Monday, March 2, 2020

De-cluttering Fly-fishing and the Tenkara factor

I was poking about in a fly shop the other day when I overheard an interesting and thought-provoking conversation. An angler had arrived for the weekend and was going to hit the local spring creeks for trout. He mentioned that he was going to fly-fish that Friday afternoon and evening, but that for the rest of the weekend, he was going to fish Tenkara style, because as he put it, it was “So much more fun and simpler than traditional fly fishing.”

For those that are not familiar with Tenkara, it is a Japanese style of fishing using a fixed line and a telescoping rod averaging around 10-14 feet in length without a reel of any kind. First developed for Japan’s mountainous and high-gradient streams, it jumped the Pacific and has been adopted in America with an often-evangelical fervor.

My line of questioning (to myself) was why would Tenkara seem so much more essential than fly-fishing? After all, fly-fishing has always prided itself on its inherent simplicity and connection to nature and water. Just a rod, reel, line, leader and a fly… Was it really simply the reel that set the two-styles apart… or was there more to it? An angler with a fly-rod can do anything a Tenkara angler can do, but isn’t limited to casting range by the fixed line. The two systems have more in common than not, just being two similar means to deliver a hook tied with fur and feather to a fool a fish. So why the preference?

The angler answered the question himself shortly as he purchased a bunch of depleted uranium ‘jig fly’ nymphs, and a package of plastic bobbers for his afternoon and evening of ‘Traditional fly-fishing’.

Well, there it was. The answer was right in front of me.

By rigging that heavy fly and a bulky ‘bobber’ strike-indicator on his leader, he had inadvertently destroyed the rhythm and grace of casting a fly rod. Instead of the beautiful loops of line arcing out over the water like a ballet to delicately present a fly, he had turned his fly- fishing outfit into a ‘flop and lob’ rig; effective to be sure, but not graceful. Was that simplicity and grace, that Zen essence of purity missing from his fly-fishing driving his enjoyment and preference of Tenkara? I think it might.

For many hundreds of years, fly-fishing was concerned with casting an un-weighted or lightly weighted fly on the end of a delicate leader. Weight consisted of a few wraps of copper wire or later lead wire on a nymph. That was all the angler needed to get down to the level of the trout. The late Lee Wulff may have put it best when he quipped, “Trout deserve the sanctuary of deep water.”

Time and innovation marches on, and the desire to make the fly-rod do what bait-casters and spinning rods would allow led to changes which would revolutionize the sport. No longer would high-gradient bottom-dwelling trout be safe from the fly-angler. Enter heavily weighted nymphs and the increasingly large, wind-resistant ‘bobbers’ necessary to suspend them at depth. This changed casting as well. High-stick nymphing and the ‘flop and lob’ cast were seen more and more on the streams of the world. Many anglers today know no other way to cast or deliver a fly. They are wedded to the heavily weighted bead-head nymph and the bobber.

So why is this bad? Well, no other form defines fly-fishing more than the art of casting. It is simple, and beautiful to watch and perform. By placing that much weight on the end of the line, and using ‘bobber’ style indicators, the entire dynamic is thrown off. The problem occurs with an interruption of the smooth flow of the unfurling fly-line by hinges and shock-points caused by the clutter attached to the leader. We are making our fly-rod do things that it never was intended to do: thus the lack of grace and the chucking, chunking and lobbing. We cluttered it up. We tried to turn a ballet into a break-dance and ended up with a tangled tango. Then a new thing comes along offering exactly what we had before we adulterated the dance, and we waltz with the Tenkara rod…. back to that ‘Zen’ essence that we miss through our own clutter. How ironic…

Now I don’t have anything against Tenkara. I think it is a fun and simple way to fish. However, I think it may be time to re-examine and de-clutter our fly-fishing if Tenkara is now offering us something which we already had before we goofed it up.

Which leads us to the new fad sweeping the world, the Japanese-inspired ‘Minimalist’ movement of de-cluttering and its popular guru Marie Kondo.

‘Minimalism’ is the concept of removing all the things distracting and non-essential in our lives and possessions to effectively create a modern version of the simplicity of a Japanese room. (Think tatami mat, futon, and a simple table.) Taken to extremes, as everything is these days, it often sees the eager acolyte throwing away all their books and mementos, and leaves them in an empty room seated on an austere wooden Scandinavian design chair in their underwear staring at a blank wall… but I digress. Camus would be proud.

Minimalizing or de-cluttering our fly-fishing might mean questioning things: “Do I really need everything I carry with me?” “Is all this junk attached to my leader really necessary?” “Do I actually use the dozens of gadgets stuffed into every nook and cranny in my pack or vest?” or even “Is this actually fly-fishing?”

Or is it all about the numbers of fish caught…?

Of course, I am not recommending that fly-anglers go down to the river and make their own fly-rod from a willow branch and weave their line from horse-hair, that might be way too Marie Kondo. However, the more junk-in-the-trunk we eliminate and the more clutter we remove from our line and leader, the more we might get back to the simplicity and grace, the beauty and finesse that led us to take up fly-fishing in the first place. It doesn’t mean we need to give up nymphing… ( I already hear the grumbling). Instead it might just mean toning it down a bit… replacing that bobber with a piece of yarn, using lightly weighted flies, and learning or re-learning to cast.

That might be a very good thing in the long run… especially if it cuts down on those impromptu emergency room trips where your buddy hits himself in the back of the head with his three-fly depleted uranium jig-fly setup and the bobber hangs down off his ear… Sure cuts into the fishing time.

Tenkara anyone? ;)