Tenkara fishing has rapidly been growing in popularity in the US in recent years. Originating from Japan, this minimalistic technique was developed on inland trout streams to provide a simpler experience. Paring it back to just a rod, line, and fly, tenkara takes fishing back to basics and gives you a greater connection with the fish on the end of your line.
Whether you’re a complete beginner angler or you’re an experienced fly fisher looking to try something new, tenkara could be just the thing for you. Here’s our guide to everything tenkara fly fishing, from what gear you’ll need to the best tips and tricks to perfect your techniques!
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What Exactly Is Tenkara Fishing?
Tenkara fly fishing is a simple but effective technique that comes from inland Japan and involves just a tenkara rod, a line, and a fly. No reel, no line guides, no backpack full of gear and tools. It strips fly fishing back to the bare minimum in a starkly beautiful way.
First mentioned in a Japanese book over 200 years ago, it became incredibly popular among both professional and amateur fishermen there. Tenkara fishing first hit the US in the early 2000s and really became a growing trend around 2009. Now, you’ll find that many smaller companies are making and selling tenkara fishing gear, as well as big names like Orvis too.
What makes tenkara so effective is the fact that you can get right to the spots where the trout are. When you use a tenkara fly rod, it’s possible to achieve such a natural and convincing presentation that the trout just won’t be able to resist.
Why You Should Try Tenkara Fly Fishing
We think there are many different reasons why you should give tenkara fly fishing a go! See if we can convince you:
It’s Perfect For Beginners
If you’re a complete beginner angler, tenkara fishing is a great way to get started. You can buy a full tenkara combo fishing set for under $200 and you’re ready to go! Not only is it cheaper than kitting yourself out with traditional fly gear, but it also has a smaller learning curve.
We all know that mastering your cast is no mean feat. But when you’re fishing tenkara-style, you can get the hang of it and catch fish right from day one. There’s much more of an instant reward. If you have any friends or relatives who aren’t crazy about fly fishing (yet), this is a great way to introduce them gently to the world of fishing without putting them off with complicated techniques or an overwhelm of gear.
Tenkara can also act as a stepping stone to traditional fly fishing. Once you’ve been bitten by the fishing bug, you might just be tempted to try it out!
Ideal For Backpacking/Camping
If you love hiking or you’ve an avid backpacker but you don’t want to be laden down by gear, taking a tenkara rod could be the ideal way to combine your two hobbies. On long hikes through bushy undergrowth, the last thing you need is even more kit to carry.
If you’re camping and sleeping out for several days, taking along a traditional fly rod isn’t always practical, especially with all the other gear you’ll need. This is where your tenkara rod comes in handy!
As tenkara rods are collapsible, they make an ideal backpacking fishing pole. You can easily fit it in a backpack or just strap it on to your jacket, and you’re good to go. There’s no fly reel, no fly box full of gear, nothing else to weigh you down. You literally just need your rod, line, and a handful of flies.
Tenkara rod setup is so quick and easy that you could be fishing within minutes of finding the perfect spot during your hikes. You’ll be able to access those beautifully remote mountain streams and get some amazing fishing in too.
Many tenkara fans prefer to fish this way because it takes the focus off all the gear and gets you back to the basics: just you, your rod, and the trout on the end of your line! It’s a throwback to previous generations who would head out with just a pole, a line, and a fly. It’s a calming, peaceful experience – I’ve even heard it described as spiritual.
In this busy day and age, the simplicity of tenkara is like a balm to the soul. You don’t need to have all the gear. You don’t need to master complicated techniques. You can just get out there, focus on the fish, and enjoy the experience.
Superior Presentation = You’ll Catch More Fish
Tenkara fishing allows you to get an amazing presentation and a drag-free drift that ca be hard to achieve using Western fly gear. If that’s getting a bit technical, it basically just means that you’ll catch more fish because your fly will behave more realistically.
Take Your Fly Fishing to the Next Level
If you’re an experienced angler, you can combine tenkara fishing with Western fly fishing to get even more out of your time on the water. Experienced anglers will often take both a normal fly rod and a tenkara fly rod out with them. This gives you the freedom to switch between the two according to the situation and what will work best.
If a hatch suddenly starts, you won’t need to retreat to the bank and lose time switching up your flies. Instead, just have your tenkara rod ready with a dry fly, and you could be landing a trout in seconds!
What Gear Do You Need For Tenkara Fishing?
The basic gear you need for tenkara is a tenkara fly rod, a line, and some flies. Really, that’s it!
All About Tenkara Rods
Tenkara rods differ in several ways from Western fly rods. Firstly, they’re telescopic, so instead of breaking down into several sections, the rod actually collapses into the butt section of the rod. This can be as small as 15” and is ideal for taking with you if you’re backpacking.
At full length, however, a tenkara rod can be anywhere from 10 to 15 foot. This extra length allows you to get your fly right to where the trout are. You’ll also see that the tenkara rod has no reel and no line guides.
Right at the tip of the rod, you’ll find a short, flexible fiber called a lillian, which both gives the rod more flex and is where you’ll attach your line using a girth hitch or double loop slip knot. Almost all tenkara rods are extremely lightweight, weighing less than a pound in total.
When it comes to tenkara rod setup, you do need to take care. The end of the rod is very thin and fragile, so don’t force it when you’re extending it or putting it away – you’ll risk snapping the thinnest sections. Instead, ease it down carefully, section by section. A stopper goes on the end of the rod when collapsed to keep it all contained.
You’ll also find that some rods allow you to further extend the length depending on the situation, for example from 13ft to 15ft. This comes in handy if you want to cast in a spot which is just out of reach!
If you need some help choosing a tenkara rod, check out our guide over here. We’ve reviewed some of the top tenkara rods on the market for you.
Tenkara Line Setup
There are two types of line available for tenkara fishing. You can choose from a tapering woven line, which is what was traditionally used for tenkara, or a fluorocarbon line which is level for the whole length.
Tenkara lines are measured in weights just like in Western fly fishing. Beginners should probably start off with a safe #4 or #5 line weight, but as you get more experienced you could even try out a #1 or #2 weight.
Flies for Fenkara Fishing
You really can use any fly that you like when tenkara fishing. In fact, many Japanese anglers only ever use one type of fly and just alter their technique according to the environment! This is all part of the joy of tenkara – you don’t need to overthink anything.
Some of the best flies have a reverse hackle, which creates a lively, realistic presentation in the water. You don’t need a fly that imitates any particular bug – go for ones that are eye-catching and suggestive.
Size 12 flies make versatile all-rounders, but you can go bigger if the water is fast-flowing or less clear.
Tenkara Fishing Tips and Tricks
Tenkara is accessible to everyone, whether you’re an experienced fly angler or not. If you’re a complete beginner, check out the videos over here. They’re a great resource for mastering tenkara, from tenkara line setup to choosing your rod and how to cast.
Here are our tips for getting the most out of your tenkara fishing:
Get Some Guidance At First
It’s a good idea to go tenkara fishing for the first time with an experienced friend if you can, or even book a lesson with a guide. They can walk you through setting up your rod, casting, and identifying the most likely spots where the trout will be lurking. This way, you’ll get some pro advice to help you master the technique and you’ll be landing fish even sooner.
Practice, Practice, Practice
As they say, practice makes perfect. You’ll have lots of new skills to get your head around when you first get started out with tenkara, even if you’re an experienced angler. The more you do it, the quicker you’ll see results.
Opt For Fluorocarbon Line
You’ll have two choices when it comes to your line for tenkara fly fishing: woven line or fluorocarbon line. We recommend using fluorocarbon level line as it’s more easily visible. You’ll be able to detect strikes quicker which means you’ll catch more fish!
Learn To Read The Water
When it comes to tenkara fishing, a major factor in your success is identifying where the trout are. You can’t cast as far, but you can cast with incredible precision, so you’ll soon be a pro at picking out the spots where the trout are hiding.
Avoid Wading, If You Can
This technique calls for stealth, so it’s best to stay out of the water if possible. You’re going to be just feet away from the trout, so try to fish from the bank, or even from boulders in the stream. Avoid noisy gravel and be as quiet as you can, so you don’t spook the fish.
Use a Shorter Line
If you’re not getting the results you want, try a shorter line instead. You’ll have better control with a shorter line and casting will be easier, too. If you use a long line, you risk losing the trout if it swims towards you. Your only option will be to run backward or along the river to keep that tautness on the line.
It’s also pretty unwieldy when you try to haul a fish in without a reel on a longer line – you’re likely to end up in tangles!
Polarized Sunglasses are a Must
Wearing polarized sunglasses will make it much easier to see what’s going on with your fly underwater. I know we recommend paring back your gear for tenkara fishing, but a pair of polarized sunglasses is one thing you shouldn’t leave behind.
Learn a Couple of Good Knots To Rely On
You don’t need to memorize the whole book of knots to get by. Just learn 2 or 3 sturdy, reliable knots which you can use again and again, and you’ll be all set.
Don’t be put off from getting out there by thinking you’re not ready or that you don’t have the necessary skills!
Give Tying Your Own Flies a Go
When you tie your own flies, you learn a LOT about how trout behave and what they like to eat at different times of the year. It’s a great way to get a deeper understanding of them, which will help you when you’re out on the water – plus, you’ll save some money too!
The Wrap Up
So there you have our complete guide to the zen art of tenkara! From the gear you’ll need to our top tips for improving your tenkara technique, you’re all set to get out on the water. All you need to do is:
- Buy the best tenkara rod (check out our reviews here!)
- Head out to a good fishing location
- Keep an eye out for likely trout spots in the stream
- Cast your rod – and keep practising!
You’re sure to be a tenkara master in no time, and you’ll have a calm and peaceful experience. If you like the sound of tenkara, you might also be interested in ultralight fly fishing – check out our ultralight fly fishing tips here.
And as always, leave any of your thoughts or questions below. What do you think – does tenkara fishing sound like something you want to try? I’d love to know!