Lessons from a Japanese tenkara master
The weekend was an exceptional learning experience on many levels. Rather than try to cram everything into one post, we're going to break it down into a few posts so we can focus on different topics in a bit more detail. This post will convey observations about Tenkara-no-Oni himself, the equipment he favors, and his angling style.
Soft spoken and quick to smile, Masami Sakakibara is humble and well mannered. His English is very limited, but not once did I see him become frustrated with the gestures and hand signals that passed as communications when the translator was not around. He did a remarkable job of transmitting information despite this disadvantage. Corrections to body stance or an adjustment to a cast's timing were all made with a subtle nudge and gentle re-positioning of arm or wrist.
On the water, he fished more practical lengths of line (4-5 meters) with a tippet section of about 3 feet, but on several occasions Oni demonstrated long line casting with line lengths exceeding 10 meters. It was explained that while this would be largely impractical on the water, it serves as excellent training for casting and manipulating "normal" length level lines. The idea being that if you can control a 10 meter line, you'll be able to exert even more control over a 3-5 meter line. There is certainly a logic to that!
As far as all of those amazing, graceful casts that you see Oni make on YouTube videos - 100% real. He makes crisp but never overpowered casts that rely more on timing than force. One major thing to note is that he does not give his cast time to straighten out behind him. Often times, the line was still travelling backwards, the line tip overhead, when the rod tip was snapping forward again. The cast's backstroke was the familiar abrupt stop at 12 o'clock, but it was a much faster backstroke than I expected.
Oni keeps a light and flexible grip on the rod. During the cast, the butt travels 2-3 inches out from his wrist before returning. I saw him make several corrections on casts where the angler was creating too much separation, so this is likely a core aspect of his casting style. A frequent move I observed was Oni re-positioning his hand on the upper, middle, or lower grip by doing a small, quick toss of the rod into the air and then grabbing it where he wanted it next. I suspect that this was largely to make minor adjustments in range, used in conjunction with body position when setting up for a cast.
Tactically, he made very thorough and varied explorations of key water. He would target specific zones and terrain features, in sequences set to minimize disturbance to areas he had not yet hit. When fishing a pool, he would fish the near edge, then the bottom, then the far edge, then get out and move around the far side of the pool, and fish the entire pool again from an upstream position with different drifts and tactics.
On some casts, the line would be kept off the water entirely, and others, half the line was in the water as he played the fly downstream. Some drifts were very short, 2-3 seconds long, and others were very long, as he drifted an entire broad section of current from top to bottom. There did not seem to be any hard and fast and rules, and his tactics were extremely dynamic.
Of course, it goes without saying that his casts were precise and consistently impressive. You could tell that he was not just casting into that shadowy area by the bank, he was casting to that clump of grass sticking out by that particular rock in the shadowy area by the bank - because that is exactly where the cast would land.
I had the pleasure of watching him catch a good sized cutthroat that gave him some nice runs and those of us watching a good look at him playing the fish. The fish put a serious bend into the rod and Oni brought up his off hand to support the rod. If you have not seen this technique, it is a good one to learn. He applies his off hand with an open palm to the section up above the grip. It is important to note that he does not grasp the section - that would stop the section from being able to flex. He simply puts his open hand there to act as a resistance for the fish to pull the rod against, and at the same time, drops the rod sideways so that it is mostly parallel to the water. This lets the rod flex and distribute the force of the fight across the entire rod.
Thank you Masami Sakakibara for sharing your time and knowledge with us!