Tenkara, the new Bamboo

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Chris Fahrenbruch on the South Fork Snoqualmie River Photo by Lex Story

Chris Fahrenbruch on the South Fork Snoqualmie River Photo by Lex Story

A guest post by Tim Harris of northwest-tenkara.com

Fly fishing began in both the west and east with a long supple rod, a fixed line, a leader and a fly.

This is how Dame Juliana Berners, Issac Walton and Japanese commercial fisherman fished. Time went by and man created the reel and split bamboo rods which were shorter and lighter than the old greenheart long rods. Fiberglass and then graphite replaced split bamboo and modern fly fishing as we know it came into being.

Then a backlash started, a move toward the vintage. Many fly fishers, myself included, began embracing the bamboo rod again and waxing poetic about the lovely reed, its natural beauty and soft feel. I fished bamboo rods for years on small streams and rivers and figured that this would never change.

Photo Tim Harris

Photo Tim Harris

Then came a real move back to the past, back to days before the reel was invented and people fished with a long rod and a fixed line. I discovered tenkara. Tenkara is a traditional form of fly fishing that began in the mountain streams of Japan. It was used by commercial fishermen to catch their daily load of trout, char and salmon found in these streams. Now tenkara is catching on in the west and seems to be the hottest thing since the bamboo renaissance.

Tenkara is fly fishing in its most minimal form. A modern tenkara rod is a telescoping graphite rod that is 11-14.5’ in length, weighing in at only 2-3 oz. They have a very soft action similar in nature to a spey rod though much more delicate. Attached to the soft tip of the rod, the lillian, is a line that is typically the length of the rod. The line can be a traditional furled line or a more modern level flourocarbon line. A 3-6’ section of 5x tippet makes up the leader. Attached to the leader is a fly, or kebari, in Japanese. One can fish western flies on a tenkara rig but many prefer to fish a traditional Japanese reverse hackle fly known as the sakasa kebari. Some tenkara anglers go so far as to only use one fly for any circumstance. I’m not quite there yet – I use two flies.

Presentation is the key to tenkara’s success. The reason tenkara anglers don’t care about the fly so much is that they know they can present the fly, any fly, in such a way that it will attract the attention of a trout in any given stretch of water. With the long rod and fixed line there is total control over the fly. Want a perfect drift – keep the line and leader completely off the water. Want to mimic an insect emerging – let the fly sink the lift the rod tip to pop the fly to the surface. Want to see if there are even any trout in a pool – cast the fly and quickly take it away a few times, a technique known as sutebari. With tenkara you can fish a fly wet or dry; upstream, across stream or downstream; dead drift or with action. You can sink a fly in the fast water at the top of a pool to get it deep, you can skate it on the surface like a steehead dry, or you can execute the perfect Leisenring lift. Bottom line – you will get a trout to eat that fly. The many ways to fish a fly with tenkara is actually a reference to the name itself. One translation of Tenkara is “Ten Colors” or “Ten Styles” since you can fish a single fly in many different ways using tenkara.

Another translation of tenkara is “From Heaven” which probably referenced the way the fly drops from the sky when cast. To me tenkara has indeed been a gift from heaven and has re-invigorated trout fishing for me this season. In fact, since I picked up my first tenkara rod I have not fished with a western fly rod so be warned – tenkara can be highly addictive and you may give up your bamboo rod.

Read more by Tim Harris at northwest-tenkara.com

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Tenkara, the new Bamboo

  1. Grew up fishing “Tenkara” but back then we just called it a cane pole and we skated fly’s across the surface. Absolutely deadly for bass but once you hook them not much after that. Of course we ate all we caught back then too. Nothing new under the sun other than the materails. ; – )

  2. Pingback: Tenkara, the New Bamboo | Northwest Tenkara

  3. Your’e right about that, there isn’t much that’s new under the sun. With that said though, Tenkara is a lot of fun and a good challenge for any angler. Like any style of fishing or fishing rod for that matter, it isn’t the best fit for every kind of fish you want to go after. However, you would be surprised with what you can pull in if you play your cards or the fish right. The one thing I can guarantee is that you’ll get a little bit more feedback and enjoyment landing a fish on a Tenkara rod than a stick 😉
    all the best

  4. Was a skeptic originally but now realize that other kinds of fishing, particularly if successful, ultimately make you better at “normal” fly fishing. If something works with a tenkara rod or with hardware on a spinning rod, there’s a way to make it work on a fly rod.

  5. Also, I would have bet my meager life savings that picture was right below the NC 281 bridge over the Whitewater River right at the NC/SC border.

  6. I really don’t see why people don’t just use a long rod and a long furled leader. Why do you have to do it without a reel? I think its cool and steeped in tradition, but what makes it so different?

    • That’s a fair point.Euro-style competition fly-fishers use long, soft rods and very long leaders — seldom use their PVC lines at all except for long-range dry-fly or streamer fishing — and their technique is very similar to tenkara fishing. Why no reel? It’s just cheaper and easier, and part of the tradition.

  7. Hooray! A shout out to Tenkara.
    It’s something you have to try – and you need to just go to a river and catch a fish with it. Once you catch a fish with Tenkara you will understand how much fun it is and how it can present a fly in ways that are more difficult with western gear.
    Some of my best buddies, who’ve fished western gear their whole lives, fall in love with Tenkara. They find it is perfect for pocket water fishing and any place you’d high stick.
    Like any fishing, Tenkara – isn’t something you can describe in words and have it make any sense to someone who hasn’t done it. The best ambassador is being on the water playing the fish with a tenkara rod and holding the fish in your hands.

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