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Book Review: Tenkara – Radically Simple, Ultralight Fly Fishing

On January 8, 2011
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It’s official, the first book in English about tenkara has been published! This is the great work of tenkara enthusiasts Kevin C. Kelleher, MD, and Ms. Misako Ishimura, and marks a huge milestone for tenkara in the US. It is an indication of the growing popularity of tenkara, and demonstrates once again its appeal to people with decades of fly-fishing experience like Dr. Kelleher and Ms. Ishimura. The book illustrates tenkara’s potential to introduce newcomers to fly-fishing via its “radically simple” approach, and shows how this method of “ultralight fly-fishing” has great appeal to backpackers. The beautifully illustrated work of Dr. Kelleher and Ms. Ishimura will do much to introduce people to tenkara, though it does blend some of the western notions of fly-fishing with tenkara, and shouldn’t be considered a definitive work on “pure tenkara”. The book is now available for pre-orders (though it seems to be already shipping) via Amazon and other retailers. Please read our review below.

Tenkara, Radically Simple, Ultralight Fly Fishing, is a nicely illustrated book that will do much to help introduce people to tenkara, and thus to the simple sport of fly-fishing. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that it is a blend of information about tenkara and western fly-fishing concepts, as opposed to a guide to “pure tenkara”, i.e. tenkara as it is and has been practiced in Japan. It unfortunately leaves out information on few areas of tenkara as it is practiced in Japan, in favor of western fly-fishing notions. Thus, it should not be considered the “definitive guide to tenkara” or the “tenkara bible”, but rather as a general introduction to tenkara and fly-fishing…

It’s important to note that this book was born out of  Dr. Kelleher’s and Ms. Ishimura’s great passion and enthusiasm for tenkara, which transpires through its pages, and was being written at a very early stage of tenkara’s introduction to the US. As its pages were being written and the book was nearing completion, we were continuing to learn the intricacies of tenkara:  its history, its techniques, the usage of tenkara flies, and many other nuances of the practice and its users in Japan. As Dr. Kelleher states in the acknowledgments page, “Given [tenkara’s] history is obscure, its instruction untranslated, and its practice new to our streams, there are bound to be errors or omissions”. While in some areas, such as details and usage of traditional tenkara flies, and the non-usage of floatant, indicators, and split shots, the traditional tenkara practice was known but partially ignored in favor of the western concepts, in other areas, particularly on more advanced tenkara techniques, the knowledge had not yet reached the authors.

The book contains perhaps a bit broader view of tenkara than a traditionalist would like. I was pleased, however, that in many areas where western fly-fishing concepts were introduced, the closing paragraphs informed the reader about how the concepts just introduced may not be practiced by tenkara anglers; and sometimes the authors mention the tenkara approach – though they hardly ever go into much detail. For example, in the chapter discussing flies,  the authors introduce many western flies, talk about fly choices, and the chapter follows one on bug knowledge, which to the tenkara angler are trivial. But, they close the chapter by stating, “Dr. Ishigaki, the most recognized master of tenkara, fishes one pattern in several sizes and colors. Maybe we should take a page from his book. Indeed, a tenkara traditionalist may be dismayed at my mentioning of many western flies.” In tenkara fly-fishing little attention is paid to entomology, and tenkara anglers, historically and currently, have always relied on one general pattern.

I think the most important concept to keep in mind, while reading this book, is the origin of tenkara. The authors write, “tenkara in the United States is already evolving. The centuries-old kebari fly and its traditional staccato stream presentation are being supplanted and extended by the many varieties of flies and fishing styles that characterize American fly fishing. This adaptation of tenkara is inevitable, although I hope that the origins of tenkara, from the hands of the pragmatic mountain fishermen will not be forgotten.” Our foremost intent is to share the knowledge on “pure tenkara” with people. Perhaps with an understanding that others will choose to mix this knowledge with their past experience. It is my strong opinion that the method has been developed for so long, and that the trout and the mountain streams of the US are not so different from the Japanese ones, that we should not assume adaptation is inevitable. It is my strong hope that anglers and people interested in fly fishing will see tenkara with a new pair of eyes and an open mind, leaving behind preconceived notions in order to accept what has been learned for centuries in the mountain streams of Japan. To anyone interested in “pure tenkara”, I always say this: think about the original tenkara angler, the commercial fisherman in the mountain villages of Japan, who was trying to catch fish for a living in fast flowing mountain streams. Unlike the modern amateur angler, who can buy many things and often uses gear to make up for lack of skill, the original tenkara fisherman was a poor peasant, who had to rely solely on technique and skill, and only on the basic gear and never on the unnecessary, to catch fish. He couldn’t afford time, energy or money to buy weights to sink his fly, produce and switch among many fly patterns, rely on strike indicators to catch fish. He had to come up with the techniques to catch fish efficiently. Further, he HAD to be good. He had to be a very good fisherman to catch fish in order to make a living. If one thinks about this, as he reads the book, one can understand the basic foundations of tenkara.

The book should primarily be read as an introduction to fly-fishing via the simplicity of tenkara. The adoption of fly-fishing, as we know, has long been in decline in the US. Every year, fewer people are being introduced to the sport. There area  few reasons I think this is important.  This will not only mean that fewer people will support an industry, which is after all irrelevant, but more importantly, fewer people will feel the intimate connection with nature that a sport like fly-fishing provides, and fewer people will feel the emotional and passionate urge to protect the environment in the future. Dr. Kelleher is a physician, and in the book he emphasizes this connection to nature and its importance to health, which is underlined by his professional viewpoint. In our opinion, one reason for the decline in the number of people taking up fly-fishing is its complexity, and the intimidating nature of the sport. When one believes he must know all about bugs, that  he must know about the hundreds of fly patterns out there, and that he must know about reels, and what specific line should be used when, and then is thrown off by the irrational emphasis generally given to fly casting,  then he comes to believe that fly-fishing is difficult. All of that just to catch a fish and enjoy nature??? With tenkara we wanted to show the world how simple fly-fishing really is; and I believe that is also Dr. Kelleher’s and Ms. Ishimura’s goal. As Dr. Kelleher writes, “Western fly fishing is hard to teach too, and many refuse its complications.”  In our view, tenkara is a solution. To fly-fish, all one needs is a rod,  line, a fly, and some of  the knowledge presented in this book. Fly-fishing can be, after all, one of the simplest activities in the world. There are no rules, and it’s just you trying to catch a fish.

That this book is not the definitive guide to tenkara is totally okay. Tenkara is still so new here, there is plenty of time for such knowledge to be shared. As the authors write, “tenkara is being embraced and adapted by anglers with many backgrounds.” Through Tenkara USA, I will always strive to only present information on “pure tenkara”, to present the traditional practice, with an understanding some people will adapt it. I must agree with the authors when they say, “tenkara in the end is just fishing: a sport, a challenge, a form of play.” While in the future there will be a need to introduce more tenkara-specific information,  for now I think this is an excellent introduction to tenkara for those unfamiliar with the method and will provide some new content to those already familiar with it. This book is a nicely illustrated and sensitive introduction to tenkara  fly-fishing and reflects the enthusiasm of the authors. I would recommend it to anyone exploring tenkara fly fishing and wanting to give this mountain stream method of fishing a try.

Some specific notes about specific parts of the book

Tenkara History

Tenkara’s exact origins are hard to pinpoint, and obscure. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that tenkara was originally and independently developed by the mountain folks, with no influence by outsiders. The book unfortunately goes into a bit of too much detail about a different method of fishing, ayu fishing, which was documented as having been practiced by samurai, and tries to make the connection between the two methods without first expressing this is just one of the theories. After a few paragraphs talking about the samurai method of fishing the authors do state that, “In any case, it is certain that tenkara as we know it today was developed primarily by the subsistence and professional fishermen who lived in the heavily forested mountains, and who fished with a focus on efficiency.” The romanticized notion that tenkara may have somehow sprouted from the samurai method of fishing seems to live on, and is one that people hold on to. After all it is easy to connect a Japanese method of fishing with samurai.  However, it is our strong belief that if any connection exists between the two methods, it is likely tenkara, as done by commercial anglers, may have inspired the samurai to do it for leisure. After all, samurai may have, for leisure, practiced a type of fishing when peace was widespread, but what about the hundreds of years before that?

Bugs and Tenkara Flies

Like most books on [western] fly-fishing, this book also takes the opportunity to explore the subject of entomology and their relationship with fly imitation. It is important to know that rarely does a tenkara angler pay attention to the study of bugs in the water. He will pay attention to their general size, possibly color, but that is about it. He will not base his fly selection on hatches, as is traditionally done in western fly-fishing. Rather, tenkara anglers are known to stick with a pattern, the reverse hackle “sakasa kebari” being the most common style, and they may change sizes and colors based on the fish’s acceptance or refusal of the fly, water levels or water color, but hardly, if ever, will he change the pattern due to little activity. I do wish the book had talked more about the traditional tenkara flies, and their use, thus introducing a fresh concept to people in the US. The western fly-fishing notions of fly selection work, but so does the idea of using only one fly pattern and effectively manipulating it.

Tenkara Fishing Techniques

One area the book did not cover at all, although a general reference was made to it, are tenkara fishing techniques. Tenkara relies not on choosing the perfect insect imitation, but primarily on the manipulation of the fly. Imparting purposeful drag on the fly is okay in the right circumstances, though the book mentions a little about this, it tends to dwell on the western fly-fishing notion that a drag-free drift is the ultimate goal. For some ideas on the manipulation of the fly and fishing techniques,  please read our past posts on techniques.

A quick note on “landing of fish”. It was written that to land the fish, you should “extend your rod hand as high as you can behind you, pulling the line into range of your off hand.” I’d just suggest that people do not have to extend the rod high, and it is better technique to keep your arms and  the rod tip low, but simply tilt the rod back to allow you to reach the line. This is less tiring and gives you more control to grab the line.

Disclosures: The book is the brainchild of Dr. Kelleher, who soon after discovering tenkara through our site, fell in love with it and decided to help spread the word via a book. As he began working on it, Dr. Kelleher asked for my advice, and I very happily and proudly offered and provided my full assistance in the chapters he felt necessary. I have researched the topic more thoroughly than anyone else in the country, and have relied on the teachings of a couple of tenkara masters in Japan to ensure I could share the knowledge on pure tenkara. I, or Tenkara USA, are in no way partners to the book, received no monetary compensation for our assistance and have no financial connections with the project; moreover, we never provided any sponsorship in the writing of this book.  My intent is simple, to introduce tenkara outside of Japan, and I was happy to assist in the project.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Tenkara – Radically Simple, Ultralight Fly Fishing

  1. Rick Setina says:

    Interesting and thoughtful insights on the book Daniel. As I read your comments I could help but wonder, when will you write a book? Your thoughts and expertise are showing in your writings.

    • Who knows. I think this this is an excellent first book on tenkara in the US. If I become more disciplined about writing, then it would be easy. I believe the 2 months in Japan will help me get on a writing routine (or maybe not :)

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