Tenkara Basics

Introduction:  Tenkara is a 400 year old traditional Japanese method of fly fishing mountain streams for trout with a long rod, fixed line and leader, single damp fly and no reel. Original rods were made from a light and slender bamboo culm, similar to crappie sticks used today in the Midwest.


Tenkara rods are now made of fiberglass or graphite and are telescoping. Lines are typically furled and about the length of the rod or of single-diameter fluorocarbon up to twice as long as the rod. Leader tippets are two to five feet of 5X or 6X. The idea is to break off an outsized fish just before the fish breaks your rod.


Must read:  Tenkara:  Radically Simple, Ultralight Fly Fishing by Kevin C. Kelleher, MD with Misako Ishimura. Lyons Press, 2011. 


Advantages of Tenkara:  It’s light, simple, compact when telescoped, yet highly efficient for covering water and presenting flies on water that is suited to the method; such as, small to medium sized streams with pocket water and few long pools. It’s perfect for backpacking, for carrying along on casual hikes and for having available when a more complex set of gear might be a burden. It’s a very delightful way to fish, and to catch fish. Remember those stick-and-string days when you had that most direct connection to the thrashing trout? That’s an advantage of Tenkara. Its largest advantage is that you go fishing unburdened. It can, in certain circumstances, be more efficient and productive than “western fly fishing”, which, when it happens, is another advantage.


Disadvantages of Tenkara:  The distance you can cast limits your range to +/- 20 feet with tapered furled lines, +/- 35 feet with level fluorocarbon lines. The fragile rod limits the size trout you might catch to a recommended 15- or 16-inches, though of course larger trout are possible in gentle flows and smaller trout might break you off in heavy flows. The delicate rod discourages you from fishing heavily-weighted nymphs and large strike indicators. There are circumstances when Tenkara fishing can be far less productive than western fly fishing, which is a disadvantage in those circumstances if you enjoy catching fish.


What you need to get started (I own and fish each of these)

  • Outfit 1.  Fountainhead 330 (+/- 11 feet) Caddis rod; Fountainhead 10.5-foot furled leader;  spool of 5X tippet; traditional Tenkara flies if you’re a traditionalist, an assortment of your favorite dry flies, wets, and beadheaded or lightly-weighted nymphs, plus a few Muddlers.  Cost:  +/_ $100.


  • Outfit 2. TenkaraUSA Iwana rod (+/-12 feet); 13-foot furled leader and 30-meter spool level line (cut to 15-18 feet); spool of 5X tippet; set of traditional Tenkara flies plus a selection of favorites you already use.  Cost:  +/- $200.


  • Outfit 3.  Tenkara Bum 7'10" Shimotsuke Kiyotaki, Kid’s outfit, with rod, line, flies, some accessories included...delicate and a lot of fun on tiny water and small fish. Cost:  $99 plus shipping.


To remember:  It is what Charles Cotton did with his unwieldy greenheart rods; it is what Juan de Bergara did in Spain, and probably what Dame Julianna Berners did in England so many years, decades and centuries ago. It is what kids fishing crappie do now with a cane pole; it is what kids on docks in Oregon and Japan do with sticks and strings. It is what I do when I want to cast aside my cares, toss off my heavy burdens and go have some fun catching trout in one of those beautiful places called trout streams.


Is Tenkara a fad:  Lefty Kreh said it is, and I admire nobody more than Lefty. It’s 400 years old in Japan, but not many folks do it there now. Is it a fad here?  It’s possible its swiftly-rising popularity will peak, level off and possibly decline. It might have a similar curve to that of a book after publication:  rise, peak, decline, and, one hopes, level off at some substantial level. Does Tenkara need to be a fad in your life? If you use it wrong and in the wrong places it will be. I’ve been Tenkara fishing for about twenty years and do it far more now than I did when I started. I enjoy being unburdened more often.


How, when and where to use Tenkara right:  Don’t become a purist; integrate it into your own fishing. Use flies and tactics you use now, at times when trout are plentiful and eager, in places where you can cover the water with a fixed length of line where there is little overhead obstruction--trees!--and where the trout are plentiful and not monsters.


Where it works best: 

Small to medium trout stream, ideally with broken benches and pocket water as opposed to long pools;

On water with an open canopy as opposed to overhanging shrubs and tree branches;

On water that is somewhat shallow so trout are willing to poke up for floating or shallow flies;

On water where you can wade up the middle, hit potential lies from bank-to-bank;

On water where trout are abundant and hungry as opposed to scant and reluctant to bite; and,

on the parts of big rivers that can be fished as if they were small water:  riffles, pocket water, the banks.


Where it works worst:  On small brushed-in streams; on big water, especially where it’s deep; on lakes and ponds; on cold water when trout are glued to the bottom and need to be nymphed and on flat water over selective rising trout where you’d like to go “fine and far off.” With Tenkara it is easy to go fine but difficult to go far off.


Where I haven’t tried it yet and am a bit afraid to:  The banks of the Deschutes. I think it would work well to hook trout but I think one of those hot 12- to 14-incher redsides might break my rod or pull me in.


My favorite Tenkara methods:  Standard dry fly; dry fly and nymph dropper; traditional Tenkara damp fly or soft-hackle; beadhead nymph and yarn indicator or a floating Muddler Daddy dropper with anchor wet fly point (this last method should be outlawed; it can be deadly and too much fun).


Websites:  Google Tenkara Fishing for lots of articles/reviews/blogs.



Tenkaraflyfish.webs.com (Fountainhead)

cutthroatleader.com (furled leaders)