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Can’t We All Just Get Along? (Or the Arcane Politics of Tenkara)

Posted by on June 15, 2012

Is This a Tenkara Rod?


Sorry, Rodney King (RIP), but I suppose it was inevitable.  Whenever egos, livelihoods, and differing visions collide, conflict is certain to follow.  As I said in my original post, “Tenkara is not a religion, although some would make it so.”  If you regularly visit the TenkaraUSA and the Tenkarabum websites as I do, you are likely aware that a schism has suddenly developed in the tenkara community.  Daniel Galhardo, whom I have justly praised in an earlier blog for almost singlehandedly introducing tenkara in the US (and Europe, too), espouses a very traditional, Japancentric view of tenkara, especially relating to the use of a long rod, traditional sakasa kebari, etc.  Chris Stewart, on the other hand, is willing to adapt the tenkara concept to conform  to the variety of waters he fishes, including using telescoping “tenkara” rods of little more than six feet.  Kind of reminds me of the dry fly vs wet fly controversy of the turn of the last century.

What, then, is tenkara?  If it is, in fact, “a stick, a line, and a fly,” there exists a lot of room for interpretation.  It seems to me that tenkara can broadly be defined as a rod that will cast well a fixed length of line, to which is attached a fly of your choice.  Does the rod need to be collapsible to be a tenkara rod?  I’m sure that early tenkara anglers in Japan did not have collapsible rods but instead used long fixed-length bamboo rods.  Is it necessary to use exclusively a sakasa kebari style fly?  It seems even in Japan there is quite a bit of variation in the size, color, etc. of traditional tenkara flies.  And what about that Utah Killer Bug?  Even Daniel Galhardo and TenkaraUSA’s director of interactive marketing, Jason Klass, recommend the use of that nymph-like fly, certainly one previously unknown in Japan.

Human pursuits do not stop evolving at a given point, frozen in time like a fly in amber.  What developed  in Japan in response to local conditions will inevitably be reinterpreted in the context of our American experience, I have found a 12′ rod to be perfect for the type of fishing I do locally and have done in the Rocky Mountains, but I can certainly envision small, canopied streams where a shorter rod would be a better choice.

Who’s right, then?  Well, of course, no one is.  There is no final word or monopoly on the definition of tenkara.  Individual anglers must choose for themselves how they define tenkara.  It was unavoidable that once introduced, Daniel would lose control of the tenkara narrative and that others would rewrite it in their own vernaculars.  Better that he continue to speak his own language of tenkara but learn to converse also with the other dialects of the sport. No matter how you choose to practice tenkara, if it gets you and others out on the water, appreciating nature, advocating for the environment, then that’s perhaps the proper way to fish tenkara.

One thing is certain:  when you get in a pissing match with another person, you’re both going to get wet.

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