Flow Like the River

Tenkara Fishing

Anyone who fishes with me for the first time invariably makes the same comment:  I move.  A lot.  I pretty much take a few casts in a spot and if I don’t hook up, I move on.  Part of this is practical.  Like Dr. Ishigaki and many other tenkara anglers, I’m of the philosophy that there are fish all over the river.  It doesn’t make much sense to stand in the same pool for twenty minutes beating the water to death and changing fly after fly to persuade one stubborn trout.  There are other trout who will be more amenable to whichever fly you happen to have on the end of your line elsewhere.  You could call it impatience, but to me, it’s just a more sensible approach to catching more fish.  But, I also think there’s more to it than that.

Streams, creeks, and rivers are dynamic environments.  Everything is moving–the water, the fish, the insects, the branches along the banks.  To stand still and let the water rush by me just seems at odds with my surroundings.  I feel like I’m defying the ecosystem.  I feel more in tune with the river if I’m moving right along with it.  It feels more natural to be part of its cadence.

I also suppose there’s a part of me that is an explorer.  I want to see every inch of the river possible before I head home for the day.  If you spend most of your time standing still, you might miss that moose around the bend or never discover that perfect waterfall pool just downstream.  I’ve discovered some amazing things that I would have missed if I didn’t have riparian wanderlust.

There aren’t many things that are practical and poetic at the same time, but I think actively fishing a stream is one of them.

Author: Jason Klass

Jason is an avid fly angler and backpacker. As a former fly fishing guide originally from Western New York, he moved to Colorado and became an early adopter of tenkara which perfectly suited the small, high altitude streams and lakes there. He has not fished a Western-style fly rod for trout since.

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  1. I totally agree with you, Jason. I’m not looking for just a fish. I’m looking for active fish. Sometimes I go through a day of 5-6 km along the river in this quest, and usually get my way.

  2. As Thoreau said, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

    And as I say – half of that is true!

    Great post. Way to succinctly put into words why we each follow the river with rod in hand.

  3. Gran post Jason.De acuerdo en todo lo expresado.Al moverse y seguir al río se disfruta mas del mismo y su entorno…Muchas gracias por publicarlo…

  4. Jason, not to undermine the trippy, tree-hugging aspect of this post, which by the way I wholeheartedly support, but I want to ask a related, technical question. I move a lot too, typically making a couple of casts where I think there might be a fish, often from cover, and then moving on if nothing bites. I also enjoy exploring the river and being in the environment. However, I went out with a local guide here last weekend to work on my Western casting and I was stunned by how many fish he spotted that I didn’t – in most cases, that I wasn’t even bothering to look for. (Part of it certainly was that he had much better sunglasses – Costa del Mars.) I was fishing the terrain, in other words, and he was sight fishing. I ended up catching way more fish than I usually do. So, here’s my question: when you get to that next pool, how much energy are you putting in to looking for movement? Any at all?

  5. Hi Alex, great question and more on topic with this post than you might think. Most of the streams I fish are shallow, clear, and have a light colored substrate so it’s pretty easy to spot fish (even without polarized glasses). So most of my fishing is sight fishing and when I’m moving, I’m actually scouting for fish, not structure. But in places where you have to blind fish, then of course, I read the water and cast to spots that look like good lies. Luckily, many of the streams here in Colorado are great for sight fishing because that’s my preferred approach. If I can see the fish, then I know I’m fishing to a fish. If I’m blind fishing, I could be fishing to an empty pool.

    Ultimately though, my goal isn’t to suck up every fish in the stream like a vacuum. In fact, I even purposely pass up fish I spot sometimes. My goal is to enjoy the entire experience (while catching a few fish along the way).

  6. Understood and thanks. My New Years resolution is to look more carefully before casting.

  7. I tend to move and cover a lot of water as well, every now and then I will hit a pool and spend a few minutes but otherwise a few casts here and there one off I go.

  8. Right on, Jason. It’s also a great way to enjoy nature and explore.

  9. I have to say I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how tenkara is less about the environment, at least the aquatic environment, than western fishing. When I started western fly fishing my eyes were opened to the world of bugs, the cycles of seasons as born out in the parade of insects, bugs to imitate, rocks to turn over, nymphs & pupa to discover – I became much more engaged with the water and the benthic denizens at my feet, than i was as spin fisherman. The western match the hatch mentality nurtures this. Awareness of what hatches are where and why also does something to promote awareness of water quality issues.

    I’ve been thinking of the danger of losing this dimension – tenkara’s focus on technique over fly selection and “one-fly” attitudes are potentially diminishing – and that worries me a bit.

    Obviously you and I have this experience with western fly fishing to bring to tenkara – but folks brought to tenkara without going through western fly fishing could miss out on some of this richness.

    These are just some thoughts that I’ve been having…Obviously I love tenkara for many reasons, but do think that it is potentially lacking in this dimension…unless actively guarded against.

    So you tenkara folks that are stubbornly anti “match the hatch” don’t forget to turn over some rocks, and look in some streamside spiderwebs anyway.

  10. Really great points Anthony. I know what you’re saying about going through your entomological paces. But I also think they can be a hinderance and tenkara at least offers an a la carte approach that probably reduces the barrier to entry for a lot of people. Now, people can choose one path among many. That didn’t exist before. Some of us were forced into one path only to find that wasn’t the one we wanted to go down. But we didn’t know any better. I’m glad there are choices now. I don’t match the hatch anymore but I still turn over rocks just out of curiosity. I no longer count tails, legs, or antennae, but still love engaging with the stream that way. A simple, buggy, impressionistic looking pattern at the end of my line is all I need to catch a few fish. :)

  11. yeah – not arguing “match-the-hatch” just wondering about the potential effects of paying less attention to the aquatic environment. My engagement with the stream as something more that just a flowing piece of water with fish in it owes a lot to wondering about what bugs might hatch. Also – bugs as a way to observe the cycle of nature. A way to think about how anadromous fish bring nutrients back from the ocean and when they spawn and die how that may end up being part of that bug. Match the hatch as a gateway drug to thinking about ecosystems.

  12. Good points. But, of course, fishing “on the move” and going toe-to-toe with a particular piscatorial adversary are not mutually exclusive. A long day on the stream provides time enough for both

  13. If I could add a couple more comments. I agree with Anthony that as we develop our own traditions and literature of tenkara, we shouldn’t necessarily discard the old. Although I am a dedicated tenkara angler, I still very much feel a part of the larger flyfishing community. I still enjoy reading and rereading the great flyangling authors such as McGuane, Gierach, Checchio, Lyons, Middleton, and a host of others.

    On the stream, fly selection is still important to me. I know on my homewater, a spring creek, 90% of the time I am going to be successful with just a parachute mayfly immitation and either an Elk Hair Caddis or King’s River Caddis. In warm weather I will toss a beetle or ant imitation, too. What I believe tenkara has taught me, though, is not to parse the stream too finely. I have largely eschewed emergers, cripple, spinners, etc., and continue to catch trout. Looking at the fly selection in the Orvis or Bean catalogs kind of gives me a chuckle now.

  14. Maybe my comments have taken the discussion away a bit from Jason’s original point (sorry man) but tenkara ambassador – yes. Being a Pennsylvania guy I especially love terrestrials due to their association with PA fly fishing on our Spring Creeks like the LeTort. I too feel that I remain a part of the larger fly fishing community – as you put it. I’ve added tenkara and it has enriched my life – but I am a product of my fly fishing roots which I don’t want to forget.

  15. Anthony, it’s ok. I don’t mind branching off a bit. After all, that’s how some of the best conversations evolve. And like you, I also consider myself part of the larger fly fishing community (though said community may not reciprocate).

  16. Um, I guess I’ll put in an opposing view. I used to move a lot. As I got older I was less fit with a dodgy knee, so I had to get far more proficient. About five years ago I had a number of epiphanies and from that time I’ve fished far more but over shorter distances (with better results).
    I ring myself dissapointed when I only get 2 or 3 fish from a spot,when I know theres another 5-8 there that I’ve messed up because they’re on to me. These days, I often fish only 1-2 km and out fish many others, including catching fish from holes that others have blasted by in the rush. Especially satisfying are the “unfishable” lies, as these take time to position and precise casts, but usually reward by orders of magnitude.
    It gives me solace that as I get older and less mobile I will still be able to fish. The only limiter is the ability to react to set the hook. I once had the honour to fish for a week in NZ with an 86 yr old gentleman flyfisher, and the problems were slow setting and loss of balance. We could deal with the balance by staffs and a helping hand, but the hook set reaction is personal and irreplaceable.

  17. While reading y’alls posts I have to wonder how do you know what one fly to use? I have to assume that experience has taught you which one, but how did you get that experience? Now I am a warm water fisherman, and tenkara is new to me but have been fly fishing quite a while now. Most of what I have learned has been trial and error. I have to admit that most of that trial and error was done standing in one spot figuring out what the fish liked and why.

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