Keeping Fishing Simple

By YUKARI IWATANI KANE

Fishing for tiny Japanese bitterling is a Zen-like experience. You hold a six-inch slender bamboo pole delicately between your forefinger and middle finger and drop a line with a speck of mashed potato or a half-grain of rice as bait. If the air is quiet and your concentration focused enough, you might just see the bobble move a tad when the fish bite.

At least that’s the idea. When I tried my hand at this niche sport, it was one awkward moment after another. First, I fumbled to get a small piece of potato onto my miniscule hook. Then I dropped my line in so roughly that the potato disintegrated the moment it hit the water. When I got it right, I pulled my line out too quickly or too late.

Eventually though, I started hooking tanago, as these tiny fish are called. My cousin taught me how to hold the fish against my palm with my pole, so I could get a photo showing off the beauty of both.

Part of the fun of tanago fishing is that it is relatively fast-paced. In just one hour, I caught about 15 fish. Tomoki told me that an expert tanago fisherman could catch hundreds in a day.

FROM JAPAN TO THE U.S.

Micro-fishing of this sort appears to be virtually non-existent in the U.S. so far, but if you want to experience a simpler way of fishing, there is tenkara fishing, a traditional type of fly fishing that originated in Japanese mountain villages to catch river fish.

Similar to Edo wazao fishing, the appeal with tenkara is that it only takes a pole, a line and a fly. Unlike tanago fishing, which uses short poles, tenkara fishermen use a long telescopic rod to catch bigger fish like trout.

Traditionally the tenkara poles were made with bamboo, but today most are made of carbon fiber. (Contrary to the Wikipedia entry on tenkara, which says the traditional poles are light, big bamboo poles are actually heavy). There is no reel, so you just swing the rod to cast lightly, then “dap” (i.e., drop) the fly on the water. Once the fish bites, fans say that the lack of a reel allows them to enjoy the pull of the fish more directly.

Tenkara is growing in popularity, and a rod can be purchased for as little as a couple of hundred dollars. Boulder, Colorado-based Tenkara USA, which claims to have brought tenkara to the U.S., sells two types of rods for $157-$215. Tenkara Rod Co. in Driggs, Idaho, sells kits that include a line, line spool, and flies. Even Patagonia has kits and rods. And Amazon offers a Tenkara Rod Co. kit, for $158.95 as of this writing.

FROM TENKARA TO A BAMBOO FLY ROD

If you are looking for a higher-end, full fly-rod crafted with bamboo, a range of options are at your disposal. As any serious fisherman will tell you, there is nothing quite like the action of a bamboo rod–slow, a little lazy, allowing plenty of opportunity for a skilled fisherman to load the power of his or her cast.

Bamboo fly rods are not cheap–they range in price from around $1,000 to close to $10,000. One of the most modest options is the Alpenglow, crafted by Tony Bellaver, a skilled woodworker in Oakland, Calif., who has been branching out into a range of disciplines, bamboo rods among them. Bellaver sells his rods for $1,200 through Lost Coast Outfitters in San Francisco.

Moving up the scale, you get to some very fine bamboo rods made by Glenn Brackett of Sweetgrass in Twin Bridges, Montana. Brackett, who sells bamboo rods for around $2,000 to $2,500, is part of a small but distinguished group of bamboo rod builders that have represented the higher echelon of this craft for decades.

One member of this elite group is the legendary Tom Morgan, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since 1995 from Multiple Sclerosis. But that hasn’t stopped him. Morgan has continued to make superlative bamboo, by channeling his skills and his eye through his wife, Gerri Carlson. As you might imagine, Morgan has been written about a lot, but perhaps nowhere more grippingly and beautifully than in this 2103 article by Wright Thompson in ESPN Magazine.

Bamboo lovers, take note: Morgan and his wife may not be in the rod-making business much longer; what he has now, which sell for around $4,000, can be found at Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, which operates out of his home shop in Manhattan, Montana. (Even if you’re not in the market for a Morgan, it’s worth visiting his website. His treatises on bamboo rods are some of the most extensive available.)

Finally, at the very top of the line is the stunningly gorgeous Oyster fly rod, which can come with burled handles and all manner of engraving in silver or gold caps. (Prices start at around $3,000, then move up from there as artistic flairs accumulate.) The Oyster is made in Blue Ridge, Georgia, by a man conveniently named Bill Oyster. His shop also teaches classes in bamboo rod-making.

© 2018 Yukari Iwatani Kane, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 1, 2016