The Niche that is Tenkara: Making and Supporting Friends

The world of fishing is huge. I found out just how big it was when several years ago I decided Zen Tenkara would be an exhibitor at the ICAST Expo in Orlando, Florida – International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades. To provide some perspective, lets say the entire world of fishing is the galaxy. Bass fishing could be compared to say, the sun and fly fishing would be just a small planet in the galaxy, like Earth – a small niche within the much greater industry of fishing.  Tenkara fishing however, is a niche, within a niche, within a niche. It’s more akin to the equivalency of the moon, rotating around Earth – a much lesser planetary object in the hierarchy of celestial bodies in our fishing universe. I was a little lonely there.

Nowadays, not so much. Tenkara fishing is gradually becoming more recognized in the world of fly fishing. The often negative stigma and angry reactions that it once seemed to cause, are steadily melting away to acceptance, curiosity, inspiration and even respect. In most cases, when I post to social media’s “reel” fly fishing pages, I get positive feedback and high-fives. Admiration, thumbs-up and “that’s so cool” are common place with the addition of sincerely curious or “wanna-know” questions. Many anglers confess to wanting to “try it” and express that tenkara fly fishing looks “so much fun”.

Admittedly, I still receive the occasional “cane pole” comment, but these are far and few and surprisingly are often frowned upon by others in the thread – people who come to my defense when a snarky comment is made. “Reel” fly fishermen and women standing up for tenkara – it’s hard to believe and a dream come true.

 I acknowledge that Zen posts are not standard tenkara posts. They are mostly a combination of trout, travel, bonefish and permit. Zen Tenkara has always supported experimentation and a philosophy that professes “fish how you like”. Our definition of tenkara is broad – broader than most and we have a reputation for pushing the boundaries, which has served us well. But not all tenkara enthusiasts enjoy or agree with our broad interpretation of tenkara. Thankfully, we are witness to an evolution of thinking and more and more tenkara anglers are experimenting and targeting bigger fish and varying species. Even though they may still enjoy small trout on a small stream, it seems to be part of our nature to push and explore. Zen has paved the way.

Through this simple method of fly fishing too, we have explored wonderful places all over the globe and connected with people from all walks of life. Through the simplicity of the fixed line method, there is intimacy and passion. And through shared passions, people connect. This is how Wilberth Antonio and I became friends.

He was a guide in Mexico. I live in Colorado. I began to fish regularly in the Ascension Bay area with Pesca Maya Fishing Lodge where Wilberth guided. Over the last 4 years I traveled to Mexico 3 or 4 times every year. Each time, fishing with Wilberth at least 3 days each trip. We fished together more than 36 times. Over the course of an 8 hour day, stuck together in a 18ft panga (skiff), you get to know someone. For hours we waded slowing through water quietly talking while looking for nervous water or tails. We talked about fishing, about family, about tenkara, about our dogs, about life. We told each other jokes as we poled through mangroves and shared lunch anchored somewhere. He made me a better caster. I taught him about tenkara. We became friends.

He told me about a fixed line system the “old timers” used in Mexico, like his father and grandfather. He took tenkara seriously and was very excited when I gave him a rod. Wilberth helped me land hundreds of bonefish on tenkara, and permit, barracuda and jacks too. We called bonefish “bony, bonys, macaronis ” and Jacks were “Jackie Chans”. We also landed tons of snapper and other random fish that, like tenkara, were assigned to a lower place on their respective hierarchy. He was playful but always serious about getting you into fish. And he was versed in both tenkara and reel setups. He laid out a 40ft+ line on the Sagi, Taka and Kyojin like nothing. He put me to shame when it came to casting.

 The last time we fished together we landed a massive barracuda. I’ve never eaten barracuda, but Wilberth said, and many others, that is was delicious. While all the bonefish and permit we landed are catch-and-release, the barracuda we kept. He wanted to bring it home to his wife. Wilberth said she made a really good barracuda ceviche. On January 17th, he sent me a picture of his family sitting around a big bowl of it. It looked amazing and they were all enjoying it. His text said, “A todos gusta”, which means “Everyone likes”. He died January 22nd.

Few of us are ever prepared to die. At 36 years old he definitely was not. Who expects to have a heart attack at that age? Everyone was in shock and how he died made the tragedy even worse. Many guides succumb to boating accidents. They spend a huge part of their life on the water. Several months back another guide was thrown from his boat and killed when it hit a rock in South Andros, Bahamas. There are risks. But being in a small boat, by yourself in the ocean, increases them. Being a fly fishing guide is a great job, but guides work hard for the money they earn. When I scroll through the pictures on my phone, it’s filled with snap shots of fish and me and my guides, smiling, celebrating, joyful, exuberant – both of us totally pumped and victorious, because together, we landed a fish.

But then there was this thing, this pandemic Covid thing, which restricted people from traveling and going to lodges, or fishing, or needing guides. So really for a year, there was no work for guides in many locations. And what little money Wilberth was able to save as a fly fishing guide in Mexico, he used to live off of, and support his family this past year when the lodge he worked at for more than 15 years, was closed due to Covid, and there were no anglers to take fishing, no job to do, and no money to earn.

Death is never convenient or timely and Wilberth’s death was like this too. His family has been struggling and that’s why I decided to coordinate a GoFundMe campaign, to raise money for his wife and children, to help ease their financial difficulties while they’re trying the deal with the emotional grief of losing a husband and a father. It doesn’t make things all better or back to normal, but financial assistance will at least temporarily make things easier, while they heal and try to figure out next steps.

Here is the link to Wilberth’s fundraiser. It tells a little more about him and how he passed. Your donation, regardless of the amount, will make a difference – an immediate difference for his wife, Ana and children, Merida and Daniel. Every dollar helps and your kindness and generosity will make a huge impact, so thank you. Also, if you could share this with others – friends and family that may also be able to help, I would be so grateful. Pass it along, share it on your social media pages or email a friend. Any effort you make is an effort appreciated.

Thank you for reading this. This is more solemn than our usual posts, but we are dedicated to helping and trying to make a small but positive impact for someone that was part of our tenkara niche, part of our tiny world, and welcomed tenkara with joy, enthusiasm, respect and gusto, into his fishing world.

In Memory of Wilberth Antonio:

Pesca May Fishing Lodge Lead Guide, 15+ years

Zen Tenkara Certified Tenkara Guide

1st Certified Saltwater Tenkara Guide

Only Certified Tenkara Guide in Mexico

Husband, Father, Friend, Incredible Angler

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