You may not have heard of Go Ishi, but you owe him a “thank you”. He is a Japanese tenkara angler who has quietly been the “invisible hand” opening up a great body of tenkara knowledge to the English-speaking world. Ishi-san translated the English language version of Tenkara no Oni’s Tenkara World website, as well as my interview with Tenkara no Oni, and other tenkara resources. Without his hard work, many of us in the West would be blind to the wisdom Tenkara no Oni has to offer. Ishi-san is a highly skilled tenkara angler in his own right so I wanted to get to know a little more about him.
Jason: Hi Go, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. First of all, I’d like to get one thing out of the way. I’ve taught a lot of Japanese students as an ESL teacher and have studied in Japan and I’ve never heard the name “Go”. It seems unusual as a Japanese name. Can you tell us a little about it?
Ishi-san: To avoid confusion, I’d like to give a simple simple timeline of my life first.
1977- Born in Japan
1991- Left Japan to attend boarding school (Junior High) in California
1993- Enrolled in High School in Maine
1996- Northeastern University (Boston)
2000- Moved to Washington State
2008- Returned to Japan to start business
2010- Met Masami Sakakibara
The name “Go” in Japan is not the most common name but it is around. The choreographic symbol of my name represents meanings such as “grand”, “bold”, “unrestrained” and such. So it’s actually a name I’m very proud of, at least when I’m over here. Very unfortunately, my parents couldn’t foresee their son going to school and living in the US, where it simply means… “Go”. Probably would have helped if they added an “h” to the spelling when they made my first passport…
Jason: How did you first get interested in tenkara?
Ishi-san: I started fishing at age 4 or 5 with local boys who were few years older. Back then it didn’t matter what I caught or how, but as I grew older I became very much fascinated with mountain streams of Japan and our native trout species. This fascination was mostly fueled by fishing books and magazines I used to read. They are wonderful things because they took me on imaginary trips to places only adults can go. I still have them all stashed away in the attic.
When I turned 8 or 9, I figured I was old enough to spend a day out on my own. One day that summer, I woke my mother up at 5 am, had her drop me off at the bottom of the hiking trail, hiked into where it meets the stream and fished all day. I used bait on a cheap telescopic stream rod (keiryu rod) which was all I had as a kid. After a few tangled lines and struggle with the knots, I had my very first Yamame in my own hands. As I’d seen in pictures of magazines, it was truly beautiful. It really took my breath away. I fell in love with the fish and the whole concept of fishing in the mountains.
For the next few years I read more books, studied and gained more experience out on that same stream. Somewhere along the line I tried lure fishing but it didn’t last. The mechanical aspect of it did not fit my idea of mountain stream fishing.
Then one day I encountered a picture in a fishing magazine that changed my life. It was very small, but it was of a man holding a rod with cork handle and it wasn’t a fly rod. The yellow casting line was attached to tip of his rod and he had a beautiful native Iwana at the end of his tippet. “What is that!?” As I quickly read through the article, I found out the method of fishing is called “Tenkara”, and I had to try that.
With no internet and very little literature on tenkara, it was shooting in the dark. I practically had zero information on how to go about it and I must have been 10 or 11 years old. I got whatever saltwater nylon line I had that was yellow, tied it onto my keiryu rod with flies I bought from a store. The first thing I caught was a tree branch on my first back cast and the second was… the very same tree branch. As my irritation grew my casting got faster and harder. I caught everything around but the fish. I called it quits after about 20 minutes. That was my first tenkara experience.
Then when I was 12, I decided that I wanted to study in the US, for many reasons. I thought twice about it a thousand times because I did not want to leave until I caught a fish on a tenkara rig so kept trying and trying until a few days before my departure.
It didn’t happen.
With long summer vacations through my teenage years I returned home during summer and spent many days fishing in that same stream. Tried tenkara here and there but got the same result. It wasn’t until I was in college I finally figured it out and started catching trout on a tenkara rod.
Being away from home in many ways taught me so much. Seeing other cultures and interacting with people of completely different values teach things books never will, but I did miss the comfort of being home and I missed my youth. I returned to Japan at age 30 and I am 35 now. My passion for tenkara is not only about the fish or techniques, nor about being out in the wilderness but a way for me to connect to my long lost memories of my childhood I didn’t feel like I got enough of.
Jason: What types of streams do you fish and where?
Ishi-san: My range of fishing activity has changed and expanded over time as my geographical knowledge of Japan grew after my return 5 years ago. After meeting Masami and other members of “Team Oni” it expanded even more. Many of the guys spend well over 50 days of the year fishing. They know a lot of rivers. After you gain some experience, especially after fishing with some great anglers, you develop more interest on techniques and quality of things rather than just catching fish.
The streams I like to fish in have great water quality, the kind of water you can see all the way to the bottom even in a deep pool. Prospect for native fish is an important factor also. I’m often turned off by catching stocked fish even though they are easier to catch. Greater water quality means better looking fish and if they are native, what more could you say. Fish in clear water tend to be more alert and challenging to fish for. Big fish can be found in Japan also but often times you have to sacrifice something, like the environment you fish in. So I drive long distance most of the time seeking such locations mainly in central Japan.
Name of those rivers? I like the ideas of keeping my favorite rivers secret, but I will happily take you and your friends one day when you visit Japan!
Jason: Are you a one fly practitioner or do you fish with multiple patterns? What are your favorite flies and why do you have confidence in them?
Ishi-san: My flies and the thought process of selecting a fly are greatly influenced by Masami Sakakibara. 85% of my flies are made the same way, but in different sizes, with different materials, colors. Not sure if you could call that “a pattern” but it works for me. Larger flies are useful in larger streams for greater presence. In smaller streams like the headwaters, smaller flies are more desirable. Also, when fish are under pressure, they tend to prefer smaller flies but #16 is the smallest I use.
When it comes to colors, I really don’t think it makes any difference so during the day I use dark colors. If I can see the fly too well I see the fish come out and end up setting the hook too early. When it’s dark out at dawn or dusk, I use white so I can see the fly but not the fish until it bites.
The rest of them (15%) are what I call cheating flies or joker flies. They may not be the traditional kebari patterns or reflect the philosophy of tenkara but are effective in very specific situations. There are times when I get desperate and use anything to catch anything after all.
Jason: If I bumped into you on the stream tomorrow, what kind of tackle would I find you fishing with? Which rod, line, and tippet do you usually bring?
Rod: Daiwa Rinfu 45 SR for Midsize stream or larger, 4.0M “Oni” Rod with Bamboo grip for delicate situations, NISSIN Zerosum 7:3 3.2M for small streams.
Casting Line: Buttobi Level Line # 3 or Sansui Level Lines # 3 (Yellow or Pink)
Tippet: Fluoro Tippet # 0.6～1.0 Japan spec.
Jason: What qualities do you look for in a tenkara rod?
Ishi-san: My favorite rods are “Oni Rods”, but since I value them too much I’m reluctant to use them for most occasions. They are the best casting rods I’ve owned and are most exciting rods to catch a fish with, but since the Oni rods are basically irreplaceable (I’ve broken one before), I usually use two commercial rods which were great finds.
So the rod I use the most is called “Rinfu 45SR” made by Daiwa. It is not a tenkara rod, but has great casting ability and is very light. The handle is too skinny so I wrapped tennis grip to adjust. “Rinfu” is made in many different lengths, but “45SR” is the one that has the right balance for tenkara especially with #3 level line or smaller. It is remarkable because there aren’t a lot of 4.5 meter (14.5 feet) rods available for Tenkara and only weighs 57 grams (2 OZ). I’ve caught some nice size fish (up to 20 inches) but no problem with power. The length of this rod helps create more vertical relationship with the rod tip to the fly and gives great advantages in terms of control.
The other rod I just started using is the new NISSIN rod “Zerosum”. I was never a NISSIN fan before but they’ve made drastic changes for their new line of “Zerosum Tenkara” products, and I have been very impressed with them.
The definition of a good tenkara rod I truly believe depends on where, what and how you fish, but one important attribute I can point out is, “it should not tire you out even after a full day on a river”. Of course not having proper casting technique could do this as well, but sometimes you go to hold a rod and you think you like it. It feels good and light. Appears to have appropriate weight distribution and power through the grip to the mid-section and have the sensitivity at the tip, but you come to realize after using it a full day, you really can’t think about pushing it into day 2. Often times this happens because there’s too much movement in the middle of the rod, and your wrist has to absorb the shock on every cast. Or translation of movement is not balanced out from the grip to the rod tip, and you’re forced to apply significant power from wrist, forearm, shoulder or combined to cast. Sadly many rods on the market are not made by true tenkara anglers even in Japan. They just know how to build rods and know how to market products.
Tenkara requires unusual number of casts per day compared to any other methods of fishing. If you can’t keep casting, you’re not going to have too much fun out there.
Jason: Can you describe your favorite presentation techniques?
Ishi-san: Hmmm, I guess I’d call it “drag-it-naturally presentation”. Twitching is rather easy. Making the fly skid on surface is exciting because you see the fish rise from the bottom but not all that challenging. So one of the most satisfying presentation technique is making a perfect side way roll cast or 3/4 angle cast, so when the fly turns over the tippet is aligned to the current with the fly drifting down first(the tippet should turn in 3/4 angle as well). You’d have to have a 45 degree or greater angle position to the current of your target spot. There’s very little drag with only few inches of tippet touching water still parallel to the current , and the fly drifts perfectly and naturally, but I’m controlling the speed just slightly so the fly becomes the sole object of attention in the water for the fish and myself. Then I see the fish grab the fly and turn just an inch under water exposing the colorful patterns on its side. That would be my favorite presentation technique which will make my day feel complete.
At first catching anything on a tenkara rod was exciting. Then after a while I realized I was catching a lot of fish “accidentally”. The greatest thing Masami has taught me was to “think like a fish”. If you put yourself in the mind of a fish, you should be able think of the best way to present the fly to that fish, in that spot, at that time of the day on that day. So, it’s all about whether you caught the fish exactly as you had planned, after careful observation and not just getting the fly wet and ending up with a fish. Masami has pushed my tenkara and fishing in general, into a whole new level and it is a whole lot of fun to try and master every aspect of Tenkara.
Jason: You do a lot of work with Team Oni. Can you tell us a little more about it? How did you first get involved with the team? What kinds of events and activities do you have and what is your role on the team?
Ishi-san: Several years back I had yet to meet the rod of my preference and I started looking for non-conventional rods. I had already heard about Masami some place and seen his casting on the internet. Masami’s casting was the most beautiful of all tenkara anglers I’d seen. Then I realized he had a blog, and in the archives I found out he produces his own rods. I emailed him right away, got one of the few rods left, and in the process I was invited to a tenkara gathering. All started from there.
If you’ve met Masami, you know that kind of person he is. He’s very down to earth, modest and respectful. Even though people call him “Shisho”(Master Teacher), it only seem to give him more sense of responsibility to help you become a better angler. He likes to take care of people. He always calls people with a “san” (Mr. /Mrs.) and he’s just a wonderful man to be around.
When the leader carries such character, you end up with a group of people who share similar characteristics. We’re all passion ate about tenkara with great willingness to improve but not only that, we like the guys in the group and we all like people. So we get new comers all the time and anyone is always welcome.
Guys on team Oni are out fishing on their own, or in small groups almost every weekend somewhere in Japan. When Masami has his lessons, whoever can make it will go to help out and see the Master fish to learn more. Most of the time it’s an overnighter so we Barbeque, have some drinks and share information. It is a very important aspect of improving your fishing; “having good friends and good information”.
What I do for Team Oni, Masami and his wife Kyoko is a lot of translation work and some consulting.
I run a business here with an online store and I have work experience in two cultures, two languages in multiple industries. So I thought I was qualified to help Masami and Kyoko with their website but what I did not expect though was the size of the content. It ended up much larger than I expected. It just kept getting bigger and bigger as the process moved forward. I honestly could not keep up with the translation and a lot had to go in without proper proofreading. Photo shoots and video filming took place almost every weekend as well. I haven’t been able to do too much this year since my work got busier (we have another lady translating the blogs on Oni’s site) but I’m looking forward to getting back into it once things settle.
The most wonderful thing about helping them build the site was getting one on one lesson from Masami. He understood that in order for me to translate his terms into English, I had to understand his tenkara first. His tenkara philosophy is rather deep and even in Japanese, and it takes many days together on the river with Masami to grasp even a hint of his tenkara. There are guys on Team Oni that’s been with Masami for well over a decade and they all say they’re less than half way point.
I’ve got a long way to go.
Jason: Through your work with Team Oni, you’ve probably met a lot of non-Japanese tenkara anglers. Have you noticed a difference in the way Western anglers approach a stream vs. Japanese tenkara anglers?
Ishi-san: I moved back to Japan in 2008, so Tenkara was just getting started in the US and I actually have no experience with tenkara in the US. I thought most rivers were too large for tenkara there but I really didn’t look hard for the right environment back then either. I lived in Washington State for about 8 years before my return so there probably are some nice rivers for tenkara on Olympic Peninsula or the Cascades. Most of the time in the US, I used lures or occasionally fly fished.
If there were differences between Western anglers from Japanese though, I think they would be caused by differences in the environmental settings. In Japan trout species are forced to live above a certain elevation due to temperature reasons and the distance from headwater to the sea is much shorter for rivers in Japan. So the elevation drops much more rapidly creating faster and rather complex river systems. I’m sure there are many rivers of those kinds in the US also, but North America is so much larger than Japan.
I could see people coming up with different ways to fish in different places. We get many questions on Oni’s website from all over the world, but many seem to see tenkara as “a method of fishing”, rather than “a method of mountain trout fishing”. I always thought tenkara was the most efficient method of fishing for trout in the mountains because that’s how it evolved in Japan for centuries, but I’ve seen Youtube videos where western anglers take tenkara to huge rivers, ponds, and saltwater. It is a new method of fishing for many and it seems that there’s some level of confusion while having too much sense of liberty for innovation. In Japan, we have traditional method of fishing for just about every type of fish to fish for in fresh or saltwater, and “Tenkara” has always been about mountain trout fishing for us. So in a way we may have a sense of limitation to the term. When you travel to another continent, things are simply “different”. Not for the better or worse. That’s what has happened to tenkara and it is a logical fact that it is “different” here, from over there.
Jason: Recently, there has been some social media discussion about adding “reels” to tenkara rods (really just line winders attached to the rod). And many anglers like to add mechanisms such as EZ Keepers to store their line on the rod. Do you see such modifications as innovations or as ruining the simplicity of tenkara?
Ishi-san: I’ve seen people add “reels” in Japan also but a very few do. They’re usually not the most serious of Tenkara anglers either. It seems that instead of acquiring proper casting techniques or improving presentation, they try to solve the answer by “adding” something. Tenkara simplicity is not a philosophy but practicality. Manual reels (line winders) have been around in Japan too, for centuries mostly for saltwater fishing, but tenkara anglers never added the system to their rigs. Tenkara is designed for high country trout fishing. Often times you have to bushwhack to get to a stream, or climb up and down some serious slopes. Having extra stuff on the rod in those situations usually create more problems when applied in practical situations. The greatest innovations in tenkara come in form of skills and techniques. Just by changing how you cast can add 3 to 5 feet or more to your reach. It’s easy.
One: Take a small step forward with one foot.
Two: Lean slightly forward.
Three: Go heavier on forward casting and end up with the rod almost horizontal to water, so the line, rod and the arm are all stretched out flat.
Once you’ve acquired proper casting and have move onto diversifying your casting, it would be so much more efficient and fun to fish with the traditional tenkara rig. The less you worry about the gear or the fly, more you’ll have to focus on your techniques and I know from experience this will make your tenkara experience more fulfilling.
“Less is more” is definitely true for tenkara.
Jason: Any other message you’d like to share with western tenkara anglers?
Tenkara is very simple, but it can also be very technical. There’s so much that goes into it from understanding the mechanism of casting to presentation. If one sought the most effective and efficient form of tenkara, it would become a lifelong endeavor. Tenkara in history was always taught in person and passed on from one generation to another. It is one of the reasons why it was kept a secret technique in mountainous regions for so long in Japan. And today, even with the advanced technology it would be the most desirable to be taught tenkara by a great angler in person.
I believe it’s been 5 or 6 years since tenkara was introduced outside Japan? I’m sure many have tried and some have moved onto (or back to) other methods of fishing. Those who have fished tenkara 4, 5 years now may be looking to take it to a new level. I deeply wish that those who are experienced, to create an occasion so they come spend some time in Japan to see Masami fish in person. He is also a great teacher to beginners. Seeing him fish in person will be an eye-opening experience for all. Every member of Team Oni would love to help in such occasion. Making arrangements for him to go to the US would also be wonderful. It is time for more anglers from both sides to interact outside the internet to build a better future for tenkara globally.
Lastly, I would like to thank Mr. Jason Klass for giving me this wonderful opportunity.
Jason: Thank you! I’m sure we have all learned something from your answers. One day, I hope we can fish together either here in Colorado or in Japan!