Toilet and Tenkara

By: Ryan Ferrer

The toilet seat swung open and slammed shut with the cadence of my footsteps. I never anticipated packing a toilet for a backpacking trip, but I was determined to make my six-year-old daughter’s second off-trail camping trip a success. Eleanor had enjoyed nearly everything about her first outing but squatting in the woods to do her business threatened the prospect of future trips. To get her hooked on the outdoors I decided to minimize discomfort and maximize fun. We didn’t have to “rough it”. After all, the more she loved nature, the more time I would get to spend in nature with her. Then, I figured, when she was a bit older and committed to the outdoors, we could work on toughening up. So, it seemed to me that lugging a bucket toilet a few miles from the trailhead to our streamside, campsite could be the key to making backpacking a regular excursion and I was happy to abide.

In backpacking, decisions about gear can border on obsessive. How to devote precious ounces to pack space can keep a person up at night. And for good reason. A few ounces weigh heavily after dozens of miles traversing rugged terrain. There are times, however, when priority should be given to luxuries at the cost of weight. Often, in my backpack, this tradeoff manifests as a rod, reel, fly boxes, and sometimes even boots and waders. On this daddy-daughter occasion, with the seams of my pack straining against books, games, pillows, and other treats designed to shape positive associations, traditional flyfishing gear didn’t make the cut. It was only as an afterthought that I squeezed my tenkara rod and a handful of flies into narrow gaps in my pack. Maybe there’d be a few minutes to fish.

After a clumsy but pleasant hike, we set up camp amidst pillowy moss and decaying logs. The towering canopy offered comfortable shade and protection from the wind. Just yards away, beyond an evergreen curtain was the small river of bubbling, cascading pools. It didn’t take long for Eleanor to explore, shouting “Let’s catch water striders!” As she hopped along a mossy log, I grabbed the tenkara rod, just in case. Although the insects were the draw, the small bundle that contained the flyrod aroused her curiosity. Like a lightsaber unwrapped from an ancient Jedi cloth, Eleanor held the collapsed rod with surprising care. I tied an elk hair caddis to the tippet, offered minimal instruction, and set her free to cast toward pools from her perch atop hippo-sized boulders. Expecting requests for tangle management, I was surprised at her success. Not only had she figured out how to keep her back cast from becoming entangled in bank vegetation, but she had also managed to achieve relatively natural drift.

Eleanor squealed after only a few casts. A rising trout had surprised her. She was delighted, despite losing the fish, and with a bit of help she landed her first-ever trout on the next cast. The river was generous that day and gave up a dozen fish to Eleanor’s hook, all smaller than an average bass fishing lure.  A photograph commemorates that first trout: Eleanor dons a swimsuit and water-shoes while holding a fish in one hand and a tenkara rod in the other. Her proud smile is as big as mine, anytime that memory comes to mind.

Months later I hiked down from my campsite in the North Cascades backcountry toward the bottom of a narrow valley carved by God with an ice cream scoop a half mile wide.  The walls of the valley rose steeply into jagged, glacier-topped peaks with an overnight dusting of early Autumn snow. Fire-red vine maples and blueberry bushes of the alpine meadow gave way to gold alders and aspen lining a rock-strewn river that would eventually flow into a distant lake.  

This trip was solo, and with my daughter back at home, I would be feeding my own addiction, not kindling hers. Everything about this trip called for less weight on my back. The objectives were reaching high peaks and accruing remote miles, so the tent was replaced with a bivy sack, the pillow with a raincoat, and the toilet with a blue bag.  Once again, traditional flyfishing gear was cut from the list and, again, I crammed a tenkara rod into the pack as an afterthought. Just in case. 

The cold, wet night in the bivy sack made the morning’s descent into the warming valley floor a welcome exercise. Bushwacking through dense alder groves led me to the river’s edge and I quickly assembled the tenkara rig. I imagine that my face looked similar to Eleanor’s, joyful and surprised, when the cutthroat trout engulfed my fly. It was the first cast of the day, and it was the same elk hair caddis I had tied on for Eleanor months earlier. The following cast yielded another trout, about the same size and distinctive palette of cutthroat colors. Another cast, another cuttie. After two hours of cast-land-release-repeat I realized that my time devoted to fishing was nearing its end. An early return to camp would be necessary if I hoped to pack up and ascend to high camp at the glacier’s edge before nightfall. Despite limited time on the water, it had been among the top fishing experiences of my life: remote, beautiful landscape and aggressive, naïve trout. And I owed it to wedging the tenkara rod into the folds of my pack at the last minute.

There are different reasons to fish a tenkara rod. Some anglers approach tenkara as a philosophy: strip away the distractions of reel, excess line, myriad flies, and accessories and focus on the simplicity of presenting a fly and fooling a fish. For me, the decision to use a tenkara rod has been one of unromantic pragmatism. I can find room in an overstuffed backpack for the collapsed tenkara rod. I can’t always say the same for my traditional fly gear. Despite my practical approach, I can’t help but reflect that two of my most memorable fishing experiences were with a tenkara rod.  I look forward to future adventures with my daughter. And perhaps, years from now, she and I will fly fish together in remote and beautiful wilderness with tenkara rods. Even if that means lugging a toilet with us.

Bio: I am an ecologist, professor, husband, and father in the Pacific Northwest. I learned to flyfish as a teenager at the guidance of my older brother, with whom I fish whenever possible. My kids, Eleanor (11) and Beau (3) also enjoy the outdoors.  Eleanor and I tie flies together and Beau made his first fly cast recently.

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