Pass/Fail: Master Minimalist Fly-Fishing
How much gear does an angler need?
Can our resident angler give up most of her gear?
I WAS BORN into a family of pack rats. The trait is exacerbated by outdoor activities, which add the threat of being far from home without a necessary item. I would sooner carry two headlamps for a hundred miles than risk being left without one. So it’s no surprise that my fly-fishing essentials are comprehensive: a rod and reel, two dozen flies, a couple lengths of tapered line, and multiple cutting tools.
Living in Montana, I’ve made fly-fishing part of my daily routine most of the summer and into the fall. On work days, I pack my gear and hit the river on my way to the office. And of course I take my fishing kit on dayhikes and backpacking trips. Given how often I carry this stuff (which together weighs more than 2 pounds), even a pack rat like me was intrigued when a friend suggested I try the minimalist Japanese flyfishing style called Tenkara.
I was also a little anxious. Unlike traditional fly-fishing, which is characterized by gadget-adorned vests and enough flies to outfit a couple of scout troops, Tenkara is defined by its simplicity: a naked rod, a fixed line, and only a few fly patterns. No reel, no extra line, and leave that fancy tackle box at home— it doesn’t matter what’s hatching or what’s biting. In the true spirit of minimalism, Tenkara advocates believe the technique of the angler is what matters. Tenkara purists only use three or four different flies—all dry, all simple—in various sizes. The whole kit comes in at just 4 or so ounces—perfect for backpackers.
But the idea still gave me pause. What if I landed a fish so huge I needed a reel? What if the caddis hatched today? Surely this miniscule fly with its dull body— completely lacking the luster and flair of the purple- and gold-beaded flies I left at home in my tackle box— would be no competition for a big, juicy caddis fly. But the idea of fishing a backcountry stream without being weighed down by gear did sound liberating. Success might just mean the start of a new, streamlined packing approach for everything.
For my first try, I strapped a telescoping rod to my pack and headed a few miles up a creek in Colorado. The only sounds filling the narrow drainage were the crunch of my footsteps and the rush of water. I found a little outcrop next to a few small pools and set up—which is to say I tied the 12-foot line to the small loop at the pole’s end and added a tapered piece of line called a tippet before attaching my fly. I flicked my wrist and my 2-foot Tenkara USA pole expanded to 12 feet. Done.
Traditional fly poles require you to attach the reel to the rod and then delicately pull the line up through a series of eyelets. While simple, the process takes time and patience. I sent off my boring little fly with a kiss for luck.
It wasn’t enough. At first, all seemed foreign. My left hand, usually occupied with tending the reel and the excess line that comes with it, was unsure what to do with its newfound freedom; it moved awkwardly through the air like a conductor orchestrating silence. After a few floundering attempts, I switched hands and things began falling into place. Casting with my left hand
naturally shortened my back cast, which I soon learned is one of the benefits of Tenkara. Shorter casts are easier to control and better for fishing in narrow, brushy drainages where fly lines are easily tangled.
After some trial and error, the fly began landing where I wanted it to, flirting with the edge of riffles and floating over rocks. It danced on top of the water without the drag of a long, traditional fly line. My mind settled. I inhaled, pulled my rod up, exhaled, focused. My wrist flicked back and forth. The meditation of fly-fishing is what draws me to the sport, and my mind was free to find a deeper relaxation since it didn’t have to worry about a reel. The other things I like about angling—guessing the fish’s whereabouts and how to present the fly— didn’t change.
The brookies took turns nibbling, and after a while one latched on. But in my reverie, I had become too relaxed. Panic ensued.
The small fish bowed back and forth, and I found myself reaching for the ghost of a reel. Then my inexperience really showed. Absorbed with learning to cast, I hadn’t considered how I’d actually land the fish without a reel. I tried various contortions with the rod, but no luck. Finally, I just splashed through the knee-deep water and unhooked the 4-inch fry, letting it drift downstream.
Turns out, raising the tip of my rod skyward and reaching backward to pull the line in would have brought the fish to me a lot more elegantly. But for my first catch without a reel, I deemed the episode a moderate success. And with a load so light, I was excited to take my Tenkara kit backpacking. I’d still probably pack an extra headlamp, though.