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Last summer I had a chance to try something that I had previously only heard of in passing conversations and knew close to nothing about. An out of town friend who I took fishing had purchased a tenkara rod and was anxious to test it out. Using the quick start guide that came with his outfit, we attached the line, leader and fly, and were fishing within minutes. Catching my first trout on this new rod proved to be very exciting, and I was immediately hooked.
So what is Tenkara?
Tenkara, in Japanese, means “from heaven.” This is fitting in my opinion. It is a very old traditional Japanese approach to fly fishing using only a rod a line and a fly. There is no reel involved. Although the art of tenkara dates back several hundred years, it has become popular in the US just within the last 5 or 6 years.
Historically, tenkara rods were made of bamboo, but today most are made with carbon fiber. They are long, light weight, and very flexible with typical lengths ranging from 10 to 14 feet.
The cork grips are similar to regular fishing rods. The rods are telescoping, meaning the sections collapse down to a very compact size of 18 to 20 inches. At the tip end of the rod, a short piece of cord, a “lillian,” is glued to the tip.
The line is then attached to the lillian. Unless you are a tenkara purist, there are no hard and fast rules to the line that is used, and the line set up is more of a personal preference. The line can either be a tapered, furled line (the traditional approach) or a level line. The furled lines are made up of twisted or braided thread or monofilament. The level lines, (meaning all one diameter, not tapered), are typically a single strand of either monofilament or fluorocarbon.
A short 3 to 4 foot section of tippet is then attached to the line. Typically, the length of the line plus the tippet is equal to the length of the rod.
In addition to the furled and level lines described above, there is also a hybrid approach. The set up that I first used was with a 20-foot section of thin level running line (typical plastic coated floating fly line). A tapered leader was attached to the level line, which tapered down to 5x tippet. This is not the traditional tenkara set up but a hybrid approach that has more of a traditional fly fishing feel to it. Again, the type of line that is used is a personal choice, so try the various options until you find what works best for you.
The traditional tenkara fly is a wet fly tied with the hackles in a reversed position.
Again, unless you plan to stick with the traditional tenkara approach, all the typical patterns of dry fly, soft hackle, nymphs, and streamers may be used.
Landing the Fish
Typically the line length is equal to the length of the rod, so when a fish has been hooked, you simply lift your arm high and slide the fish into the net. If the line length has been extended to a length longer than the rod, then the fish must be brought in by hand. Gently lift the rod until you can grab hold of the line and then pull the fish in, sliding your hand down the leader to the fly and release.
Since the tenkara rod will collapse down in seconds to a very compact size, it makes it ideal for backpacking or hiking along mountain streams. The long rod aids in keeping line off the water and obtaining the perfect drifts. This is especially helpful in mountain streams with fast, tumbling currents. I have also found tenkara to be a useful teaching tool. Beginners new to fly fishing, especially children, can begin fishing immediately without the additional line and reel that needs to be tended. It’s a great way to introduce them to casting in a short period of time.
Temple Fork and Patagonia have teamed up to offer a hybrid tenkara package, which includes the rod, line, leader, an assortment of flies and an illustrated guide book. This is a great way to get started. There are a number of other vendors that provide equipment, and there are resources that offer other insightful information on technique. Here are two of the links that I have found especially useful:
Try it. You may like it!
I’ll have to admit that I was very skeptical of this fishing method at first. What truly caught my attention about tenkara was its simplicity. This was a surprise to me, now that I think about it, because I’m a gadget geek in the truest sense of the word. While I don’t anticipate ever giving up my traditional fly fishing gear, there is a time and place for trying new things, and a tenkara rod is a perfect example of this for me. Now, I have several tenkara rods in different lengths. I believe one of the great things about fly fishing is the fact that there is always something new to learn, no matter how long you have been fishing or how advanced you become. I’ve used my tenkara rods on both the Elk River and the Caney Fork with great success. I’m looking forward to a fall trip to the Smokies where I’m sure to put them to the test in mountain streams and learn even more about this new approach to fly fishing.