Interview with Stephen Boshoff
Interview with Stephen Boshoff
by Adam Trahan
I’ve known about Stephen for quite some time. I think from back in the 90’s when I was making a small stream fly fishing Internet web site. I’ve always had an interest in light line fly rods and I think it was this interest that brought us together. Stephen lives in South Africa, where? I don’t know. I do know that some of the areas he writes about, I have heard of from another South African friend that I have known since about the same time I had become aware of Stephen.
South Africa does not seem like the fly fisher place but let me tell you from my perspective, the anglers there are quite serious in their pursuit. I know, I’ve worked with and have helped many of them with their interest. My assistance comes on a couple of different levels but the main thing is, their community is keen on fly fishing the small stuff. There are streams that are written about like the Witte, Bushman, Kwaai, Smalblaar and many others. South Africa was in my sights long before I went to Japan. I had been asked and invited to visit by more than one keen small stream fly fisherman there. “Adam, come visit! You can give us a presentation, we will fly you here.” But a trip like that, it’s a long way and lots of time away from my young children. Thinking back, I should have gone but Stephen, this is not about me, it’s about you.
Adam: Thank you very much for taking my interview, I really appreciate it. I know you guys are keen on Tenkara but I really haven’t seen too much from your area. That old web site has changed owners (again) and lost direction and I’ve lost touch with all of the South African community. That’s the part that I am really sad about, letting go and losing touch with many of the communities that we were part of. There was such a sense of global community, quite a unique group early on in the timeline of the Internet and now a distant memory in our lives.
I thought by making Tenkara Fisher, I may be able to capture some of that (again) but the fact is, the Internet has grown and now, it’s easy to make a web site. It should be and I’m glad it is. More and more “locals” are making their own home grown web sites and instead of a global community, we now are organically divided into regional and local groups. I bet that you guys now have a good Internet presence in your area. But sometimes the past moves forward. Fujioka-san and I finally got to meet, 18 years since we started sharing e-mails. Daniel Galhardo brought him to the US for the Tenkara summit. It was fantastic to spend time with him, fish together, watch his presentation, tie flys together. Daniel brought the two of us together. It’s amazing how one person can be a catalyst. Recently, you and I started sharing on social media.
We can touch on this more as we gain steam here.
Stephen, I have wanted to know more about you and your interests for quite a long time, many years. I just didn’t have foresight to pursue your Interview until now. Thank you for participating.
“Can you tell me, what was your first memories how we meet? Was it the fishing or rod design?”
Stephen Boshoff: Thank you for the opportunity Adam. Yes, I first came across your smallstreams.com site in the 1990s. I was already an avid light line fly fisher, preferring the smallest of mountain streams. At the time I searched the net for “modern” small stream fiberglass blanks, and somehow came across your site. I think there was a discussion on the work of the Steffen Brothers, who worked extensively in glass long before the current “re-discovery” of glass rods.
I was struck by the scope of subject matter pursued through smallstreams.com. You ran a range of interesting threads from technical subjects to polls – asking readers to name their favourite stream outfit – and even an annual writing competition where a bamboo rod from a reputed maker was on offer as first prize. You and your partners explored the fullness of our pursuit and showed early on how people can collaborate despite them being geographically far apart. If I’m not mistaken, your site grew rapidly, and was even sabotaged on occasion.
I posted some images of my early “center axis” rod/ reel on smallstreams.com; the first exposure of my work beyond the local Cape Town fly-fishing community.
Soon afterwards you also started grassart.net Your dedication to craft and using bamboo rods was noticeable; from the care taken in the designing the site’s logo to – if I remember correctly – your efforts at growing a culm at home, researched and reported on in detail!
With the benefit of hindsight, one can probably say that smallstreams.com and grassart.net were quite pioneering and cutting-edge. Both sites perhaps reflected your transition as a fly-fisher; a fisher interested in the wholeness of what we do, in the process exploring many possibilities, while possibly unknowingly focusing more and more on a clear “way” which makes personal sense, which brings it all together. I can now say that I was attracted to your work because I was on a similar journey: a passion for hunting trout in small streams, the associated tackle and techniques, its history, its interpretation in different places, story-telling, art, and craft. All of this culminating later in a way of fishing which makes sense to the self and brings rest: tenkara.
I have been aware of “pesca alla valsesiana” (the Italian method of fly-fishing broadly similar to tenkara), for many years and experimented with self-made small-stream carbon rods with only a tip eye and length of line stored in my pocket (I suppose a kind of tenkara with more line to manipulate but no reel), but my own exposure to “proper” tenkara came through tenkara-fisher.com.
Adam: Gerard Barnardt was one of our writers at the small stream website, he introduced me to the fly fishing community in South Africa, particularly Cape Town and the surrounding area. He is a small stream fly fisher, not particularly a light line specialist yet he is passionate about the out of the way little streams. He also introduced me to the “Cape Piscatorial Society” and the history behind it. At one point, we were hosting the CPS web site, helping them with their Internet presence. I felt quite honored as this is an old trout club. The history of the original trout egg plantings go way back and Society has helped with the conservation in your area.
Time has a way of sending us all in all directions with our changing and evolving interests. Lots of water under the bridge but we are here again.
“Are you involved with the CPS? Do they embrace Tenkara and is it represented in your area?”
Stephen Boshoff: Yes, I am a member of the CPS. Gerard, a fine fisher and lover of bamboo rods, was chairperson of the CPS at the time you refer to. The society, based in Cape Town, is indeed an old institution and inseparably linked to the introduction of trout in South Africa.
As early as 1867, the Cape Government passed an Act supporting the introduction of fish to waters of the Colony “not native to such waters”. After a number of failed attempts to introduce trout to the Cape, the Western Districts Game Protection Association was formed, working to convince government to finance further importation of trout lava. Ova from Britain (Loch Leven and Andrews of Guildford) were eventually successfully hatched in Newlands (a suburb in Cape Town) and later in 1893 at the government-established Jonkershoek hatchery on the Eerste River at Stellenbosch (a university town some 50 kilometres from Cape Town). In 1931, the original association, now called the Western Districts Game and Trout Protection Association, was reconstituted as the Cape Piscatorial Society.
Since then, the Society has worked to promote trout and fly fishing in the Cape. Members contributed enormously to the evolution of local stream-craft, tackle and fly tying. The Society’s printed journal Piscator – always eagerly by awaited by members – appeared bi-annually from 1947 for some 65 years, when it was decided to publish the journal online. Past and present office bearers of the CPS like Arthur Cecil Harrison, Tony Biggs, Tom Sutcliffe, and Ed Herbst are household names in the South African fly-fishing community.
The CPS administers stream fishing in the Cape on behalf of Cape Nature, the provincial conservation authority. Fishing is strictly controlled and must be booked in advance. Day tickets are available to both members and non-members, while members benefit from season permits. Ideally placed to monitor the ecologically sensitive mountain catchment areas where its membership fish, the Society has made a significant contribution to conservation over the years.
In recent times, the Society’s challenge has changed somewhat. In a turn-around from the time of the first introduction of trout, the future of trout in South Africa is under continuous discussion today. Being a relatively new democracy, with statute in sync with current worldviews and beliefs on many issues, there is a concerted drive from some environmentalists to eradicate the non-indigenous trout. More than 20 years post democracy, we still tussle and deliberate about who and what is justly here to stay as part of our culture and future.
A recent book by Prof Duncan Brown of the University of the Western Cape (Are trout South African?), engages this struggle, using the classification of trout as alien and undesirable as a metaphor for deeper questions that plague our society. In the process he makes a significant contribution to understanding what constitutes indigeneity, authenticity and the right to belong or be part of South Africa (or other locales and communities) today.
Tenkara is not widely practiced in South Africa or CPS managed areas. It is neither actively questioned nor a significant movement. In a sense, what occupies our thoughts and deliberations is not so much the approach to fly fishing – each has his or her own preference – but the common threat of trout extermination in South Africa. In a positive turn of events, a process is underway to zone our prime trout waters, and we wait for this process to be approved at national level.
Adam: Stephen, you are a craftsman, I really like the way you approach fly fishing. You probably know where I am going with this. Jerry Siem is a rod designer at Sage (fly rod manufacture) and I believe it was his collaboration with Loop Fly Reels engineer Kurt Danielsson that created the “center axis” reel/handle combination. I really like the direction that fly rods where taking at that point. The whole small stream fly fishing community was getting a little of the spot light then. Good equipment and progress!
You came out with your own version of reel/handle integration and it is beautiful.
I really wanted one and as I began to make my own bamboo fly rods, I was headed in this direction. My idea was to make a nodeless, one-piece 5’ 6” exposed mortised handle with an integrated center axis reel. I was on the path and I had taken one big forward step and got a regularly configured exposed mortised handle rod made, it was beautiful and I will one day fish it. My next step was to make a nodeless rod and that one was already on the bench and on the way when I lost the rod shop and nearly all interest in reeled fly fishing.
Daniel introduced me to Tenkara at that time and although I come from a fly fishing background, for the most part, I have greatly ignored it since then. If I ever return to reeled fly fishing, I think it will be by the way of long light line rod made with the center axis design.
“Care to share your interest in this direction of fly rod and reel configuration?”
Stephen Boshoff: My work is an honest attempt to continually improve on tradition and knowledge. I do respect tradition – specifically aspects of wilderness in fly-fishing, and the dedication of craftspeople – but not necessarily all traditional ways of doing. In that sense it saddens me if people copy the work of others blindly. I think one should copy to understand technique and purpose, but ultimately my hope is for younger craftspeople to advance knowledge, to progress craft and beauty.
My first exploration in improving rod design was the “palm” rod grip; a response to Gary Borger advocating a hand positioned somewhat over the fly reel for better balance. It had an up-locking reel seat and a reverse half-Wells handle made entirely of cork. The front reel seat was hooded within the cork grip. A shelf of cork extended along the top of the handle almost to the butt so that the transition from the handle to reel seat did not involve the abrupt gap which conventional, mass-produced fly rod handles have between the back of the cork handle and the wooden reel seat.
The centre-axis advances the principle of balance significantly. It is not gimmicky or intended to be radical, but a continuation of the search for balance in rod and reel. In use it feels very different. One really gets the sense of “oneness” in rod and reel. The reel sits flush against the junction of the hand and wrist facilitating the “squeeze cast” developed by Joe Humphries for fishing dry flies in tight brush. Further work on this design continues, including provision for changing reels.
To me, tenkara – being “emergent” – offers interesting challenges for craft. It is in a way less constrained than crafting tools for “normal” fly-fishing. It is as if much is open to be thought about, invented, and discovered. This includes simple matters; how to make your line, store it, and carry on-stream essentials.
At the same time, all of this happens within tight constraints – the limited confines of a reel-less rod, line, and fly – and generally enables use of very simple, readily available materials. In other words, the context for a tenkara-focused craftsperson is interesting: you work in a relatively open environment, can use simple materials, yet remain constrained by the limited gear inherent to the technique. The cost of importing components also favour making tenkara equipment – everything on a rod could be made locally.
The kind of gear I make is ever expanding. Originally I focused on rods but I find it difficult to begin work on a new rod immediately after finishing another. It is as if completing a rod leaves me exhausted. Therefore the work on nets, boxes and other things; they provide some relief and recovery. My long handled tenkara net tries to overcome issues with landing fish with the traditional short net while using a long rod (the long handled net can be carried behind the back as per normal with shorter nets).
My veneered fly boxes ensure a very thin walled, light-weight box, unlike wood boxes made with the aid of a router. The design principles of the box have been taken further in my wood chest box. The fish boxes or biku that I make learns from the traditional Japanese creel, but is generally simpler as the main basket is used for storing gear as opposed to fish (in a context of practicing catch and release).
At the same time, making other things brings me closer to a point where everything I use on-stream will be handmade, and if not by me, by friends. Somehow the specialness of trout and streams deserve the effort and dedication of handmade tools.
My current work is focused on integrating the tenkara rod and line winder. I really don't like to fiddle with line spools or add attachments to the rod. I am also playing with the idea of reinterpreting the traditional biku through the use of recycled, readily available materials and plastic containers; a kind of continuance of old themes related to the frugality of tenkara fishers, using whatever materials are readily available in crafting their tackle, while also recognising today’s new awareness of needless waste.
Adam: I think a twelve foot rod in a 00 or 000-weight line in a interline (line through the blank of the rod) that is telescoping. The Japanese have been configuring Tenkara rods by adding in spools and running the line through the blank. I like that idea for adjusting line length. Although I like Tenkara at it’s most efficient configuration (rod line and fly) these ideas are not such a radical departure. You would not fight the fish off of the spool. Designing from a fly fisher’s standpoint, I think a long rod with a petite center axis design, even if it was not a interline rod, that would be outstanding and would work very well. I think that idea probably exists somewhere. Someone such as your self has probably done this somewhere.
This is what I love about the Internet.
I enjoy that I have meet you through the Internet. I meet my wife of twelve years now through e-harmony, a Internet match making program. I learned about Tenkara this way too. The Internet is integral to my life now, I fully embrace it. Before the Internet of the nineties, I wrote a lot of letters.
“Stephen, how has the Internet affected your life and your fishing?”
Stephen Boshoff: It certainly has Adam. It has expanded my craft, and through that, my life. It has brought me in touch with others that share the way of streams, the way of crafting tools for streams, and grapple with the same personal explorations into how to improve simple fishing tools. It has enabled me to share my “message” in craft. Mark Leggett’s recognition and exposure of my work on his alternativetackle.com was very special.
Adam: The Internet shrinks the globe.
It really does.
I’ve noticed that there are some similarities of small streams across the globe but more importantly, there are a lot of differences. In our area of Alpine (high mountain) streams, the flora and fauna are similar throughout this region. To categorize, it can be broken down into elevation and changes in tree and wildlife that live at different altitudes but it’s about elevation. The higher you go, the steeper, and which side of the mountain you are on, the streams that tend to be in the pines dominate for my fishing. You are in the Southern Hemisphere and at the tip of Africa. In our school education and the media, Africa represents wildlife. I’ve read and seen plenty of different of photographs of South African streams and they are diverse and quite different from our area in North America and even in Japan.
In the Southwest where I live, we have some wildlife to be aware of if we encounter them. Bear, wolf, mountain lion and snakes and some are particularly venomous.
Our cold water streams contain the various trout and char strains that we target in our sport of Tenkara.
“For our readers, can you describe a typical small stream in your area and the different types of wildlife that you may encounter while fishing Tenkara?”
Stephen Boshoff: My local streams are situated in the mountains surrounding Cape Town. The Cape region is home to the smallest but most bio-diverse of the world's six floral kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom. With more plant species than the whole of Europe, the kingdom is one of the area’s two Unesco World Heritage Sites, places of "outstanding value to humanity" (the other is Robben Island visible from the central city, used for centuries as a prison and home to South African statesman Nelson Mandela for most of his 27 years of incarceration).
Mountains of the area also harbour endangered mountain leopards, and is home to water mongoose, the chacma baboon, Cape otters, klipspringer buck, and numerous bird species.
Hiking and fishing, one needs to be careful crossing paths with the resident puff adder or Cape cobra, local venomous snakes. Paths up the valleys are generally quite rough and undefined. Freestone, crystal clear streams with pale sandstone cobbled beds, and good populations of wild bred rainbow and brown trout, are the norm.
Streams do not have significant hatches of mayfly or caddis, but the net-winged midge and black fly hatch in substantial numbers. Sight fishing - to predominantly rainbow trout between 12” and 14” – is the preferred approach. No stocking occurs, and together with catch and release regulations, this has led to technically demanding fishing. Refusals on these streams are probably more the result of bad presentation than poor fly choice.
Our region and streams is a place of extraordinary natural richness and beauty.
At the same time, this environment is under constant threat. Cape Town – currently a city of four million – is still growing rapidly, and urban and leisure development threatens wilderness areas. Within a competitive global economy, and perennial water shortages, farming competes for water. Many citizens struggle to find work and live under abject poverty. Crime is a problem, and some wilderness areas are not completely safe from criminals or the desperate.
Nevertheless, many are trying their best to improve the region, to protect and expand our resources. This includes compacting the city to prevent sprawl, employing environmentally conscious approaches to urban management, and finding ways for ordinary people to make a dignified living. It is our home, and we need to find balance, now and into the future.
It is best not to fish alone. Even without the fear of crime, our mountain terrain remains treacherous.
Adam: Amazing and quite different.
I remember Gerard and Robert telling me about some streams where humans where the biggest problem. Where you parked your car would dictate just how much security you felt while you were fishing the stream. And also a stream that was down in a valley near a road, stories of rock throwing and such… I don’t want to give our audience the impression that all your areas are like that but I do remember the caveat of bad people at one stream in particular.
But switching gears, in my area, it is not uncommon to drive 4 – 8 hours to fish a stream for the weekend. I will plan a trip to Colorado, Utah or California to fish, a 6 - 12 hour drive. I’ve yet to fish in the mountains of Mexico for fear of bad people there. A couple of years ago, I traveled to Japan to go fishing in the mountains there, I am planning to go again soon after the book is published.
“Do you travel to fish and if so, can you tell us about it?”
Stephen Boshoff: Most of my fishing occurs within one or two hours driving from Cape Town. I used to fish frequently with Ed Herbst, the current President of the CPS. Prior to retirement Ed was a national television news journalist/ reporter, and South Africa’s high priest on matters and tackle related to light and ultra-light fly-fishing. Although a debilitating illness has kept Ed off the streams, he continues to research and explore new developments; specifically small stream fly patterns (he is the only person I know that has worn out a Renzetti Presentation – with the push-cam, reverse jaw mechanism – through tying!). Unfortunately, Ed has never taken to tenkara, primarily I believe, because he stopped actively hunting trout on our mountain streams prior to the growth of tenkara outside of Japan.
Over the last few years I fish with close friends Craig Thom and Nico Claase in Cape Town, and during annual trips – work permitting – with Peter Brigg trekking and camping in the Drakensberg (the name given to the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment which encloses the Southern African plateau), and certified IFFF casting instructor and guide Tim Rolston for indigenous yellowfish on the Orange River (in inland desert country on the border with Namibia).
Only Craig fishes tenkara, but we all share a love of small streams, high mountains, hiking, and open fires at night. Given the choice between just being on freestone streams – hearing their music – and fishing, my friends will all choose the former.
However, I do not fish enough. The price you pay being a part-time craftsperson is less time on the water. Few realise that apart from those in full time fly-fishing employment, home craftspeople probably spent more time “fishing” at their benches than most on the water.
My fishing experience outside of South Africa is very limited. I spent almost a year in the US on a Fullbright related fellowship in urban planning and management, but study limited fishing time. In southern England, I fished a minor chalk stream and also fished little known small streams in New Zealand during a visit to old friends. Unlike many of my peers I have no desire to hunt Jurassic trout, salmon, or salt water species in exotic locations.
I visited Japan for work in the mid-1990s but did not have an opportunity to fish. Nevertheless, I was fortunate to visit a number of tackle shops in Saitama, Yokohama, and Tokyo and would love to return on a tenkara and craft-specific trip.
Adam: Tenkara equipment lends itself to travel well. I can carry a grip of rods quite easily in a carry on case. I don’t even use the slip cloth, I just tie all the rods together and zip up the case putting them tip to butt so that they all fit. I love the efficiency of a Tenkara fly rod. My quiver is small but focused. It contains two systems, a level line system for small to large streams and fish and the other is a furled tapered line from Sebata-san. I use that one for introducing people to Tenkara. It is rather easy to cast and the line is easy to see and feel. I have a box of his flys so when I pull out that rod and introduce someone to Tenkara, teach them to cast and ultimately to fish, they know it’s pretty special on that old rod that he designed on lines and flys he made. It’s an honor for me to teach and I pay tribute to one of my teachers this way.
I learned Tenkara from getting a rod from Daniel. My favorite Tenkara rod is the Sato. It is a triple zoom (three available lengths) and is quite a versatile rod. It is the epitome of Tenkara rods for me. A really light level line can be cast with it. I use a #2.5 and my favorite length is mainline +1 meter longer than the longest length of the rod. With the system set up like that, I am able to fish small to large streams with one rod. I also use the Rhodo, it’s shorter brother for small streams with tight quarters casting. And there is the Ito, that is quite a special rod to me. Again it’s a light level line rod that has a zoom function. It’s the rod that I’ve caught the most and largest trout in a small stream. It’s length at nearly 4.5m extended is an attribute but many of our streams have stream side foliage so it does not get used as much as I want but man I dig that rod.
Sorry, I’m rambling, I’m sure you understand.
There are so many different Tenkara rods available. Besides Tenkara USA, I represent Sakura, an old Japanese rod shop in Tokyo. Early on in our timeline, I did help one shop in your area to become a Sakura dealer. Typically, these early rod companies have a following in the community.
“Can you tell us a little bit about the rods that are being used in your area? The lengths, lines and types of flys? Do you guys still match the hatch with Tenkara?”
Stephen Boshoff: Without you perhaps realizing it Adam, you have had a profound influence on the spread of tenkara in South Africa. Soon after you received your first Sakura, and your extensive review of the rod on tenkara-fisher.com, I mailed you enquiring about purchasing one. You introduced me to your contacts at Sakura, from whom I ordered a Seki-Rei. You also suggested that I may be interested in taking up the Sakura agency in South Africa. Not being a business person, I recommended (and you supported at Sakura) my friend Craig Thom, who runs the StreamX fly shop in Cape Town, as a more appropriate option.
I am almost certain that my rod was the first Sakura tenkara that came to South Africa. Before I fished it, it went to Craig’s shop and from there to Tom Sutcliffe and Tony Kietzman who put it through its paces on the streams of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa (some 12 hours from Cape Town by car). It was only when Craig became the local Sakura agent and he received his first consignment of rods from Japan that my Seki-Rei was replaced! I would love to know who has that rod now.
During the time that we were securing Sakura rods, I am aware of one or two local anglers – including Darryl Lampert – importing early Tenkara USA models. Over the last number of years, Craig has sold a number of Sakuras to tenkara fishers all over South Africa. I suspect, however, that his commitment to tenkara revolves more around the spirit of the technique than commercial profitability. Our market is small, and the effort and cost of importing rods considerable.
Today, I prefer the Sakura Kongo in different lengths, primarily because it packs so short and can be slipped into a light backpack for overnight hikes. Because of the small size of our streams, the short Kongo is a favourite. I also have two self-made tenkara rods, using light-weight fly blanks as a base, and adding and adjusting sections to obtain desired length and feel.
My lines are simple. At first I used tapered Sakura Masterlines but increasingly do not bother with taper, using level sections of fluorocarbon. I often use lines shorter than rod length, rather adding a little more tippet to increase reach if needed. I prefer drifts without any tippet touching the water.
My range of flies is almost exclusively dry and limited to a handful of patterns. Most of the time, I would use my own variation of the CDC and Elk (replacing Elk hair with that of the indigenous klipspringer buck for better floatability) or my own Variant, an ever changing concoction of various international and local patterns, all legs and highly visible in rapids. Craig and I do not bother much about matching the hatch, although there are others who do.
It is interesting that you mention the gifted rod from your teacher. In conventional fly rods, my favourite is a little 6’6” four piece Henry Haneda from the 1980s (when his work carried the ARCHISTRIAL name) given to me by Ed Herbst. It is an extraordinary small stream rod, and cast a range of lines from two to four in weight. Haneda’s design and attention to detail – within a purely functional aesthetic – was exceptional. Another newer (but now vintage) much-loved rod is the original Sage SPL0 (with full cork grip and sliding rings). I am custodian of the first one than came into the country to Ed. I have also have another SPL0 which I made for him, sporting my own “palm” grip.
Adam: Because I am a small stream fly fisher before Tenkara, I just took the rod and adapted my style of fly fishing to it. I was pretty close to Tenkara even before I owned a rod yet once I was using one, I just did what I knew with my ultra-lite fly rod. I fashioned a line from a 00-weight fly line and just used the rod as I would my zero weight. I started buying Japanese equipment and taught myself, I learned from experience.
We have spoken about your innovative designs, I like what you do. You are a doer instead of a wonderer. That is me too. If I see a need, I just do it instead of waiting or wondering. Some just ask questions where as I see that you make what you want.
I think you understand or I hope you do. Most people that do things skip the wondering part and get right into making it happen.
“Where does that come from? Did you have someone that inspired you to do instead of just wonder?”
Stephen Boshoff: I think that I am both a wonderer and doer Adam. In fact, I wonder a lot … it is not the one or the other. I continuously interrogate, thinking about how I can improve things. It is just that making is the objective, and it is in the making that thoughts are clarified; that hands and brain connects. My center axis rod design took years of wondering.
Being from relatively isolated South Africa – and starting to make rods in the pre-internet days – I had to learn through doing without the aid of studying fine examples in rods, a mentor, or extensive written material. Given our predominantly British colonial history most old rods found here would be Allcocks, Millwards, or Hardys of the three-piece 8’ to 8’6” kind, fairly heavy and with so-called “wet-fly” actions. I never had the opportunity to study or fish a vintage or modern small stream bamboo rod – in the 6’ to 7’ range – made outside of South Africa.
My late father provided much inspiration and example. He started his career as a woodwork teacher and maintained a home workshop, making or restoring most of our furniture, using hand tools. My brother and I had relative freedom to the workshop from a very young age. I also accompanied my dad on his trips fishing, albeit casting bait in the salt. So, woodwork and fishing comprise some of my earliest and happiest memories as a child, and both have remained consistent activities in my life. The two pursuits merge in the tackle that I make. Aspects of the two – fine handwork in predominantly wood, small things, and tiny freestone streams in high mountains – largely determine the range of things I make; small and light-weight bamboo rods, wood boxes, creels, packs, and so on.
Work that inspires me today is not strictly that of fly fishing tackle makers, but writers, art and craftspeople generally. I always return to the work of the late James Krenov, the Swedish American cabinet-maker and founder of the College of the Redwoods Fine Furniture Program (his books include A Cabinetmakers Notebook, With Wakened Hands, The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, Worker in Wood, and The Impractical Cabinetmaker). His words and practice support perseverance in working on one’s own, believing in your work, resisting fads or the latest “market” trends, using simple hand tools, and work “unfolding” in its own time, and the intuitive approach (it is said that he never worked with detailed drawings, preferring a rough idea, and starting with one part – for example the doors of a cabinet – gradually developing the rest of the piece around it through testing and refinement).
His message to students in 1997 is relevant to rod-makers and users of handmade tackle: “We hope that … [you will] … come to realize that if one cares enough, if one pays enough attention to the richness of wood, to the tools, to the marvel of one’s own hands and eye, all these things come together so that a person’s work becomes that person; that person’s message. In this work, in these details, in these elements, something of a person is included. Their fingerprints or their sense of proportion, line, and detail are there; and what you’re experiencing is something very personal from each of these people: something that they’ve put their heart and soul into.”
My most prized workshop tool is a small wood smoothing plane made by Mr Krenov for me when he was at an advanced age (and his eye sight failing). The body of the plane is somewhat rough in its finish, with edges rounded with a gouging chisel. It speaks of extraordinary confidence in its making, knowledge of what the tool is expected to do, beauty in its “partial” finish, and fits perfectly in the hand. Once finely tuned, it surpasses all metal bodied planes that I have used in performance.
Among the word-smiths there is the late Harry Middleton (author of among others The Earth is Enough, On the Spine of Time, and The Bright Country), our own Tom Sutcliffe (specifically Trout Hunting and Shadows on the Streambed), James R Babb (author of River Music: A Fly Fisher's Four Seasons, Fly-Fishin' Fool: The Adventures, Misadventures, and Outright Idiocies of a Compulsive Angler, and Crosscurrents: A Fly Fisher's Progress), and Chris Yates, former holder of the record for the heaviest-recorded British carp (specifically How to Fish, and Out of the Blue). All these writers – to my mind – explore our pursuit as a way of life, making sense, and finding a place in the world equal to all other creatures.
I admire rod makers Per Brandin, Mario Wojnicki, and Bjarn Fries for the simplicity of their work (although I have never seen one of their rods). For the last number of years, I have followed the work of some Japanese rod makers on the internet, suspecting that they are among the leaders of modern bamboo rod craft.
The makers of the Richardson Chest Box have always inspired me. I had one made to order some ten years ago. It is the smaller “ultra-lite” version, with two-trays and epoxied green. I engage with this little box continuously, customising it to serve my needs, changing the inside and adding outside attachments. I think the chest box has specific advantages on stream, acting as a small work surface with both hands free.
I also follow the work of “cottage-industry” manufacturers of ultra-light hiking equipment. Their challenging of existing ways of doing inspire me. Many individuals are setting high standards, in that way motivating others – including me – to do better.
Working as an urban planner/ designer in the public sector, trout craft is very important in my life. In my work, one is confronted with many agendas on a daily basis; each settlement has a “thousand designers”, holding to different views, and ideal urban outcomes pursued are often subject to enormous compromise. Doing my craft is the antithesis of public sector urban planning. I work on my own. Success and failure is entirely mine; a relatively simple, manageable context. It helps me to retain self-belief and dignity. At the same time, belief is continuously rekindled.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes sums up the role of craft in Women Who Run With the Wolves (probably compulsory reading for men):
“The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands – all these are the making of something, and that something is soul. Anytime we feed soul, it guarantees increase”
Adam: I’ve really enjoyed this Interview. Is there any questions that you would like to ask me?
Stephen Boshoff: Yes, thank you Adam. You and many tenkara practitioners refer to the relationship between boyhood cane pole fishing and modern tenkara as a major attraction. Tenkara appears to allow a kind of return – or continuation – of these good times; its simplicity, places and people. Minimal in gear and trappings, tenkara is particularly appropriate to the kind of fishing I prefer: seeking small trout in tiny mountain streams most often reached through hiking, typically in the company of special friends. The trout, their home of free-stone streams and mountains, and my friends, are the focus; not the extent or modulus of my rod arsenal, the technology of a reel’s disk-drag, or the size of my fly box.
To truly appreciate nature; to become one, I believe that one has to approach it relatively bare and unadorned. Tenkara offers this, engaging streams with the minimum. Tenkara also offers limits; limits which I believe fortify a positive relationship with nature and streams. For example, your casting reach is relatively limited, and break ups happen. Sometimes it's good not to be able to reach every fish in a stream; but to rather let them be and walk on.
I suppose that I am also drawn to tenkara because of its relative newness as a form of fly-fishing practiced outside of its traditional Japan. The tenkara community is as yet relatively small and “family-like”. There is also the rich history of tenkara; and for me specifically, its simple roots: ordinary people using modest tools – often selfmade – to fish for the table or relaxation.
Tenkara has a kind of innocence. I sense that normal fly-fishing, specifically over the last two decades, has become very commercial and competitive. At times I feel that the competitiveness of the current day work environment has overrun our fishing, especially as of late when a changing work context has led to many fishers making a much-loved pastime their work.
At least for now, tenkara appears relatively unfettered by the clutter of commercialisation and competition that has come to define fly-fishing today. Of course things may change, but I nevertheless believe (or hold a kind of “interim hypothesis”) that tenkara will retain this purity in large part, perhaps because it's broader acceptance and practice has coincided with re-emerging values of appreciating nature, wildness, and gentleness in the world; it's relatively narrow range of paraphernalia and trappings may restrict its commercialization, and the inherent confines of the technique limits human mastery of the stream.
“Do you think that this innocence will be maintained?”
Adam: I think the innocence lies with the person, not the method. I think Tenkara is like a magic wand to the magician that casts a spell… So, yes.
Stephen Boshoff: My fly fishing origins are not conventional. I grew up in the largely trout-less southern coastal region of South Africa, and spent most week-ends on the family farm in an area an hour or so inland called the Little Karoo, a more arid climatic region, known for ostrich farming.
My late father was a salt water fisherman, casting bait along treacherous rocky shores for South Africa’s national fish, the galjoen, and other local fishes like white steenbras and black musselcracker. Occasionally, he used flat metal spoons for elf (also known as shad locally and bluefish elsewhere).
I accompanied him and his friends on fishing trips often from the age of six or so, targeting quieter gullies for bait-fish and blacktail, a ferocious little fighter and one of the most commonly caught fish species found around our rocky areas. In its simplicity, the method used was akin to tenkara: “dip” rods – a simple Indian cane pole of 12’ or so – a length of monofilament tied to the tip, a light sliding ball sinker and baited hook. Fishing this way allowed the adults peace and maximum fishing time while boys had ample enjoyment. We were restricted to safe gullies, provided bait to adults, and did not cause overruns for them to undo (Penn multipliers, and specifically the narrow-spooled Penn 49 was a local favourite). Also, bait fish were plentiful, so we learnt to fish by catching ample and never got bored to the extent of pleading with the adults to return us home.
It was on the farm that I first met trout. The farm-house had an enormous dining room, with a huge dining table as the centre piece, surrounded by open shelves, covered with newsprint cut to zig-zag edges. The shelves housed my grandmother’s crockery, as well as home-made preserves, biscuits, and other baked goods in a variety of jars and tins. I clearly remember one round cake tin. The lid had an artist’s image of a boy on stream with a cane pole, float, and his catch: a smallish speckled fish, quite unlike the ones we caught from shore. To me, the little fish was simply beautiful. Grandma’s encyclopaedia revealed its name: rainbow trout. So, the desire to catch one was established.
It was only some six years later, when my dad took up a teaching post closer to Cape Town that I started fly fishing. A famed trout stream ran through the town; and a school friend with the introduced me to fishing with a fly. Post school, while studying at the nearby Stellenbosch University, fishing the locally celebrated Eerste River competed for time attending lectures.
“Was fly fishing part of your family tradition, or did you come upon it on your own?”
Adam: “Fly angling” was taught to me by a friends father on small streams. When I was younger, the boys I would go fishing with at the warm water creeks in Tennessee would use a cane pole with a braided bass fishing line and an aberdeen hook. I would shuffle through the grass and catch “hoppers” Threading them on the gold hook, you could swing that pole with the line very much like a big heavy Tenkara rod with a furled line. That is part of the magic for me.
But fly fishing? I wasn’t really good at it until the 90’s when I used it to quit hang gliding. I poured my energy into it and learned the entomology and proper casting. I meet a young man who helped me understand that I didn’t have to look like a fly fisher. That catching fish trumped all the stogy tweed or the Western standing in the river looking like a badass. I just learned what worked and concentrated on minimalism. I wrote stories about it, made the web sites, created communities, we went over this already.
Stephen Boshoff: I enjoy fishing for galjoen occasionally at the Cape of Good Hope National Park area during the winter months, casting bait with multiplier reels and three ounce weights. It shares similarities to tenkara, involving long hikes, minimal tackle, and targeting likely holding areas. Almost like tenkara of old, practitioners of this form of fishing are mostly ordinary people, and little about technique and popular spots are written down. Rather, information is past from father to son and within closely knit local groups of friends. I do not know sea conditions in my area well, but have learnt to be ready when I notice one of a number of familiar vehicles parked at holding areas along the coast.
So, I suppose I am not averse to practicing many kinds of fishing, although I have no interest in off-shore or big game fishing and specifically targeting large trout or specimen fish in any species.
“I was wondering whether you do you do other forms of fishing?”
Adam: At the expense of sounding cliche’ there is fishing in everything that I do. When I was a soaring pilot, I fished for thermals and rising air. As a surfer, I fished for waves. But to answer your question straight, yes. I’m not beyond owning a spinning rod and using it for bass.
As a fly angler, I explored all the different types of fly fishing and in the sea is one of my favorites. 4 hours to the south of me is the Sea of Cortez. I had read John Steinbeck’s book about it and had surfed the wind swell there. My buddies that taught me to fish small streams were always fishing down there from the beaches. I started gathering all my equipment and made my first trip. The wind was howling! Everywhere had white caps and a pretty misty froth. I had driven down and I was a beach fly fisher and by goodness, I’m going to fish no matter what.
I started casting as best as I could in the wind and walking, searching for fish. I finally hooked into something an it took my fly line and deep into the backing, farther than any fish I have ever caught. I finally got the thing turned around and got it wound in and I caught my first glimpse at it, silver like mercury. I was standing in knee deep water and the thing was easily wider than my shoulders and football round. …and it had big ass dog teeth too. So I backed up and drug it up on the sand. I had no idea what the silvery fish was, no clue. It was the biggest fish that I had ever caught (still is to this day) and my first salt water fly caught fish. Turns out it was quite a big sea trout, thirty plus inches and a I don’t know how many pounds, heavy, big. Freaked me out. That’s how I started salt water fly fishing, I’m rather ruined from day one, biggest fish ever.
But the hook is deep, buried and the barb, I can’t back it out.
Stephen, I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity. I must apologize for being a little behind the timeline. The Interview process for me must be fun and enjoyable. It’s not a job, and I must put myself in the mindset of thinking who you are and what you are about.
In your case, I have so little idea about “you” but I know how our exchanges have gone in the past.
I am very focused on what I do and I think you are one of those people that are similar. Your work in wood shows your creative side and creative fishing skill. I am proud to have had the opportunity to spend a few minutes here with you (actually, this interview took me about four hours to complete) in reading the complete project.
At this time, I would like to offer you anything that you would like to say.
Thank you for your time.
Stephen Boshoff: I want to thank you for the discussion Adam. And then, also thank you and others – specifically Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA – for contributing significantly to the development of fly fishing and tenkara world-wide.
Perhaps more importantly, for bringing people together from different parts of the world in a joint community; showing that despite origin, language and other features, we perhaps share more than that which is traditionally and habitually assumed to set us apart.
You have expanded opportunities for individuals, aided them to grow. You show an interest in others and what they do. You give them a voice. Fly-fishing and tenkara is merely your preferred tool of enablement. I sincerely hope to meet you and others in person one day. I am sure that our rivers sound the same …
This interview was originally published on February 3rd, 2016