Tenkara Presentation, Really “Fishing” The Fly

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Photos by Tim Harris

Photos by Tim Harris

By Tim Harris

One fly, but many ways to fish it.

In a play of words, it is said that “tenkara” means “ten colors” since the kanji is the same – テンカ ラ. This means ten tenkara fishers have ten different styles of fishing. This could be that they use ten different flies or that they fish ten different techniques. Either way, tenkara is more about presentation and confidence in the fly than it is about the actual fly used, sort of like steelhead fishing.

Last season, and this season so far, I have used one fly only but have employed different techniques to catch fish in different conditions. I believe these techniques are not only applicable to tenkara but also to standard western fly fishing in small streams where you can probably present any fly with the right technique and get fish to eat.

Here are some of the basic techniques that I’ve incorporated over the the last years to catch trout consistently with tenkara.


1) Dead Drift – This one is easy enough and is the standard nymphing or dry fly technique common in western fly fishing and is usually how I start any given stretch of water. Tenkara has the advantage over a standard fly rod in that you can get a true drag-free dead drift since often no line is on the water, which must be mended, only the fly and tippet are in the current. Cast upstream or quartering upstream of a trout or potential trout holding location, keeping the line off the water as much as possible. As the fly drifts downstream, slowly lift the rod to keep contact with the fly and keep the fly drifting naturally. This can be done with the fly in the water or on the surface, depending on the type of pattern you are using. If you stick with one fly, like I do, you can dry out and dress or put on a fresh kebari to keep it on the surface if there is a rising trout you are going after.

2) Pulsing the Fly – This is one of my favorite techniques and goes against all convention of western fly fishing where the dead drift rules. Yet how often is a bug just tumbling with the current. Often they may be struggling to swim or move within that current, and this is where pulsing comes into play. Cast quartering upstream again, but this time as the fly drifts and you are lifting your rod, you also move the rod tip just a few inches at somewhat regular intervals. This is a light motion, not a jerk. Only a few inches of rod movement is needed.

IMG_28083) Swinging – Another common technique in western fly fishing with soft hackles or when steelhead fishing. You can cast down and across stream if you want the fly very near or on the surface, cast across stream to sink it a bit or cast up and across to sink it the most. If you cast across or up, let the fly drift down and follow with the rod but then stop the rod in the down and across position, and let the fly swing across the current until it is directly below you. Cast again. When steelhead fishing, I always carry a loop of line in my rod hand that I can let go should a grab occur, allowing the fish to turn on the fly and set the hook on itself. With tenkara this isn’t an option, so be sure to keep the rod raised when swinging so that the fish can pull against the flexible rod tip and set the hook on itself. If you hold the rod down to the straight line, there is no give and the fish will rarely be hooked. It took a while for me to figure this one out.

4) Pulling the Fly – This really goes against most western fishing ideas except for streamer fishing. A kebari is pretty generic looking, so I think when pulling it looks more like a swimming nymph or fry so it gets the trout going. It is effectively streamer fishing with tenkara. Cast downstream and, keeping the rod low to keep the fly in the water, pull the fly upstream or towards the bank in foot-long intervals. I’ll often find a nice looking rock and hit it from above by pulling the fly up a bit, let it drift downstream back to the rock, pull again,and repeat until I cover the face of the rock. Usually there is one trout in front of a big rock that will finally grab. I found this approach worked on small streams with standard flies too. Two of my favorite small stream patterns are a small Royal or Yellow Stimulator. At times the fish wanted nothing to do with the pattern on the surface but if I let it sink and pulled it upstream I’d get hit.

5) Pause and Drift – This is another variation on the dead drift but instead of pulsing the fly up and down, the goal is to stop the fly in the current then let it move again by suspending the fly in the water column. Simply cast up and across stream, follow the drift but occasionally stop moving the rod and let the fly stay in one spot for a second, then resume drifting. You can repeat a few times during the drift. According to Daniel Galhardo of TenkaraUSA, Mr. Yoshida of Japan will cast to a spot and let the fly sit unmoving in that spot for 5 seconds and recast and pause in the same spot. He claims that if the fly can sit unmoving for 5 seconds he will catch trout.

6) Combination of the Above – Some stretches of water are just made to combine all of these basic techniques into one long presentation. One of my favorite runs on the Cedar River and another favorite run on the South Fork are this type of water, basically like a short steelhead run. Here I’ll cast and across stream, let the fly dead drift down or pulse the fly, following it with the rod. When it gets to the bottom of the drift I’ll let it swing across the current, following with the rod tip. When it hits the hang-down at the end of the swing, I’ll pull the fly upstream a few times. By the way, this pull at the end of the hang-down has gotten me multiple steelhead. I always jerk my spey rod a few times now at the end of a swing just in case a steelhead followed the fly all the way to the hang-down and still hadn’t committed. That upstream movement will often trigger an explosive grab.

IMG_2962Of course, there are more presentation possibilities, but these basics are the ones that I employ most often and seem to catch fish on any of the small rivers and streams I fish regularly. I often work a stretch of water multiple ways until I get the fish to start eating. On a small stretch of water that can be fished multiple ways I’ll work upstream dead drifting a few casts, and pulsing a few casts. Then I’ll move up. Repeat. Once I get far enough up, I’ll add in the swing and pull to the water below me. Once I get to the top, I’ll move above that stretch and swing and pull through the top of the run before working on the next piece of water. I’m amazed at how many fish will ignore a fly coming at them from above but will grab a swinging fly or a pulled fly.

The beauty of tenkara to me is that everything is so simplified that one can really just focus on trying different presentation techniques to catch fish without worrying about what fly to use or having to control and mend fly line on the water. Once the techniques are mastered with tenkara they can then be taken back to standard fly fishing if desired. I have definitely learned better swinging technique from tenkara that has translated to better steelhead swings, and I’m not afraid to impart some action on a nymph or even a dry fly now to entice a stubborn trout to grab.

Tim Harris
Gink & Gasoline
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10 thoughts on “Tenkara Presentation, Really “Fishing” The Fly

  1. Thank you for the nice post Louis.

    #2 works best for me.

    Fly fishing can be hard for beginners. When I tried flyfishing the first time, I was really bad at it. But then I searched the internet for guides on how to improve my flyfishing skills and it brought me to Loveflyfishing guide! With their detailed guide, my flyfishing skills improved almost overnight. You can do this too!http://bit.ly/1HxTeZa

  2. Skating is one of my favorite styles when the fish are near the top. I was fishing the Taylor river in colorado a few weeks ago and started skating a big size twelve killer bugger which the fish really responded to after a morning of dead drifting and little action. I had a fish jump clear of the water to hit my bead head nymph that was tied on 18 inches above the bugger. I think showing fish a different presentation besides the same old tricks is a nice advantage.

  3. I am writing an Interview with Yoshida Takashi, it has a little translating to be done but soon we will have some more from him. Super talented fisherman. There are so many of them to teach us Tenkara.

  4. Excellent post, Tim.

    I like this tip in particular: “With tenkara this isn’t an option, so be sure to keep the rod raised when swinging so that the fish can pull against the flexible rod tip and set the hook on itself. If you hold the rod down to the straight line, there is no give and the fish will rarely be hooked.” This is a phenomenon that causes many fishermen to lose fish at the end of their drift or during the swing. The tendency is to lower the rod and point at the fly so you maximize your distance on the drift and into the swing. This looks good but prevents hooking the fish. Just get more line out (on a rod) or with Tenkara let the swing begin closer to you and cover additional water by stepping downstream so you can keep your tip up enough to absorb the shock of a take.

  5. Good post for us new guys. I read your stuff every week and so look forward to it. I had the mind to print this out and take it with me on a trip to New York’s lake George area. But I can’t for the life of me get this to print right. 16 pages of long thin text. we all tried. Help!! And thanks for keeping this blog going. Love all of your work. Thanks Again.

  6. It may only be my perception, but I find that when I fish tenkara it often seems that fish take the fly when the fly is in movement– a surprising number of those times is when the fly in the process of exiting the water when I lift the rod to cast again. This applies for me equally in moving water or in glassy, still lakes. Clear, still lakes are a great place to observe fish behavior, and I’ve often seen fish approach a dead drifting or still, floating fly and refuse it, or show disinterest. For me, agitating or pulsing the fly has been a successful technique to increase the odds that a fish will be triggered to react– both in rivers and lakes.

  7. Hi Louis,

    Thank you for this post. It is articulate and too the point – much appreciated!

    Regarding tip #4, when you pull the fly, do you do so by lifting the tip of the rod up straight up higher off the water OR by pulling the rod tip to your left or right side?



  8. Great article but one small correction. The Japanese characters you use in the opening paragraph are katakana, not kanji. The katakana alphabet is used for foreign words or words of unknown origin and since the exact etymology of the word “Tenkara” is unknown, it’s spelled with the katakana alphabet.

  9. I use all of the techniques listed above, except for dead drift (I never dead drift anything). I started using various presentation techniques while fly fishing as a kid (age 12, 60 years ago). It wasn’t until I started teaching fly fishing that I thought of names or descriptive names for the actions. All work at one time or another (including bouncing dry flies – e.g., the elk hair caddis – along the bottom like a nymph when you have no nymphs). 11 years ago, I switched to Tenkara. All of the above techniques work wonderfully – depending upon the situation. No techniques get summarily dismissed from possibility (except that darned dead drift thing). 🙂

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