Twenty-five years ago, a Japanese friend gave me a telescoping fiberglass pole with no reel seat. It was a beautiful, precious gift; light, sensitive, and elegant. When I received this tenkara rod, I didn’t really understand what I was getting. I stored it on a shelf in my cabin for 15 years until one day I decided to try it on a willow-lined meadow creek in the Wyoming Range. It was a very windy day in August, and grasshoppers were being blown about, so I put on a muddler and fished it upstream as a hopper and downstream as a sculpin. The thin, heavy horsehair line cut through the wind far better than a floating fly line and I moved from pool to pool without having to reel in line and let it out again. I caught fish in every pool: nice cutthroats up to 16 inches.
This centuries-old technique was perfect for fly fishing that day and since that time I have found it to be as effective for catching lots of fish as anything that has come out of our high-tech fly-fishing industry. Heaven knows we fly fishermen are suckers for every new gizmo we think will give us a leg up on catching fish: Our trout rods are designed to throw lead-weighted streamers clear across the river and reels come with drags engineered to stop a truck, even though any old click drag will stop a trout. Hundreds of fly lines are available to us, yet I seriously doubt you will catch one more trout with a line fine-tuned to the conditions than with a classic double taper. The original pheasant tail nymph may still be the most effective nymph ever tied.
We love our tools, but too often they are overbuilt and over specialized. They get between us and the experience. The satisfaction to be gained from the synergy of hand, eye, and muscle are missing. Sheridan Anderson says in The Curtis Creek Manifesto, “despite rumors to the contrary, the paramount objective is to catch fish,” but in the pursuit of the catch you will gain so much more. The higher purpose of practicing a sport such as fly fishing, hunting, or mountain climbing is to effect some spiritual or physical transformation. But if the process is compromised, there is no gain.
What’s happened with fly fishing is no different from what’s happened with every other sport or pastime—in fact, with society as a whole.
We all know the present world economy based on endlessly consuming and discarding is destroying our planet. When we see the results of our high-tech, high-risk, and highly toxic economic system, many of us question our frenetic consumer lifestyles. We yearn for a simpler life based not on refusing all technology, but on going back to appropriate technology.
It seems to me if there is a way forward, it lies in these words: restraint, quality, and simplicity. We have to get away from thinking that all growth is good, or we end up like the fly fishermen so fixated on launching long casts that they put the fly beyond where the fish are.
I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge. The more you know, the less you need.
A more simple approach to fly fishing helps preserve our capacity for wonder. It can teach us to see, smell, and feel the miracles of stream life—with the beauty of nature and serenity all around—as we pursue wild fish.
The lesson we learn from fishing with a tenkara rod is that we shouldn’t fear that a simpler life will be an impoverished life. Rather, simplicity leads to a richer and more satisfying way of fishing—and more importantly, living.