Cast Away

Angling to become an angler? Start with the Japanese tradition of Tenkara fly fishing, where all you need is a simple rod, line and fly—and a class taught by expert Mike Willis. Come on in, the water’s fine and the trout are jumpin’.

Mike Willis practices the Japanese art of Tenkara fly fishing along Laguna Creek.

Mike Willis practices the Japanese art of Tenkara fly fishing along Laguna Creek.

Photo by Max Whittaker

AAt first glance, the intersection of Bond and Elk Grove-Florin roads reads like just another slice of suburban life: There’s a bank, a Wendy’s, a couple of gas stations, a Save Mart, an all-you-can-eat sushi joint. Idling at a red light you’d never guess that tucked just behind a Starbucks and an AutoZone lies the lush, verdant oasis of Laguna Creek, seemingly a world away—where bluegills are biting.

This hidden streak of nature is one of Mike Willis’ favorite spots to practice the subtle, elegant art of Tenkara, which translates from Japanese as “from heaven.” It’s an exercise that strips fly fishing down to the barest basics, dispensing with most of the gear and accessories that anglers obsess over in favor of the simplicity of a bit of line tied to the end of a pole—think fishing as Zen practice.

Willis’ carbon fiber rod telescopes from 20 inches out to 12 feet and weighs a mere 2.7 ounces. The rest of his kit fits in a little black bag the size of a fat wallet. There is no reel, just 10 feet (more or less) of brightly colored line tied to the pole’s tip, followed by 3 feet of translucent line and a fly that looks a bit like a large gnat on a barbless hook.

“I thought fly fishing was really pretentious,” says Willis, 51. “Then I discovered Tenkara.”

He flicks his forearm ever so gently and his impossibly thin, bendy pole whips through the air, sending the line out in a graceful arabesque and dropping the fly with precision. For the veteran sportsman, the simple, featherlight gear disappears from consciousness. “There are times when it just becomes a magic fishing wand,” he says, “or a conductor’s baton.”

Flick. Flick. Now Willis twitches his wrist so that the fly stutters across the surface of the water, looking remarkably like a living creature. “Once you find that tempo, you begin to do that magic fishing thing where you can put the fly right where you want it,” he says. “It’s like hitting a baseball: When you hit that sweet spot, it makes that perfect noise.”

Tenkara, which translates from Japanese as “from heaven,” is an exercise that strips fly fishing down to the barest basics, dispensing with most of the gear and accessories that anglers obsess over in favor of the simplicity of a bit of line tied to the end of a pole—think fishing as Zen practice.

Whereas Western-style anglers plant themselves in a stream and cast 100 feet of line, the Tenkara practitioner has to work harder to find the fish. “Tenkara is more of a hunt,” Willis says, “It’s much more active. It’s a chess match up the stream.”

As the sun slants toward the west near dusk, the fish burble to life. When a bluegill strikes, Willis sets the hook and lands it in the flash of an eye, with one smooth motion, slipping the hook from the palm-sized fish and releasing it back to the creek in a fluid gesture—he isn’t fishing for dinner today, but for meditation. There are days when he will land 30, and others when he hooks only one.

Willis grew up casually fishing with his dad and grandpa in the Sacramento River, spending the summers of his youth catching striped bass, but his interest in the discipline never progressed beyond a lazy, Tom Sawyerish childhood idyll. Decades later, when he and his wife and three kids moved into a house in Elk Grove, he picked up a rod and reel he received as a gift years before and began to dabble. At the time, Willis, who is a special ed teacher by day, was working daily with emotionally disturbed youth, and the contemplative stillness of fishing offered much-needed respite after highly interactive days. But still, he found the gearheadedness of the sport intimidating. “Just going into the shop was overwhelming,” he says. “There are so many options.”

Then he stumbled onto Tenkara in 2013. “I was dicking around on the internet when I saw Daniel [Galhardo] doing Tenkara and I thought, ‘This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” he says. “But he was catching fish and having a great time, and it was super simple.”

Galhardo, a native of Brazil who emigrated to America as a teen, first saw Tenkara in action in 2008 on a trip to Japan, where the art has likely been practiced by fishermen plying mountain streams for hundreds of years—the first written record of its observation dates to 1878. He brought a pole back to the U.S. and quickly became an evangelist for the method, returning to its birthplace for weeks at a time to study under masters like Dr. Hisao Ishigaki and founding Tenkara USA, the first stateside company to manufacture and sell equipment for the sport, in 2009.

Inspired by Galhardo, Willis bought himself a used rod for $50. “When teaching was over at 3 o’clock, I’d get on my bike and come down here and fish until dark.” He was, in a word, hooked. Willis now leads free 90-minute Tenkara classes at REI locations throughout the region—the summer sessions will get you in the water in time for prime trout, bass and panfish season. By fall, Willis’ favorite season due to the lack of crowds, you’ll be an expert. “I can have you casting immediately,” he says, “I’ve never had anybody who couldn’t do it.”

One thing Willis won’t do is tell you exactly where to catch the trout or bass or panfish. Discovering the sweet spots in rivers, streams and lakes where they are is part of the journey, he says, and it’s important not to spoon-feed this lore to newbies. “Part of it is learning how to do the work,” he explains. “There’s a code. I have to teach my students not to tell their friends where to find the fish.” S

Mike Willis’ Tenkara classes at REI stores will next take place on June 27 (Roseville), July 9 (Sacramento) and July 10 (Folsom). To register, visit rei.com/events and choose “hiking & camping” in the activities drop-down menu.