Fly Fishing for the Simple Man

by Stephen Dishong

Over the years I’ve crossed countless mountain creeks and streams on public lands, but during one of those adventures I saw an ad for a fly fishing guide on private land and wondered why anyone would want to pay someone to fish, when you could just hike into some public waters. It was at that moment I decided to start adventuring in the back country to find another way to enjoy the wilderness – fly fishing.

Lucky for me, Christmas was right around the corner and I found a new fly rod and reel sitting underneath the Christmas tree. I did what any good 25-year-old would do, I went straight out the back door to the lake and started to set up my rig. I tied the fly and prepared for my first cast. EPIC FAIL! Nothing happened, literally the fly was right where I left it.

I took an assessment of the situation and realized that everyone else in the fly fishing world always seemed to have several feet of line out prior to casting, which was quite different from how I was used to casting with a spinning rod. I then pulled out several feet of line and attempted my best impersonation of Joe Brooks, the pioneer of modern fly fishing.  Once again, EPIC FAIL. It was obvious that there was more to just a rod, line, and fly. I knew that it wasn’t rocket science because there was an entire world out there successfully fly fishing. So, I kept at it. But kept failing to have any sort of legitimate cast. Determined to catch something with my new set up, I pulled out enough line to clear the weeds lining the lake and started to whip that line with uncontrollable fiery to put the fly in the water. It didn’t look pretty but the fly managed to land in the water. Within seconds, I felt that beautiful feeling of something yanking on my line. It was a perfectly below average size bluegill fighting with everything it had. Satisfaction of catching a fish check! Satisfaction of fly fishing successfully, not so much.

Over the next year, I continued to research and attempt to get the art of fly fishing down, however, it just didn’t seem to be going in my favor. For whatever reason, it just intimated me to continue torturing myself with failure. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with me attempting the self-taught approach and not seeking proper guidance. This led to me walking away from the constant frustration of fly fishing.

Life went on and adventures continued. The constant for me was the mountains. Anytime off, I could pull together with my busy schedule, was set aside for the mountains. Over the next couple years, I’d make my way back to the Appalachian Mountains and found the most genuine pleasure of the simple life in the wilderness. Even though I had begun to reach an ambiguous form of Zen, I was always struck with some bitterness crossing a stream or creek, knowing that there was some simple pleasure lurking below those waters. It was never a feeling that was lasting or even daunting, it was just a little whisper of a voice telling me that I quit, and I’ll never know what I’m missing. 

One day sitting on the boat dock listening to Jack Johnson with my ride or die chocolate lab, Lela, I came across an article on fly fishing entitled, “Tenkara Fly Fishing” that caught my attention. It reeked of something exotic and new, but still familiar. A picture in the article was of a fly fishing rod like no other. It was a telescopic rod with no reel. The tip of the rod had a small string attached to it, called a “lillian.” The lillian is the connection point for a fixed length line. Attached to the fixed length line was a piece of tippet to tie your fly. That was it, it looked so simple a cave man could use it. But, was it effective and what the heck is Tenkara?

Turns out, Tenkara is a traditional method of fly fishing cultivated in the mountains of Japan. Tenkara’s philosophy to fly fishing, is simplicity and effectiveness, with the focus on the presentation of the fly. It was born in the remote rugged mountains of Japan, where often the streams are surrounded by dense vegetation. To make a living, Japanese anglers needed to be efficient because they had to bring home a sizeable catch to sell to market, while having to trek in and out of the remote mountains. The solution to these anglers turned out to be what we know today as Tenkara fly fishing. The telescopic rod allows for packability to trek into the isolated streams and creeks, which could be set up and ready to fish in under a minute. The effectiveness really comes down to the angler presenting the artificial fly in an appropriate manor to evoke a fish strike. One thing’s for sure, due to the Japanese patient nature they were able to reverse engineer the process in which fish feed and developed a very efficient method of presenting the fly to catch fish.

I ordered my first Tenkara fly fishing rod and here I was again, running out the back door to redeem myself at the art of fly fishing. The set up was simple and efficient, like the article promised. The cast with just a rod and line was intuitive. I had dropped the fly relatively close to the spot I targeted. BOOM, “fish on!” I landed a large bluegill. The little kid in me exploded with joy over a little pan fish. I unhooked and cast again. BOOM, “fish on!” This time it was a one-pound largemouth bass. It took only two fish and I was hooked. I knew that I had stumbled onto something special. I spent the rest of that day, hitting up all my favorite spots and continued to catch fish. These results continued over the months while targeting some of my go-to fishing holes in Florida.

Over the years my Tenkara rod has become a consistent item on my gear list and would accompany me on my adventures as an option to deploy in improvised locations. In July, I took a trip to Colorado to explore the national forests. Along with some breath-taking hikes, this trip defined the value of having my Tenkara rod and skills on standby. The trip was great until…I broke my rod on the last day at Cement Creek. The whole time we drove to Grand Mesa National Forest, I was depressed. We picked out a campsite next to Twin Lakes. While taking an evening stroll to Sackett Lake, I saw the last thing I wanted to see -- trout were lining the shoreline. The next morning, we drove to one of the large supermarkets and picked up a cheap rod. I quickly found out that you get what you pay for. My new reel developed a nasty birds nest of a fishing line. I’d untangle everything and cast again with the same results. After 20 minutes, it seemed that the fish were also not interested in the spinner bait I was using.

I reevaluated my situation and asked myself what would make me successful. I thought about how easy and simple it had been fishing with my Tenkara rod. With that thought in mind, I decided to convert my spinning rod into a Tenkara rod configuration. I took off my reel and then attached my Tenkara rod line to the eyelet at the end of my fishing rod. I tied a fly and was ready to see if I would have any luck. I made my way to water’s edge and cast the line. “Fish on!” I was back in business. I spent the next hour plucking trout from the lake. It was a great feeling to overcome some adversity.

With this trip, I learned what Tenkara was all about. Summed up with a quote by Leonardo Da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” In the world today, it’s easy to get lost and make things complicated. Tenkara has found a way to ground me and make me reevaluate my circumstances. I’m a far cry from a professional sportsman and I’m definitely not a guru of the method of Tenkara fly fishing. I am just a simple man who can go for a hike, pack a simple rod, line, and fly with the hopes of enjoying the wilderness from yet another perspective.