Sunday Classic / 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

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

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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One thought on “Sunday Classic / Tenkara, the new Bamboo

  1. I, too, enjoy Tenkara as an alternative on small streams. But I’m not quite ready to give up my bamboo – just yet. I’ll be glad, however, to help you go cold turkey. I’ll even pay the postage if you want to send your bamboo rods to North Idaho to remove the temptation of relapsing.

    Great article!

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