Rob Worthing: "Evolution of Approach"  - the Retort

Tenkara guide Rob Worthing
Having read “Evolution of Approach”, I must compliment Mr. Lucas on being a thoughtful angler. His interest in conservation and elegant practice is commendable.  He is an experienced and conscientious angler. 

Unfortunately, his article reveals a lack of skillful practice and overall misunderstanding of tenkara techniques.  To those with a sound knowledge of tenkara, he has failed to establish the limitations he suggests are inherent in fixed line fishing.

The remainder of this article will stand on the foundation of the following points - points I believe Mr. Lucas and I agree upon:

  1. Conservation is in the interest of all anglers.
  2. Conservation is an artful science that requires thoughtful practice. On overpopulated waters, controlled harvesting may result in healthier populations. Other waters benefit from Catch & Release. For a brief but comprehensive review of scientific publications dealing with C&R principles, please refer to:
  3. The angler must match his or her gear to the conditions at hand.

With this foundation in place, the following is a list of points made by Mr. Lucas with which I agree:

 1)     "Just think of where tenkara originated, and what fish were targeted: small mountain streams in Japan, with char and trout, rarely exceeding a pound in weight.”

This is an accurate statement regarding the origins of tenkara. I believe we have clearly proven that modern tenkara equipment is capable of landing larger fish than originally intended. However, tenkara most definitely has its limits. Other fixed line fishing techniques were created to handle fish outside the limits of tenkara.

2)     “We have brought tenkara down into the valleys, onto bigger rivers (and even lakes), with larger quarry, and it has been a thrilling journey of discovery . . .”

Yes, it has been thrilling. Though to be historically accurate, I don’t know how much credit we in the United States and greater Europe can claim. Japanese anglers have done the same for many years.

3) " . . .whether we are to kill or release our catch, then we surely should be keeping the duration in which the fish is under stress to a minimum.”

A statement I fully endorse. The existing body of literature is quite clear with respect to the effects of metabolic stress. For those who harvest, the metabolic acidosis resulting from prolonged stress negatively impacts the quality and taste of meat. For those who C&R, mortality after release increases in direct proportion to time under stress. It pains me to think of the way I handled fish before becoming educated on sound C&R principles.

4) “A tippet break is without a doubt one of the great sins in fly fishing.”

While a growing body of evidence suggests leaving a hook in place may be preferable to release after removal in specific cases of deep hooking (esophagus, gills, etc), an uncontrolled release such as that which occurs with a tippet break is always to be avoided.  Even if it falls out of the fish, it will likely remain in the river for many millennia. A conscientious angler strives never to leave a trace of his presence on the water.

5) “Forget the macho nonsense about our ability to cast such long fixed leaders. This is utterly not the point . . .”
Here, here! Fish gear because it is well suited to the conditions at hand. Machismo has no place in the mind of a conscientious angler.

The following is a list of points made by Mr. Lucas that are unsound in the context of his argument:

1) “ . . .with larger fish, especially in open water where they can, and will, run fast, tippet breaks (or rod tip breaks) . . .”

Presuming tippet strength is appropriately matched to the conditions at hand, it is absurd to suggest that tippet breakage occurs more frequently when fishing tenkara compared to Western.
Furthermore, I have never seen a rod tip break on a fish. I have seen rod tips of both tenkara and Western rods break during rigging by inexperienced fishermen. This is a result of insufficient skill. I have seen rod sections break on fish by both tenkara and Western anglers who fail to load the rod appropriately during a fight. Also a result of insufficient skill. I have witnessed rod section breakage when an inexperienced tenkara fisherman grabs his line far too near the tip, introducing an unnatural acute angle in the rod. This, again, is a result of insufficient skill. Finally, I have witnessed one catastrophic tenkara rod failure on a massive trout fishing non-tenkara tactics with very heavy flies in a situation where the angler was hopelessly stuck on a log jam in the middle of a river and could not react appropriately. I have also witnessed failure of Western rods under similar conditions. But I have never seen a tenkara rod tip break in the course of a skillful fight. 

-a rare example of catastrophic failure in a tenkara rod.

2) “ . . . because of the very soft nature of a 5:5 or 6:4 tenkara rod, the fish is often struggling out in the water for much longer than in the western-style.”

Absolutely incorrect. Whether fishing together or near Western anglers, I routinely land fish faster with my tenkara rod than my Western bretheren. I am also convinced the fight between fish and skillful tenkara angler results in less mechanical and metabolic stress on the fish. This is a result of both the nature of the equipment used and the nature of the tactics necessary to land a larger fish. I have made this point numerous times in the past, including in a prior response to Mr. Lucas on the Tenkara Times Blog.
This again presumes an appropriate match between gear and conditions. To clarify, the “softness” of a tenkara rod should be thought of as separate of its “action index”. A soft 5:5 or 6:4 rod may not be an appropriate choice for larger fish or larger waters. Neither would a 3 weight Western rod. A stiffer 5:5 or 6:4 rod might be an appropriate choice. When fishing for larger fish in larger waters, I specifically reach for stiff (not soft) 6:4 and 7:3 tenkara rods. A stiffer AND higher action index rod gives me a longer lever arm with which to control large fish.
Appropriately matching tenkara gear to conditions may be the reason why our experience with big fish tenkara is so contrary to the experience Mr. Lucas describes.

3) “. . . to [fish with a leader 30’ or more] is leaving us completely out of control, with considerable leader lying on or in the surface, and hopelessly positioned when it comes to dealing with a fish, necessitating excessive hand-lining . . .”

There are plenty of tenkara anglers that would be happy to demonstrate elegant control of a 30’ leader, maintaining the vast majority of it off the water, positioning themselves in a manner that assures a quick and gentle landing and release.
Again, matching gear to conditions is key. The longer the leader, the lighter it must be. Masami Sakaikibara describes using 2 or 2.5 level line at these lengths, much lighter than most tenkara anglers in the United States and England appear to favor at present. A longer rod is also needed. A 12 foot tenkara rod is not likely an appropriate choice.
I will agree that long line techniques are more difficult. I would encourage tenkara anglers to only employ them when suited for the conditions at hand. I would also encourage tenkara anglers to only employ long line technique only when they are ready to do so. This will prevent inappropriate handling and inelegant fishing. If you are interested, take time to build your skill sufficiently, gradually stepping your leader length upwards.

4) “ . . . dealing with the fish, particularly large or fast-moving trout, becomes fraught with hazard, and decidedly inelegant.”

Not if the tenkara equipment employed and the skill of the angler are up to the task. This brings us full circle back to a point of contention already established between Mr. Lucas and myself. Mr. Lucas believes tenkara is narrowly limited with respect to size of fish. I stand convicted that, though there is a limit, tenkara is well suited to handle larger fish than Mr. Lucas proposes. And in an elegant manner.

-another big Brown landed in big water using sound C&R principles on a tenkara rod. 

I suppose this does depend somewhat on the working definition of elegant. If you employ a “Grace Kelly” definition of elegance, then I must concede that I don’t always look so elegant while hand lining.  Sometimes I look rather more like a bowlegged duck than a Princess of Monaco. But if you employ an “Occam’s Razor” definition of elegance, then I must contend that hand lining large trout is very elegant indeed.


-Grace Kelly (High Society, 1956).


-a bowlegged duck. 

Simply put, the limitations Mr. Lucas cites do not exist when a more skillful hand employs tenkara. Rather, they are limits that inadequately skilled anglers face, whether fishing tenkara or Western.

It is the duty of a conscientious angler to be a good ambassador of fly fishing, offering kind and constructive guidance to those who lack skills he or she may possess, while remaining open to receiving lessons of his or her own.

For my part, I hope that Mr. Lucas and I will one day have the opportunity to learn from one another by sharing a great day of fly fishing.