by Tim Eberly
Slipping around in another man’s boots, my feet search for stable rocks as the frigid water whips around my legs. I’m standing in a mountain stream in western Virginia, holding a rod with 12 feet of fishing line tied to its tip.
I’m no stranger to fly fishing, but this isn’t how I remember it. No reel, and without it, none of the back-and-forth casting and pulling of line that normally gives life to the fly. In its place, a quick flip of my rod to put it in the water, and a yank to recast.
Tenkara fishing, as it is known, is a Japanese method that dates back at least four centuries and boils the craft down to its simplest form. No reels. Minimal line. In a pastime that some say has become preoccupied with equipment, this allows modern-day anglers to focus on the skill of catching fish.
But the short, simple tenkara cast is not the artful one that defines the sport for Westerners, with long lines drawing snaking curves in the air before unfurling on the water; that difference has made some reluctant to embrace it.
Tom Sadler, 61, grew up fly fishing the traditional style in the lakes and streams of New England. He became a tenkara convert about six years ago and says people are slowly warming to the method. Tenkara means “from heaven” or “from the skies,” a reference, according to speculation, to the way a fly falls on the water. “It’s gone from being an industry joke to ‘That’s kind of interesting,’ ” he says. “I’ve done it long enough to know that I catch more fish – bigger fish – using a tenkara rod.”
Sadler has agreed to be my guide for the day, taking me on a tour of the waterways near Harrisonburg. I meet him at my hotel. The gravelly voiced New Englander is wearing his clothes from the day before. We cruise down U.S. 33 in his pickup truck to the Dry River in the George Washington National Forest, passing massive grain silos, herds of cows and pickups that have taken root in grassy fields.
We park along a winding mountain road. Sadler stuffs a pinch of smokeless tobacco in his lower lip and we grab our gear and shuffle down a steep, wooded embankment. One look at the river and I feel the trip is worthwhile, even if I don’t bag a single fish. On this crisp spring morning, the clear water rushes over and around rocks as a blanket of fog hangs low.
Sadler teaches me how to cast. The movement is different from what I learned as a boy in Maryland. While the tenkara cast is a tighter motion, the rod travels farther behind the angler in Western fly fishing.
I get a nibble around the first hour. Then, after another hour, a brook trout snatches my fly. I yank the rod back to set the hook, but instead it jerks the small fish from the water and sends it whizzing past my left ear. Bizarre. Sadler has a term for this.
“LDR,” he says. “Long distance release.”
We work our way slowly up the river. He teaches me how to read the water, looking for spots where trout tend to lie in wait. When I make a good cast, he blurts out, “Crush it!” as the fly floats past the spot.
I land my first fish before noon. The trout flashes its shiny scales underwater as it bursts toward my fly. Without a reel the battle is brief. I do little more than lift him out of the water.
Unfortunately, this brook trout is about as small as the one that went flying, maybe 6 inches. My disappointment shows. Sadler says that’s a normal size for this river. He’s just trying to make me feel better, I suspect. But the fish is still a gorgeous creature, with bright yellow and red spots on its olive green back and a white and yellow underbelly.
“I don’t know of a prettier fish than a brook trout,” Sadler says.
Cracks of thunder and rain end our morning session. In the afternoon we trade the mountains for the valley. Sadler carts me to a spring creek in the town of Bridgewater. This one – one of hundreds of such creeks in the Shenandoah – is on private property, next to a Mennonite farm, and we’re there by permission. Horses pulling farmers in a buggy clomp past us while we fish.
We can’t wade in the water; Mossy Creek is too narrow. I cast from the bank, but I’m a novice and the tall weeds along the edge – and the forceful winds – test my skills.
The fish are bigger here, in part because the bugs in spring creeks tend to be bigger, Sadler says. But fishing Mossy is more like hunting. It’s called sight fishing – spotting the fish first, then trying to hook it.
We see an 18-inch rainbow trout swimming in place near the far bank. I repeatedly try to cast the fly about 5 feet in front of the fish, so it would float right above the prey.
My casts quicken. My heart is racing. Sadler can sense my desperation. But he’s working hard too, repeatedly unsnagging my fly, or swapping it out to give the fish a new target. (Some would say using multiple flies is a departure from tenkara, on the grounds that it’s common practice to use only one.) When I get a perfect cast – and I have a few – it almost hurts to watch the beast pass it up.
And, then, in an instant, he makes his move – a moment that could turn this trip from enjoyable to unforgettable. I see the glimmer of his scales. The fly disappears. I snap the rod back. Nothing. The hook didn’t set.
I spend more than an hour trying to recapture that moment. The fish is too smart for that – and sticks around to taunt me. We spot another trout nearby, this one smaller. I spend just as much time trying to hook him. But I come up empty. It doesn’t surprise me, though. I’ve had my shot, and on this day things just don’t go my way.
After eight hours of fishing, I’m ready to go. The afternoon sun has drained my energy and my casting shoulder is spent. But I’m content with how things ended. Sure, it would have been nice to hold that hefty fish in my hands. But tenkara wouldn’t be as much fun if it were easy.