3 Counterintuitive things tenkara has shown me

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Photo by Daniel Galhardo

Photo by Daniel Galhardo

By Daniel Galhardo

Tenkara has taught and old dog some new tricks.

Since I started learning tenkara, it’s become obvious to me, that regardless of how intuitive the method is to the novice fly angler, some parts of tenkara are likely counterintuitive to the experienced fly angler.

Here are a few things about that are likely counterintuitive about tenkara to the experienced fly angler:

A long rod is an asset in small streams

Small streams call for short rods. It makes sense right? Small mountain streams have always been my preferred playgrounds. Prior to my discovery of tenkara, my favorite rod was a soft action 7 ½ ft rod. It cast beautifully, I felt the force of the line loading it, and I felt I could maneuver it anywhere I wanted. But, that short rod probably contributed to my falling in love with tenkara. In streams we have this thing called drag. When line lays on the water, currents pick it up and drags the line downstream faster than the fly. Then, you have to mend. And, with that beautiful 7 ½ ft rod I had to mend…a lot. It was hard to achieve a good drift when fishing moving water. 
Like anyone else, I was absolutely intimidated by the idea of using a 12ft rod in those waters. That’s almost 5ft longer! That’s my whole wife’s worth of extra length. But, guess what, it worked. On my very first cast it was obvious that the dynamics caused by this new trigonometry had changed. I could fish pools on the other side of streams I liked without any mending. I certainly did not expect that. Nowadays you’ll find me using a 14ft 7inch long rod on my local Boulder Creek, a mountain stream that is about 25ft wide in most sections and a good amount of evergreens on its shores.

Let the rod bend!

It’s common knowledge: your fly rod is only designed to arc so much before it breaks, and to prevent breakages you should not have the rod pointed up with a deep bend on it. One is usually taught to keep a relatively low angle between the rod and the fish, lest it break. Yet, with tenkara there is no reel to allow a fish to take line. If your rod is at a low angle relative to the water, it will not be able to act as a drag and the tippet will break. Quickly we are taught that with tenkara the rod should do most of the work. Keep that tenkara rod pointed up, at least a 45° is desired. This will allow a constant tension to be kept on the line, and if the fish is still hot it can make the rod bend a bit more. It will be scary the first time you hook a 20” fish, but that’s what the rods are designed to do.

Dead-drifts are not the only way

It may go counter to the first counterintuitive point I make, in which I advocate for a longer rod because of the great drag-free dead drifts it allows us.  In trout fly-fishing we are taught what I call the dogma of the dead-drift. There is a huge emphasis on trying to accomplish the best possible drag-free drift. And, yes, that is probably my preferred way to fish with tenkara too: cast somewhere and try to get that fly to flow downstream exactly at the speed of the current, with no unnatural drag on it whatsoever. 
But, have you ever held your fly in place, on the water downstream from you? Did you get a bite? 
One of my favorite techniques when I’m prospecting for trout (i.e. early on in the day after I haven’t fished that water in a while), is to drag the fly on the surface of the water upstream from a large rock. (either submerged or exposed). These large rocks often hold a fish in front of them, and a fly dangling above can be irresistible. This is not the best technique for hooking fish, in my opinion; you’ll miss fish more easily this way because you’re essentially pulling the fly away from the fish. But, it is a superb technique to know that fish are looking up and aggressive. My favorite variation of this one is to pause the fly in place for a second and let it drift, then stop again and let it drift a bit further. It’s particularly effective on warm summer days before the sun gets too bright.

There are other techniques in tenkara that use drag as a foundation, but this is one I always have fun with, such as the time I was taking a lunch break, my fly dangling on the water downstream from me. As I took a bite from that sandwich and opportunistic golden trout took my dragging fly.

If you are new to tenkara, but not to fly fishing, try to approach it with an open mind. Just forget about the rules for a while and let tenkara teach you some new ways to fish.

Daniel Galhardo
Gink & Gasoline
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14 thoughts on “3 Counterintuitive things tenkara has shown me

  1. One thing I have found, being a purist at fly fishing can take all the fun out of fishing. It can be as much fun as attempting to hit the one iron in golf. And dare I say it……….sometimes I enjoy my 7ft spinning rod with 2 lb test, with a #20 scud hook and a wax worm with a #4 split shot. It brings me back to the reality that fishing is supposed to be fun and entertaining, and not always a final exam. In fact it sometimes helps me get my drift back, if you get my drift.

    • Personally I have a hard time having fun fishing if it’s not fly fishing. Probably cause I’m just a kid. If fly fishing isn’t fun than I wouldn’t do it.

  2. I tell my customers at my shop (Great Feathers) to throw the dead drift out the window even with a fly rod. I try to get them to think about using a fly like lure, or how most folks fish streamers. The moment of the fly initiates the strike. I fish kebari almost exclusively, if not I use a wooly bugger. I used to be a dry fly purist, then I read Fishing the Dry Fly As A Living Insect and I got back into tenkara around the same time, my fishing has changed for the better.

  3. I have a 10ft 4 inch 3wt. high stick/switch rod on order and on the way for all three of the above reasons. I love switch rods, but most have to be up lined. For instance, most rods labeled a 4 weight need a six weight (say 200/400 gr. window) to throw a Skagit cast.
    This little guy will keep the fun in my small stream outings, while helping me reach up and out in real 3 wt. territory.
    Keep it fun. Keep it real. Keep it flexible.

  4. How is tenkara in still water? I’m exclusively a still water and warm water fisherman (it’s what we have in my part of the country) and my normal quarry is panfish (we have stocked trout in winter, but I usually don’t bother). Would tenkara be worthwhile for bluegill in lakes? My most productive technique on my home lake is dropshotting; I’ve never caught a bluegill over 6″ on a fly there.

  5. Pingback: Tippets: Tenkara State of Mind, Golden Gate Casting Club | MidCurrent

  6. I think whether a long rod or a short rod on a small stream is called for very much depends on the terrain.

    In an area which is essentially open, like in the picture accompanying this article, a long rod is great.

    If you’re fishing a Eastern US small stream where the stream is a tunnel cutting through a forest or brush with foliage overhead. In that case, a short rod is the way to go.

  7. I’m never going to be a tenkara rod practitioner, but I’v never seen were, why or how a short rod is practical for small streams. I’v a 6′ 3wt that has only been on stream less times than I have fingers on one hand. An 8′, even 9′ 3wt is a way better option.

    • The answer is right there in your screen name. No need for a short rod in wide open Colorado. Come to the southeast where mountain laurel hangs a foot over the water and you’ll see what those 6′ rods are for.

  8. Always informative at G & G. Totally agree with comments on our small, overgrown N. Georgia streams.

    The more you fly fish for trout, you learn that techniques that some consider to be hard and fast rules are mere options and that flexibility on presentation from place to place, day to day, hour to hour, and from fish to fish will make you a better angler and makes fishing more colorful and fun. This flexibility is, to me, one of the greatest gifts of the fly rod.

  9. There are many ways to manipulate the fly with Tenkara. Many ways you would think there would be no way that would work, but it does work…very well infact. One of the biggest trout I ever caught was by pulsing a fly as it was drifting downstream. Or dragging a fly along the top while tapping the handle to make the fly vibrate at the surface. Its deadly. Tenkara can teach you alot about trout and their behavior. I use it exclusively in Colorado.

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