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.

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