I don’t want to sound like a hipster, but I was tenkara fishing way before it was cool. Yep, before it became fashionable in the fly fishing community, I was catching fish using nothing but a rod, line and fly. The first fish I ever caught on a fly was fishing “tenkara style”. That was in the 80’s. Tenkara didn’t become mainstream until around 2010. Yea dude, I’m that far ahead of the curve.
I’ll admit that the rods used weren’t the $150, cork gripped, tenkara rods used today. No, me and mine, we used telescoping fiberglass rods known as “bream busters” that you could get from K-mart for about $15. These rods were usually used like a canepole to fish worm or crickets for the various sunfish that inhabit the fresh water tidal rivers around where I grew up, but when the time seemed right, like directly after an afternoon thunderstorm or during a calm sunset, we would pull the floats, split shot and hooks off our lines and add a popping bug. These we would “cast” tenkara style to any place we thought looked fishy, more often than not to get a strike as soon as the bug hit the water. Some of largest bass and bluegill I ever took were caught like this.
It always makes me chuckle a little when I read an article, some of which were written by fisherman that I have the greatest respect for (John Gierach and Ed Engle to name a couple), about tenkara. Most of these articles include things about tenkara’s ancient Japanese roots, its simplicity, its beauty, blah, blah, blah. I’m not trying to disrespect this form of fishing, but rednecks on the coastal plains of South Carolina have been fishing like this forever. Fly rods were few and far between where I grew up, but every little country store that sold tackle in my area carried an assortment of cheap popping bugs just for people to use on the ends of their canepoles.
The first time I saw an actual tenkara rod was on the banks of the Beaverkill in New York back in about 2006 (there I go, being all hipster on y’all again). I was fishing near the campground one day when a Japanese gentleman walked down to the river holding what looked to me like the world’s skinniest bream pole. Being curious I walked over and asked him about it. He told me, in broken English, about traditional Japanese fly fishing, showed me some flies he tied and showed me how to “cast” his rod. I told him, in southernese, about my fishing a very similar outfit with bass bugs in my home waters. There was a lot of smiling and nodding and probably very little real understanding of the details of that conversation but I think we both got our points across.
I didn’t really think too much about that conversation until a few years later when I saw an article in a magazine all about tenkara. “Wow,” I thought. “Bream buster fly fishing is going mainstream.”
Lately though I’ve been thinking about getting a tenkara rod. They are much lighter and more delicate, in a good way, than my beloved bream busters and I have a feeling I would really enjoy fishing with one for native brookies up in the Smoky Mountains or, really, for any trout on any small stream. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ll probably end up with a tenkara rod sooner or later, but I swear, as God as my witness, that I’ll never tell anybody back home how much I paid for my fancy bream buster. And I’ll only fish it ironically.