Weather and schedule have really been putting a damper on my fishing so far this spring. As a result I’m not getting new inspiration, so I figured I’d share something throwback. This piece was originally posted a few years back on Karel Lansky’s page Tenkara on the Fly – but I’ve never shared it here before.
Footprints on the Moon
I’m not all that old. I’ve had forty-one birthdays as of this writing. But time has left its mark on me; the thinning hair, the aches and pains…There are memories from my youth that are written on my brain, indelibly, like with some kind of mental Sharpie. Bold and permanent. As I’ve gotten older though it seems like new memories have become less so. New memories are like footprints in the rain filling with water, their contours becoming muzzy, until finally they are mostly indiscernible and filled with murky water. The memories of my youth seem, in contrast like footprints on the moon. Pristine. When I think about my journey to the foot of the mountains wherein my tenkara lies, it is hard to remember the more recent events that lead me to stand there.
My oldest memories are gathered into a primordial ocean. That is the ocean from which I crawled on fins or flippers, the ocean in which I was formed, knit together from bits and pieces of memories. In contrast, my newest memories are only tiny streamlets – noisy, tumbling and jumbled and unimpressive compared to the ocean. I know most will evaporate before they complete their run to the sea. It is hard to recall what the streamlets whisper. So I can’t say for sure where I learned of tenkara. It was, I think, from an internet advertisement on a fly fishing website. However it happened, a seed was planted, and finding fertile soil it grew. It took about six or seven months to sprout. That is about the time it took from hearing about this thing called tenkara to actually buying my first tenkara rod.
Let’s back up. A tale of a journey should start at the beginning. But where is the beginning? There are an infinite number of absolutely improbable things that happened (or didn’t happen) to bring my existence about, stretching back through time to the creation of the universe. And each of these things are necessarily a part of the tenkara journey. How far back do you go? I’ll pick out a few moments. My paternal grandfather, a first generation Italian-Serbian American joined the U.S. Army in 1942. He was 19. He was sent first to North Africa, then to Sicily and then landed at Anzio in Italy. He served as part of a chemical mortar unit and marched from Anzio to Rome, where he entered the city victorious and enjoyed some R&R (I’ve never heard specifics – but one can imagine that party). Anything can happen and often does. I often wonder over the idea that anybody survives to adulthood. But of course serving in the army in WWII was a particularly dangerous occupation. According to family lore my grandfather had two very close calls. I imagine these as moments where my existence stood in the balance. Once, the sweet temptation of the fruit of the date palm led him into the upper reaches of a tree. I never did find out if the dates were any good – but my grandfather always claimed that the tree saved his life. An artillery shell hit while he was in the tree, exploding in mayhem and death in the spot where he had been moments earlier. Another time, while sitting around with his buddies on the beach at Anzio a shell landed in the middle of their group – it did not explode. And so, either through dumb-luck or fate, here I am.
Living the American Dream of postwar America, my grandfather got work in a Steel Mill, got married, bought a house, had two kids, took vacations in Florida, took up golf and continued the outdoor life of his father and uncles. Stowing a pack of howling beagles in the enormous trunk of some 1950’s sedan they would head just out of town for a day of rabbit hunting. My father likes to tell me how the old guys would walk the train tracks while the young guys were assigned the same duty as the beagles, that is struggling through the brambles that lined the banks along the tracks kicking out rabbits. Later his Serbian grandmother would cook the rabbits up in spaghetti sauce. Deer hunting and trout fishing were done at the Camp up in the “mountains”. These are Pennsylvania mountains were talking about – the Alleghenies – and their resemblance to those rocky peaks of the west is passing at best.
My grandfather was a salmon-egg and trout worms, opening weekend, early-season trout angler at most. It was an activity to do with the guys – it was not an obsession. Still, as far as I can tell he is the beginning of my trout fishing lineage. I sometimes like to imagine that my Italian ancestors were fishing with the tenkara-like style of Pesca Alla Valsesiana to trout in the Sesia valley of Italy, but in reality my grandfather’s family is from Reggio Calabria. Reggio Calabria is down near the “toe” of the Italian boot and about as far away from the home of Pesca Alla Valsesiana as you can get in Italy. It is very unlikely that my Italian ancestors ever cast a fly for trout in Italy.
I’m not sure that I remember my first trout. I remember the day before my first trout trip though. I remember standing on my grandfather’s back porch. My enduring mental image of my grandfather is of him sitting on the glider on the back porch in the summer, bowl of sliced cantaloupe on his lap, and he’s wearing an undershirt and boxers. This trip was probably springtime though, so he was probably wearing more than that summer outfit when he offered his fishing advice. He must have wanted to say something to mark the occasion of my trip. He was a very caring man, but sentiment was difficult for him to express. So he said to me. “Catching trout is not like catching sunfish.” I don’t remember if he elucidated that remark or not. He probably meant it as a gentle warning against likely disappointment due to an unsuccessful first trout fishing trip. I don’t recall if I caught fish on that trip or not. But my grandfather’s words have stuck with me for 30 yrs.
Eventually I did catch trout. My first trout memories are of slim wild brookies caught from the bottom of deep pools in a diminutive Pennsylvania mountain stream. It was the kind of stream that is defined by glacially deposited boulders of car and truck sized proportions. Each large bolder would be attended by a deep placid pool. Cast your salmon egg and split shot to the head of the pool let it ride into the depths and settle. Then…tap, tap, tug, splash and flip. I feel like I can recall each tiny trout. Eventually I graduated from jars of salmon eggs to little plastic cups of maggots. Maggots somehow seemed more refined. All of you fly fishers don’t fool yourselves. The real “killer” bug is the maggot. Trout seem to really enjoy their maggots – they cannot resist them. From maggots I went to spinners. Then the leap to the fly rod.
I went to Penn State University in State College Pennsylvania. One of the state’s best wild trout streams, Spring Creek is within bicycling distance of the campus. Penn State offered the country’s first fly fishing course for college credit (Phys-ed credit). I was not aware of that when I matriculated. I was not a fly fisherman at the time. I was a spin fisherman. The moment I decided that I wanted to become a fly fisher is perfectly clear to me. I was in the library’s periodical section looking at copies of fishing magazines. There was an article in one about the limestone streams of Pennsylvania, Big Spring, The LeTort, Falling Spring. The pictures showed pastoral streams winding through fields with willows sweeping low along the banks. It talked about the fly fishing heritage of these streams and the innovators that fished along them, Charlie Fox, Vince Marinaro, Ed Shenk. They were fly fisherman – and clearly this was the only way to properly fish these streams. So it began. I got a Cortland 8′ 5-wt GRF-1000 with a Cortland Crown II reel for my birthday – that was almost exactly 20 yrs ago. Of course I have upgraded a little over the years.
I’ve never really been a gear junkie. I want to fish, and I want decent gear that works well, but always sort of enjoyed sticking with the less expensive gear. $800 fly rods than weigh next to nothing might be nice – but I’d rather spend that money on a trip to Colorado. The onslaught of high-end fly fishing gear in the past few years is a turn-off to me. Sometimes it seems like it’s not about fishing – but only about having expensive gear. I realize some of the hypocrisy in that statement. After all I’m not fishing with the cheapest possible stuff. Another pet-peeve of mine is fly patterns. The number and type of patterns touted by fly fishing magazines and books has become paralyzingly large. The new fly angler must look at the array of patterns being thrown his way and be tempted to throw in the towel. After all if you don’t have that size 22 BWO cripple with, CDC partially emerged wings and z-lon shuck, with just the right blend of synthetic UV and natural dubbing (in just the right shade) and tied on the proper emerger hook, then well – you can’t hope to catch anything. Pack up your rod and go home. Half of the time when I read a fly recipe in a magazine I don’t know what most of the materials are or where to get them. What happened to fur and feathers? My fly fishing had become progressively more complicated – and I had mistakenly thought that that meant it had become better.
Keeping up with that world of fly fishing was difficult and tiring. So when tenkara came along it was like an answer to a question that I hadn’t even fully articulated to myself yet. I was yearning for tenkara and I just didn’t know it. Or more precisely I didn’t know the name to put to it. Tenkara. To step out of the rat race of modern fly fishing’s obsession with more and more and to reset the fly fishing clock, that is what caught me I think. I have to admit that I didn’t know, at the time that I would be won over so completely. I thought tenkara would be just another way of fly fishing for me. I didn’t realize that it would become the way of fly fishing for me. Tenkara takes me back to my humble origins. Tenkara takes me back to a sort of simple and wide-eyed innocence of my first trout fishing experiences. Back then, to catch those trout was amazing to me. And now to catch them on my tenkara gear is amazing to me. By taking away all of the extra layers of accumulated junk – tenkara has allowed the wonder of fly fishing to shine again for me. Corny? Maybe – but nonetheless true.