Just One Thing: Chris Stewart

I am going to try and do a series of guest posts on CastingAround called “Just One Thing” where I am asking some friends to offer up a short bit of advice. The idea is that it will be the “one thing” that they’d really like to convey to other anglers—some bit of valuable knowledge that they’ve picked up over their years of angling.

As look back on 10 years of CastingAround I cannot help but think about Tenkara’s big appearance in the USA which happened that same year thanks of course to Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA. My first tenkara acquaintance was Chris Stewart of TenkaraBum. So I turned to Chris as my first guest for “Just One Thing”.

Ten years ago when tenkara was just a word to me – I started to get interested in it and wanted to post about it but had no experience or knowledge. So I turned to Chris Stewart (this was pre TenkaraBum ), who was at this point somebody that I didn’t know but had bumped into online, to do a guest post to speak a little about tenkara.

You can see that original post here –>> Tenkara Fly Fishing?

For his “Just One Thing” guest post Chris expanded on the concept and made it an 10-pack in honor of the 10 years of Tenkara’s major emergence here in the US.

So without further ado I turn it over to Chris Stewart:


Tenkara, Ten Years, Ten Lessons by Chris Stewart

This year is the tenth anniversary of tenkara in the US. A few isolated individuals knew of it and even practiced it before 2009, but that was the year Tenkara USA hit the ground running with a press release that officially introduced the new (old) way to fish small mountain streams.  They borrowed Yvon Chouinard’s comment that “The more you know, the less you need.” You only need a rod, a line and a fly. You don’t even need to know much.

There are some things that are helpful to know, though. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the last ten years.

Lesson 1 : Stealth

There’s a great line in the Curtis Creek Manifesto, a modest little book for fly fishing beginners. It says “Frightened fish can’t be caught.” That is by far the most important lesson. If you frighten the fish, it doesn’t matter what you do next. You won’t catch them. 

When I started tenkara fishing I wore camouflage clothes. I don’t know if it helped, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Muted earth tones – brown, dark green and gray are probably just as good. Moving slowly and treading lightly may be just as important. Crouching helps. Kneeling helps more. The lower you are the less likely the fish are to see you.

Lesson 2: Easy does it

This lesson applies to your cast and to your hook set. Most beginners do both with too much force. A Tenkara cast is about timing, not force. When you cast, the rod does the work (and there is very little work involved). The line is so light compared to a fly line, and the rod (the lever) is longer than a fly rod, so fly fishermen always start out casting too hard. 

They start out setting the hook too hard, too! Fly line is stuck in the water’s surface and it’s never in a straight line to the fly (otherwise you’d get horrible drag). It takes a lot of force to rip the line off the water and pull out all the slack. A tenkara line is in the air, not stuck in the surface, and it’s almost straight from rod tip to fly. 

You have to move the fly about a half inch to set the hook. How far and how hard do you have to jerk the rod to move the fly a half inch?  On some days, a third of my fish are hooked as I pick up the wet fly to make a new cast. That’s how much force you need set the hook. The same force you use to start your back cast. Nobody breaks a rod starting a back cast. People do break rods on aggressive hook sets.

Lesson 3: Presentation not imitation

In a nutshell, the underlying philosophy and basis for fly fishing is tying flies that represent specific insects, even specific stages of development of specific insects. The underlying philosophy and basis for tenkara is presenting a fly in a way that induces the fish to take it. By treating the rod, line, fly, wind and current as components in a system, you can present your fly at different depths, at different speeds, and with different motions. From a fish’s perspective, if something is alive and fits in its mouth, it’s food. All you need to do is get it in the right place and make it look alive with realistic motion. 

Lesson 4: Keep the line off the water (except…)

I used to think keeping the line off the water’s surface was the essence of tenkara. I now think the exquisite control of your fly’s location, drift and motion is the essence of tenkara. Still, keeping your line off the surface is critical in most situations. Your drifts will be much better (and much better controlled) if you only have your tippet in the water. 

You will also alert far fewer fish to your presence. A bright tenkara line in the water is easy for the fish to see and is not natural. A bright tenkara line above the surface might not be seen at all (do a Google search on trout vision window).

At times, you may want your line in the water. One possibility is when you want the fly to get deeper in a plunge pool. Another is when the wind is blowing enough that the drag you’d get from the water is less than the drag you’d get from the wind.

Lesson 5: One fly, one rod, many lines

A lot of people ask me “What line should I get?” for a certain rod. A much better question would be “What lines should I get?” The last Oni School convinced me that you need more than one line with any given rod. From the beginning, I have always said you should use the lightest line you can get away with. I still think that’s true, but what you can get away with depends on the wind, the fly you are using and lighting conditions. Heavier lines are easier to cast in a breeze, can cast wind-resistant flies more easily and are easier to see in low light or heavy glare.

At minimum, I would suggest two lines, which might be a 2.5 and 3.5, a 3 and 4 or a 3.5 and 4.5 depending on your rod.

Lesson 6: The myth of tippet recommendations

I think most believe if you use 5X tippet the tippet should always break before the rod does. (For some rods, that tippet might be 6X or even 7X.) As Sportin’ Life would say, it ain’t necessarily so. Four ways you absolutely can break a rod before the tippet breaks are 1) setting the hook like a pro bass angler, 2) trying to free a snag by whipping the rod, 3) trying to break off a snag by pulling with the rod to the side, thereby putting a bigger and bigger bend in the rod, and 4) trying to stop a running fish by pulling back on the rod as you would pull back on the reins to stop a horse, which also puts a bigger bend in the rod than the rod was designed to take.

Lesson 7: Did I mention stealth?

Seriously, you have to be stealthy or you aren’t going to catch any fish at all. Move slowly. You don’t have to be vewy, vewy quiet. Trout can’t hear your voice but they can feel the earth move under your feet as you walk along a meadow stream, and they can feel the pressure wave you make when you wade in a quiet pool.

Lesson 8: You don’t have to follow the masters

I can think of a few people who will disagree vehemently with that statement, but I believe it. In the first place, the masters all have different styles. If you follow one master closely, you are not following the other masters closely. Yes, there are basic principles, and if you understand the basic principles you can learn more quickly. You should, however, be able to learn something from every tenkara angler you fish with (even if only what NOT to do). 

A good friend of mine, who has studied the history of fishing in far greater detail than most (if not all) of his critics, points out that people have been catching fish with a long rod, a line tied to the rod tip and an artificial fly on the on the end of the line for thousands of years now, without the benefit of YouTube, DVD’s and Google. By far, most didn’t call their style of fishing tenkara, but the similarities so outweigh the differences that they are all basically the same style with regional nuances and regional names. 

If you are both curious and mindful, and if you can learn from experience, learning how to catch fish fairly consistently with a tenkara rod, line and fly is something you really can do on your own, following your own path. Japanese tenkara anglers might not recognize what you would end up doing as being tenkara, but do you really care? I can assure you the fish don’t care what it is called.

By taking advantage of the knowledge that is available, passed down from the masters, you will become more skillful and will catch more fish – but you don’t HAVE to choose that path.

Lesson 9: The goal is to have fun

The goal, after all, is to have fun, to have a few hours of antidote to the stresses of modern life. Jason Sparks put it very well when he said that when he walks into a stream, he can just feel the tension and stress being carried away by the current. However you fish, if what you (or someone else) calls it causes stress, don’t call it tenkara, just call it fishing and go have fun. 

Lesson 10: Don’t be a trout snob

Some will disagree with that statement but I believe it. If you are one of those people who enjoys the take and the fight, only to get pissed to learn that the fish on the end of your line is a mountain whitefish or a fallfish instead of a trout, you are spoiling your own enjoyment. Why do that? If you think bluegills are boring, you are unnecessarily limiting your enjoyment. Why do THAT?  Life is short. Don’t make it any harder than it already is.

There are over a thousand species of fish in the United States. There are fish in every body of water that doesn’t freeze solid, run dry or have too much pollution. They’re fun to catch. Seriously, they don’t have to be trout. 

Just go fishing, feel the tug on your line and feel the stress drift away.

11 Comments on Just One Thing: Chris Stewart

  1. Many thanks Chris and Anthony! Great reminders

  2. Robert Long // March 4, 2019 at 12:06 PM // Reply

    exquisite. exceptional. delightful. clear. thoughtful. fun. accurate. wise. kind. More please….. :-)

  3. Great piece! And #10 for the win!

  4. Love it. Especially #8. Thanks Chris and Anthony for this!

  5. David Noll // March 5, 2019 at 7:26 AM // Reply

    Very nice Chris and Anthony. Kind of like around a campfire with Chris. It’s never just on thing but always good stuff.

  6. Great tips Chris! This is going to be a fantastic series I am looking forward to reading.

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