Dave Hughes fly-fishes using a 400-year-old Japanese technique called tenkara, which utilizes a line, a short tippet and a standard nymph tied to a rod but no reel. - Courtesy of Dave Hughes

As simple as a stick and a string

When Portland fly-fisher Dave Hughes heads to Eastern Oregon's Chewaucan River for a day of trout fishing, his arsenal is noticeable as much for what's in it as for what's not.

Hughes whips out a 14-foot-long, telescoping rod loaded with a similar length of line, a short tippet and standard nymph. With that, he's ready to go toe-to-fin with rainbows without the luxury of extra line, braided backing or a disc drag system.

That's because his rod has no reel.

"I'm drawn by the simplicity; going back to stick and strings like when we were kids," says Hughes, 67. "You can almost equate it to the old cane pole kids grew up fishing."

Welcome to tenkara, an Izaak Walton meets Huck Finn montage that goes back four centuries and is starting to take modern fly-fishing by storm.

This reel-less form of fly-fishing, which traces its roots to Japan in the 1600s, is becoming a new fad among American anglers since a San Francisco tenkara company exposed it to the fly-fisher masses in 2009.

But it's old hat to Hughes, who discovered it during a trip to Japan nearly 30 years ago and has carried tenkara rods with him the past two decades.

Now, he's bringing the technique to Medford.

Hughes will give a presentation on tenkara fishing during Wednesday's meeting of the Medford-based Rogue FlyFishers Association at the Red Lion Hotel, 200 N. Riverside Ave. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. with a social hour, and Hughes' presentation is scheduled to begin shortly after 7 p.m.

It highlights a monthly club meeting, but the sessions are open to the public.

Just check your cynicism, and your reels, at the door.

"You haven't done it? Then you're missing the boat," Hughes says. "It puts a lot more chance in it. Your chances of being defeated greatly increase."

While tenkara may be new to fly-fishers, Hughes certainly isn't.

A widely published book and magazine writer, Hughes teamed with fellow fly-fisher and entomologist Rick Hafele to publish the book "Western Hatches," a bible of sorts to those trying to match the hatch west of the Continental Divide. The book launched Hughes' life as a true trout bum.

He's married to Japanese fly-fishing writer Masako Tani, and this link took Hughes to Japan when he noticed this simple form of flicking flies for fish was very similar to the discussions written in Walton's "The Compleat Angler" in England during the 17th century.

Using a long line with a whippy rod on one end and an artificial fly on the other, tenkarans would use short casts to dab the water, targeting anything from panfish to trout.

He became enrapt by the short, precision casts and the ability to drift flies drag-free with the line out of the water.

Hughes noticed its easy application to mountain streams, particularly those small- to mid-sized rivers where the premium is getting the fly in the right zone inside of 30 feet.

"You can lift your fly up and put it back down quickly," Hughes says. "It's good for delicacy, but not for distance."

It's best for smaller fish, as well. With no reel and drag system and a very light tippet, fighting a hooked fish tenkara-style means there's only the bend in the rod to absorb the trout runs that threaten the light tippet needed to fool the fish in the first place.

If a fish runs, so do you.

"With Tenkara, you get to the end of your line, you run," he says.

For Hughes, a big trout on tenkara is 15 inches.

A tenkara steelhead, therefore, is a pipe dream.

"You have to keep your expectations down," Hughes says. "You're fishing with 5x or 6x tippet. So put yourself up against a steelhead with 6x tippet and you have your answer to whether I've got one or not."

In the 1600s, the first fly reels were this discipline's version of the cotton gin. Over time, tenkara all but disappeared from the fly-fishers' world, which over time has become far more engrossed in the latest gear and flies while eschewing the concept that what fooled fish even 10 years ago could actually work today.

Precious few Westerners got a glimpse of tenkara until four years ago, when Tenkara USA started peddling the systems out of San Francisco at a time when the method had became an anomaly in Japan.

It's spread quickly throughout the country and, oddly, has since triggered a rejuvenation in its homeland, Hughes says.

Hughes carried it to the Chewaucan, and now to the Rogue Valley.

"It had its first ripple 400 years ago, then reels came out," Hughes says. "Now it's back, having its second ripple."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him on Twitter at

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