Many of us have spent a bit of our time learning to read the river for its clues. We read its surface, judge its flow and look for places a fish may be taking refuge. We look for undercuts, shadows, obstructions, rocks and boulders. These features come together to tell a story in our minds and draw a picture about the stream we are fishing. How much of this do we do with our lives though?
In my life, I know there are times when I don’t slow down long enough observe the important details. What is the flow? What are the obstacles? Where are the snags? How cloudy is the water? Where are the opportunities that I need to cast to? I sometimes even forget that I am not fishing alone, that I have people I can turn to and who can maybe offer advice on my technique, or tell me about the water up or down stream.
Our lives have these similarities to a stream. If we don’t slow down to read the stream, we will inevitably find those snags and get hung up and find ourselves casting aimlessly. Only when we slow down can we get an understanding of life's flow, we can see those subtle opportunities and become better in tune with it's challenges.
For several months this winter I have been struggling to slow down enough. This winter, like many winters, I find myself with a case of acute, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to the Mayo Clinic this is “a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year.” SAD symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Our winters run funny in Colorado. We get hints of spring early in the year that are quickly dashed away when winter says “Not quite so fast spring. I have one or two more fits to throw.” Learning to slow down and be accepting is the real challenge.
The moodiness we feel often affects those around us too, in less than positive ways. This darkened veil in our minds taints our perspective on life and is certainly seen and felt by others around us. An outward facing, bad attitude can make us horrible people to be around. We lose our ability to let things go and we dwell on the latest snag or inconvenience of the world in front of us. We internalize the world we see and make broad brush judgements. We only see the negative and fail to see the beautiful. The worse part of this type of moodiness is that it doesn't support our health or allow for positive things to happen in our lives.
Whenever I feel this way I know that I have NOT been “reading the water of life” very well. I am told that one of the best things we can do during the winter months is boost our vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and get our butts outside into the clean air and sunlight. I think though that there are also other things we can have immediate effects IF we recognize ourselves as being disconnected from the river. If we stop long enough to slow things down we can change our perspective and let go of the negativity.
Listen to the sound of the stream.
How much noise is being made in your life? When I speak of noise, I am talking not just bout audible noise, but I am also talking about mental noise we are listening to. We tend to trap our thoughts and feelings in a cage of analytical thinking. Meditation practice has been a great help to me. I try to meditate every morning I can. Meditation lets me recognize, stop and release the negative feelings occurring in my analytical thinking. Practicing any form of meditation to quiet our minds is a wonderful tool to have. When we can remind ourselves that thoughts and feelings only exist in our heads and are temporary sensations, we become familiar with a process of releasing them and not allowing them to push or pull us in any direction. When we find those noisy conditions, we can use a short meditation to slow down and get right with the relationship to our surroundings and situation. We can be mindful of our own noise and mindful of the noises around us.
We can also find an actual quiet place to just be.
"The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark --
This is the wondrous power of spiritual practice."
~ Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831)
Watch, learn and appreciate the stream.
There is a lot to be said for stopping to appreciate the view. We so often become focused and zoned out on the big picture of things that we forget that the world we live in is much bigger than our limited view. We can’t always see around the next bend and we may not even pause to see the snow on the mountains above that hold promise for a healthy stream in the months to come. Are you making a point to be grateful for the way the river flows through your life? Are you appreciating its finer features? Who do you share the stream with? I enjoy some days fishing alone, and some days I share the river with someone else. It is important to have our personal space, and occasionally a little solitude. But it is equally important to have others there to connect with too. Acknowledge the stream of life as a gift and blessing to be aware of and a part of. Give mindful thanks to those who are there with you with moments of gratitude. Gratitude is important and we express that gratitude through actions and not just words.
Keep your own stream clean.
I am overwhelmed by the amount of litter and junk that falls into the cracks and crevices of the rocks along the banks of some of the streams I fish. Stuff that is placed there by the stream itself but that is inevitably traceable to the negligence of others. Life is like that too. Sometimes it seems like a futile process of picking up after others. But we are each guilty in some way of adding to the problem. It is important to look at the things you have in your life that you are unintentionally allow to fall between the rocks. Where are the rocks in our lives holding all the trash? Look no further than your bookshelves, closets, drawers, garages etc. We may be careful not to litter the stream but we are still guilty of overt consumerism, wastefulness, and hoarding. How much garbage needs to be picked up out of your stream? Where does our garbage (both figurative and literal) go? The only way we can keep our lives and our life streams clean is to make mindful decisions on what we buy, why and how we will dispose of those things. We have to realize that others are not going to do the right thing every time and so we will have to pick up the slack. This is our service to the planet and it can be the service we have to our immediate world as well.
As spring in Colorado approaches, I am starting to thaw out and I am breaking free of my fight with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I am waking up from a slumber of sorts, like a grumpy bear coming out of hibernation. As I leave my cave of darkness, I want to be sure to take notice of the stream that is there before me. I need to accept it just as it is and not be overwhelmed by the changes the winter has made to it. I need to also be patient and not let my imagination get caught up in the things that “might” be under the snow yet to thaw. I hope that this week is the last week I will have to shovel my driveway of snow. I hope that spring will actually show up. I can be sure it will in time.
CRAP! It is mid -February already and I still don’t have a first blog post for the year. SIGH… well…until now. I could go into a lot of the reasons I have not been posting. Top among them is that I have been doing some soul searching and assessing what I want for this next chapter of my life.
For the month of February I have been doing an exercise in digital minimalism. More or less it is cutting off my social media habit and finding other things to focus on instead. I could do a blog post on that sometime down the road. I am observing in myself some disturbing programing that I am sure you too likely are affected by too. I will eventually return to my social media hopefully with a different relationship and approach to using it more like a tool than as entertainment or as I have come to think of it "info-tainment."
Though you would not know it by the lack of new blog posts, I have been writing a lot. Sometimes though when you sit down to write you find yourself down a rabbit hole that starts as a question and then turns into a messy blob of self-discovery and mental detritus. That said, I have learned a lot about myself writing these things out, but I don’t believe that you, as my readers, need that kind of peek inside my sometimes-tangled brain. I want to write about things I think you will find helpful, relevant and in line with to purpose this blog serves for me. So sometimes we wait.
Let me share a little bit about what I have also been looking at with my own changing life. Thanks to COVID-19 I have, for now, retired from my work as a magician. Leaving any career is difficult but leaving your career performing magic has a lot of challenges of its own. There is a lot of identity wrapped up in owning and living the title of “magician”. You get used to the attention and the reaction of disbelief you get from others when you say what you do for a living. I admit that I liked getting a little ego boost for having that title. Magic is something I do though and not something I am. That has been the main lesson. None of us should be wholly defined by our occupation or any one skillset that we are notable for. There is a deeper person inside. I will continue performing magic casually, but will not be performing for hire for a while it seems. So what fills that vacuum?
While I used to say that “magic is my real job” now I will have to be cool with my other job being my “real job”. The work I do at the University of Colorado Health Sciences is creative and rewarding in other ways. I am technically on the front line of medical school workforce as I work directly with medical students. I am a clinical educator. I teach communication and exam skills to medical students through simulation. Not as sexy as "magician" but maybe as unusual?
I have been able to find a lot of sanctuary and security in my world of tenkara. Tenkara continues to be a guide and center point in my life. It does infuse and influence my work in the wood shop as well as my lifestyle and goals. I do really enjoy working and creating in my shop. My tenkara line holders, fly bench spools, and tenkara level lines, continue to be available. I have also started working on some other products that I hope to offer in the spring. My dear wife also has plenty of work for me to do in my wood shop too to support her Etsy store. I expect that with the down time ahead still I will be updating my Etsy store
I am hopeful and intent on approaching a post-COVID world with a new outlook. We all have an opportunity to create some positive changes our lives. We are well beyond the point of needing just a little healing. We need some deep healing, fresh air and a fresh outlook. This is a good time for change in our personal and/or professional lives. We can focus on what is important and give those things our attention. We can change our outlooks and remove the negative practices and habits we have picked up and replace them slowly with healthier living. I hope that you will join me in discovering how to live our lives better and with more intent and responsibility to each other and the planet.
I close here for now but will be filling this blog with lots of good stuff. I hope you will join me on this journey and I also thank you for your support over the years. I return to instagram in March and I am planning a big sale of all the cool things I have been making in my shop. Let's take on this new year with renewed hope, healing and a clear direction for the future.
The Winter season is here once again. Every year I find myself trying to end my blogging year with a few words about winter. This year the task feels even more important to me than ever before. Through the winter months I try to reflect on the past months and think about the new coming year. I like the idea of keeping in sync with nature and the seasons. Here in Colorado you can see the retracting of all living things in nature. The trees are bare and dormant, the grass dies off and the waters flow thin in the creeks. The fish are likely hiding deep in undercuts and wherever they can find shelter and conserve energy over the cold winter months. While we have had an unseasonably warm winter in Colorado so far, we have also had some fronts move through and drop snow which still sits in patches in cold spots and shadows.
As I take stock of the last year I realize that we have all had to make some pretty big changes in our lives and so I think it is even more important this year to do some deep work in examining our lives going forward into the next year. For myself, the pandemic has made me rethink my vocation and career as an entertainer. My magic business has come to a full stop. I was fortunate to have a part time job doing communication work at the University of Colorado that has been able to provide me with more work than before.
The hardest hit of the new year though for my family and I was loss of my father in law this last October. We continue to grieve and mourn his passing. His death left me with much to think about. He was a great man who lived a full and valuable life. He loved his work and was a leader in his specialized field of genetics and identifying inborn genetic disorders. He was in his 80's and continued to work and refused to retire He was one of the smartest people I have ever met. He was also a lover of the outdoors. He spent his free time doing wildlife photography and traveled all over the United States and the world to capture some really amazing photos. In tribute, I have included a few of his pictures on this post as well as a slideshow of his work.
I think we tend to put so much trust in things being secure and we mistake things in life as being permanent. The reality is that nothing is safe from change. It is however how we face those changes that matters. Do we fight the changes or do we flow with them? Can we embrace change in such a way that it doesn't control us. I believe we can actually take the moment of change and make it our own. We can learn and grow along the way. Pain and suffering does make us stronger and more resilient. We do not need to seek suffering though. It will find us on it's own.
Change can be catalyst for adventure. But before we get too ahead of ourselves in that adventure we have to be aware of our current situation. We need to take stock of the resources we have and then we can better plan for that new journey into what we want our lives to be. As fortune would have it, the winter is a good time to do this. If we follow the examples of nature and try to sync our lives to the seasons we can find a rhythm. Following the seasons we can hunker down, think and conserve our energy like the deep hiding trout. This is the time to plan for the new year, rest when we can and decide what kind of lives we want to live.
Winter has a way of naturally reminding us that we can be happy with less. How the things that make us most happy aren't really things at all. The joy comes from family, friends and experiences. This year we are going to be forced even further to consider our relationships and values. We won't be pushed as hard to attend holiday gatherings. We won't have to overspend on our holiday gifts. Large family gatherings will (and should) happen online over "Zoom" and not in person. But this isn't going to a torturous or regretful winter season as a result of those limitations.
These limitations should be seen as a challenge to ourselves to reassess what matters most and could be a time for changing our habits of following consumer trends and saying "no" to those social expectations that we don't really enjoy anyhow.
Looking ahead to 2021
The new year will be the beginning of a new chapter of living my life.
I will continue to write a lot more here and in other publications to share my thoughts, ideas and experiences. My focus over the next few months is to find a path for myself and with that perhaps one that others can learn from and follow as well. I will share my thoughts and observations along the way. My intent is to use my blog as a guide of sorts and to also document my own journey. I am not writing here to "exhibit" my life, but rather to have a place to record my journey.
I will be sharing my own path and offering the skills and ideas that I have learned in meditation and mindfulness practice. I can share adaptations I have made to these practices to make them less austere and more approachable and more importantly, Practicable. Join me on this journey to adopt some new thinking and maybe discover a new way of looking at how you live your life. The choices along the way are your own. Choose what you want to try along the way and leave out those things that do not resonate with you. We can take this journey together.
I am optimistic about the new year. For now I hunker down for the winter and spend time with my thoughts. This is the rythum of living with the seasons and the world. Be where you are and meet life where it is. If the sky is stormy, seek shelter where you can and be with yourself and your thoughts. Enjoy the opportunity to reflect on your life and your choices. Make loose plans or even full commitments for what you will do when the spring months arrive, the streams rise and the fish come out of their own resting places.
Happy holidays to all and a Happy and hopeful New Year!
It has clearly been a year of frustrations. The challenges we have all endured with Covid, politics, the economy and just finding socialization where we can have been unlike anything ever before. Each of our lives have been turned over and shaken about. Some of us might have even lost loved ones to the pandemic. Add to this all the other day to day challenges and life events that we must face it becomes easy to lose track of our sense of center and balance in life. For me, tenkara has continued to serve and has been a great place of refuge from all these challenges.
As I try to use tenkara as a model for my own life as much as I can, I realized that I haven’t stopped lately long enough to just watch what is going on around me without judgement. Autumn for me is about looking deeper at the person that I am and at my relative relationship to it all. These insights can help us to see what we can work on thought the winter and help guide us towards planning a new season's path. We can take stock in what we have learned from the months past.
Our perspectives can be tainted by the thoughts that arise. It can be skewed by our misconceptions of who we are. The overwhelming feeling of emotions, fear, struggle, and anger can have a detrimental effect on our sense of well-being. We can feel helpless and that life is living us and that we are out of control with how to live our lives.
I have been swimming in this stream of troubles, fears, and emotions myself. I know that I need to reflect on my life and look to see where I can do better and where I can find some sense of control without feeling I need to control everything. To have some control would be better than floating without any control. But that idea of control is limited. We must understand that we make only small ripples in the water compared to the current.
Just as when we cast our fly out to the waters we are casting to the situation in front of us. We don't get to decide what the stream does but there it is before us. Then, as we cast to the spot we want, the current also has a way of saying what will happen to the fly next. The more we know about the current and how it is most likely to function the better we can assess where to target our cast. To do this, we must stop and watch the water. We must appreciate how fast it is flowing, how deep it runs and what other things are affecting it’s current. Yes, it is a bit of a guessing game. But if we stop long enough to watch and just be in that moment, we can see what we “might” need to do to compensate for the situation.
Our day to day lives have been very much like this these days. Each news cycle, each update of information and each external influence is supposedly there to inform us. But can we trust this all enough to really know we are in a place of stability? I would argue that too much information can cloud the waters and not let us really see where we need to stand much less allow us to feel where we need to stand.
We do have control over how complicated the waters are that we want to cast our lines to (or that we want to wade out into to cast?) It may not seem like it sometimes because we have already stepped out into the current and are feeling the full weight and pressure of the stream on our very foundations of support. So, there is a step that we must take if we find ourselves in this position. We must move to slower and more shallow waters. Maybe we even should consider moving back to the bank so we can move up or down stream. While we may be able to cross a heavy current, we cannot maintain our balance under the constant pressures. Maybe we need to just sit at the side of the stream for a while and just breath. Appreciate our surroundings and connect again with what is basic and simply before us.
My life lately feels very much like I am standing in a river with the current trying to knock me over. Some days just when I feel I am holding my own a gush of current sweeps me off balance again.
Winter is just ahead and as I have closed my autumn season of fishing. I can reflect on a good season in spite of the chaos that was 2020. I am committed to embrace the near future with great intent and contemplation. I will find my moments of joy and happiness in other places away from the water’s edge and wait for the spring to come again. I will work to understand myself a little better. I will work on things that interest me and continue to learn and grow in other places of my life. I look forward to working in my wood shop and I look forward to writing about my process through the next few months.
We are all struggling these days in some way. I can only ask you to take pause. Notice where your feet are planted, how stable you are, and if you can lend a hand to someone else you see struggling near you in these torturous waters.
"Stay in your lane and enjoy the ride."
I spent almost a week traveling to and from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was rare occasion where I got to work out of town AND have time to fish on both ends of the booking. A sweet, but rare occasion for sure that I took full advantage of. I had a marvelous time camping out, chasing blue lines for better and worse, and successfully logging in not only some great spots but pulling in some nice fish. But the specifics of the trip I will have to write about maybe later.
This post is not a trip report. It is about me finally, breaking my own long held myths about tenkara. I think many of us love tenkara so much that we will sometimes take our passion to the edge. I am guilty of this brand of self-delusion. But the truth remains, “tenkara is not for every situation.” I know that this has been said by many however, I think I have subtly kept in my head the idea that I could at least try tenkara in situations. But arrogance is not pretty or fruitful and ultimately results in a “fool’s errand.”
On my trip I had the wonderful experience of seeing and stupidly trying to fish the Snake River. This behemoth of a waterway is amazing. I camped out near it one night and waking up to it the next day, I fantasized places I could fish it; and from a distance it really did look like there would be places to fish. Of course, as I approached the actual places, I found myself flustered and feeling like buffoon.
I see now and forevermore that to use tenkara on larger waterways is a misuse of its “rightful purpose” by design. To borrow an art analogy from my wife, “I was trying to paint a large, oil canvas with my watercolor set using only my small brushes.” A large canvas requires different tools and the right medium. Painting with watercolor has its own style, techniques, and tools. Both watercolor and large canvas oil painting create art but only when you follow those specific techniques that make each unique.
I had several hours of drive time to think about this. Why do we do this? Perhaps it is an ego-based need. The need to “measure up” to western fly fishing? We want to be acknowledged as equals more than we want to just appreciate the merits of our individuality. Or maybe it is about the size of the fish we see others catching on western gear? I really don’t fish for size but somehow still fall into a little “fish envy” when I see photos on social media. When I fish with tenkara I am not looking to hook into and wrestle a 24” trout.
I know that there are those who have had success using tenkara for larger waterways. I see the fish they are catching; I have watched them lecture at fly shows, and I respect their fortitude to test the limits of tenkara. When I see a large fish caught with a tenkara rod it may give me confidence that my gear could do the if needed. Not to brag, I have caught some monster trout on my tenkara rod and can provide witness statements if needed. The truth is, tenkara is not about the fish or size of fish as much as it is the spirit, approach, and experience of where you fish with it.
What I do know thought is that when I stop to think about it, the times that I enjoy fishing tenkara most is on those smaller mountain streams. Those places with boulders, fallen logs, pocket water, narrow canyon walls and inviting cascade pools. I think that I would rather spend a day catching many fish of moderate size in these places than I would catching only a few larger fish on the larger spans of flowing water.
Maybe the smaller streams feel more like a fit to me? I can relate to them and become more intimate with them in a way that the larger rivers just don’t allow me to. I would not presume to set rules for others as to what is “true tenkara.” I can only speak to where tenkara works best and to the traditions it comes from. Even in Japan there are different approaches to fishing those larger rivers, such as keiryu and honryu if you want to still use a fixed line system. Perhaps some day I will pick up one of those rods myself. But until then I have made a promise to myself to seek out those streams suitable to tenkara. My trip included a few great fishing stops with exactly that standard.
My final thoughts:
I can honestly say that I certainly wasted time trying to fish those larger waters. Those are full days that I will not get back and those regrets I take as the price for my lesson. I can only encourage you to not make the same mistake. That’s me, making the mistakes so that you don’t have to. I know many have said it and I accept the truth now. Just because you can fish a larger river with tenkara, doesn't mean you should. Make it about the place, the experience and the water terrain that tenkara was meant for. Your fish may not be giants, but you will catch some nicer memories and be less likely to break your rod in the process working for social media "bragging rights". Fish for you and fish from the soul of what tenkara is. Anything else is just your ego wanting to prove something that doesn't need to be proven.
A mindful approach to fishing.
“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” -Anonymous
I just returned from a week-long personal retreat in the mountains. I had the fortune long before finding fly fishing and tenkara, of falling in love with a wonderful woman whose parents built a small cabin back in the mid-60s. A week before my 53rd birthday I had 7 days to have a solo retreat. Something that I try to do occasionally.
Being alone is sometimes one of the most difficult things we can do. We are left with our imaginations, sometimes a lack of discipline and a head full of thinking that we seem to have no control over. Our minds wander at any opportunity to virtually any topic or question. The purpose of a retreat though is not to stop those mind noises but rather to embrace them and let them go. My week included some specific activities as well as some rituals that I decided to make along the way. It wasn't just sitting in the cabin of course. It included simple meals, hiking, a little reading, a lot of writing in a journal and thankfully "Fishing as meditation."
In my younger years I used to do group meditation retreats with a school of Zen that I was a member of and many of the basic format from those retreats, I have either adopted or put my own mindful adaptation on. Small rituals in mindfulness while eating, cleaning and more. This is a good thing to do I think just before a birthday. Gives you a little time to think about the mortal coil. This article is about another part of my meditation practice. The practice of fishing.
I was attracted to tenkara by its simplicity. I spent plenty of time in past years, doing western fly fishing looking for a meditative process. It all seemed so beautiful to watch. What I found though was that the more I learned the more I struggled and the more I seemed to need to keep adding to the process to “stay true” and hope to find those moments. Managing line, mending my drift, matching the hatch, what was my rod weight again? Finding tenkara was like when I originally found meditation. Everything that was noise, just dropped away. The complications that came with western fly fishing were no longer interfering with the actions of fishing and catching fish.
The approach to fishing tenkara is pure, simple, and easy to practice as meditation. My first step in tenkara as meditation is reminding myself to be present where I am. Appreciating the moments from pulling over the car and putting on my gear to coming up and looking on the stream for a place to consider my cast.
Tenkara has taught me to go slow. This is much like with the beginning set up for seated meditation. You have a little bit of time that focus on getting to the right place to start your practice. Being where you need to be, in that place. It is about finding yourself present to the situation. I try to take my time and slowly approach a run. I try more times than not, to look at the area behind me for the clearance to cast and not end up in a tree. This has been a challenge that I am sure I share with many others. I have learned to look at how water flows. I have learned to pay attention to the stream and its features noting each rock above the water line and each I can identify below the water. I become aware of my breathing and aware of my body as I set up to make my cast. My mind flows with the line and my body makes the cast happen with a kind of slow moment by moment, motion of casting accuracy. "Only this" mind.
What is "Only This mind"?
Let me illustrate the "only this" mindset. There is a practice you can try at any time in your day. Take a small object like a ball, a rock or even a set of car keys. Toss that object into the air and watch it come down as you catch it. There is nothing in that moment but yourself tossing the item up and releasing it. We then watch the item in its process of going up and coming down. While this is happening, you might notice the movements of your body doing what it needs to catch the object. These points of attention throughout this exercise are exactly what I begin to feel with every cast. While it is not perfect, it becomes the point that I am striving to just be in no matter what else my mind wants to say or do.
As I start to feel myself in that place of "only this", I can see the current and know where I want to cast to. My intelligent mind may inform me of where a fish may be. I can listen to this thought as an informative point. Then,
as I make my cast, the line goes out and I follow the fly with my eyes and my body moves as it needs to for the gentle landing of fly forward and onto the water. Continuing "only this mind", I can then watch the fly begin to drift. I continue my slow and methodical breathing; Just normal breathing in through the nose and out through my mouth, but I am aware of this and of myself as I watch the fly move through the water. With any fortune it will be taken by a fish. If there is no take, I am back to the beginning again. Sure, my mind may try to take my thoughts elsewhere to up or down stream. There is always a new place to cast to it seems right? But rather than being spastic about it I am focused on just this one run for now. That is just like our minds to want to keep us moving from the moment we are in like a child who begs for attention when we are deeply engrossed in an activity requiring our full focus.
When a fish does take my fly, then I am in "only this" moment with the fish. I can feel it on the line through the rod and feel the moments of anticipation as I work to gently bring the fish in to my net. In time I would like to have the retrieval of my net be less of an effort. Getting the fish into my landing net, I continue the meditation. I take a moment to look at the fish and appreciate it for the magnificent creature it is. I remove the fly quickly and dip the net and fish back into the water. I can then raise it up and view it one more time before releasing it back to its home.
I think one of my favorite reflective acts is releasing a fish back into the water. When I release the fish, I watch it slip away into the depths again. I follow the fish from my view as it dives deeper and swims away from me. There is a moment of Zen here in knowing that the fish is there but at the same time not there. Where did it go? Sure, it still exists, but it has gone to the place it was before. This practice of observing the coming and going of everything is a very basic experience we have of many things in our lives every day. Nothing is permanent so we must pay attention to those moments. We breath air in and then we breath it out. It moves inside us and then moves out. The fish strikes and we bring it to us and then let it back to where it came from.
This way of fishing is one of being present to every step. This includes each step of setting up your rod. It includes taking in all that is around you such as the scenery, wildlife, sounds and colors. When we take the time to learn and practice awareness of the moment it not only enhances our experience, but it becomes something that we can take into other elements of our daily lives. I have decided after the last few weeks to share more of my practice and to encourage others to connect with fishing in a way that is more than just throwing a fly and catching a fish. I will be covering in future posts, ways that you can also learn to create a retreat for yourself.
An interesting thing happens when you slow down for this kind of experiencing of life. You savor it more, find joy in the simplicity of things and learn to be more in each moment.
I have much that I wrote in my journal over that week and much that I know I want to share in future posts still. If you have had moments like this too, share them in the comments below.
I hope that you and your family are healthy and happy. These are rather unusual times we find ourselves in. Staying home and staying safe during a pandemic has had its challenges around the world. Each of us is experiencing it differently for sure. There has been a saying circulating the internet.
"We are NOT in the same boat together...but we are all facing the same storm."
I hope that we can all keep each other afloat. Let's lend a hand where we can and keep the storm from getting bigger. And now.. On with the post.
Maybe you have noticed an odd thing has happened with the pandemic. People have decided to spend their "home time" baking. Many specifically baking sourdough bread. Why sourdough though? Well, because in addition to people unnecessarily hoarding toilet paper, it seems that “active dry yeast” was also hoarded. So, sourdough is in vogue. Unfortunately with that so is the recycling of all of the myths associated making a sourdough starter. For instance, an 8 yr old starter isn't really any better than a one month old starter, or the idea that you need to get a starter from someone else willing to share theirs with you.
My hope with this slightly unusual blog post is to show you how to find, capture and harvest yeast so that you can make your own starter. This specific post is NOT however, about making a sourdough starter. Instead it is a primer for my next post where I will be showing you how to make a starter from yeast you harvest yourself. But we have to have a yeast first and this post is about creating a "yeast water".
For this blog post and the one that will follow, I have decided to bring my world of yeast cultivation and tenkara together. They are similar in some ways in that they both require a certain amount of mindfulness and patience.
I am going to keep this as simple as possible so that you can have easy success and hopefully you will be inspired to continue this equally meditative practice going long after the pandemic has passed. (Sooner than later, we all hope.) There are so many references on line that I could list but frankly, I want you to start as simple as you can and if you are inspired, dig deeper.
Gathering yeast from the wild
Yeasts are all around us they surround us in our lives. They are around us, on us and even inside us. But not all yeasts are desirable. We want to look at capturing and cultivating some specific wild yeasts. Ones that are very good in baking. This whole process can be a strangely satisfying activity. Much like catching a fish on fly you personally tied, so is the process of gathering and nurturing a yeast culture into a usable medium we can then bake with.
Choose a “host yeast ingredient”
This is the creative and fun part. Yeast waters are made from things you can forage in the wild like juniper berries, new pine needle tips, rose-hips, dandelions, etc. If it is an edible plant with a certain amount of naturally occurring sugars, you can bet that it has yeast growing on it. You don’t have to go into the wild though. You can also make yeast waters with store-bought fruits, berries, and other produce including culinary herbs. I always keep the straggling remnants of blueberries we buy that are left in the container after making sourdough blueberry pancakes. (recipe next blog post)
The main consideration is how will the flavors of that yeast host add to the flavors of the bread you are making. Dandelion bread is amazing. Blueberry yeast water bread has a small hint of blueberry flavor and even color. Let your palate and imagination be your guide. Let's get started.
Yeast water cultivation
Once you have picked your yeast host it is time to get to work. You are going to need a few simple things to get started.
Put a ¼ cup to ½ Cup of your host yeast bearing ingredient(s) into the jar, add the non-chlorinated, room temperature water filling the jar almost to the top. Finally add a few tablespoons of sugar or honey. Some yeast hosts are naturally sweet so decide if you need to even add sugar at all. Finally, put a lid on the jar tightly and shake it up and put it somewhere slightly warm and out of the way and out of direct sunlight. I find that the top of my refrigerator is an excellent place that I won't forget about the continued steps. .
Food, moisture and warmth the "rod, a line and fly" of yeast cultivation...
After the first 24 hours, you may not see much change other than maybe color of the water. Carefully open the lid of the jar to release any carbon dioxide gas that may have built up in the jar. CO2 is a bi-product of the yeast doing what it does naturally. In essence it eats the sugars and expels CO2 and converts the sugars to alcohol. Feel free to shake up the yeast water and leave it be. You can repeat this process a couple of times a day if you want.
Day three or four:
As the yeast does it's work, your yeast water will start to become more carbonated. The host ingredients will rise and and fall and will eventually float to the top. Each day you continue to shake the jar a bit, you give the yeast water a little oxygen by agitation. As the days pass though you will understand that you must be careful as pressure will build inside your jar. Once you see and hear the effervescent bubbles when you open the jar to “burp” it, you will know it is alive and ready to use. At this point you can remove the host ingredients and discard them. The yeast will continue to do it's job.
Day five or six:
At this point I suggest you give your yeast water a taste. You should get hints of the flavors from host. It has added it's own oils, flavors and sugars that are now infused in the yeast water. If by now you do not have an effervescent yeast water you might have to start all over. Something went wrong either in your yeast source or in temperature.
Make sure your jar is clean, the water is de-chlorinated and that you are using fresh clean host ingredients.
Continue to feed or store in a refrigerator
If you aren’t going to use your yeast water within a week or so, you are going to want to put it into a refrigerator. Cooling it down will slow it down and keep it from completely fermenting too far into an alcohol level of 4 to 5%. This level of alcohol will start to kill off the yeast. You can always add sugar to your yeast water to keep the yeasts fed and happy.
Now go get busy!
This takes very little time to do. Go pick some dandelions off your lawn (the ones not christened by weed killer or passing dogs of course) give them a rinse and put them in a jar with some clear water and a bit of sugar. in a few days you will have a yeast water concoction that I will be teaching you how to make bread with on my next blog post on making bread and sourdough starter with yeast water. I will be fervently writing that post over the next few days, but I do need to get my current loaf of bread out of the oven. My first loaf of dandelion for the season.
I have considered how much time I lose sometimes on the stream side tying on my fly. In the early days I would do an improved clinch knot. But as you know there is a lot of finger gymnastics to get this knot tied and if your eyesight is buggering you, you probably struggle with threading the line back through to finish it.
I was first introduced to the "Davey Knot" when I started fly fishing. It was taught to me with a shoelace by a buddy of mine while we drank a cold one. At the time he professed how wonderfully fast the knot was to tie and how he didn't waste time with tying on his flies anymore with complicated knots. I learned the knot and started using it. It was very fast. While he claimed that he never had a problem with the knot slipping I found that I did occasionally have one slip. I am sure it was mostly my own error in tying it and it was good knot most of the time.
After about a year, it struck me that the knot could be improved upon. I had a single idea to help make the knot a little stronger and less likely to slip. The step by step instructions below are what I came up with. The knot has proven very versatile and is every bit as quick to tie. I have looked for a knot source that is a duplicate tie but have had no luck in my search. I am willing to admit when shown that the knot is not of my own making but until then I feel I have created a "one knot" for my fishing needs. If you happen upon a resource that shows this knot, please contact me and I will update this post. Update: A double davey knot was shown to me recently and while similar is still different than what I am sharing here. Thanks to "Davey" whomever he is and for the adaptations we have found. I may give the double davey a try next time I am out too. I actually like it a lot for it's symmetry.
The Improved Davey Knot Tutorial
Tying onto a hook eye.
For this demo the hackle pliers will act as a the hook eye. The blue rope will obviously represent the line.
These instructions are given from the tier's point of view and with the assumption that the person tying the knot is right handed.
Run the line (tippet) through the hook eye and hold the hook in your left hand. You will now bend the line in half with the tag end below the supply end
Take the tag end of the line and wrap it around the top line two or three times. The original Davey knot you would only do this once over. The tag end now sits as shown in the second photo. The amount of extra tag end you have can be longer still than what is shown. This knot is tied big and shrunk down as it tightens so don't worry about making it too large at first.
Now roll the tag end under the bottom part of the loop and feed it towards the hook. In essence, you have done two overhand wraps on the top of the loop and now you do a single wrap around the bottom loop feeding it towards the hook eye.
When you are tying this with an actual hook and line you will see that this is where you pinch the tag end with your left hand as you tighten the knot down around the hook eye and leaving the tag extended.
In this final step you will cinch the knot down onto the hook eye. The whole process takes only seconds once you commit it to muscle memory. The extended tag is actually left there on the hook. If like me you are using primarily sakasa kebari then the tag gets lost in the hackles. I often clip longer tags down to the size of the hackles at stream side. This assures further that your knot will not come undone. It can be clipped shorter if needed but will lose some of the security of this knot.
As I mentioned earlier this knot is very useful. It is a great utility knot to learn and play with when you are rigging up. I have also used it for attaching my tippet line at the other end to the level line or furled leader. This easy knot has been serving me well for over 9 years now. I hope that it starts to serve you as well.
If you would like to see a video of this knot being tied I have added it to my facebook page where you can see me tie it step by step here.
Let me know if you try the knot and what you think.
With the mandatory social distancing and rules varying from country to country, state to state, county to county and city to city we are all doing our best to maintain a level of normal in our lives in spite of it all. I have been hesitant to write about anything since the virus took a role in all our lives. We have hunkered down in my house and there have been some unexpected rewards in doing so. More wood shop time to make spools and bobbins, more time at the vice, some quiet walks with family, some great meals and some bread making too.
As I eek myself back into writing posts for this blog I decided that I would try just a simple list of things you can do to keep busy and still participate in the “Renshū” of Tenkara. (Path of Practice). These are things you can do that will help you connect with tenkara in some way. Some of these you probably know and just need to be reminded of. Other things are going to depend on how well you can get out and do while still practicing social distancing.
1. Clean and streamline your gear.
This can be a big project or a small project depending on the amount of gear you have accumulated. If you need help with this give my blog post "To Have Nothing to Add." a read and learn a little more about downsizing your gear. You can apply these same techniques to reducing your fly-tying materials too. How many spools of red thread do you need? Why have you been keeping those size 4 hooks again? And while you are laying out all your stuff… It is always a good idea to give your gear a little maintenance every now and again.
2. Read a tenkara book and make notes.
If you are like me you have several books that you have read or partially read sitting on your shelves. Now is a good time to really crack open a book and put your mind into a place of learning or “dentō no michi”. (Path of Traditions) Make it your independent study. Don’t just read a book take notes and write down your thoughts, dreams and ideas you want to experiment with when you do get to go out. Who knows, maybe you have a poet hiding inside you, or an artist? Sketch flies, landscapes, write poetry. Tenkara is about doing and living through life with depth.
3. Practice casting in a park.
I hadn’t done this in a while, but I think it is a great activity when you can’t get out to the water. Get a dinner plate or even a paper plate and start casting to it. Watch out for overhead lines. I suggest going to a neighborhood park. You can count the lookie-loos who think you are insane. Go all out if you want to and even wear your waders. When people ask how the fish are biting tell them you have caught almost a whole box of fish sticks so far. Seriously though, today I went out and had some fun. I just took my rod and a spool. I used the spool as a target. It was really nice to practice casting this way. With the little breeze that picked up I was able to practice adjusting my cast to different wind conditions too. Seriously, this is good practice time.
4. Tie flies alone or have a fly tying party with friends on line.
You can always tie flies of course. But now when you sit down you can do it with a very specific pattern or patterns in mind. Look at the tying as creating art. Play with colors, material and techniques . I set up a Zoom conference call with a bunch of people who I don't usually get to sit down with and we all had a ball. We tied flies, talked about the upcoming season, how we were coping, etc. It was good to feel like I had my community near me. At the end of it all I also designed a new fly that I absolutely love. It was relaxing and fulfilling.
5. Find a small pond or stream. (if you can)
OR Start scouting out new places to visit (if you can't)
To borrow from the song…”If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” revamped into “if you can’t fish on the stream you love, fish the one you can.” From golf course ponds to a suburban neighborhood ponds found in parks. While tenkara is designed for streams it can be used in still water situations too. Of course, you should always make sure that you are not trespassing or breaking any laws by doing this. We have a stocked pond in a small town near me that is exclusively for children to fish in. If you can't get out then break out your maps, guidebooks, and google earth and start exploring. Eventually you will be able to leave your home and get out. (Knock on wood again). I can scour maps and books looking for new places to visit for hours on end. It gets me excited to explore.
I know these times are tough and they only seem like they are going to get tougher down the road. Maintaining our mental soundness, happiness and connection to the things and especially the people love and care about is so important. I know people who are separated from family and friends during this time. It is important to stay connected some way or another. Reach out to your friends and family members who may be alone during these times. Share a joke or tell a story.
I feel fortunate that I can be at home with my family during this time. I know that not everyone is as fortunate. Wherever you are in your life it just takes a few minutes to break the monotony and do something for yourself. Until my next post, I wish you and your family safety, health and happiness.
This winter I decided to embrace the “dentō” or tradition of tenkara kebari. I wanted to try and make some of my own traditional kebari with hooks made from sewing pins.
Our early tenkara predecessors in Japan used what was available to them for their fishing gear. This usually meant silk thread, feathers from local foul and hooks made from sewing needles and pins. The silk eyed hooks have always held an allure for me. As I am getting older and my eyesight is losing its sharpness for threading the eye of a hook, the silk eye has other benefits too.
I discovered a quality to the finished flies I made that dips into that world of being functionally artistic. Tying the silk eye onto the hook in gives a little more thickness to the body of the fly that I think also adds weight.
In making the hooks that I did, I tried to make bout a size 12 but sometimes hit on either side of that with a size 10 or a 14. When it came to the shape, I found that the shape of the hook could be easily manipulated, and a variety of shapes could be made with a little practice. Finally, for the weight of the hooks I made I learned a bit about the different kinds of metal used to make pins. The pins come in different thicknesses and the metals used to make them are all over the place. For any kind of consistency, you will have to play around with some different sources.
Choosing the right pins…
I am not sure what sewing pins or needles the villager fishermen of Japan had to choose from but in our modern world we have quite a few. Pins vary in quality, density and weight. You must be a little selective as you play with them. Some will weaken as you heat them and will be brittle. I tried the following:
Straight pins/needles. Straight pins you buy from sewing stores can be hit or miss on quality. You must look at the thickness of the pin and assess the density of the pin. The only way to know if any pin is going to make a good hook is just to bend it. I tried and had a little success with one batch of pins that came with a new shirt. Then again, the next shirt of a different brand had pins that were too weak and came unbent too easily.
Safety pins These offered a good variety of weight as a base material. The final flies I tied with these had a very authentic appeal, reminiscent of what I imagine a village fisherman’s kebari would look like. I found that the 1” and larger pins worked well. The larger the pin, the larger the gauge of the hook weight and thickness.
Just keep your eye out for any kind of pin that would be suitable. I have found “T” shaped pins at an office supply store that were a very sturdy gauge weight. Depending on which pins you find will dictate what the weight and gauge of the fly you are going to tie will be. I like having a variety to help me have some flies that sink faster than others.
Tools you will need:
1 or 2 sets of pliers: Needle nose pliers work fine but I also found jewelers pliers that have rounded conical tips to be excellent for shaping the hooks. One of each or two of either will be fine. I quickly found that I could also just use my fly-tying vise to hold the pin while I shaped the hook bend.
Wire cutters: My needle nose pliers have a cutter on them, and I used those to cut the hook shaft at the appropriate length. I believe a small set of actual jeweler’s cutters could be better still.
Small metal file. If you don’t use the jeweler’s cutters and instead use the bulkier cutter on the pliers, then you may have a sharp barb left over after cutting the hook to length. The small file will allow you to file off any rough barbs on the tip of the cut.
Steps to bending a hook
Place extended pin in vise: Your vise is the most obvious utility device to use for bending hooks in. You know immediately from experience how a hook should look and what size of bend you need. Because you will be bending the sharp end first you will clam the head end of the hook into the vise with the point extending from the tip. If you are using a safety pin open the pin out but don’t cut it yet just open it out and clamp it at an angle in the vise.
Flip hook around in vise: Remove the hook from the vise and turn it around. Put the hook into the vise with the bend in the clamp. From here you will now decide how long your hook shank is going to be. Use the cutters to cut your hook shank to the desired length. If there is a rough edge on the cut, this is where you file the point a bit and can continue to shape the hook if you would like.
(Optional) Step four: You may want to strengthen the hook bend by tempering it. When I first started bending hooks, I would heat them up first and then bend them. This worked a little, but I found it really wasn’t a needed step and it tended to weaken the hook if I overheated the metal. I had several hooks become brittle and break in the vise. If you do choose to temper the bend of the hook just use a lighter and heat just until red. Once heated dip the hook into cold water to quickly cool the metal and temper the bend.
There you go! That is all there is to making your own hooks. I really enjoy making these and have a feeling that I will be doing a lot of fishing with them in the spring. I enjoy the rustic shapes and the lack of continuity each hook has. The more you work making your own hooks the better you will become at getting them to the size and shape you want.
Tying in a silk loop eye
So now that you have your hooks you will probably be wondering how to tie in a silk loop eye. It is simple enough...
And that is all there is to it!
I hope that you have fun exploring this tradition and stepping back into time a little. Our appreciation for the first tenkara fishermen is honored in little things like this. When we practice these techniques, we begin to appreciate more about the early ways fishermen had to think and spend their spare time. We get a better appreciation of those traditions and build on our own skill sets and confidence. I will continue to wait for the spring and in the meantime keep making these kebari. Still can't wait to get out and surprise the fish.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.