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Meeting one of the old tenkara masters Ishimaru Shotaro

Meeting one of the old tenkara masters Ishimaru Shotaro

Spending nearly 2 months in Japan has opened up opportunities to meet people I never have thought I'd be able to. Last week I had an incredible encounter with 89-year old tenkara angler, Mr. Ishimaru Shotaro. Meeting Shotaro-san, a tenkara master of  older days, was  one of the most interesting meetings I've had. And, it helped provide a few insights on the world of tenkara. I will be writing more about Shotaro-san after returning from Japan (I'm leaving the country today). In the meantime, I wanted to provide a quick introduction.

Shotaro-san estimates he started tenkara fishing at age 12, 77 years ago. At that time, there were no teachers around; similarly to Amano-san, Shotaro-san noticed a tenkara angler catching fish in a stream near his home, in Hagiwara, Gifu. For a full summer he followed the tenkara angler and observed his techniques, trying to learn by watching. He thought he couldn't approach the unknown angler to ask questions as that wasn't done at the time. So he kept his distance and tried to not be noticed, after observing he'd go fishing and try to make it work. The similar experience of Shotaro-san and Amano-san, and their age difference of about 25 years, prompts me to ask the question: was Shotar0-san the angler that Amano-san watched when he learned about tenkara? After teaching himself tenkara for a few years, Shotaro-san started teaching tenkara to people in his town, first to friends, then to people at a local fishing club. He may have been one of the early tenkara masters; a master, by definition, is someone who becomes an expert at a skill and shares it with others. If Shotaro-san was the angler that Amano-san watched, it's very possible Amano-san could have simply asked him some questions and learned tenkara from Shotaro-san.

It's interesting how attitudes have changed. At one point I asked him how he felt about tenkara being introduced to people outside of Japan. The question was briefly lost in translation, and he thought I was asking how he would feel about teaching tenkara to people from other parts of the world, to which he responded, "it would be a bit difficult as I can't speak English...", but he may have been open to the idea. Shotaro-san stopped fishing about 3 years ago, when he felt that his legs could no longer safely support him on the stream. However, after talking about fishing for a couple of hours, and doing a quick casting session outside, Shotaro-san got really excited. I saw a spark in his eye; I actually noticed the moment he decided to go fishing before he said anything about it. He then said he wanted to fish with me.

For the first time in 3 years, Shotaro-san would be in the water again. He asked for helping putting on some waders, and along with one of his old students, we slowly proceeded to the river in front of the fishing center. It was truly quite an experience. Being of the old-school tenkara tradition, Shotaro-san uses some pretty ugly flies -  the picture below shows 3 of his flies on the left, next to some beautiful flies tied by one of the Patagonia staff a few days later. His line is a bit longer than the rod plus tippet, and he likes for his fly to float (thus the heavy hackling) and to give it a constant motion. This stretch of the river doesn't have many fish, and we couldn't hit the best spots available, but he still managed to get 2 fish to chase his fly in our short time out.

3 of Shotaro-san's flies on the left, compared to flies tied by a young tenkara enthusiast on the right. When I asked him why was it that people today thought fishing was difficult, even with all the books, videos and instructors available, but back in his day they learned simply by observing, his response was simple: "there were more fish back then". His record in one day of fishing was 130 fish.