Tenkara Lines Explained
Tenkara is a remarkably simpler affair than conventional fly fishing, and that’s reflected in the variety of tenkara lines available on their respective markets. Western style fly fishermen have a plethora of options to choose from. Sinking vs floating. Weight forward vs double taper. High vis or neutral colored. True-to-size or runs heavy.
Choosing a fly line for your rod can be an overwhelming experience for a new angler. Luckily, it’s much simpler with tenkara, and we’re here to help. In order to answer once and for all which tenkara line is “best” for you, we sat down with Tenkara USA’s TJ Ferreira and John Geer. Tenkara USA is the company who first brought tenkara to the US, and between the two of them TJ and John probably have more experience with tenkara fishing and tenkara gear than anybody else in the American market.
Types Of Tenkara Lines
There are 3 main types of tenkara line commonly used in the US. Furled lines, which are woven from multiple fiber strands and taper similarly to a western fly fishing leader; level lines, which have no taper and are made from a single strand of either nylon or fluorocarbon; and nylon tapered lines, which are a single strand of nylon like level lines, but tapered like furled lines.
Furled Tenkara Line
Furled lines are the most traditional line commonly available. The original commercial fishermen from the mountain streams of Japan used tapered lines made from horse hair to cast their kebaris into small mountain streams. Modern lines are now made from Spectra, which is a 21st century miracle fiber that’s incredibly strong and lightweight. You may be familiar with Spectra if you’ve ever gone frogging for bass with braided line. In the conventional fishing world, spectra lines are often regarded as the best choice for conditions where both strength and extreme sensitivity are required.
According to TJ, furled lines offer good benefits, with a few tradeoffs.
“Furled lines are a bit heavy,” he says. “They do lay the fly down very softly though, and the weight makes them easy to cast. But that weight pulls back at you when you’re trying to drift, which can be a downside when you’re trying to keep your line off of the water.”
On a personal note, I can tell you that another drawback of furled lines is that they twist and tangle like the dickens when you pull on them hard to retrieve an errant cast from a tree. However, I second John and TJ’s opinions on how well they present dry flies. I like to rub a little silicone into mine to make them water repellant, which makes them float very well. On still waters, this can be an advantage over level lines, which sink slowly. Another nice feature of level lines are the tippet ring they feature, which makes it easy to attach tippet with a simple clinch knot.
Tenkara Level Line
Tenkara is all about simplicity, and level lines are perhaps the simplest fly fishing line on the market. The level line I personally use is just a single, untapered length of approximately 10lb test fluorocarbon. While most anglers in the US are used to seeing clear fluorocarbon lines, which vanish almost like magic underwater, the fluorocarbon used for tenkara is generally very brightly colored.
While all tenkara lines are cheap compared to conventional fly fishing lines, which can run you $100 pretty easily, level line is almost laughably inexpensive. A spool of level line also lets you play around with your line length.
“The nice thing with level line is that you can cut yourself off what you need, says TJ. “We sell ours in a 60ft roll, so you can really cut yourself off exactly what you need for certain applications You can cut yourself off a 20 foot line, or a 7 foot line.”
Another advantage of level line is that it allows anglers to play with different weights, since it comes in different diameters. According to John, “One of the important things to remember about tenkara is that you really don’t have to worry too much about exactly matching line weight to your rod. But basically a heavier level line, like our #4.5, is going to have a little more power. And so that’s going to mean that it’s going to cast through the wind better, it’s going to turn over larger flies easier, and it’s a little easier to cast longer lines. Our #3.5 line is going to be lighter. And so it will be easier to hold off the water and get really great drifts. It also can allow a bit more delicate presentation. And the tradeoff is a little bit of a reduced performance in heavy winds or when throwing those bigger flies.”
Something that John and TJ, both highly experienced tenkara anglers, understated in our interview is that level line can be quite tricky to cast for hamfisted knuckleheads like myself. As a deep-south bumpkin with a lifetime of yeeting catfish rigs out into muddy waters, I had a heck of a time learning to “dial ‘er back” on my first outing with level line. Casting level line is less flag waving and more flicking a wizard’s wand. I did eventually get the hang of it, and once I did I definitely developed an appreciation for being able to keep line off of the water. I catch far more fish on level line than I do on a furled line or my conventional 3wt, especially in clear, shallow water.
Nylon Tapered Line
Tapered nylon lines are tapered like furled lines, but much lighter. This means that they form loops a bit easier than level line, and stay off of the water a bit better than furled lines.
Says TJ, ““It’s got high visibility because of its bright colors. So you don’t have to worry about putting indicators on. It’s its own indicator. And it’s tapered, so it generally just rolls out, just like a furled line would, to your target. Tapered lines are also fairly tip light, so you can hold it off the water easier, which is a good thing. Traditional tenkara is all about keeping line off the water.”
All in all, nylon tapered lines provide a balanced, middle-of-the-road approach to tenkara lines. This makes them ideal for new anglers, as we’ll discuss shortly.
Best Tenkara Lines For Different Scenerios
According to John, “I know some really good tenkara fishermen that can fish with any of the line options out there and do well. They can just change up their fishing style slightly, maybe, and still catch fish. But for most anglers, you kind of figure out what your own tenkara style is after a while, and that’s going to impact your line selection a little bit.”
With that in mind, let’s look at some scenarios where an angler may prefer one type of line over another.
Best Tenkara Line For Beginners
Many tenkara companies’ entry-level kits come standard with a furled line roughly as long as the rod. Tenkara USA deviates from this trend by shipping their kits with a nylon tapered line. The reason, says TJ, is simple. It gives beginners the easy casting of furled line, but the ability to keep line off of the water like you can with a level line.
“I would say for the beginner a nylon tapered line is pretty easy to learn to cast with,” he says. “I always tell new tenkara anglers to try the nylon tapered first, get your casting stroke down, and once you feel comfortable, then develop from there.”
According to John, “We put a tapered nylon line in our kits because, what’s kind of nice about that is that you can get a feel for things. You can fish with it a bit and decide for yourself if you want to go further one way or another. You can be like, “Well, if I want a little smoother turnover and even lighter presentation, I may want the furled lines.” Or you may say, “Well, I think I’d like a lighter line that’s even easier to keep off of the water. I think I’ll try a furled line.”
That said, there are situations where a new tenkara angler may be better off with a furled line. According to John, conventional fly anglers who are picking up a tenkara rod for the first time may find the extra heft of a furled line feels familiar.
“If I’m fishing with a friend that hasn’t fished tenkara before, but they’re an experienced Western fly fisherman, then the furled lines are the easiest transition because of that weight. It makes it feel more like you’re casting a regular fly rod.”
Best Tenkara Line For Big Flies
While I am usually chasing the Lepomid family with my personal tenkara rod, I also occasionally head up to Alabama’s Piedmont Plateau to chase the various species of redeye bass. Triggering aggressive topwater blowups from these tiny, colorful powerhouses is too much fun to resist, so I often find myself tossing small popping bugs on my tenkara rod.
While these are definitely not “traditional” tenkara flies, according to John it’s possible to cast larger flies on a tenkara rod with the right line. “With the big air resistant flies, like poppers or hoppers or something like that, I would say the heavy level line is probably my favorite all around. The furled lines can handle them, but in my experience those flies will spin pretty bad sometimes. And a furled line can twist with that fly and start to tangle a little bit. So for me it’s just simpler to use heavier, #4.5 level line.”
Final Thoughts On Tenkara Line
One of the nice things about tenkara is that it’s relatively inexpensive compared to other forms of fishing. The rods themselves are affordable compared to many western rods, there’s no reel to add additional expense, and the lines are remarkably affordable. The most expensive line currently listed on Tenkara USA’s site runs a very reasonable $19.95.
In the early months of familiarizing myself with the technique, I took advantage of this and purchased a variety of lines to play with, and was able to quickly make up my own mind regarding line selection. If you’re looking to “get serious” with your tenkara fishing, I’d recommend using John and TJ’s recommendations as a starting point and purchasing a few lines that they mentioned to test for yourself. It’s an easy an inexpensive way to find out for sure exactly what suits your personal style of fishing.
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