Tenkara – Fishing for Survival

Tenkara Rainbow troutI recently discovered and been having a lot of fun with a somewhat different, and new to me, fishing method. I’ve posted some photos on facebook and twitter and they drew a lot of attention and produced a few interesting questions.

Tenkara is an old, traditional Japanese fishing method, which originated at least 200 years ago but is relatively unknown outside of Japan. It was introduced and popularized in San Francisco in 2009 by Tenkara USA.

deer creekSo what is Tenkara and why is it so cool? It’s a method that employes very lightweight, long whip-like rods and requires no reel. You could say it’s like a lighter, simpler version of flyfishing or pocket flyfishing. The flies are usually much smaller and less complex as well.

It’s perfect for small creeks, mountain streams and lakes but also urban ponds and rivers. It’s ideall for backpackers. And that is exactly how I first came across this method. So I went for this five-day ultralight cross-country backpacking trip with Sierra Club, and all of a sadden the group leader pulls out this tiny fishing rod and starts to catch fish in a lake at 9000 feet above sea level. And I was just blown away by how compact, portable and effective this little kit was.

  bluegillrainbow trout

When I came back I looked it up and a couple months later bought my first tenkara kit on amazon. They can be ridiculously expensive but I got the rod, the braded, tapered level line and a set of flies for just over 80 bucks.

  Coyote CreekCoyote Creek Henry Coe SP

The way it works is, you attache the level line to the lillian (forgive me if I’m using incorect terminology but I’m relatively new to this myself, and not knowing what certain parts are called hasn’t stopped me from catching fish so far). Then, you attache about two feet of your actuall line to the other, thinner end of your level line, and there goes your fly. All done.

The casting is probably the best part because you get to swing the rod like a whip. Sometimes it’ll even make that cracking sound but that usually means you’ve lost your fly. Just don’t get carried away cause it’s easy to forget how long that line is. You can also sling-cast it and that’s especially usefull technique when fishing around trees and in thick brush or when you need that extra accuracy.

Lake Rainbow TroutSo is the fly supposed to float or sink? To be honest I don’t know. I guess it depends on circumstances but I’ve caught fish from the surface as well as from underwater. In my experience subsurface fishing has been more effective so far. But if you want your fly to float that’s cool too. Just keep it dry by cracking the whip or drying it with some kind of absorbent cloth. You probably want to keep the level line dry as well since it’s usefull in indicating bites. I use vaseline to make it hydrophobic.

Since there is no reel and both lines together are usually slightly longer than the rod itself, landing fish can be a bit tricky. It’s not a big deal when the fish is small. You just lift it up, drag it to shore or simply grab the line. But with fish around or heavier than 2 lb you may wanna keep it steady and be a bit more gentle.

All these features I just talked about make this fishing method perfect for survival. Not only is the rod and flies extremely lightweight and portable (mine weighs only about 5 oz) but I’m sure you could get away with carrying just your flies and some line, and simply fashion a rod from a long, flexible sapling. After all, the original tenkara rods were made from bamboo.

I know that sport fishing is often about catching the biggest fish but from a survival perspective, it’s much better to catch five 6-8 ich trout in two hours and be set for two days than trying to catch one 20 lb monster, which may never happen especially in small creeks and lakes.

Survival Part 2 – The Survival Tin and Fire Misconception

Survival tin with fire content

It’s always a good idea to stick to basics like the 5 Cs of survivability by Dave Canterbury. It’s good to remember that hypothermia kills before dehydration, which kills before hunger. Also, I’d strongly recommend taking a map, a compass and learning some basic navigation skills before going on a solo hike. But relying solely on this kind of ‘wilderness insurance’ sometimes isn’t enough.

Many survival manuals will list fire as one of the most important things you should think of when lost or forced to stay in the field longer than you planned. I understand that and often practice starting fires in many different ways as well as building various fire types for different applications. But that doesn’t mean you can’t survive a short episode without a fire. In fact, sometimes you may have no choice.

Desert Death Valley Dolina Smierci  Swinica mountain
Areas such as deserts or high mountains will often have little or no firewood to keep you warm on cold nights

I’ve seen many examples of experienced survival and bushcraft instructors failing to make a fire, sometimes even with a ferro rod. It was either too wet or they didn’t have enough firewood, and it took them longer than most people would be willing to go without a fire in such conditions. Sometimes you’re simply unable to light a fire. At least as quickly as you need it.

Scotland   Sea
Moorland, sea shore and open sea survival can be equally challenging when it comes to keeping warm using fire

That’s why I don’t make lists. I try to learn to react and respond to changes as they happen. And that is also why I decided to take on the ’48h with a survival tin’ challenge created by a friend of mine from Bushcraft Poland. The challenge is simple – survive 48 hours with just your clothes, a small pocket size survival tin and a 3″ knife/multitool, covering at least 10 miles in the process.

Let’s imagine for a moment my car broke down far from civilization, I have no reception, no backpack and only a rough idea on how to get back by following the unpaved road I drove before I got stuck.

This is obviously just a funny little competition using an imaginary scenario. But it’s a good training and reality check at the same time. I’ve already heard people claiming that 48 h is way too short and you can go without water, food and sleep for two days straight. Great! I’d like to see you try 🙂 I’m not implying it would be impossible. I’m just pointing out that saying is not the same as doing and that not drinking, eating and sleeping at home may be ‘a little’ different from trying the same trick when lost out in the field.

Another problem with such approach is that in real life you can’t be sure when or even if you’re going to be rescued. Even having a beacon or a satellite phone does not guarantee good weather, suitable for helicopters or ground team to find you in time. In this light, sitting on your butt, waisting your time for two days may not be the best strategy. It wouldn’t be a bad idea in a desert, if you had no idea where to go but knew someone’s eventually coming for you. After all, in desert survival staying put is usually your best bet anyway.

In most other cases, a much better idea would be to have your survival tin full of fire starters and relying on fire for water purification, cooking, warmth and signaling. Good solution but I want to kick it up a notch and go without fire altogether, to see how difficult it would really be. We know it can happen, at least for some time, so why not find out how bad it can really get? That obviously means no proper food either. I ain’t eating raw meat if I don’t have to, and raw plants are not really gonna provide enough calories unless you’re willing to spend 8 hours a day on munching like a gorilla.

Survival tin no fire content

What about water? Well, I’ll pack my tin in a 2 litter plastic bag and use it to purify water with tablets. How am I gonna keep warm at night? By walking until it gets bright and warm again, and only resting by day. I can try and not eat but I’m not intending to go two days without sleeping. Combined with lack of food, this could get me in serious trouble causing hallucinations or nervous breakdown.

Apart from keeping me warm, walking at night will help conserving water and protect me from the heat. But I can only do that because I’m following a road and have a flashlight with a good supply of batteries. Trying to walk at night in thick forest with no visible trails and no sense of direction would be close to suicide.

I will also have a space blanket to use as an improvised shelter in case of rain. Nothing else I have at home fit’s the tin as nicely as that. Besides, the Mylar blanket can also provide some protection from cold weather should I need it.

So let’s find out how hard it is to fast for two days, catching only a few hour mid-day naps, drinking stinky water, while traveling at night.