Tenkara Fishing

"I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge, hard work, and skill." –Yvon Chouinard

A resurrected form of fly fishing called tenkara has been gaining steam recently, and its simplicity caught my eye following frustrated attempts at casting a reel full of line into the small mountain streams I like to fish. Practiced by working-class Japanese anglers for several centuries, tenkara originally helped fisherman catch tasty little fish called ayu to feed their families and sell to mountain lodges.

A modern tenkara setup consists of a rod, line, tippet, and fly. The rods are long, anywhere from 11 to 13 feet, and consist of several sections that easily nest within each other for rapid deployment or storage. They are light, portable, and extremely sensitive. This allows you to give a hole your best shot, collapse the rod, wrap the line around your wrist, and start walking in a fraction of the time it would take you to wind up a reel full of line.

The tenkara lines are “furled” or woven and are similar in length to the rod. The line is attached to the end of the rod by a girth-hitching to a small piece of woven cord called the “lillian.” A very short tippet is attached by a loop-to-loop connection, and from there you tie on your favorite fly. This combination of long rod and short line makes it easy to keep the line off the water, preventing drag for a very natural drift.

Tenkara fishing tends to shy away from the conventional “Match the Hatch” scheme and emphasizes refined technique rather than special gear to entice fish. The sakasa kebari is an extremely versatile, reverse hackle fly that is fished by “pulsing” the rod, which causes the hackles to flare open and closed. This is very appealing to a feeding fish.

Although tenkara is ideal for small streams, it also works on big water. The key is to break the river up into many smaller sections and fish them accordingly, just like Western fly fishing. In off-color water, you can use streamers or nymphs, keeping the tip high and the line off the water. With deep runs, Kevin Kelleher (author of Tenkara: Radically Simple Ultralight Fly Fishing) suggests using a weighted nymph, bouncing it along the bottom, and using indicators as needed—a perfect strategy for our run-off-swollen streams this early summer season.

Casting is much the same, but I have to mention one technique from Kelleher’s book: the yabiki, or bow-and-arrow cast. It's kind of like a slingshot. Pull the line back to load the rod, take your aim, and shoot the fly softly under the brush and into the perfect lie. I was amazed at how precise I could be with this cast.

Daniel Galhardo, founder of TenkaraUSA, is largely credited with introducing this form of fly fishing to the United States after a visit to Japan in 2008. His company offers a handpicked selection of tenkara rods, lines, and flies. His subdued approach steers clear of the traditional marketing mayhem and belies his enthusiasm. It reminds me of Yvon Chouinard selling pitons out of his car in Yosemite in the 1960s. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that Yvon is also a huge tenkara advocate.)

According to Galhardo, tenkara is most widely adopted by new fly fishers who are intimidated by the expensive gear (sound familiar?) and dogma of Western fly fishing. Backpackers are also intrigued by the lightweight package. In fact, Bozeman’s own Ryan Jordan—the peripatetic founder of Backpacking Light—worked with Daniel to develop an even lighter tenkara rod called the Hané, which was designed specifically for the überminimalist crowd. Jordan calls tenkara the antithesis of Western fly fishing and a statement against industrialized recreation.

Although I'm no tenkara master, it's quite possible that I might receive some scorn from the fly fishing masses. But rather than tripping all over my line, I can slink over to the next hole, work it over, then continue stalking my fishy prey—Samurai style.