The nice thing about being an early adopter of a newly introduced niche sport is that you get to observe its evolution—kind of like watching a child grow up and witnessing all of the “firsts”. You get to see the first smile, hear the first words, record the first time they walk on their own. Tenkara has been like that for me. Since it hit U.S. shores, I’ve been there to see all of tenkara’s “firsts”–successes, and stumbles. At times, I wasn’t sure tenkara would make it. But I suppose if you’re reading this today, it’s pretty evident that it has. The training wheels are off and tenkara has become a tour de force in the fly fishing community.
In 2009, I discovered tenkara (like many have) via Daniel Galhardo from Tenkara USA. At first, it was a commercial endeavor. I had an e-commerce website dedicated to products that were related to combining ultra-light backpacking and fly-fishing. I was searching around the web for new products to carry and came across Daniels’ site. I called him and after a quick conversation, he agreed to send me a rod to test out. It was an early incarnation of the 12 ft. Iwana—still one of the most popular tenkara rods today. I actually still have it tucked away in my arsenal.
The first chance I had, I took it up to Rocky Mountain National Park on the Roaring River (one of my favorite places to fish). I caught a ridiculous number of Cutthroats—maybe 20 or 30. I didn’t count but I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to control the line and maintain a dead drift in the stream’s tight pocket water—no mending and zero line management. Cast, pick up, and cast again. Totally efficient and liberating. My fly was in the water more than in the air. It was not only perfect for that type of water, but was compact, ultralight, and perfect for backpacking. I was sold.
So like any gear addict, I rushed back from the river and immediately hit up Google to learn more about this method. But back then, a search for “tenkara” turned up about as much info as you’ll get from the president about Area 51. Other than the Tenkara USA site, there really wasn’t that much on the web (in English anyway).
Other than Daniel, I did manage to connect with a few other tenkara early adopters. We were a rag-tag bunch but religiously believed in the method. And we pushed the limits. We tried all kinds of DIY hacks—using kite string for line, floating running line for warmwater species, crazy ideas for line winders, etc. It went on and on. Tenkara was wide open for experimentation. It was like handing a bunch of avid amateur scientists a new chemical and saying, “go see what you can do with this”. Some ideas prevailed, and some failed, but in my mind, all of those early explorations not only contributed to the overall success of tenkara in the U.S., but were perhaps inevitable given the curious, creative, and sometimes cunning nature of those miscreants attracted to tenkara in the first place.
Many of us were deemed as fly fishing heretics and the method was frequently (sometimes vehemently) derided as nothing more than “cane-pole fishing” or pigeonholed as “dapping”. But those of us who “got it” were committed to promoting tenkara as not only a versatile, but a credible form of fly fishing even in the face of vicious criticism from the mainstream fly fishing community.
In those early days I remember the number one question was,“can you put a reel on a tenkara rod?”. To this day, I look back and still laugh at that question. It’s like asking if you can play golf with a hockey stick. You probably could, but why would you want to? You’d lose all the advantages that actual golf clubs were designed to afford you on the links. Why handicap a tenkara rod by stripping away its efficacy with a reel?
There was a time when I could count every single tenkara vendor in the U.S. on one hand. There were very few options and that made gear selection pretty straightforward (because you had no choice). I had also set up some Google alerts to notify me every time the word “tenkara” was mentioned on the Internet. There weren’t many, but I was omniprescient in the burgeoning tenkaraverse. And I felt a guilty pleasure in always having an answer and link to point to whenever a tenkara beginner had a question.
Fast-forward to the present, and everything has changed. Six years later, there are dozens of tenkara gear vendors in the West. If I had to recite them off the top of my head, there’s a good chance I’d probably miss about 50% of them. Plus, there are countless cottage industry companies making everything from one-of-a-kind, ornate bamboo rod cases to hand-crafted, heirloom-quality wooden line spools—a big departure from the Spartan aluminum rod tubes and plastic line spools of the past. Today, tenkara anglers have all manner of choices from the bare-bones practical to the decadent. And everything in between.
At the time of writing this article, a Google search for “tenkara” turns up 460,000 results. I almost never hear anyone dismissing tenkara as “cane-pole fishing” or “dapping” anymore. And the question about adding a reel seems to have been quenched. More and more people are beyond that now and are keeping an open mind whenever the topic of tenkara comes up. Through social media, blogs, and print articles, tenkara has become more legitimized in the mainstream fly fishing community and (slowly) even skeptics have become converts.
What’s next in the evolution of tenkara? This question plagues me. After that first epiphany on the Roaring River, I had no idea tenkara would take off as fast as it has. But that makes me very optimistic for the future. The first recorded accounts of fly fishing date back to about the 2nd century in Macedonia. No one really knows exactly when tenkara originated in Japan but some say it was 1,000 years ago or more. Tenkara was only introduced to the U.S. a few years ago, so it’s clear that it’s got some catching up to do here. But it seems to be making good time thanks to technology, the Internet, and the passion of its evangelists.
Sometimes, the best way to see what’s coming is to look back. Having some hindsight on the evolution of tenkara in the U.S. and the West in general, I have a few predictions …
- Tenkara will lose its label as a “Japanese” form of fly fishing the same way we no longer refer to fly fishing as “Macedonian”. More and more, people are expanding the definition to include gear and methods native to Japan such as tenkara, honryu, keiryu, etc. as “fixed-line fly fishing” rather than simply “tenkara”, but are cross breeding the techniques and gear. The lines are already blurred and I think there will be a convergence where those lines will eventually be erased and there will be some kind of consensus on a new umbrella term for all fixed-line fishing. What will that name be? I don’t know.
- The number of tenkara vendors will be whittled down. As I mentioned above, there’s been an explosion in the number of companies selling tenkara rods. The problem is many of these companies are just rebranding rods and other gear anyone can buy from manufacturers like Alibaba.com. They’re what’s referred to as “me too” rods and little thought was put into them other than making money. No design, no quality testing—just give me the rod you’re already mass-producing and let me slap my logo on it. I’ve already seen many such companies take a dive and think the trend will be that the demand for quality gear by discerning tenkara anglers will continue to weed them out until only the companies with the best gear, and best customer service persevere.
- Related to #2, the culling of copycats will lead to better-performing gear. The companies that survive and invest in actual R & D will give the consumer progressively better equipment. Gear designed by anglers is always better than gear whored out by a company solely driven by profit. The handful of companies I can think of today that are driven by passion will lead the design innovations of tomorrow: lighter rods, stealthier lines that still cast well in the wind, new fly designs, etc. While some innovations might seem like a departure from the “simple” philosophy of tenkara, I actually think it’s in keeping with it. Remember, the early commercial tenkara fishermen didn’t care about “simplicity”. Simplicity was something they were forced into only by a lack of resources. But given the chance, they probably would have adopted any edge they could get to increase productivity. For them, it was a livelihood. For us, it’s sport. But for both of us, we just want to catch more fish. So I don’t think taking advantage of any innovation we can as modern anglers betrays the original philosophy.
I know I’m speaking more in terms of generalities than specificities. But generalities are always safer when predicting the future (just read a few prophecies from Nostradamus and you’ll see why, LOL). But I’d bet a beer if any of the above don’t come true in the next few years. I could probably say a lot more on the history of tenkara in the U.S. but I’ll leave it be here in the interest of preventing boredom. That conversation will be reserved for the next victim in the passenger seat on the way to the next fishing trip.
It’s not often that one gets to actually participate in history rather than just observing it. So I hope I’ve played a small part in the dawn and spread of tenkara in the West with this blog. It’s been a great adventure so far and one that has altered my life in many ways beyond the stream banks. And I look forward to sharing whatever I can as long as I’m still able to cast a rod.