Yvon Chouinard Fly Fishing

Using a reel-less, collapsible, composite pole of 10.5 to 13 feet and a short length of thin floating fly line, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard continues to refine the age-old Japanese fly-fishing form known as tenkara.

If simpler is better, tenkara devotees are way ahead of the rest of us.

Ancient Japanese fishermen popularized a wispy rod that collapses to the length of a legal pad and weighs less than pocket change. A short piece of woven horsehair line tied to a loop on the tip allowed users to cast or reach their offerings across streams and ponds. Early fish chasers extended these rods over confined forested streams to dap their simple flies. Maneuvering in dense mountain terrain was simplified by a rod and line system that collapsed into a case that was a slender hard tube.

Summer valley resident Yvon Chouinard showed me a tenkara rod some time ago. It was a gift from a Japanese friend. Internationally recognized in mountaineering circles for developing innovative climbing equipment, Chouinard more recently has built his reputation by positioning Patagonia as the prominent sustainable outdoor clothing company that donates profits to environmental causes. The rest of the time he’s a delirious fly-fisherman.

As they mature, serious anglers embrace distinct phases. Chasing globally threatened anadromous species such as steelhead and Atlantic salmon appeared to be Chouinard’s piscatorial crest. However, adopting the basic tenkara doctrine further torches his creative enthusiasm.

Minimalist fishing

After all, tenkara is tackle minimization, and that’s exactly what Chouinard’s philosophy of “less is more” is really all about.

The past summer of fishing for Chouinard included an 11- or 12-foot collapsing rod, a 12- to 20-foot section of thin diameter line (either 0.029-inch floating line or various woven or solid synthetics), a light monofilament or fluorocarbon leader and a handful of small and easily tied wet flies. The Chouinard method of walking and wading 5 to 10 miles in the course of a day leads to a goodly amount of fishing action and plenty more colorful incidents.

Yvon is principally a wade fisherman and shuns the parade of drift fishermen passing in a day’s outing as incomplete enthusiasts. In July and August he facilitated several hands-on trout clinics to introduce nonanglers, mother-daughter groups and members of Patagonia’s design and marketing staffs to tenkara. One of his great delights is seeing beginners excel in hooking and landing trout while using his super simple system.

“They wouldn’t do this well if they were handicapped by a regular fly rod outfit with all the extra line and distractions,” he happily exclaimed.

Since jumping on America’s tenkara bandwagon, Chouinard has relentlessly fed the form’s virtues to his inner circle of angling pals. West Yellowstone, Mont., fly peddler Craig Matthews and Italian nymphing maestro Mauro Mazzo joined Chouinard in echoing tackle simplification in a new book that’s on the way to the printers.

Through a friendship with Lefty Kreh that was cold forged during the made-for-Outdoor Channel “Buccaneers and Bonefish” series, Temple Fork Outfitters introduced a tenkara rod (Soft Hackle) edition. Kreh is Temple Fork’s most accomplished promoter and spokesman.

While the tenkara was originally developed to chase small trout in delicate and tight locations, Chouinard has expanded the applications beyond what even the most enthusiastic tenkara proponents could have envisioned. He’s had Atlantic salmon shatter his wispy rods on the strike and also yank rods from his hand. On many occasions he and friends have tossed their rods in the water and had to sprint after them when large fish dragged them into runs too deep to pursue on foot.

A week ago, during a piece of nicer weather, Chouinard gave local guide and photographer Tom Montgomery and me a simplified light rod-and-no-reel demonstration. In his grasp were a pair of collapsed Temple Fork rods with his own homemade line holders, which allow easy wrapping of the short lines and leaders around the butt section. The wire apparatus resembles old-time Venetian blind adjustment cord binders and makes walking to new spots much easier.

Each rod wore a different line. The 10.5-foot had about 20 feet of thin diameter level floating line and a 9-foot mono tapered leader of Maxima Ultragreen with a pair of small Chouinard-styled size-12 wet fly creations. The 11.5-foot outfit had an easier-to-manage 12-foot floating line with a pair of No. 8-weighted stonefly nymphs.

Miniscule action

Casting, mending, adding slight action and subtle hook setting come easily to Chouinard, who usually works downstream from the heads of riffles and heavy runs. The lightness of these long rods allows a gentle thumb resistance that imparts a tiny lift to the wet flies. Chouinard insists this minuscule action incites wary trout strikes and cannot be re-created with regular fly tackle. Whitefish gobbled the nymphs along with several cutthroats. The wet flies that usually dazzle trout provided slower action.

Despite the relative simplicity involved in casting and swinging a lightweight tenkara outfit on a river, forethought in rigging such a system is decidedly more complex. Chouinard has experimented with various forms of lines, from 1-weight double tapers (cut in half) to level 0.029 running lines and even straight monofilament and fluorocarbon. He leaves tag ends on every leader knot and even the perfection loop he attaches to the rod tip loop. Yvon notes that additional resistance from all these tiny drag points improves the short line-leader drifts.

Ever since symptoms of tenkara madness began in Jackson Hole it has been interesting to witness its evolution. Yvon and I were discussing wet fly-fishing on a summer day when his neighbor, Yasu-hiro Hamano, arrived with a group of tenkara masters from Japan. Within minutes the Chouinard backyard was filled with a legion of grunting, yelling, thrusting and casting characters. The event resembled a Kill Bill battle scene that had exchanged swords for fishing rods. It was a memorable event.

Since that absorbing display, whenever the opportunity arises to take Yvon for a boat ride to new wading sites, I marvel at the refinements he has added to his tenkara passion.

The Internet is loaded with tenkara-ready information from two active sites, TenkaraUSA and TenkaraBum. Preparing rods, lines, leaders, flies and additional rod design and line and leader theories found here can keep enthusiasts busy for a long time.

Although I’ve offered Chouinard a spare fly reel in case he wants to get back to regular fly-fishing, he’s kindly refused. He laughs when he watches my feeble tenkara attempts, because I’m always trying to strip in line, which, of course, doesn’t work.

I agree that tenkara has some excellent applications, especially beginning now. Line simply won’t freeze in the guides while casting.

Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.

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