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Interview with Dave Hughes, PART 2

Interview with Dave Hughes, PART 2

by Adam Trahan

This is a continuation of the abridged interview by Adam Trahan with Dave Hughes on the subject of tenkara.
Part 1
Complete conversation here


Adam: I went through the phase of researching as much as I could from known Japanese masters and through Daniel and Dr. Ishigaki, I began my own training (from afar) of a tenkara kebari “one-fly” approach. I settled on a simple Takayama Sakasa Kebari and used it everywhere varying only the size. I caught fish; more fish than I’ve ever caught on the streams that I had been fishing with lite line fly rods for many many years.

It was crazy.

When I went to Japan, it was still hard to leave the comfort of my little Wheatley fly box filled with my knowledge of the different hatches and fliess that go along with it only to take a odd looking fly box that had only one style of fly. I caught fish all over Japan too.

“What is your approach to fly selection on a small stream? With your tenkara rod, are you just using the same flies or are you in Japanese Fly Fishing mode?”

Dave Hughes: I’m where you were with your little Wheatly: I have a small-stream fly box that I use when “western fly fishing”, and I carry the same box when tenkara fishing. It has a narrow selection of dry flies, nymphs, wet flies, and streamers that I’ve found effective on small streams over many years…now many decades…of fishing them. I’ve never tried to narrow my choice beyond keeping my burden light…my goal out there is to please the trout, which have difficult lives, and I’d like to give them a bit of pleasure.

One fly I’ll add, and its history and description are more thorough in my book, is a Saito-San Special. It’s a parachute pattern, rust brown body and blue dun hackle. I first encountered it when fishing with Megaku Saito, bamboo rod builder under the name Old Crab, near his home in Furukawa. He outfished the heck out of Masako and me. He loaned us a few of his flies–he only used the one, like a true tenkara fisherman, though we were not fishing tenkara–and we caught yamame and iwana on it as well as he did…almost as well.

When I brought the fly home, it outfished my old Royal Wulffs and Elk Hair Caddis here as well as it did there. I’ve been using it ever since.

Another small stream fly that catches lots of trout for me, tenkara or otherwise, is Chuck Stranahan’s Brindle Bug, a parachute dry…it’s on the web, or better yet, order them from Chuck; he’s on the web, too. It’s a great fly in size 12, and if trout only nibble at it without taking, then it’s stout enough to support a size 14 or 16 beadhead nymph of your choice…yes, I do that, too, tenkara and otherwise.

Adam: I have conversed with another excellent author of a few of my favorite books on fly-fishing. We have been in contact, off and on for quite some time. I wanted to introduce tenkara to him, answer anything that he might have. In so few words, he told me that the rods where too long and not well adapted and if he wanted to fish a minimal style, he just stuck the reel in his pocket and used it as a hand line.

“What is your experiences with some knowledgeable fly anglers, have any of them given you the business for fishing tenkara?”

Dave Hughes: Nobody’s given me any business. I’ve been presenting a slide show titled “Introduction to tenkara: Unburdened” for a few years to fly fishing clubs. It’s well received. Out here in steelhead and salmon country, I expect only about 10% of an audience to be very interested…I advise them to do no more than outfit themselves inexpensively for tenkara fishing and give it a try. A few do; the rest don’t.

At the end of one talk, an experienced friend came up and told me, “Tenkara sounds like fishing with a frozen reel.” It meant my slide show had missed some points…tenkara is far from fishing with a jammed reel.

But nobody has ever scolded me beyond the wonderment I get that I’m wasting my time fishing for little trouts when I could be fishing for steelhead and salmon…it’s just like my dad telling me I should be studying birds rather than wasting my time studying aquatic insects…you get used to it.

Adam: I’ve come to understand that with Daniel, he is an “original seed” and his version of tenkara is authentic, as I have verified from my research in Japanese media, old tenkara fishers and from my visit to Japan. He is the reel deal, pun intended.

“I understand that you guys fished together, will you tell us a little bit about it?”

Honestly, I’m a fisherman, I enjoy fishing stories, even the mundane, I’m sure there is a little story in your meeting.

Dave Hughes: The story I came away with, after fishing two days with Daniel, is a bit aside from tenkara fishing. I was amazed at how he did it…I’d been doing it for 20 years, but never had any instruction. Let me promise that Daniel instructed me and Masako.

We learned a lot.

But the story that might be more important: simplicity. Masako and I were there ahead of Daniel, on Oregon’s Crooked River tailwater. We had our tent trailer set up, with all the comfortable etceteras. Daniel showed up in a Prius, having driven from San Francisco. He set up a backpacking tent. He cooked on a tiny stove that fed on a few dry twigs and leaves. His camera was a fixed-lens pocket-sized large-sensor compact that fit in his shirt pocket, but took better photos than my neck-breaker Nikon and big zoom lens. Of course he fished tenkara gear with his one fly pattern: simplicity exemplified.

You get the picture: Everything he did was pared to the bones, and focused on what he was there to do. I learned a lot about tenkara fishing from Daniel, but what I felt was more important was what I learned about living life. I don’t intend to pare my life down to tenkara and one fly, but I can see that I’d benefit from hanging around Daniel a bit more, get some hints on things I might jettison.

Another thing: Daniel has fished his damp kebari fly so long that he sees everything that is going on with it, and around it. I stood next to him and watched him catch trout after trout without any hint about why he set the hook. I’m not exactly inexperienced, but I’ll never have Daniel’s eye sight, and I’ll never have his depth of experience in fishing that one style of traditional Japanese tenkara fly.

Adam: One day I hope to fish with Daniel but if I could fish with anyone, it would be my Grandfather who is gone, he didn’t even fish, he taught me to fish but he didn’t do it himself.

“Who would you like to go fishing with?”

Dave Hughes: I have to admit that I married lucky. Masako is a writer for Japanese fly fishing magazines. She loves to camp, and she is the best camp cook I’ve ever met…we eat fairly close to a Japanese diet, even in camp. She’s an excellent fly fisher, she looks a lot better in a photo, holding a trout, than you or I do. She’s just next to 5 feet tall, and has small hands, so when she holds a trout for a photo, it always looks like a big one.

So I’d like to just go on fishing with who I fish with most of the time: my wife.

Adam: “Where do you think tenkara will be in the big fishing scheme of things in a few years?”

Dave Hughes: I like your philosophy of looking back to see where things are going. I have a small saying, “The future looks more like the past than it does the future.” I’m not going to explicate on that; it gets into tedious detail, and none of it is about fly fishing.

I don’t think tenkara is a fad. I do think its growth will slow at some point. I know I’ll still be doing it, but I’ll never make a religion out of it: I’ll never set aside my “western” gear when it fits the situation better than tenkara…I want to please those trout.

Adam: The Japanese tenkara books that I have from the seventies and eighties actually detail the modern tenkara of today. Same thing they were doing then, people are doing now. The equipment is better but the gist is the same.

I read anglers here talk about “an American Tenkara movement” which I see as a vintage tenkara movement. Patagonia embraces the “simple fly fishing” with a telescoping rod that is used to cast a cut off fly line. I’ve spoken to Yvon Chouinard about it myself; he doesn’t even call it tenkara. I see it as dumbed down fly-fishing.

For me, some of the Americans want to define it for themselves by changing things around but really what I see is that all this has been done before in Japan. Same exact stuff.

“Can you tell me what you think? What is tenkara to you?”

Dave Hughes: Isn’t it Ishigaki-san who says, approximately: There are no rules; everybody should enjoy tenkara in his or her own way?

I agree.

My own way is an adaptation of the tenkara tools to my old ways and old flies. I fish dries, nymphs, quite often soft-hackles and other wets, not yet streamers but I might some time. I do a lot of micro fishing on tiny streams, with delicate little rods that Daniel tells me are not to be confused with tenkara.

Tenkara, to me, is what I want to do when I want to go unburdened, when I want the most direct connection to a trout that I can get, when I want to go out to a stream to think about things…hell, it’s personal: tenkara is what I want to do when I want to do it, where I want to do it…and honestly, more often, it’s what I’ll be doing when I’m on a small stream by myself, nobody else around.

My best friend from grade and high school passed away recently. A bunch of friends and I had lunch after his funeral in my home town, Astoria, talked over his life–he was a medic in VN with the Marines and saw a lot of things that I didn’t, and it affected the rest of his life. After lunch I declined further offers, saying I had to get home to Portland…but on the drive I stopped off at a little stream I hadn’t fished in years, got out a tenkara rod, and spent a couple of hours in deep thought while that delicate rod, furled leader, 5X tippet, and a size 14 Saito-San dry fly danced some trout from beautiful little pools. I hardly noticed them, or my own passage along the stream, but it was tenkara that I took there, or tenkara that took me there, I don’t know which.

Adam: “How many people do you think you have turned on to tenkara?”

Dave Hughes: I don’t know. I’ve given my slide show on tenkara perhaps 8 or 10 times, to clubs from 15 to 150 people, from Pennsylvania to Oregon. I don’t hear back. I suspect a few take it up each time, and a few of those stick with it. I’m not on any mission. I call the slide show “Tenkara, Unburdened.”

Adam: I’m seeing a trend of people that talk about tenkara as a “tool” in the toolbox. I’m glad to see that too. I fish only tenkara on small streams because it is the most effective method but I certainly am no tenkara police. A nice, well-balanced fly rod is certainly effective too.

“How do you see it? Is tenkara just another tool in the box or is it the way for small streams?”

Dave Hughes: You can tell by now that I’m not going to call tenkara “the way” for small streams. That would turn it into a religion, which it seems many folks like to do. It’s one way. It’s a great way. Traditional tenkara is actually best on what I’ll call a ‘big small stream’, more like a small medium trout stream, one with lots of pocket water rather than long pools, one with a high overhead canopy or no canopy at all, rather than brush that crowds down around you. John Gierach got the description of perfect tenkara water right in your interview with him…I’ll refer your readers back to it, because re-reading John has always been one of my favorite things to do.

Adam: I want to just say “thank you” for accepting my interview. They always seem to take on a life of their own. It’s a process that I am honing. I would like to offer you the end of the Interview to say anything you would like. Thank you again and I hope to read much much more about tenkara from you.

Dave Hughes: I’ll say here what I say there, in my book and when I conclude my slide show on tenkara: Everybody should outfit minimally for it, give it a try. Some will think it’s crazy. Some will think it’s fun, and do it whenever the situation is suitable to it. Some will convert it into a religion, sell their western reels, convert their fly lines to clothes-lines, break up their traditional rods and use them as kindling for campfires.

They’ll all be precisely right…for them.

For me, tenkara provides a lot of satisfaction that I can’t get any other way.