What Is Tenkara?
Tenkara is the traditional Japanese method of fly-fishing, which uses only a rod, line and fly.
Tenkara is a category of fly-fishing particularly well-suited for fishing small streams and for backpacking. It's a very effective, simple and enjoyable method of fly-fishing small streams.
The basic concept:
Tenkara is primarily used for small-stream fishing. It is particularly effective for fishing pocket water and faster flowing streams. Some of the main advantages are its simplicity, the very delicate presentations with the light line, the ability to hold the line off the water and a fly in place on the other side of a current, precise casting, and greater control of the fly.
Only rod, line and fly are used. The line is attached directly to the tip of the rod using a girth hitch, and tippet is attached to the end of the tenkara line (total line length will be about 1 - 2 ft longer than the rod) . Like in western fly-fishing the line propels the weightless fly foward and there is a fly-casting technique involved (just a bit slower, and with a shorter casting stroke). Landing a fish is very intuitive and similar to any type of fishing with a rod: one simply raises the rod high, and reaches for the fish.
Tenkara is very easy for anyone to do, but one may strive for perfection and make it a life-long learning experience focused on technique and actual fishing, not on the gear. Those looking for a more personal and highly effective fishing experience will find this type of fishing very rewarding.
Originally done with bamboo rods, tenkara has evolved and modern tenkara is known for using sophisticated technology to produce extremelly ligh and strong rods. The rods are made with high-grade carbon-fiber, and are telescopic, making tenkara rods the most portable yet pure style of fly-fishing. The rods' extended length (normally 12ft) and portability (they close down to 20 inches, with all pieces fitting inside the handle) makes them ideal for small-stream angling and backpacking. Traditional tenkara lines are furled, and, like in western fly-fishing, are necessary for casting the weightless flies forward.
The absence of a reel makes it the simplest style of fly-fishing, where each basic element has evolved to be the most effective at its use. The few elements between you and the fish, along with the sensitive rod, will transmit even the smallest vibrations directly to your hands.
Tenkara is very well suited for: fishing a dry-fly (virtually drag-free due to the supple line and little line in the water), dapping a fly on a pool or holding it on an eddy, Czech-nymphing and high-sticking, playing a soft-hackle wet fly, and manipulating the traditional reverse hackle flies. Fixed-line fishing methods such as tenkara allow for a lot of control over the line and fly.
Casting requires a slower and shorter stroke to completely turn the tippet over. Though simple and easy to do, a large casting repertoire can be acquired and can be useful in different fishing situations. For example, a snap cast can come in handy when wanting to change direction of the fly without false-casting, while an under-hand cast is good for getting under a tree.
Landing a fish is similar to any type of fishing, where the angler simply raises the rod and reaches for the fish. Fighting the fish may be a new experience: catching small fish suddenly becomes very enjoyable while Fighting a larger fish will require a new skill level. With a larger fish (i.e. >14 inches) the angler will need to play to a rhythm dictated by the fish, moving the rod along, with patience and awareness.
Tenkara has a long history. Fly-fishing in Japan is suspected to have been practiced as far back as the 8th or 9th centuries B.C. The first reference to tenkara fly-fishing was in 1878 in a book called "Diary of climbing Mt. Tateyama".
The name tenkara, is written in Japanese: - you may notice the symbol in our logo is the first character of tenkara: "Te". The most commonly accepted meaning is "from heaven" or "from the skies". However, the original meaning, and its origins are not known for certain. It's thought that the word came about because of the way a fly softly lands on the water, and if looked from a fish point of view, it would be slowly descending "from the skies". However, there are other theories for the name tenkara. Some say it comes from a different method of fishing for Ayu, which was called "tegara"; others who have studied the word say it may even have roots in the Japanese characters for "from India". The Japanese writing system allows for multiple possible interpretations of the word based on the sound for tenkara. However, tenkara fly-fishing is just....tenkara.
At different periods in history, tenkara has evolved in the hands of different groups of anglers. It has been the activity of peasants and inn-owners, who used it as a way to secure a meal of fish in the fast streams in the mountains of Japan, and it became popular with professional fisherman in the mountain villages of Japan. Professional fisherman saw the great efficiency in using tenkara to "harvest" the abundant Yamame in the mountain streams of Japan. A simple fly would take seconds to tie, and could catch several fish in a roll. Nowadays it's common knowledge in Japan that tenkara anglers normally outfish western fly anglers by 5 to 1.
Not much has been documented about fly-fishing in Japan, some believe because tenkara was primarily a source used to secure food, not a sport. However, it's important to notice that similar styles of fly-fishing are still practiced throughout many regions in the world, such as Northern Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Russia, and others. And, not all that long ago, before reels became wide-spread, fixed-line fly-fishing was practiced in the UK and even in the US.
Tenkara was developed and refined over centuries. Each element in tenkara fly-fishing, being vital and necessary in the sport of angling, was perfected to be the best at its use. Unlike in western fly-fishing, where rods were originally made of wood, and thus too heavy for comfortable use of long rods, Japanese anglers used bamboo. This light material allowed for the favored long rods to be continually improved upon, whereas in the west the angler's creative energy was spent devising ways to reach farther with shorter rods. The lines, much like original western lines, were furled horsehair lines, which served to cast the fly forward.
Tenkara rods are the fundamental and most distinctive feature of tenkara fishing. They are long, each piece telescopes and fits inside each other, and they have very sensitive and soft action.
The long rods, usually between 11 and 13 ft, close down to a mere 20 inches and weigh an average of 3 oz, making them ultra-portable and ideal for backpacking. The extended length of the rods makes them well suited for most fishing situations on small and medium size streams, where it's hardly ever necessary to cast very far. Remember, the fish are not always on the other side! And, the long rod has the advantage of giving anglers greater control over the fly. The collapsible feature also removes ferrules used in western fly rods, which allows for a very smooth curve and bending action through the rod.
The telescopic feature of these rods ensures all pieces, including rod tip, are well protected inside the stronger parts of the rod, making them portable and less prone to breakage when transporting. The tenkara setup is ultra-light, rod weighs an average of 3 oz, and by not using a reel or fly-line several more ounces are cut.
Tenkara rods are comparable to most ultra-light rods used in western fly-fishing and are considered soft, or "slow". Some rods are "beefier" than others, but the length makes them slightly slower than most western fly-rods. To explain the "flex" or "action" of a tenkara rod, an index ratio was developed. We call this the "Tenkara Action Index©". The Tenkara Action Index tells anglers how many: "Bottom parts are stiffer : Tip parts are more flexible". Most tenkara rods are classified as 5:5 or 6:4, where a 5:5 rod indicates 5 bottom parts are stiffer and 5 tip segments bend more easily. A 6:4 rod indicates 6 parts are stiffer and 4 tip segments bend more easily, and so forth. 7:3 and 8:2 rods are considered more specialty rods for those who prefer fast rods or are pursuing larger fish and want the rod to help them land the fish.
Choosing a rod
Each Tenkara USA rod model is developed to be very different from each other and offer anglers a range of choices with little overlap. While we may want to say the ideal is to have one of each because they really are that different, we do not want to push that and would prefer that anglers stick with their preference.
The length of the rod should primarily be chosen on the streams one will fish, places with more overhead cover may benefit from a shorter (e.g. 11ft rod), whereas a 13ft long rod will allow you to reach and have control over the line over a longer distance. One foot is the difference between having your arm next to you or stretched in front of you depending on the stream.
11ft rod: IWANA; 12ft rods: IWANA, YAMAME; 13ft rod: AYU.
Action: The rod action is chosen primarily based on the angler's preference for a softer (5:5) or slightly stiffer (e.g. 6:4 or 7:3) rod. The following should be kept in mind: 5:5 rods feel more delicate when casting. Playing a smaller fish will feel slightly more enjoyable, while landing a larger fish will be more challenging because of the extra flexibility of the rod. Thinner tippets (e.g. 7X or 8X) will be more protected as the rod will also take more pressure off it. Rods: IWANA, AYU.
6:4 rods will normally feel more precise when casting. Hooking up a larger fish will be slightly easier, as is casting against a bit of wind. Sensitivity to subtle bites is greater. Rods: AYU.
7:3 rods are stiffer and will assist an angler in landing that larger fish. Also more precise and powerful when casting. Rod: YAMAME .
Like in western fly-fishing, one must cast the near weight-less fly and this is made possible by the line, which propels the fly foward. Tenkara lines are traditionally tapered furled lines. Level lines (i.e. 12 - 15 lbs special formula fluorocarbon) may also be used.
Furled lines have significant advantages over fluorocarbon, such as no memory, ease of casting, delicate presentations. Level lines are cheaper and allow for adjustments in length, are durable, and do not coil when loosened from snag.
The length of the tenkara line plus tippet is usually about the same as the rod. Having an overall line that is much longer makes it more challenging to land a fish. We have found the best line length to be 10ft 6in, which allows for longer tippets to be used, and will go well with any of the rods we offer.
The tenkara furled line is made to cast in perfect balance with tenkara rods - with power and precision and very delicate presentation. The furled line used in tenkara fishing is very supple for minimized drag and memory, and for smooth casting. They also stretch about 10% to protect your rod and tippet when hooking a slightly larger fish. They do not absorb water for feather-like landing, and to prevent water from spraying on the streams surface, thus not spooking fish. Tenkara USA lines are hand-woven by expert line-makers in the United States, using only premium materials.
We strongly advise against using western (pvc, or otherwise) fly-line; western fly lines (even the 0wt fly lines) are much heavier than necessary and will take away the advantages of using a long rod and light line; the heavy fly-line will cause the fly to be pulled back toward the rod after casting, will splash harder than necessary on the water thus reducing the delicate tenkara presentations, and feels heavier when casting. If you don't like the traditional line, you may want to try high-visibility 15lb test fluorocarbon as your line.
The tippet is a necessary part of fly-fishing. It is the thin line that goes between the tenkara line and the fly. It allows the angler to connect the fly to the line, and prevents the fish from seeing a thicker line on the water.
The tippet used in tenkara fishing should be very thin. They are normally classified as #X, with larger numbers being thinner diameter tippet. We recommend using only tippet of 5lbs breaking strength or less (usually 5X or thinner - 5, 6, 7 or 8X) in order to protect the rod. The flexible rods does a great job at protecting thin tippets and these diameters also reduce the tippet visibility and further minimize drag.
Tenkara removes the more intimidating aspect of western fly-fishing (e.g. long distance casting and the management of a lot of line) and it can be easily treated as the simpler fly-fishing. For those in search of something else, perhaps a meditative experience, or a real challenge with something deceivingly simple, tenkara can also be an art that requires much skill and practice to master. Like meditation or martial arts, to really get the most out of it, skills and techniques can be taken to a whole new level through practice and dedication.
Tenkara, like western fly-fishing, has some basic casting techniques involved to cast the fly to a target. The basic tenkara cast is shown in the diagram below; instead of the usual 10 - 2 o'clock approach of western fly-fishing, tenkara tends to require a shorter stroke (e.g. 10-12) and a little more wrist may be used. The traditional grip of a tenkara rod is also shown below, with the index finger positioned above the handle; this grip allows you to use your rod as a precision tool for controlling the line.
One of the big advantages of tenkara fishing is that even though basic casting can be easier, tenkara arguably has a large repertoire of casting techniques that may come in handy at different fishing situations. Additionally, with the length of the rods and the line being fixed directly to the tip of the rod, one can have much greater control of the line, which allows for very precise casting.
Experiment with different strokes, hand positions (even two hands may be used), sudden wrist movements, and angles to get your fly to very challenging places and get the most out of your tenkara fishing.
Normally, the tenkara backcast stops at the 12 o'clock position (B), though it may be stopped sooner (A) to cast the line higher up behind you (for example, in case there is much foliage behind you). On the forward cast the line can be stopped a bit higher (1) or lower (2), and this may depend on where you want to cast your fly (closer or further), or how you want your presentation to look.
Also, be sure to have an "abrupt" stop at the positions (A or B, and 1 or 2) in order to load the rod tip (like a slingshot) and transfer energy to your line for an effective cast. And, on the forward cast, as soon as you come to the abrupt stop, try lowering the rod tip right away for a very delicate presentation.
LANDING A FISH
Now, for the fun part, how to land the deserved fish?
Several people have asked us "How do I land a fish if there is no reel?" Well, think of how you land a fish with a fly-rod, even with a reel, you never reel the fish in to you; you raise the rod up to bring the fish closer and then you the line and then the fish (or you hold the fish directly). Just remember, the line is normally the same length as the rod, or perhaps just a little bit longer (tip: the longer the line the more challenging it will be to land a fish).
The picture below shows landing a fish with a line longer than the rod, where the angler must hold the tippet/line. By using a line that is about the same length, one can often reach the fish directly.
It may seem odd that we'd start by talking about closing the rod before we even covered opening and setting up. That's because closing the rod requires some special care.
Tenkara rods are excellent and strong fishing tools that can take a load and handle fish very well. But, they are also delicate for handling, and most breakages will occur when closing the rod. It's important to never exert any sideway pressure on the rod segments when closing the rod. It's best to put the bottom of the rod on a flat and stable surface when closing it. And, then push pieces STRAIGHT in. As soon as the piece is loose you may let it slide down. The 3 tip segments are particularly fragile and special care should be taken when handling them.
If pieces are stuck, you may try: holding stuck pieces with rubbert pads for increased grip and pushing straight in, or gently tapping the stuck piece down. Simply hold stuck segment with your finger close to joint, lift it up and tap it down a few times to dislodge it. Always do this on a flat surface and hold delicately:
Tenkara rods are telescopic. Opening the rod is nothing complicated, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind to make it easier/quicker to open and prevent damaging the rod:
||1) Open the cap, and tilt rod down a little to first expose the tip. |
2) Attach line to rod tip before opening the rod (see below)
3) Once line is attached, hold rod near opening, and pull the tip and each subsequent segment out, sliding them out between your fingers. Pull each piece out completely before pulling the next segment out, pieces should feel snug, not tight.
1) When pulling the cap out, pull it straight out without any sideway pressure.
(2) Never swing the rod open, and do not apply too much pressure when pulling the segment out as that will cause pieces to get stuck together.
Attaching Line to Rod
One major difference between tenkara rods and other fishing rods is the absence of a loop at the tip of the rod, or any guides throughout the rod.
The tip of tenkara rods are made of strong braid material called "lilian string" (or just lilian) where the tenkara line is then tied. This greatly enhances the sensitivity for detecting subtle strikes and also provides for a smoother cast.
To tie the line to the rod, simply tie an overhand knot on the braid material at the tip of the rod (leaving a 1/8 to 1/4 inch tag sticking out), then girth-hitch the small braid loop on the tenkara line to the rod tip (behind the stopper). Though a bit strange, this is an extremely secure connection.
IMPORTANT: Leave the fragile hard tip of the rod inside its main segment while setting up, exposing only the braided "lilian" string to prevent sideway pressures and breakage.
Between the tenkara line and the fly one must use tippet material (very thin monofilament) which will be essentially invisible to the fish and allow you to tie the fly. Tenkara is a small-stream angling method, and a delicate fishing style. We recommend you use tippet that is 4lbs of test or thinner only (typically 5X or thinner: 5, 6, 7 or 8X) to help protect your rod.
All tenkara lines come pre-tied with a 5-inch monofilament extender at the tip end. We highly recommend you always use an extender to help extend the life of your tenkara line and prevent any accidental snipping of the tenkara line. Then, tie the tippet directly to the extender (we recommend a loop-to-loop connection. To replace the extender, simply tie a short piece of monofilament using an improved clinch-knot to the tip end of the tenkara line, and form a small loop about 5 - 8 inches away where you will then connect your tippet.
Alternatively, you may also connect your tippet directly to your tenkara line by using a loop-to-loop connection.