I’ll lose one,” he said, “but I’ve done it probably 70 times and it hasn’t happened yet. ... When you hook a fish, you hook him in his front yard, in his home. And when you hold on to him, he’s going to take off and he’ll fight like crazy.
“… I just throw the rod, and what happens is the rod swings around downstream, and now the pressure is downstream of the fish and he comes right back again.”
After the fish calms down from being hooked, Mathews uses the current to help him bring in the fish.
Foley, who fishes with a traditional setup, advises avid fly fisherman not to abandon your rod and reel to fish tenkara exclusively.
“It shouldn’t be a quiver of one, in my opinion,” he said.