Tenkara: Japanese Fly Fishing

By Rod Woten

If you follow fly fishing at all, you probably already have at least an idea what Tenkara is. If not, at the rate that Tenkara’s popularity is growing, you will soon. Tenkara is a method of fly fishing developed in Japan almost 200 years ago by commercial fisherman to catch trout in typically small and technical mountain streams. Unlike western methods of fly fishing, Tenkara is very stripped down and simple. “Only a rod, a line and a fly”, is the mantra of true Japanese Tenkara, and some western practitioners try to adhere to that philosophy very closely. One of the underlying principles of Tenkara is that the presentation of the fly is much more important than the selection of the fly, which is in large part where the “only a fly” part of the slogan comes from. Rather than carrying a multitude of flies to “match the hatch”, Tenkara maintains that placing the fly precisely and presenting it as naturally as possible is more important.

What, no reel?!?!
One of the first things that most people notice the first time they see a Tenakra rod is the absence of a reel. Tenakra utilizes a set length of line attached to a short flexible piece of cord at the tip of the rod called the “lilian”. Since true Japanese Tenkara anglers are typically fishing small and medium sized mountain streams, being able to make a double-haul, leader-straightening cast is just not necessary. If you fish any of the trout streams in Iowa, you can surely appreciate this. Even when I’m guiding fly fishing clients in Iowa it’s very rare that they ever need to learn anything more than a roll cast. Those grandiose overhead casts that reach out to distant fish simply aren’t necessary for 95% of the scenarios we encounter.

Tenakra rods are also typically very long. A 9’ Tenkara rod would be considered short. Most range between 11 to 13 feet long. One of the reason for this is to allow anglers to stand well out of the eyesight of wary mountain trout yet still deliver the fly precisely to them. It also allows them to overcome some of the reach handicaps that are inherent to fishing a fixed line. With a 13 foot rod and a 13 foot fixed line a skilled Tenkara caster can reach out almost the full 26 foot distance to fish without changing their location. In fact, many skilled Tenkara anglers actually use a fixed line a couple of feet longer than their rod allowing them to reach almost 30 feet away.

Paradoxically, Tenkara rods are some of the most compact when stowed which makes them ideal for backpackers, bicyclists or anyone else that might be tight on space but may have the good fortune to be near trout waters sometime during their adventures. Tenkara rods are so compact because they are telescoping. Traditional western fly rods must be taken down in sections which limits how short those sections can be. Conversely, a Tenkara rod’s sections can be much shorter since each one retracts down into the previous section as the rod telescopes down. The lack of a reel also means there is one less piece of equipment to keep track of and makes a Tenkara rod all that much more packable.

East vs. West
Typically when you see someone Tenkara fishing on this side of the globe they are practicing the western-ized version of Tenkara. This still utilizes the rod and line, but incorporates more traditional fly patterns and riggings. The traditional Tenkara fly, a Kebari, looks very different from the flies we are used to seeing. A traditional Tenkara fly is also fished in much the same manner as a wet fly would be fished by a traditional western fly angler. Those fishing Tenkara in the non-traditional style however, fish dry flies and nymph rigs with indicators just the same as the traditional western fly angler does. Even though they may not be staying true to the traditional Tenkara method, those that practice westernized Tenkara still get to take advantage of one of the strengths of Tenkara; that there is never a heavy fly line laying on the surface of the water. A Tenkara line is a long piece of level or tapered nylon that is held above the surface of the water. This makes it much easier to get the perfect drift because you are never wrangling with fingers of current moving at different speeds between you and your fly. The traditional angler must “mend” their line to overcome this and get a perfect drift but a Tenkara angler just lifts their arm and raises their line off of the water. For those that have ever seen the high-sticking method of Czech or European nymphing, the raised-arm stance of a Tenkara angler will look very familiar. Having your line off the water and in the air can be a detriment on windy days as the wind will wreak havoc on your drift.

Yes, there’s no reel!!!
I have to admit, when I first heard about Tenkara, I was one of those traditional western fly anglers that grumbled something about wanting a reel with a drag to fight a big fish. While it’s true that Tenkara was designed with small and medium sized mountain fish in mind, it can handle larger fish as well. After landing an 18 inch brown trout in the Black Hills on my very first Tenkara outing, I quickly changed my tune. I felt much more connected to the fish as I fought him. I also had to be much more aware of what the fish was doing, what he was intending to do and what I needed to do in response. I got very good at “steering” this fish and gently persuaded it to go where I wanted it to rather than where it wanted to go. I also have to admit that the more I Tenkara fish, the more appealing I find the simplicity of TRUE Tenkara fishing. I find myself more and more often leaving my heavy sling pack…with every fly fishing doodad known to man tethered to it and a dozen different fly boxes in it…behind and taking a small spool of Tenkara line and a couple of flies. It’s very liberating to not be loaded down with all that equipment.

If you’re just getting into fly fishing and struggling with getting the cast down then Tenkara is definitely worth a try. It seems there’s really no wrong way to cast a Tenkara rod. It’s actually harder for experienced fly anglers (like yours truly!) to “un-learn” their usual overhead cast in order to cast a Tenkara than it is for a beginner to pick up Tenkara casting. The moral of the story is, don’t let the fact that there is no reel on a Tenkara rod dissuade you from giving it a try. Tenkara’s simplicity is part of what makes it so much fun. I’m so glad that our guide convinced me to give it a try on the fateful trip to the Black Hills. In the months since I’ve probably Tenkara fished just as much (or more?) as I have used my traditional western gear. Tenkara is also ideally suited to the spring creeks that hold Iowa’s trout populations so there’s no better place to try it out. There are several Tenkara manufacturers in The United States now so pick a rod out and give it a go!