Tenkara: Fly Fishing Made Simple


I haven’t cast a fly rod in several years.  Back then I didn’t have much luck. That is to say I had plenty, all bad. Casting lines with my friend and master fisherman Craig Amacker on the Wisconsin River I spent more time untangling my hooks from low hanging branches than actually tempting trout. With all the best equipment and under the instruction of a talented angler I had to assume that any failure I experienced that day was all due to my own lack of skill and expertise. Fishing was hard and I lost interest.

Years later, last week in fact, I found myself commissioned to do another story on fly fishing. And once again my attention was aroused. I wasn’t convinced that it would be any easier this time. But I was a bit more receptive to the possibility of success when Bart Bonime, the fishing product manager at Patagonia, told me that he had a kit to make it simple.

“What’s nice about this is you can teach someone how to fish with about five minutes worth of instruction,” he said. “And they can be catching fish that quickly.”

That was Thursday. On Monday a package arrived in the mail containing a telescopic fly rod, fishing line, 12 wet flies and a book entitled Simple Fly Fishing: Techniques for Tenkara and Rod & Reel by Yvon Chouinard, Craig Mathews, Mauro Mazzo. I was skeptical but willing to give it a try.

That evening I assembled all the equipment and read the first three chapters of the book. The next morning armed with just enough knowledge and gear to be dangerous, I took my stand up paddle board and the fly rod over to Lake Wingra, just a few blocks from my house in Madison, Wisconsin. I tucked the collapsed rod in the waste band of my PFD and paddled out on to the water. Staying close to the shoreline I took up a position just on the edge of the lake weeds where I could see the splash of fish as they jumped into the air and swam back below the surface.
After a few practice casts I summoned up the knowledge I gleaned from Chouinard’s book. I recalled the methods of sending the line out onto water with the fly attached in an imitation of life. As the currents carried my unanchored board along the lake shore I tried to avoid the weeds while still working to put the fly as close as possible without getting it snagged. And then suddenly there was a gentle tug on the line, a light fluttering at first, then a flurry. Standing above the water I could see movement below as a small bluegill darted back and forth beneath my feet. As I drew in my line the scaly fish broke the surface and dangled securely from the nylon thread.

Tenkara fly fishing is indeed simple. I suppose like most I had been intimidated by all the gear and techniques involved in being a competent angler. But when striped down to its barest essentials -just the rod, line and fly- with Tenkara it’s possible to overcome the misconceptions caused by overthinking a process of catching fish used throughout human history. And now having been taught how to fish using this simple method, I imagine that I won’t just fish for a day, but for the rest of my life.

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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.


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