"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.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a cuddly dog, and a very lucky cat. Dennis is an avid minimalist, wood craftsman, curious tinkerer and learner and most notably a deeply focused tenkara angler.