What Is Tenkara Fishing?

Tenkara is an ultra-simple, minimalist form of fly fishing.

Developed in Japan over 200 years ago, Tenkara was created by commercial fisherman fishing small mountain streams for trout.

Although Tenkara has been a popular method of fishing in Japan for many years, it was only brought to the US around 20 years ago.

Tenkara is still very new in the US, but is growing rapidly in popularity. For me, it’s exciting to be part of something so rooted in tradition, yet (in a sense) new and up and coming. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stopped by other anglers asking about this strange form of fly fishing they have never seen before.

Tenkara rods are usually longer than western fly fishing rods. (11-15’ on average) They have no eye holes, no reel, and are fished with a with a fixed, non tapered line. (Usually with non-weighted, impressionistic “Kebari” flies)

Tenkara rods are also telescopic, compressing down to only 20-25” on average, they are also extremely light being made of high modulus graphite. The small compacted size and light weight of Tenkara rods has made Tenkara a huge hit with backpackers, travelers, and those that like fishing small creeks with heavy vegetation.

Tenkara piqued my interest the first time I heard of it. Mainly due to is simplicity and focus on backcountry angling.

When I discovered Tenkara, I had been fly-fishing for about 5 years, but had grown tired of all the gear and complications that come with Western fly fishing. It seemed like the time I spent fussing with all my gear was disproportionate to the time actually fishing.

Beyond that, I wasn’t all that successful at Western fly fishing. And today, I catch a lot more fish on Tenkara than I ever did with my huge fly box, Umpqua chest pack, and vast array of tapered leaders.

I think the main reason however for my increased success is that (in Tenkara) there are less variables to manage when assessing why you are not catching fish.

In Tenkara, the same “Kebari” fly can be fished wet or dry, so you seldom change flies; and due to its telescopic nature you are free to move around the river fishing many different spots in the same day. You are also able to fish areas with much thicker vegetation, and get a more natural presentation in many fishing scenarios. (The rod’s long length allows you to keep the line off the water, thus reducing drag)

With less variables to manage, I have found myself more effective in troubleshooting my lack of fishing success. Either my presentation is bad, or I should move to a different spot. (Usually the former)

The Tenkara angler usually carries a few different lengths of line, and the fixed line is simple tied to the end of the rod. (A small red string called the “Lillian”) I carry a couple of different lengths of line, but most of the adjustment in casting length is based on where you stand and the angle you tilt your rod as it drifts down the stream.

“But, how do you land fish with no reel?” This is actually more instinctive than I anticipated, but landing fish is a simple as tilting the rod back behind you and “hand-lining” the fish the rest of the way in. On a separate note, fighting even modest sized fish on the ultra-sensitive Tenkara rod is a rush that has to be felt to be believed. I feel a greater sense of connection to the fighting fish, and as a result do a better job of knowing when to let the fish run and when to bring the fish closer. This makes up for the mechanical disadvantage of not having a reel.

Although Tenkara was developed primarily for trout fishing on smaller streams, Tenkara can be an effective method of fishing for many different species and on many different waters. With its portability and simplicity, you might find yourself “fishing on a whim” during hikes or at local pond that isn’t worth constructing your 6 piece western fly rod for.

Some of my favorite local fishing spots were discovered by driving by a creek or pond and asking myself “I wonder if there’s fish in there?” With Tenkara I can simply pull over and be casting into the “mystery water” within 2 minutes.

Interested in learning Tenkara? Learning is easy and getting set up is relatively inexpensive. Feel free to contact me if you are looking for more resources or if you are looking for gear recommendations. Hope to see you on the water!

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