Big Fish, Small Pond: The Turbulent World of Tenkara Fly Fishing

August 27, 2018
tenkara fly fishing
Paula ChampagneChris Stewart, founder of the tenkara fly fishing gear company Tenkara Bum, in New York’s Harriman State Park.

Tenkara fly fishing may be a niche market in the United States, but it sure is competitive. A New York angler casts his side of the tale.

The first thing you should know about Tenkara Bum is that the “bum” part is a misnomer. Whether it’s 7 a.m. or 11 p.m., you’re likely to find Chris Stewart, 67, surrounded by towers of shelving, clouds of bubble wrap, and scads of telescopic rods in the cramped Manhattan apartment that doubles as the headquarters of his one-man Japanese-fishing-gear business.

At best, he gets out fishing once a week, usually to a couple of streams north of the city. He doesn’t vary the script much, since finding a new honey hole would require time he can’t, or won’t, spare. Even when he is on the water, the customer-service emails and packing slips and trips to UPS weigh on his mind, looming in the obsessive mental middleground that, for other anglers, would be occupied by brook trout. Or white whales.

“My impression of what a real tenkara bum would be?” Stewart mulls the question from a wrought iron chair on the patio of the Stephen & Betsy Corman AMC Outdoor Center in New York’s Harriman State Park. In a rare moment of repose, he looks out over idyllic Breakneck Pond, only 45 miles by car from Manhattan but a world away. “It would be someone living out of a van, going from one stream to another and just fishing. The simple life. That’s not me. It’s a nice name, but it’s not reality.”

The second thing you should know about Tenkara Bum is there are those who would argue the “tenkara” part is also just plain wrong. This camp posits that, unless you’re fishing for native brook trout with a tenkara line and a tenkara rod high up on a mountain stream, preferably in Japan, you’re not tenkara fishing.

If you’ve never heard of tenkara, you’re not alone, although you are in a rapidly shrinking pool. And if you can’t imagine why anyone would care about wordsmithing a niche hobby fishery, well, prepare yourself for the bloody story of the Tenkara Wars.

+++

According to Misako Ishimura, the captain of Japan’s national fly fishing team who lives part of each year in New York’s trout-rich Catskills, one translation of tenkara is “from the sky” or “from the heavens.” In practice, tenkara means using a very long, fairly flexible rod, with a durable fishing line and a lightweight tippet (the final few feet of line, to which the fly, or lure, is attached). There’s no bait and no reel (the spool that holds excess line on spinning rods and traditional Western-style fly rods).

Tenkara fishers don’t need to store miles of line because, when you’re fishing a narrow mountain stream, you don’t want lots of line getting snagged on overhanging tree branches or underwater rocks. You want a line so light, it floats above the water’s surface rather than sinking and spooking the hungry but skittish trout down below. Tenkara assumes lots of obstacles—cramped quarters, nervous fish, hazards above and below the current—which makes it sound awfully difficult.

But here’s the thing: It’s not. Tenkara is so easy, it’s a delight, even for first-timers. The lack of apparatus means there’s not much to master at the beginner level. Unlike rod-and-reel fishing, there’s no left-handed or right-handed pole, so you can’t really do it wrong, and there’s no complicated mechanism regulating the line. You swish, you cast, and sometimes you catch. That’s it. If you’re envisioning a Huck Finn-style cane pole, you’re not far off base.

Beyond the lack of a reel, tenkara also differs from the type of fly fishing popularized by the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It in that there’s not the endless parade of fuzzy lures you’d find in a typical American fly shop. Whereas Western fly-fishing flies aim to replicate precise bug species by life cycle, from larva to adult, there are only five types of Japanese tenkara flies, and these suggest the spirit, rather than the anatomy, of an insect.

In Japan, tenkara likely dates back hundreds of years. Ishimura cites the war-torn 1700s, when samurai fled the lowlands for the hills, taking “tengara,” or ocean fishing, with them to the mountains. “Each area had a different name for it,” Ishimura says. “In one area, they call it ‘chon-chon,’ for the sound of the fly hitting the water.” The term “tenkara” only came into popularity in Japan in the 1970s before hopping the pond to America in the late 2000s. From there, it took off like a fish on a line.

While the sport isn’t big enough Stateside to merit its own study yet, the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation’s 2018 Special Report on Fishing found that fly fishing on the whole, has a higher rate of first-time participants than any other type of fishing. And anecdotally, according to both Stewart and his competitor Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA, a 2009 Google search for “tenkara” would have turned up about 60 results, 50 of which were in Japanese. Try that today, and you’ll get more than 1 million hits.

+++

“You cast out, and if you don’t get a bite the first time, the next time you might pulse it a little bit, to try and draw a strike,” Stewart explains, waving his tenkara pole gently overhead, as if he’s silently trying to get someone’s attention across a crowded room. Stewart, bespectacled and avuncular, with an easy, self-deprecating sense of humor, is ankle-deep in Stony Brook, near the southwestern border of Harriman State Park. The water is especially low right now, in midsummer. Tenkara-style fishing is doable here, but you have to be flexible—both in fitness and in imagination.

Stewart didn’t always hawk gear. He began his career buying and selling corn and soybeans in the vast inland ocean that is the Midwestern prairie. From there, he went on to stints as a commodities research analyst, a broker on the floor of the New York Cotton Exchange, and an upstairs day-trader separated by glass from the chaos of the pit. He met and married a city girl and settled in the heart of Manhattan. It was all in keeping for a Harvard Business School grad with a sharp eye for trendspotting.

But when day-trading policies changed in the mid-2000s, Stewart found his profit dwindling beyond what he could retire on. Meantime, perhaps in response to the pressures of Wall Street, he had returned to fly fishing, a childhood hobby he’d abandoned during his middle years in the Midwest.

“I was a mountain kid from Colorado who fished for trout,” he says. “And in Champaign, Ill., they didn’t have trout, so I didn’t fish.” In New York, however, he became an avid paddler with AMC. Paddling led to fishing, and he and a friend started spending time at a sporting camp in Maine. When that friend gave him a fly-tying kit one Christmas, Stewart began scouring the internet for fly patterns.

“I had seen a photo of the North Country fly,” he recalls. “It was very, very sparse. The body was just silk thread, a single grouse feather. To me, it was this thing of austere beauty—exactly what you needed and nothing more. I thought, OK, how do I fish those?”

The fly, he learned, was developed by fishers in Yorkshire, England, who tied it onto a fixed-length horsehair line, which they attached, in turn, to a 14- or 15-foot rod. In searching for the modern equivalent of a pole so long it could reach clear across a brook, Stewart came across another digital breadcrumb: a post about ancient tenkara anglers in Japan who used extra-long poles and horsehair lines.
“Tenkara, I thought,” Stewart says. “What’s that?”

He was hooked. After scoring a hand-me-down tenkara rod from an internet friend in January 2008, he began Googling “tenkara” every day. Eventually, an English-language site popped up. “That was Daniel Galhardo, of Tenkara USA,” he says. “We started emailing back and forth. We did that for a long time. We were good buddies.”

+++

Stewart readily acknowledges that Galhardo, a 35-year-old native of Brazil and a longtime Colorado resident, was the first to sell tenkara rods in the United States. Stewart repeats that fact almost as frequently as he does his own catchphrase, “I’m a merchant, not a master,” which he wields as a sort of disclaimer, lest you give him more credit than he feels he’s due.

Galhardo officially opened TenkaraUSA.com for business in April 2009, the year before Stewart started TenkaraBum.com—the latter mostly as a blog, reviewing the rods then-available on the American market. As Stewart’s trading days waned, he began to sell his own hand-tied flies, as well as a type of high-visibility, neon-orange, fluorocarbon Japanese fishing line, of which he was the sole importer.

Stewart had cornered the market on line, Galhardo sold poles, and everyone was getting along swimmingly. Until, according to Stewart, he mentioned to Galhardo that Tenkara USA’s milky-green line was fine for fishing in bright daylight but could be tough to spot in the shadow-dappled streams that are tenkara’s lifeblood. Galhardo saw Stewart’s point and decided to sell his own orange line. (Galhardo says he doesn’t recall the exact order of events.)

“I thought, Oh, man,” Stewart recalls. “That is the heart of my business. It’s the only thing I had that was unique. What do I do? Well, maybe I should start selling rods.”

In researching rods, Stewart came across a type called tenago, most commonly used for the Japanese mania of microfishing, or angling for fish small enough to fit on a 1 yen coin. “The first time I took out the tenago rod, my friend and I went to a trout stream,” Stewart says. “He was going to catch trout, and I was going to catch little ones. On this rod where I had expected to catch 2-inch fish, I ended up catching 9.5-, 10-inch trout. And it was a lot of fun. I thought, I’ve got something here.”

There was only one problem. In Japan—and for a certain sect in America that has taken up the strictest definition of tenkara—there’s no such thing as trout fishing with a tenago rod. It’s just not done. Tenago is for sitting on a pier and dangling a line down to catch minnows. Tenkara is for trout fishing in remote mountain streams. Each has its own rod, its own purpose, and never the twain shall meet.

“Life is kind of rigid there,” Stewart says of Japan, the home country of both his wife and Galhardo’s. “There’s a phrase here in the U.S., ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ There’s a phrase there, ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.’ Individuality is not prized. People fish a certain way. If you want to fish for bass, you fish with a baitcaster or maybe a spinning rod. No one would even think of using a tenkara rod for bass.”

So when Stewart mentioned online that you could fish tenkara-style with a tenago rod? Welcome to life during wartime.

+++

The brouhaha comes down to two basic questions: First, can a pole without a cork grip—the biggest difference between a tenago rod and a tenkara rod—be called a tenkara pole? “That was the First Tenkara War,” Stewart says. That one, he’ll concede: The first rod he imported was a tenago pole, even if he used it for what he would consider tenkara fishing.

And if you’re not fishing for brook trout in the mountain streams of Japan, are you really fishing tenkara? “That was the Second Tenkara War,” Stewart says.

“It’s like if you call cricket baseball,” Galhardo says.

“The best analogy I’ve heard is pizza,” Stewart says, choosing another metaphor. “Italian pizza is one way. If you put pineapple on a pizza? You’d cause a riot in Italy. But here, in America, it’s still pizza. It’s the same thing with tenkara—for me, at least. Going out here and fishing for bluegills?” he asks, gesturing out over Harriman. “I’d call that tenkara.”

So, what is tenkara? “I think about the question a fair amount,” Galhardo tells me on the phone from Boulder. He recalls a recent excursion to Hokkaido, Japan: “We fished a lake one day, and I hardly ever fish lakes, but it was next to a stream. And I would say that’s tenkara, because it felt like tenkara.” He also mentions a recent trip to Texas. “Those small streams reminded me of fishing any stream in Japan,” Galhardo says. “So, for me, that was tenkara, until the guide I was fishing with started pushing me to change flies, to change tippets. That’s when it ceased being tenkara.”

And yet Galhardo, among others, called out Stewart on the tenago miscue. Once the comment was out there, the online nitpicking went viral. Typically taciturn anglers chose sides. “I felt like there’s a level of respect I want to pay to that element of Japanese culture,” Galhardo says.

The two men’s already shaky relationship suffered. Stewart took some jabs at Galhardo’s gear, particularly a backpacking rod that Stewart finds subpar. Galhardo deleted some of Stewart’s posts on the Tenkara USA site, as well as on a general tenkara Facebook forum.

What’s funny is, the two former friends are technically on the same side. Galhardo is not the king of the fundamentalists. “I’m trying to introduce more people to the concept: hikers, birdwatchers, people who aren’t already fly fishing,” he says. “We’re giving them one more way to connect with nature, so they’re not just paying attention to the trees and the trails, but also to the watersheds.”

In thinking about what tenkara is or isn’t, I can’t help but remember Ishimura’s take on the tenkara origin story, that the name came about by chance—by mistake. She also tells me that the root characters, “ten” and “gara,” come from the Chinese, and that discrete subcultures, from a vale in Italy to a pocket of what is now the Czech Republic, have practiced similar styles for ages.“There are so many names,” Ishimura says. “It’s a primitive way of fishing, so it was very isolated. Each valley had its own name. There was no mouth-to-mouth [discussion], because why would you tell someone where or how to catch fish? You keep it secret.”

Stewart, Galhardo, and Ishimura, on the other hand, are prosthelitizers, and Stewart and Galhardo are also businesspeople. As Stewart puts it, if you’re selling tenkara poles to American fishers who are going to fish in America, you can’t tell them what they’re doing isn’t tenkara. “That’s no way to run a business,” he says. And yet, Stewart took most of the trollers’ heat. “Daniel tried to stay above the fray, but a lot of his peanut gallery was really sniping,” Stewart says. “I don’t have a peanut gallery, so I had to wade in myself.”

Galhardo agrees: “I pretty much removed myself from that a couple of years ago, but I think the conversation still goes on.” It might have all died down faster, if not for the entrance of the biggest fish.

+++

“The thing about Yvon Chouinard is, if it makes sense to him, he’s gonna do it,” Stewart says of the iconoclastic founder of Patagonia, the gear giant. “He doesn’t care what other people say.”

The story goes that Chouinard had been given a tenkara rod a couple of decades back by a Japanese angler. Chouinard didn’t know what to do with it, so he put it in a closet and forgot about it until he was introduced to a similar style of Italian fishing that also uses a horsehair line. When Chouinard returned to the States from Italy, he tried that horsehair line on his tenkara rod.

“Chouinard thought, Bingo!” Stewart says. “This is an easy way to fish. This is a better way to fish.” (Chouinard was unavailable for comment, gone fishing for the summer, according to Patagonia staff.) Chouinard approached the Texas-based Temple Fork Outfitters about producing a tenkara rod for Patagonia, and the partners had a pole on the market by 2014. How did all of this sit with Stewart and Galhardo, who were already sharing the pond?

“It’s a little bit of a bittersweet relationship,” Galhardo says. “Chouinard was a huge evangelist for us before Patagonia started selling rods. We don’t have their business, but overall it has been a good thing.”

“From the standpoint of [the diehards], it’s the worst thing that ever happened to tenkara, because now there are thousands of people out there calling tenkara the wrong thing,” Stewart says. “But it just pumped up the tenkara business like crazy. People learn about tenkara for the first time; they go on Google; they find me. Chouinard made the pie bigger. He took a big piece out of the pie, but he made the pie much, much bigger.

“No one is going to tell Yvon Chouinard he’s doing it wrong,” Stewart says. “Even if they did, he doesn’t care.”

+++

“This is perhaps the ultimate backpacking rod,” Stewart says, handing over the Tenkara Bum Pocket Mini v3 270. “It collapses down to less than 10 inches and weighs 2 ounces, but it extends to 9 feet.”

Such a lightweight rod is also fairly delicate, so if you’re looking for something more durable, Stewart recommends the Traveler 33, which can be set to three different lengths. “If you’re on the trail and going through lots of different conditions—lakes, ponds, tiny little streams, wider streams—all those can be fished with this rod,” he says. Assuming, of course, you don’t take umbrage with the idea of tenkara fishing on a lake.

I sure don’t. For me, a tenkara hack who usually fishes with a relatively rigid Patagonia pole, the Traveler feels as light as a feather but stable: solid near the grip with lots of flexibility toward the tip. I can imagine really feeling a lively trout—or a bluegill or a sunfish, for that matter—wiggle on the line.

“Having something like [the Traveler], one spool of line, one spool of tippet, one of these”—a case of flies the size of a credit card—“is all you need for the weekend,” Stewart says. “Everything you need, you can put in your pockets. And most of the fishing is catch and release. I can imagine that appealing to an AMCer.”

So, too, might the greater cultural context of tenkara. A more generous definition of the sport exists, in which friends get together for weekend trips to Japan’s mountains, camping, fishing, and foraging for wild edibles. “You get a little of this, a little of that, you catch some fish,” Stewart says. “You put it all together, and you eat it. Being together outside, knowing the names of the mountains, the trees you see, the birds, the plants: That’s all tenkara.”

Some American fishers—not the zealots, but a more obliging crew—have adopted that part of tenkara and made it their own. “People come from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and meet up to fish together, to stay in a cabin for a weekend, very much like an AMC trip,” Stewart says. Surveying the lean-tos and tent sites around him, Stewart laments that it has been years since he has gone camping. He’d like to try it again, he says, and he’d like to bring his wife.

“If I wasn’t working anymore, if I could retire and just go fishing?” he muses, considering the idea. “I’d go tenkara fishing. I’d go bait fishing. I’d go spin fishing. I’d do all of it, because I enjoy it. Tenkara is unique, though: the cast, the line unrolling, the fly touching down lightly, the interplay of the currents, trying to keep the line off the surface. You don’t get that with other fishing. And it’s kind of special.”


LEARN MORE

Want to try fly fishing with an AMC guide? Upcoming workshops in Maine include Remote Ponds Fly Fishing, September 7–9 at Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins, and Fly Fishing on the Roach River, September 21–23 at Medawisla Lodge & Cabins. Browse all guided activities.


 

Search AMC Outdoors and Blogs


Search for:

Jennifer Wehunt

Jennifer Wehunt is the editor in chief of AMC Outdoors.