Tenkara — it’s a form of fly fishing plenty of anglers are aware of, but few understand and fewer still actually use as their go-to method for catching fish. Tenkara lives largely in the peripherals of mainstream fly fishing, but it’s starting to make a fair amount of noise in the industry.
From guides to lodge owners to professional fishermen, plenty of anglers I know have raved to me about tenkara. They profess to catch more fish, in water that “traditional” fly fishermen just seem to overlook.
I’m always skeptical when someone tells me of a technique that all but guarantees more fish in the net to whomever can master it. Those claims just ring hollow. The fact of it is, fly fishing boils down to a basic understanding of principles, luck, and dogged determination to not leave the water empty-handed.
All the talk I’d heard about tenkara gave me the idea that it was just another gimmick. There’s no end-around to the hard work required in fly fishing, and until recently that’s what I thought tenkara promised. Less work with more results? That’s paradoxical and lazy.
But a few weeks ago, I was fishing with some friends of mine who guide for a living. One of them talked almost the entire evening about tenkara, and by the end of our fishing trip had convinced me that I needed to give it a try.
So I made arrangements for a friend and I to spend an evening with tenkara on the Provo River. My friend Brian is an accomplished tenkara fisherman and graciously agreed to show me the ropes, and even let me borrow one of his own tenkara rods.
Tenkara is incredibly simple — that’s what makes it so appealing. It’s done using a long, telescoping rod, line tied to the rod’s tip, and a single fly called a kebari. There’s no reel, no fancy drag or burled wood reel seat. Just a rod, line, and a fly. Basic principles.
As Brian began instructing me in the finer points of tenkara fishing, I felt like I was learning to fly fish all over again. Casting is different with a tenkara rod than on the Western graphite sticks to which I’m so accustomed. Tight loops and line speed aren’t even a factor when casting with tenkara. The only thing that really matters is timing and a light touch. And the ability to deftly handle a 13-foot long fly rod.
The fly, a kebari, is made to be fished right on or just under the surface. Twitching the tenkara rod just slightly gives the kebari an undulating motion that’s evocative of emerging insects, which is what I suppose attracts the fish to bite the large, garishly tied fly.
And while in traditional fly fishing a proper, drag-free drift is of the utmost essence when fishing dry flies, you want the kebari to be creating a wake on the surface when using tenkara. Fly presentation with tenkara is, almost impetuously, as opposite from traditional fly fishing as it’s possible to be.
Once I finally got my mind wrapped around the fact that I needed to do things very differently, tenkara and I got along splendidly. It’s a refreshingly simple way to fish, and there’s something freeing about stalking trout with nothing but the bare essentials.
I have to admit, though, that when Brian hooked up with his first fish of the evening, I was a bit worried to see how he’d land the thing without a reel, or a net.
With tenkara, you simply hold onto the rod and tire the fish out. Lifting the rod brings the fish closer to you, and eventually, if you’re without a net, you have to handline the fish to complete the landing process. A bit arduous, but that’s the point.
I spent most of the evening without a fish on my line, missing the few takes that I had. Finally, as the light was fading and I kept ensuring Brian that my current cast would be my last, I hooked up with a squirrely 10-inch Provo River brown trout. I can’t recall the last time I worked so hard for one small fish, but as with every fish it was worth the effort.
I enjoyed my short time with tenkara, and I understand now why some fishermen use it exclusively, and why it’s becoming more popular. It’s easier to learn than regular fly fishing, simpler than any fishing I know of that doesn’t involve bait hooks, and landing fish on a tenkara rod is an adventure in its own league entirely. It’s certainly not an end-around to catching more fish without the work - I worked plenty hard for the dinky trout I landed. It’s just a different sort of work than traditional fly fishing, and I’m still not sure how much I like it.
While I don’t think I’ll ever switch to tenkara full-time, I definitely see future uses for it. But what I appreciate most about it is that tenkara embodies a no-frills, blue-collar, basic principles approach to fly fishing. An approach that’s lost in today’s world of new rigs, tapers, tippets, flies, and every other gadget folks can somehow sell with the promise that they’ll help you catch more fish.
All you really need is a rod, line, and a fly. And that’s all tenkara is.