How Tenkara was Most Likely Invented (and the secret to naked bike riding) by Tim Bete

When I was a kid, there was a pond in the woods about a quarter mile from our house. My friends and I lived at that pond every free moment we had to spend. In the parlance of a ten-year-old from Massachusetts, the pond was wicked cool. In truth, the pond was wicked pissah but that term would not have met with my parents’ approval. For those not familiar with the term wicked pissah, it can be roughly translated as “gloriously wonderful” but what ten-year-old is going to call a pond gloriously wonderful?

While we always took our fishing rods to the pond, we did much more than fish. In the spring after the ice melted and the hockey boards began to float, we made rafts and poled around like gondoliers on the canals of Venice. (The pond was used for hockey and figure skating in the winter.) When the fishing was slow in the summer, we played a game called Survival by catching leopard frogs and tossing them into the middle of the pond. The first frog to make it to shore without getting chomped by a pickerel or bass was the winner—although we preferred to see water erupt like a geyser around them.

As ten-year-olds, our rule of fishing was that there were no rules. We’d attempt any fishing method—the crazier the better. One day a particularly cocky friend claimed he could catch a fish using only a small straight stick as a hook. He’d never done it before but that didn’t diminish his confidence. With wagers placed, he tied the end of his line around a three-inch stick, which he in turn stuck into a chunk of hotdog. After about five minutes, a bullhead ate the hotdog and he yanked on the line hard enough to turn the stick in the fish’s gullet.

I lost four pieces of Bazooka bubble gum on that bet—a small price to learn a technique that might save my life if I was ever stranded without food in the Amazon River basin. Rather than mope about my lost Bazooka or complain about my buddy’s unorthodox fishing method, I blurted out the phrase uttered by millions of ten-year-olds from around the world whenever they see something crazy: “Hey, let me try that!”

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We spent the entire afternoon catching bullhead on stick hooks and slapping each other on the back with each subsequent fish. We were so happy, you’d have thought we’d discovered a cure for cooties.

While some innovations come from ten-year-olds making bets, many come from ten-year-olds making dares—especially the infamous double-dog dare. The double-dog dare was responsible for Billy Johnson eating a live grasshopper as well as the invention of Fishing Rod Whiffle Ball, in which (1) the fishing line is tied to the ball, (2) the ball is pitched by casting it as hard as possible toward the batter and (3) the ball is reeled in after it is hit. Mostly what we hit was the batter.

But the most infamous double-dog dare I ever witnessed had nothing to do with fishing, although it was related to water. It resulted in my friend Mark riding a stolen bike five miles home without any clothes on—and that wasn’t even the dare.

We were in high school and it was a sweltering summer night. Bored teenagers driving around a small town spell trouble and when someone dared Mark to go swimming in a stranger’s pool, the double-dog dare was on. Mark wasn’t the type who needed a double-dog dare to do that type of thing but teenage etiquette dictated that the double-dog dare be issued. When Mark agreed, the rest of us decided it would be foolish not to join him in the pool.

There were two carloads of us driving around that evening, and that was Mark’s undoing. When the pool owner burst out his backdoor screaming at us, we all bolted to the nearest car and sped away. Twenty minutes later we realized Mark was in neither of the cars. His clothes, however, were in one of the cars. After borrowing a bike that he later returned, Mark rode five miles home—buck-naked. We were all so impressed by his feat that, if we had the money, we would have erected a statue of Mark naked on the bike. It would have been the perfect addition to the town square, right next to the Civil War monument.

What does all this have to do with tenkara fishing or even fly fishing? While the history of fly fishing isn’t clear on it, I suspect most fishing innovations occurred because of the bets and/or dares of ten-year-olds. Fly fishing likely started in the 1300s when a ten-year-old English lad bet his mate that he couldn’t catch a fish using only a feather as bait. When his mate set the hook, the scream, “hey, let me try that” could be heard for miles and fly fishing was born. Even the concept of casting upstream with dries was probably a dare, although nobody ended up riding home naked on a bike. That concept would not be invented until 1979 across the ocean in Massachusetts.

The whole tenkara rod concept and reverse-hackle fly sound like an invention from a ten-year-old’s dare, if I ever heard one. Sure, some adult perfected the concept and branded it as tenkara, but there’s some unknown Japanese kid we have to thank for accepting the original double-dog dare to catch a fish on a fixed-line pole with a strange-looking fly.

When I first fished with a tenkara rod and hooked a huge fish, I thought the rod was going to explode. As an adult, this was of concern to me. As a ten-year-old, I would have thought an exploding rod was a brilliant idea. In fact, if a rod manufacturer had advertised its product as “guaranteed to explode when you hook a large fish,” we would have pooled all our paper route money just to buy one and test it. If we weren’t able to quickly hook a large fish, we would have tied the line to the belt of Billy Johnson’s four-year-old brother and told him there were freshly-baked cookies inside the house.

Unfortunately, as we age, we sometimes forget that the only rule in fishing is that there are no rules (except those created by your local DNR). We become engrossed in our favorite fishing method and are skeptical of anyone who varies from our personal form of fishing. Those vilified for their methods include bait fishers, spin fishers, fly fishers, tenkara fishers, bass fishers, carp fishers, musky fishers, bluegill fishers, those who use a tenkara rod in still or warm water, those who catch fish other than trout with a tenkara rod, those who tie flies with synthetic materials, mop-fly aficionados, those who don’t tie their own flies and those who keep a single fish any time during their life. Thank goodness nobody is against naked bicycle riding.

There’s nothing wrong with finding enjoyment in a single method of fishing and working to perfect it. It’s a gratifying experience, especially as we get older. I love fishing with a tenkara rod, even if my method isn’t always the traditional Japanese one. But more and more of us are turning into that old guy who lives on the corner and yells at kids when they cut across his lawn. Instead of shouting, “hey, let me try that,” we scream “that’s not real fishing!” The sheer exhilaration we had fishing when we were ten has been clouded by an overpowering impulse to be right about something any ten-year-old would find ridiculous.

I think we were smarter when we were ten. Anything you want to do with a tenkara rod is wicked pissah. Just don’t tell my parents I said that.

Tim Bete loves tenkara fishing or fishing with a tenkara rod or fixed-line fishing, depending on whom you ask. He is the creator of the Tenkara Ted comic strip, which can be found in Tenkara Angler magazine (TenkaraAngler.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TenkaraTed) and Instagram @tenkara_ted). He is also author of the books, In the Beginning…There Were No Diapers and Guide to Pirate Parenting, both of which can be found on Amazon.com.

 

6 Comments

  1. A great BIG Thank You to Tim for this article…it brought me back to earlier years and made me laugh out LOUD!

  2. Love the story Tim thank you for sharing this with us

  3. Great article. Humorous as well as to the point of how things should be looked at.

  4. Fun read. I imagine the boys in macedonia way back before 1 AD were also daring their buddies to catch fish with the “red wool. . . round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in color are like wax”. 😉

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. Tim Bete has a wonderful sense of humor and outlook. Simply has a way of keeping it all in perspective. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Wonderful story, Tim! I rally enjoy your writing.

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