Fly Fishing Only

Today I received an email from a customer who had written to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department asking about their regulations for Fly Fishing Only waters. New Hampshire requires a "fly rod, fly reel, fly line combination" on Fly Fishing Only waters.

By the letter of the law, requiring a fly reel makes tenkara fishing illegal on Fly Fishing Only waters in New Hampshire. Connecticut and Pennsylvania have similar regulations on their books.

In response to the query, the Fish and Game Department explained that they had tried to change the regulations, but when they held a public hearing the comments were mostly in opposition. As a result, the regulations were not changed.

Oh, how I would have liked to have been at that hearing. As an outsider with a financial interest in the outcome, coming up from New York City, I might not have been welcomed (and certainly not by those in opposition), but I would love to have heard the arguments posed against tenkara.

As often as tenkara detractors say "It's just dapping," that should not have been one of them, because dapping is completely legal in Fly Fishing Only waters! Czech nymphing, in which the angler has a reel but doesn't need it or use it, is legal as well.

I suspect the most common argument was that tenkara isn't really fly fishing. This argument could be countered in two ways. First, fly fishing has been around for over 2000 years. Reels have been used in fly fishing for about 200 years. So which is more traditional? Did someone actually stand up and claim that Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton and Dame Juliana Berners did not write about fly fishing? Opponents cannot claim a long and glorious history of fly fishing and also state that fly fishing requires the use of a reel. And if Izaak Walton or Dame Juliana were somehow able to time travel to New Hampshire, would these folks honestly feel they should be prevented from fishing?

The second counter-argument goes to the heart of why there are Fly Fishing Only regulations to begin with. If it is indeed to protect the fishery, there is no reason to exclude tenkara. The same fly is used, the same tippet is used and there is no reason whatsoever that a fish cannot be landed in the same amount of time and be released with the same chance of survival. The limit is the strength of the tippet. Either it breaks or it doesn't, and if you are using the same tippet you can put exactly the same pressure on a fish with a tenkara rod or a fly rod.

For that matter, if the protection of the fishery was indeed the reason behind the Fly Fishing Only limitation, a fly and casting bubble on a spinning rod should be legal. The impact on the fish is exactly the same no matter what reel and rod is used, as long as it is hooked by the same artificial fly. If there are any scientific studies refuting that statement, please let me know. "Fly Fishing," at least with respect to fishing regulations, should be defined as fishing with an artificial fly. The delivery mechanism should not be part of the definition (just as bait fishing is bait fishing no matter what kind of rod is used).

I suspect, though, that the health of the fish and the fishery is the excuse, not the reason behind Fly Fishing Only waters in most states. I think the real reason is elitism. There is a fairly quiet but ongoing discussion about whether fly fishermen are elitist. The very existence of Fly Fishing Only waters and regulations that define fly fishing as anything beyond fishing with an artificial fly on the end of the line proves that they are.

I can understand preventing bait fishing on waters where wild trout populations are at risk. Studies do show that bait fishing causes greater mortality. I can even understand preventing spin fishing with treble hooks, as studies show that treble hooks cause greater injury and increased mortality. I am not at all sure there is any biological or fisheries management reason to prohibit lures that have only one hook point, though. New Hampshire has waters where fishing is limited to single barbless hook lures or flies, though, so I truly do not understand why they further limit some waters to Fly Fishing Only.

I am firm in my belief that a kid (or even an adult) with a spinning rod, casting bubble, a bit of leader and a lead winged coachman poses absolutely no more risk to the fish or the fishery than the guy with a Sage rod, Rio line, Orvis reel and the same lead winged coachman. The only reason to exclude the kid with the casting bubble is elitism. Preserving the tradition of fly fishing is not something that requires excluding from public waters anglers who have paid just as much for their licenses.

I suppose someone could argue that enforcement is harder. A warden seeing a guy with a spinning rod doesn't know whether there's a fly or a worm on the end of the line. Well guess what, he doesn't know that with a fly rod either. That argument won't wash.

I am not going to go to the next New Hampshire public hearing if they have one, and I am not going to start writing letters or even emails. I am not a New Hampshire resident. I do not feel the regulations are reasonable or justified, but they have a right to make their own regulations without me giving them grief.

I may even go fishing in New Hampshire. The guy who sent me the email also sent a photo of a stream that looks like perfect tenkara water - and it's not Fly Fishing Only!


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Tenkara has no strict rules. Enjoy tenkara in your own way.
- Eiji Yamakawa