Tenkara – Gear to Get Started

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Photo by Daniel Galhardo

Photo by Daniel Galhardo

By Daniel Galhardo

Several years ago while visiting Japan I was introduced to the traditional method of fly-fishing called tenkara. Fascinated by the history and simplicity of tenkara, I decided to introduce tenkara to the United States and founded Tenkara USA.

In my view tenkara can be a breath of fresh air for the experienced angler and knocks down the barriers that face a novice getting into fly fishing. The equipment is minimal; to get started all you need is a rod, line and fly. That minimalism is one of the things that most appealed to me when I first came across tenkara.

Like anyone taking up a new sport, despite its inherent simplicity, at one point I too was a bit daunted by the process of selecting the gear I needed to get started. I have been down the road of selecting the gear I needed for tenkara, and have helped a lot of people choose the equipment they needed. I’ve tried finding a process to assist in the selection. I want to share my thoughts on how you too can get started with tenkara, right now if you want to.

Tenkara Rods
First things first, all tenkara rods will work great with novices! The entire method is easy to get started with and the rod is but a small part of the experience. Secondly, tenkara is not suitable for targeting large fish species such as steelhead, carp, or pike, even though all those and more have been caught and landed on our rods. I’ll be the first to say that tenkara rods are best suited for mountain streams, or panfish. They can easily handle fish up to 20 inches, but I wouldn’t suggest them for targeting tarpon (link: http://www.fieldandstream.com/blogs/flytalk/2012/05/tarpon-might-be-ideal-tenkara-fish).
When choosing your first tenkara rod I’d really like to tell you: don’t over think it. You will get used to whatever rod you choose. But to find the ideal one, you should keep two main criteria in mind: length and fish size. The length will depend on whether you fish very tight streams or wider, more open streams. While I say tenkara is not designed for large fish, there are rods that are designed with more backbone to handle the larger fish if you are constantly catching fish over 17 inches.

The most obvious features of a tenkara rod are the lack of reel and long length when compared to a traditional western rod. The telescopic deployment of tenkara rods gets you on the water faster and allows efficient movement between sections of water. Don’t be intimidated by the extra length- you will want to trust me on this one: get the longest rod that is practical for the water you fish.
On average, tenkara rods are about 12ft long. I fish fairly small streams in Colorado and use a 13 foot rod 90% of the time. They are precise and help you keep your line off the water for drag-free drift. The longer rods may take a little longer to get used to, but once you do they are a great asset. I highly recommend staying away from rods marketed as tenkara that are sub 11ft long as your first tenkara rod. The shorter reach will be frustrating, and you’ll keep wishing for a longer rod. Plus, with a long rod you always have the option to choke up on the grip and instantly have a shorter rod when you need it.
The most unique rods from Tenkara USA have either a double- or triple-zoom feature that lets you quickly extend or collapse the rod to your desired length depending on stream conditions. The Rhodo can be fished at 8’10”, 9’9” or 10’6” and is perfect for the tightest, smallest streams (keep in mind, with a hand above the grip you can even fish it at 7’6″). The Sato (10’8”/11’10”/12’9”) is best suited for the more open, small creeks, and since it covers the main lengths for a tenkara rod it may be the most versatile. If you generally fish larger streams and rivers, the double zoom Ito extends from 13’ to 14’7” for the greatest reach and control of longer lines (this may be my favorite rod).

Fixed-length rods such as the Tenkara USA Iwana (12’), Yamame (12’) and Amago (13’6”) can handle any fish in any water. The Iwana 12ft has achieved status as a classic tenkara rod. Its length is right in the middle, the price is excellent ($157) and has very good action. It is an easy rod for us to recommend if you’re looking for a great value rod.
If you regularly pursue fish over 17” the Yamame or Amago should be your choice. The Amago is a favorite for fishing in ponds and large rivers, due to its length.

Lines
Tenkara lines are light so they don’t sag into the water but must have enough weight to cast easily. There are two types of tenkara line- tenkara tapered lines are braided and tapered, and come in a fixed length. Tenkara level lines have a single diameter, but can be cut to the desired length. Starting out, I recommend the tapered line. Designed specifically for our rods, it is the easiest to rig. A transition loop at the thick end makes for quick attachment to the rod and easy-to-follow knot diagrams come in the packaging.

If you can, consider adding a level line to your kit. For bigger streams the level line is easier to keep off the water at long distances. The high visibility level line comes in 20m spools allowing you to create any line length you choose. While they come in different weights, to get started I recommend the Orange 3.5 (not related to western fly-fishing weights, the 3.5 tenkara level line is many times lighter than even a #000 wt fly line).

A small plastic spool stores your line and makes getting over or under stream obstacles effortless. You just collapse the rod, wind up the line, place it over the handle and start scrambling.
Attaching a fly to your line requires a bit of tippet. I recommend 4ft of 5X tippet at the end of whatever line or line length you use.

Flies (kebari)
What if I told you that experienced tenkara anglers in Japan do not change fly patterns? That they fish anywhere with one fly?
You can use any fly you wish with tenkara. The method works well with dry flies, as you can keep line off the water and enjoy drag-free drifts. It also works with your favorite nymph as you will have a tight line as you fish. But, embracing traditional tenkara technique can liberate us from “Match the Hatch” dogma and emphasizes refined presentation.
My mentor, Dr. Hisao Ishigaki, a renowned tenkara master has fished with a single fly pattern for many years and continues to catch as many fish as ever. I have culled my fly box to a few variations of the reverse hackle (sakasa) kebari. When given some action during a drift these flies come alive and are very enticing to fish. I have settled for the traditional tenkara flies because of their versatility; they imitate nothing but can suggest everything.
I won’t get too much into fly selection, the idea is that any fly can work. If you’re interested in learning more about tenkara flies and the philosophy behind “one fly”, take a look at the videos and posts in our blog.

The ultimate appeal of tenkara is being able to take your gear with you no matter what you are doing. The system is so light and compact you can turn that day hike, bike tour or backpacking adventure into a fishing trip. Just slip the rod tube into your pack, stuff the line and a tiny box of flies into your pocket and you have all you need for a day on the water. And you will notice– it feels pretty good to leave that heavy vest behind.

Daniel W. Galhardo

Founder of Tenkara USA
Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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11 thoughts on “Tenkara – Gear to Get Started

  1. I can attest to ease and fun Tenkara fishing, I purchased a cheap Daiwa Tenkara rod last year and it has made fishing tiny mountain streams for barely legal natives a blast. The only thing I would add to this article is that net is very useful part of your Tenkara set-up.

  2. Nice job Dan.

    I have a wonderful friend who is a federal judge who set me up with Tenkara gear. Your advice is solid, and I encourage folks to try this beautiful way to fly fish. I use it on small hike-in streams in N Ga. The investment is modest and rewards are great.

  3. Thanks for the post on Tenkara! I just bought my first Tenkara rod and can’t wait to figure it out. I’ve only been able to take it out on the water for an hour or two, but it seems like it will be a lot of fun once I get the technique down! I really think Tenkara will help me get drag free drifts when I’m using ‘western’ fly rods/flies.

    Think there will be any Tenkara techniques coming?

    • Richard:

      First, thank you for reading! Tenkara is such a good company and really delivers some innovative products. I’m positive that you’ll be getting drifts more real than the real thing in no time! I’m not sure when we’ll have a Tenkara technique post coming up; however, that is a great idea for a post!

  4. this tenkara thing is great. it’s so simple! but really glad you deconstructed it for me. even simple things can be hard to understand sometimes. i’ve tried fly fishing but all that casting and mending is so hard. i like the way tenkara made it simple to lob my fly out there. that line just made it tough to learn. thanks daniel for bringing this traditional form of fishing here and breaking us free from all the marketing and new gimmicks we are accustomed to here in the ol’ U.S. of A.!!!!

    • Jim, thanks for your comment and your support. You really should try tenkara. So many people think the same thing as you and it’s far from the case. There truly is a lot of skill and finesse to it. Tenkara is noting new, to be sure. It’s something very old and it has stood the test of time for a reason. Here in the east folks have been slow to catch on, but out west it’s spreading quickly. Personally, I embrace all types of fly fishing. Spey casting for steelhead is cool. Throwing 12 weights at tarpon is cool. Fishing 2 weights for brook trout is cool. And truely, tenkara is cool too.

  5. I love my tenkara rods! I first got an Iwana almost a year ago today, and then my fiancé got me an Amago for Christmas. I tell you what, my LFS was harping on me to try it for a while ever since the became a TenkaraUSA dealer . I stopped in one day like I usually do once a month, and Shawn at Dakota Anglers asked me if I had some time. We took his truck down to the local stream that runs thru town. He showed me how it worked on the grass, then did a couple of quick casts in the stream (in which he hooked up right away). The trick is to lift up on the rod once the fly hits the water, and make it so the level line is just off the water. Instant drag free drift! I made my first cast and BOOM! I hooked up! After catching many more in a matter of minutes, I was sold. I went back to the shop, and bought my Iwana.

    The best part is, Tenkara DOES teach you how to present the fly better, and has helped my western fly fishing tremendously. Tenkara is suited for smaller creeks and streams as Daniel states. I took a trip to Colorado last February to the Blue and Colorado rivers. I did get hookups with Tenkara, but the fish were just too big and powerful to play them correctly.

    Try Tenkara if you never have. It will up your game! Now if I can just con Louis into taking me to South Andros….

  6. Pingback: Tippets: Geared Up for Tenkara, Gut Feelings, Fly Fishing World Championships | MidCurrent

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