What Every Fly Angler Can Learn From Tenkara

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Jim Palmershime gives the tenkara rod a try Photo by Louis Cahill

Jim Palmershime gives the tenkara rod a try Photo by Louis Cahill

I dig my tenkara rod and I’m not ashamed of it.

It seems like there are only two camps when it comes to fishing tenkara. Those who love it and those who hate it. I think the general sentiment of the haters was summed up pretty well by good friend Dave Grossman of SCOF.

“You know the hardest part about tenkara?…Telling your dad that you’re gay.” – Dave Grossman

Well, my father passed away years ago so I guess I’ll tell you. I think I’m gay for tenkara.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting all of my two handers on eBay or chucking out the bonefish rods. I will continue to carry way too many flies and a bag of split shot but I’m taking this willowy little rod seriously and I think you should too.

I’m new to tenkara. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert. We have an expert (Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA) writing tenkara content and I encourage you to submit questions for Daniel to answer. What I am prepared to do is tell you why I’m excited about tenkara and what I think it offers to every fly angler.

You’ve probably heard that tenkara is fun. That’s very true. It’s also simple, affordable, convenient and aesthetically pleasing. Those are all good reasons for the sudden popularity of tenkara but there is a whole lot more going on in this ancient Japanese art of angling. Tenkara is making a whole lot of people better anglers.

“It’s between the fish and the fly, man. Take yourself out of the equation.” – Tori Bevins

That quote from bonefish guide Tori Bevins is to this day my favorite bit of fly fishing wisdom. Tori wasn’t talking about tenkara, but he could have been. The lesson is the same. Fly fishing is magic. Not in the Merlin sense but in the David Copperfield sense. It is the art of illusion. The art of making someone, in this case a fish, believe with all their heart in something utterly implausible.

Just like the magician on the stage, we craft an illusion and if our query sees the wires, it’s all over. The fish doesn’t care about your rod or your reel, your waders or your cool hat. All of that is, and must remain, transparent. All he needs to see is lunch.

Fly fishermen are gear heads. We are very good at making something simple very, very complicated. We spend thousands of dollars on high performance rods that only about five percent of us can use to their full potential. Thousands more on large arbor reels with carbon fiber drags. Waders, boots, packs, lines, tippet, fly boxes, gadgets, it’s endless. I love all of it and it gives us a lot of options but how much of it really makes us better anglers?

Then there’s that little tenkara rod. No specialized line taper. No carbon fiber drag. No eighty foot cast. Just the fish and the fly.

Calling it fundamental almost seems redundant. Next to a hand line, tenkara is as fundamental as it gets. That’s the beauty of it. Casting isn’t going to put you on that fish. You have to use stealth. The Thingamabobber isn’t going to do the work for you. You have to manage your own drift. The drag isn’t going to wear the fish down. You’re going to have to fight smarter, not harder.

The simple truth is that tenkara makes you focus on the stuff that matters. The stuff that catches fish. Perfect drifts, angler position, presentation. All of the things that help us catch fish with our conventional fly gear, when we’re actually fishing and not just showing off how far we can cast.

A dear friend of mine has been learning fly fishing over the past year. He’s had the normal amount of frustration and self loathing we all experience when we are learning. Just last week he bought a rod from Tenkara USA. It’s been nothing short of a revelation. He called me this morning after catching his biggest brown trout to date, on the tenkara rod.

“It was beautiful,” he told me, “tying on a hopper and getting it back into those bends, floating it along, being the bug, feeling like I get this. And there he was.”

I could hear in his voice that he truly did get it. The simple idea I had tried to explain to him on several occasions. The tenkara rod had simplified things enough that the idea explained itself. “Be the bug.” “Take yourself out of the equation.”

It’s a lesson for all of us, not just the beginners. Spend some time with a tenkara rod in your hand and it will change your habits. It will require you to be a better angler. When you pick up your other fly rod, the one with the reel, you will be more effective with it. A fly rod that makes me a better angler, I think that’s pretty cool.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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41 thoughts on “What Every Fly Angler Can Learn From Tenkara

  1. So do you strip your line out and work the line out?
    How do you get the line back on the spool?
    I’m confused but that’s nothing new

  2. No reel Brenda. Fixed line fly fishing is simple. These rods are extremely capable and handle the fish I catch here in the Southern Appalachians. Tight headwaters to open gorges, casting up to 35′ with ease and landing fish to 20″ with no problems. The collasable rods at 3oz. travel light and are always at the ready.

    Tenkara gets around.

  3. just like picking up a switch/spey rod, tenkara will help you in ALL your other aspects of fly fishing. Same as learning to spey cast will help you in your tenkara fishing! You dont see any golfers going out there w/out a putter, do you??

    • And while Tenkara has a lot to teach, if you learn the traditional Tenkara methods of fishing (benefits), don’t toss out your Snap-T from Spey on a Tenkara….just slow it down.

  4. “You know the hardest part about tenkara?…Telling your dad that you’re gay.” – Dave Grossman

    Damn funny… could be my quote of the year.. definitely of the month ….

  5. Great write up, we had our first Tenkara outing here in the UK last weekend.
    All three of us caught good Rainbow’s and my nine year old son wasn’t getting his line tangled every five minutes.

  6. I accidentally deleted a comment. It happens sometimes. A reader was offended by the Tintara joke in the opening of the article. I’d like to make a few things about that clear.

    That joke is out there. I’ve heard it on many occasions. My quoting it here no way intended to be derogatory. Quite the opposite. Why does this, there’s nothing wrong of course with being gay, nor is there anything wrong with fishing tenkara. That’s why I quoted it. The same prejudice mindset is wrong in both instances.

    This was in no way intended to be offensive. I hope that we have many gay readers, both male and female. All are welcome in this morning flyfishing.

    • It was my comment, and I hope I was civil in my point. I was less offended than called upon to not collude with what I interpreted as another version of “that’s so gay,” a pejorative use of the word that hurts people.

      Thank you for this clarification. Well said, and I misunderstood. Besides all that, the article deftly explains some elusive concepts. Peace.

      • You were totally civil. The button to reply and the button to delete or so close together I sometimes hit the wrong one. Thanks for commenting. Others may have thought the same thing and said nothing. I’m glad aired it out.

  7. I get it. I am in the Tenkara hater crowd at the moment but slowly swaying towards the dark side. I like my reel and use it frequently, but it does make you question the idea that you have 70 yds of fly line on your reel and you’re nymph fishing to fish that are 10-15 feet in front of you. Then again I use the same rod to cast 30-40 feet off the boat towards the fish holding near the shoreline.

    I’ve debated buying a short, packable 1# or 2# rod for high mountain creeks here in Colorado… I may forego those and bite the bullet and get a Tenkara rod. It has its place, as do my 5,6 and 7# rods around here as well.

    • I just got back from a Colorado backpacking trip and used Tenkara to catch cutthroats at over 12,000 feet. I love the light weight of Tenkara and can bring 2 rods and still carry way less weight than one conventional (Western) gear.

    • Look up Karen Miller. she’s quite the Tenkara fisher……………One thing I’ll never understand is what the die hard western fly fishers are afraid of when the word Tenkara is spoken. I fish both and love both equally because both have their place.

    • I fish everything I can here in Colorado with a Tenkara rod. South Platte through Deckers? Yep. 22 inch Rainbows? Yep. Dream Stream? Yep.

      Karin will say the same thing. Catching big fish on a fixed line, you have to keep your wits about you and understand the dynamics of the fight. Once you know the key points, its just about the most fun you will ever experience. Pure adrenaline.

      If you’d ever like to fish CO with Tenkara, shoot me an email. I have extras and I wouldn’t mind showing you. Cheers.

  8. If it’s fishing, I’m all for it.

    fwiw, I got curious about what actual fish this “ancient Japanese art” was designed to catch, and it looks like the native fish is “Yamame” or “Cherry Salmon.”

    Beautiful fish, often with very large Parr-mark sized spots.

    • I just returned from a tenkara fishing trip to central Japan. The native trout species are Iwana, Amago and Yamame.

      Japan is a country that is just one huge mountain range. It’s landmass is mostly wilderness. I have heard it said that 90% of the population occupies 10% of the land.

      When you travel there and see and experience the mountain streams of Japan, tenkara tackle and techniques make sense.

  9. Seems like you are taking a ton of crap for this article. Even the sites that are re-posting the blog are adding a bit of trash (e.g. Unaccomplished Angler). Weather intentional or not, it seems that you have really touched a nerve with people in the fly fishing community regarding the act of Tenkara Fishing.

    I have to admit that I like anything that tweaks the nerves of the so called fly fishing elite. But in my mind, fly fishing is more than casting dry flies, upstream to rising trout.

    Not sure that I will try Tenkara fishing anytime soon but it is certainly an option, and I have been considering it for some time.

    Keep up the good work and great writing.

  10. Spot on. I just bought starter package from Tenkara Rod Co. for my girlfriend. She caught her first fish ever, on any rod, first time out (a little small mouth in a local lake). She even hooked into a trout on the Boise River a few minutes later.

    Very affordable, easy to teach fly fishing basics and fundamentals, tons of fun to catch fish on, and improves skills I use when fishing western.

  11. Well said. I get it. I fish tenkara right alongside my Western rigs. It doesn’t get as much action right now–Montana has lots of big water, and I’m willing to pack the weight in to be fully set-up. But it can’t be beat on the smaller creeks. In fact, it’s the only thing I brought when fishing the mountains in NC earlier this year.

    Once you let go of whatever purism you want to impose (on yourself and, almost always, everyone else), it just like you said–all between the fish and the fly.

  12. Great article. I think it only seems like there are two camps (love/hate) because those are the only ones who ever mention one or the other. For me Tenkara is a tool, and while I respect Daniel Galhardo for all the work he has done and the business he has built, he pushes a lot more than products; he pushes a philosophy. That doesn’t mean it is the only way to use the rod.

    Also, use the right tool for the right job… don’t use it for Bonefish, use it for small mountain streams like it was designed for…

  13. I got a Tenkara as a gift and I am impressed and pleased with the technique. Its simplicity and grace is refreshing (not to mention the economy). My view of Tenkara is that it is yet another beautiful way to enjoy the connection with trout and other fish. My view about the nay-sayers is if they do not like the idea of Tenkara, they do not need to indulge. Their loss.

    I am always impressed with your take on all things fishing, Louis. Sure gets folks talking (and learning).

  14. Excellent article. I’d love to see more photos from you showing the amazing arcs a fish can put on the extra long rods we fish with Tenkara.
    I just returned from Japan. Fishing tenkara there is an adventure. It’s an extreme sport. Hoisting yourself over little water falls, leaping from boulders, and casting into, over and under the tight obstacles to pull super spooky wild trout out of the most beautiful water I’ve laid eyes on.
    I’m a much better angler because of tenkara.

  15. Hey guys,

    Sometimes with new casters, I will only allow them have out a small amount of line, comparable to the tenkara setup, and with no excess line out of the spool dangling in front of them. I have them begin their casting motion essentially like fishing tenkara. It allows the new caster to get a better feel for how moving the line and rod without having to deal with excess line dangling or too much line off the tip of the rod. Its simple. Simple is good. Furthermore, I will actually have them cast to a trout with that type of set up and it works. The one handed approach with nothing they don’t need (essentially tenkara) is a great way to get someone casting a fly line proficiently.

  16. Here is a little write up I did for our club newsletter:

    Getting Swayed to the Dark Side . . . . Tenkara!

    I had tried out a Tenkara rod a couple of times and convinced myself that it just wasn’t for me. But looking back now it may just be that there was too much ego wrapped up in seeing how far the fly could be cast and the Tenkara did not fulfill the wishes of that particular ego trait.
    However, my guy on eBay had a Tenkara rod building kit for $40 and I just couldn’t pass it up. So with the subtle click of a mouse I found myself owner of a 12’ Tenkara rod that collapses to 20.5 inches. At 3.7 oz. it is a little heavy for Tenkara, but beefy enough to land some bigger fish.
    After building the rod, which is a really simple process and adding a few flourishes it was time to check it out. It took a couple of different leader / tippet combinations to find one that cast well, but overall the project was pleasing. It was especially nice to not have to handle wet fly line in the cold weather on Jan. 2 when a bluegill snagged a sparkly nymph and made my day.

  17. “That joke is out there. I’ve heard it on many occasions. My quoting it here no way intended to be derogatory. Quite the opposite. Why does this, there’s nothing wrong of course with being gay, nor is there anything wrong with fishing tenkara. That’s why I quoted it. The same prejudice mindset is wrong in both instances.

    This was in no way intended to be offensive. I hope that we have many gay readers, both male and female. All are welcome in this morning flyfishing.”

    You caught flak for it when you ran it in 2014, yet you chose to run it again. You could have rewritten the article to exclude the cheap joke, but you didn’t. It’s just lazy journalism. Don’t know who Dave Grossman is or what SCOF is – but it’s an offensive, stupid joke, and an equally unintelligent decision to rerun it. Comparing the life changing, gut wrenching decision to come out to your family to a telescoping reel-less rod – so clueless and not humorous. Didn’t even read the rest of the article. Didn’t expect this from you Louis.

  18. Why is it that I have caught far more fish in the last five years on Tenkara than in the previous 30 years on single-hand, Switch, and Spey. Because I don’t know how to fish those other casting style? Don’t think so.
    Most haters puck up a Tenkara and try to fish it like a single-hand and do so-so. They don’t take the time to add a little humble pie and learn some ancient Tenkara techniques. It’s not really like fishing single hand, if you are going to take full advantage of Tenkara way of fishing. Yes, in some situations you can use some things from traditional single-hand or Spey with it, but if there is a hatch going off it is highly efficient at presenting that fly. If not a hatch, it is great for subsurface or even nymph fishing. You just have to have an open mind, and take the time to learn there are are other methods of fishing, and I’m not just talking about the rod. You’ll be glad you did.

  19. ““You know the hardest part about tenkara?…Telling your dad that you’re gay.” – Dave Grossman” — Ha, that’s the same type of thing that many / most ‘conventional’ tackle users level at fly fishermen.

  20. There is a whole bevy of techniques associated with Tenkara that will blow any Western anglers mind. Some of which cannot be easily reproduced with a fly rod. Beyond the dead drift is a world of jigging, pulsing, dragging, and tapping that will exponentially increase you numbers. There is so much left to learn about this sport. Its not as simple as some would have you believe.

    • Right on Jon. So true. The more you look, thee more there is to learn.
      Pick up just two or three techniques and you’ll catch more fish quickly.
      The more I fish it the more I realize the people that scoffed at it were ignorant.

  21. As the owner of Zen Tenkara I can say, Amen brother! Been trying to convince Anglers of this very thing for some time now. I say fish it for a season and when you go back to your reel, you’ll be a better fly fisherman. By the way, I land bonefish, junior permit, Jack’s, bluefin, sharks and other saltwater species on my tenkara rods…And I use in in Alaska for silvers, kings, sockeye and big rainbows…its a joy ride. And I still love my rod and reel setups. So I’m not “gay” instead I suppose I’m “bi”, lol

  22. I bought a Tenkara rod from DRAGONtail years ago, but never devoted much time to learning it. This article has sparked my interest in it again.

    And I’ve never really given a rat’s ass what people thought of it. Heck, I use mop flies on the regular.

    • I like to think of it as a connection to the way fly fishing was practiced for thousands of years before the modern reel. Having the long rod and fixed amount of line is the ultimate level of control. I spend alot of time thinking of how bugs move in a trout stream, and this can be accomplished very well without the heavy casting line causing problems. I no longer stress about drag free drifts. Most of my fish are caught swinging, pulsing, skating and when the wind permits, dapping. The more you know how to do with it, the more it rewards you.

  23. Great article! I think you hit on some of the main points of tenkara. I’ve been fishing it exclusively here in Colorado for 11 years and have never looked back. It’s a more efficient technique on my home waters than using a rod and reel where you fly is in the air more than in the water.

  24. Yes indeed Great artical. It was the Book ”Simple Fly Fishing” and the movie The Complete Fisherman, Patagonia.They opened my eyes for Tenkara. Here in Germany (EU) is hard to get, find good information about Tenkara. Luckely there is Internet..I found a lot off good info onThe Tenkara Blog from Jason M Klass , Tenkara USA etc. So I did bought a Rod from Tenkara Times, and cannot wait to use it . (season starts in Marz / Aprtil)
    Less is more.
    Best regards

  25. The history of modern fly fishing with a rod and reel is at best, only 400 years old. The history of fixed line fly fishing is thousands of years old. It is and always will be the original form of fly fishing. Let nobody tell you that Tenkara, or Valsesiana, or Astorgan fixed line traditions are not fly fishing. They are the OG’s of fly fishing.

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