Tenkara Fishing Basics
Are you ready to get back to the basics of fishing? If so, tenkara fishing is for you. This simple, intuitive approach to fishing is rapidly gaining popularity among anglers who are tired of cluttered gear closets driven by the current trend to develop a separate, highly specialized tactic (and piece of gear) for every imaginable fishing scenario. If you fondly remember the days where getting ready to fish involved grabbing a cane pole and a carton of worms, and “advanced tactics” meant split shot to sink a worm and a bobber to float it, tenkara may be right up your alley.
I’ve spent a couple hundred hours this spring and summer playing with a tenkara rod, and I have to say it’s rekindled a childlike joy in my fishing. Armed with an Altoids mint container of flies and a tenkara rod I forget about work and family responsibilities and am free to return to my roots as a grubby kid playing in a creek. I’ve fished 15 different river systems, and have landed 17 species of fish. This article is written from the point of view of a novice, but an enthusiastic one.
The Origins And History Of Tenkara Fishing
Tenkara is rapidly gaining traction as a counterculture movement of sorts within the fishing community. The tenkara enthusiasts’ mantra, “One rod, one line, one fly” appeals to many anglers overwhelmed by the gear intensive trend in modern fishing.
For the unfamiliar, tenkara refers to a traditional form of fishing originating from the mountain streams of Japan. The word translated into english means, roughly, “from the heavens.” For 16th century commercial fishermen, a long, sensitive rod strung with braided horse hair was the most economical and practical way to present a rudimentary kebari, or “feathered hook” to the fish they salted and packed down the mountain for trade. The mountain streams being unsuitable to conventional fishing practices, such as netting, this was the most expedient way to harvest fish.
Fast-forward several hundred years, and the tradition survives among enthusiasts who relish a return to the simple as an antidote to the fast paced and complex modern world.
Essential Gear For Tenkara Fishing
This is what initially drew me to tenkara fishing. The older I’ve gotten, the faster and more complicated my life. I do enough planning and decision-making at work; I’m not interested in deciding what fishing tackle to bring and which to leave at the house. I go outside to disconnect from the world of ideas and immerse myself in the here and now. The simplicity of tenkara makes that easy. There is some gear involved, but it’s remarkably spartan.
The first time I extended a tenkara rod, I smiled. My go-to rod, a Tenkara USA Rhodo extends to 10.5ft. This is definitely long for a conventional rod, but rather short for a tenkara rod. Despite that length, it weighs only 2.1oz. By way of comparison, a 3” 12 gauge shotgun shell weighs about 2.4oz, and the Swiss Army Knife in my pocket (a Tinker, for the curious) weighs 2.2. When collapsed into itself, it’s only 21” long.
Having such a lightweight and portable rod means that I can fish absolutely anywhere. I’ve made dozens of impromptu trips this year thanks to the ability to stash the rod and a few flies in my car where they’re always ready. I’ve also backpacked with it a few times, and have walked many miles of brush stream bank with it tucked into my belt at the 6 o’clock position, where it stayed securely out-of-the way.
The rod came wrapped in a cloth sock inside a metal tube, and stored in that case it’s absolutely bomb-proof. In the literal thousands of miles I’ve driven with it, I’ve never once stopped to wonder if the dog had sat on it or my wife had piled groceries on top of it. I’ve broken several rod tips trying to stash a 7ft ultralight spinning rod in my car for quick trips, but I can’t foresee a way to break a tenkara rod stored in its case.
All that’s great, but the real question is, “How does a tenkara rod fish?” I’ve owned several travel rods that fit the “portable” criteria. Sadly, they fished like crap. Most telescoping or multi piece travel rods are gimmicks that completely lack fishability. This is not the case for the Rhodo. I’ve thrown everything from size 6 poppers and weighted wooly buggers to size 22 dry flies with the rod, and it’s fished them all. Most importantly, it’s hands-down my favorite rod to fight fish on.
The length, sensitivity, and limberness of the rod means that you feel everything on the other end of the line. Ask yourself honestly, when’s the last time you felt the head shake on a stunted pond bluegill? My ultralight spinning rod will throw a 1/64th jig head and is spooled with 2lb test, and a bluegill will put a bow in it and strip drag on the little 1000 size Fuego I have on it, but it doesn’t have nearly as much sensitivity. And every time I fish my Rhodo for a few trips and go back to my 3wt conventional rod, I’m shocked how much the weight of the line deadens the feel of a fish on the other end.
What about big fish? Admittedly, most tenkara rods, mine included, are not designed for heavy use. I use my rod with 5x tippet, which only has about a 4lb breaking strength. Still, I’ve landed a couple of 2-3lb Alabama and Largemouth Bass with mine this year. I wouldn’t want to handle much larger, but the small streams I enjoy exploring with my rod don’t typically hold truly big bass. In my mind, there are thousands of rods available that will let you land big fish. There are very few that are sensitive enough to telegraph the strike of a Black Spotted or Striped Shiner.
Part of the reason a tenkara rod can transmit so much feel to your hand is the ultralight and low-stretch line that they use. Since the rods are so long and limber, it takes very, very little to properly load one for a cast. The #3.5 level line I currently have on my Rhodo is basically hi-vis, 10lb test fluorocarbon. It makes conventional fly line feel like a bungee cord in comparison.
I’ve come to prefer the super-sensitivity of level line, but the nylon tapered line that my rod came with as part of Tenkara USA’s kit has one notable advantage. It’s laughably easy to cast. When I started fly fishing, it took me 4-5 outings before I was really able to cast and fish effectively with a conventional fly rod. I was casting the Rhodo within a few seconds and had landed my first fish within a couple of minutes.
We’ve got a whole write-up on tenkara lines, but if you’re new to the sport the most important thing to know is that if you’re addicted to delicate presentations and sensitive setups, tenkara is king.
Any fly can be a “tenkara fly.” I personally am very fond of small parachute adamses, size 8 or 10 Amnesia Bugs, and zebra midges when stalking southern streams for members of the lepomis family. But there is something to be said for going “whole hog” and fishing a traditional sakasa kebari with a tenkara rod. Much like the venerable wooly bugger, this reverse-hackled subsurface fly imitates “everything and nothing” in the water. The first fly I was brave enough to attempt to tie was a sakasa kebari, and as misshapen as it was, it caught fish. I’ve since tied a few dozen, mostly on size 12 barbless hooks. I’ve settled on this as a sweet size that’s big enough to get noticed by spotted, largemouth, and redeye bass; but small enough to be appealing to bluegills, green, and dollar sunfish as well. Slowly drifted past likely spots with the occasional twitch to “pulse” the long hackles, a kebari is simple but effective in every river system and in front of every species I’ve fished for.
These are the flies I personally prefer, but if you’d like a more detailed write-up, I had the great fortune to be able to sit down with John Geer and TJ Ferreira at Tenkara USA to pick their brains on the best flies for tenkara.
Aside from the rod, the line, and the fly, there are a few “necessary” items I like to bring. My rod shipped with a nifty gadget that Tenkara USA has labeled “The Keeper.” This little contraption allows you to neatly store a tenkara line, a length of tippet, and a half-dozen or so flies all in one device about the size of a wallet. Fully loaded, mine weighs about 1.5oz. So my rod and all of the equipment I need for a day of fishing weighs only slightly more than a deck of playing cards.
Some days, I fish with this setup. It’s really freeing to hit a creek with The Keeper in my front pocket and the Rhodo tucked into my back pocket. But most of the time, I can’t resist bringing just a little bit more gear along on a trip.
My tenkara “tackle box” is a Yonah Packs Simple Pack. This well-thought out little pack can ride on a belt, a backpack strap, or around your neck. I use it to carry 2 spools of #5 tippet, an altoids tin of flies, some Gink, a little tungsten putty, and a pair of Dr. Slick Scissor Clamps. The latter are particularly handy, since they serve triple-duty as hemostats, line snips, and a hook eye cleaner. I also have a wine cork tucked into one of the elastic bands on the outside of the pack that serves as a simple but effective place to stick flies to dry out.
Tenkara Fishing FAQs
As I’ve traveled my home state with my long, whippy rod, I’ve attracted the attention of a few passers-by. I’ve also gotten a few odd looks from my fishing buddies when I started unpacking my new gear. Below are a few common questions about tenkara, and my answers to them.
How to cast a tenkara rod?
Delicately. In a conversation I had with Tenkara USA’s TJ Ferreira, he told me to, “Take a regular cast, and half it. Then, half it again.” That’s good advice. It takes very little to load a tenkara rod, and tenkara fishing is usually a close range affair. My cast stroke generally goes from 10 o’clock at rest, back to 12 o’clock on the back stroke, a slight pause, and then a gentle but somewhat faster forwards stroke back to 10. This is enough to get #3.5 tenkara line moving with a light fly, and gives you good distance and a light presentation that keeps most or all of the line off of the water. Like I said earlier, when it comes to finesse, tenkara is king.
Although it may sound like cheating to conventional fly fishermen, it’s worth observing that heavier flies such as poppers and buggers have enough weight to load the rod without relying on the line weight. Do with this info what you will.
How do you fight and land fish on a tenkara rod?
He pulls, you pull back. Fighting fish on tenkara is fun and intuitive. Without any drag settings to worry about or reeling to do, you just move your rod hand closer to you and angle the rod back slightly. The long, limber rod plays the fish, and when he’s tired it will ease him to you where you can net or grab him.
Big fish do require a bit more technique. The first time I hooked a nice bass on mine, I made the mistake of lowering the tip out of fear of breaking the rod. Don’t do that! Let him put a nice curve in the rod. If you’ve used the appropriate (4lb break strength) tippet, that will break long before your rod. Lock the handle against your forearm, keep the butt at about a 90 degree angle to the fish, and if you can turn him back and forth using the leverage the long rod provides. If you can keep him turning back and forth in long sweeps, he’ll tucker out in no time.
Isn’t tenkara just “dapping?”
It can be; sure. Dapping works, if we’re being honest. So does euro nymphing. So do bow and arrow casts. Tenkara rods can be used to do all of those things. And you can cast them. Fish your rod how you like.
Why not just use a conventional fly fishing setup?
It’s true that a western fly rod can cast further. But I for one catch more fish up close that far away. If you’re fishing big, open, flat water, then a conventional setup may give you an edge. But if you’re fishing small streams, a tenkara rod gives you a much more delicate presentation.
Final Thoughts On Tenkara Fishing
I’ve owned many fishing rods. I live on the water down in South Alabama, where I can fish for everything from bull sharks and tarpon to dollar sunfish and banded topminnows. I may not be very good at it, but I fish almost every day that I don’t hunt. It may not be fair to say that my tenkara rod is my “best” rod (whatever that may mean) but I can honestly say that I’ve had more fun fishing with it than any other rod I’ve owned.
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