Middle River Dispatches is a gumbo of posts about fly-fishing, conservation, politics and days afield.

The Road to Tenkara

Tenkara fishing a Montana spring creek

How does a perfectly good modern trout guide become devoted to an ancient style of fly-fishing? Blame it on an article called “Simple Gifts” that appeared in Fly Rod & Reel’s October 2009 edition. If I hadn’t read that piece I wouldn’t be messing around with tenkara rods today.

But that’s what happened—a quick evolution from fishing trout with standard fly rods and reels to a stick and string, and a whole new approach to the water. In fact, after reading Yvon Chouinard’s article, I called a friend, Craig Mathews, who owns Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana, and asked about tenkara. I could hear a grin in his voice as he said, “Oh sure, we’ve been fishing them [tenkara rods] on O’Dell Creek and we are having a blast. They would be fantastic for your [eastern] brook trout streams.”

At the time I was struggling with my own guiding experiences. Too many trips with new or novice anglers were coming up short. They wanted to catch brook trout on dry flies, but their limited casting and presentation skills made success elusive. It was all about managing that fly line, and most of them just couldn’t get the knack. As a good guide I could adjust the rig to help them catch fish by going to streamers and nymphs, but the joy and excitement of the surface take remained a challenge. And I wasn’t the only one noticing this problem—anyone who takes up fly-fishing has an important skill set to acquire. In order to fly-fish with any reasonable chances of success, a person has to be able to cast. This can be frustrating to the novice and is probably the main reason there are so many one-rod owners—people who quit the sport before they really gave it a chance.

And that’s why tenkara caught my attention. I thought to myself, if casting becomes less of a challenge and people can start catching fish sooner than they would on standard gear, that’s a good thing, something to be embraced, right? In my opinion people who get hooked on fly-fishing will buy more rods, gear and accessories as they progress in the sport. But if they give up early because they can’t master the cast, nor catch any fish, and they become frustrated and take up some other sport, that’s not good for anyone’s business. With that thought in mind, I ordered a Tenkara USA 11-foot Iwana rod and gave it a try.

Tenkara is a traditional Japanese method of fly-fishing that has been proven for centuries in Japan’s high-mountain streams. It reduces the necessary gear to three basic elements—a rod, a line and a fly. There’s no reel and there are no line guides. The line is attached to the end of the rod. Traditional tenkara has many devotees here and, as practiced in Japan, it is really more of a wetfly technique. They use a simple reverse-hackle fly, a sakasa kebari, (similar to our soft hackles), and fish it wet.

Tenkara lines are either level fluorocarbon or furled braid. They are very light and easily cast with the very flexible tenkara rod. Because they don’t float, they are best suited to the traditional style of mostly sub-surface tenkara fishing. Many of us dryfly guys are tinkering with traditional fly lines, trying to incorporate them in our tenkara fishing, hoping to turn over larger flies, such as beetle and hopper imitations, with more success. The advantages to using fly line include better energy transfer, tapers that can be varied to suit particular presentations and situations, and a “feel” that many anglers are used to. The rods are relatively stiff at the butt, but they flex significantly, especially at the tip, which protects extremely light tippets. Tenkara rods appear to be delicate, and they are, but they also stand up to the typical rigors of fishing as well as traditional rods.

the tug is the drug…

These rods make teaching the basics of fly-fishing very easy and they allow me to get my clients on the water and fishing much faster than if they were trying to master a traditional rod. With the tenkara rod the angler spends most of his or her time focusing on fishing technique, not line management. And, as I quickly learned, tenkara allows anglers to get incredible drag-free drifts, sometimes three or four times as long as you might achieve with a standard setup. As you probably know, the drag-free drift is one of the most important, if not the most important, elements of dryfly success.

Since buying that original rod I’ve added more Tenkara USA rods to my collection and fished them on a variety of waters. Today, tenkara rods are a good substitute for any of my trout rods from 5-weight on down, and I like the method so much that in 2010 I joined Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, located in Harrisburg, Virginia, as their in-house tenkara guide and ambassador.
Again, what has captured our attention and created excitement for those of us who prefer fishing dry flies, and worship at the altar of the drag-free drift, is how effectively tenkara improves those drifts.

The light lines make high-sticking nearly effortless. The long rods, from nine to 14 feet or more, help keep the line out of pesky currents. Fishing small, light dries or dry/dropper rigs is deadly effective. You only have to try it once to believe it.

I’m not the only one who feels this way, and I’m not the only one who sees great growth potential in tenkara. Mathews, for instance, feels so strongly about tenkara that he signed on with Chouinard and Mauro Mazzo to write a book about tenkara, with hopes of bringing more people into the sport. Mathews says he sees tenkara as a great teaching tool and a great way to get people excited about fly-fishing. And he agrees that a new method is good for business.

“[With tenkara] you get people into the sport,” Mathews told me. “Initially they come in and they get a tenkara in their hand, they catch a few fish, six months later they are buying a Winston rod and a Hatch reel. The sky’s the limit here.”

In the end tenkara is just an effective technique, and fishing in its most basic form. As such, an angler gets to focus on the fishing rather than the gear. For me, tenkara represents simplicity and a return to the basics, and that’s how Chouinard summed it up in his article in this magazine: “I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge, hard work and skill.”

That notion continues to intrigue me.

Author’s note: This article first appeared as Back To The Basics in the Summer issue of Fly Rod and Reel.


  1. Tom, I’m looking to make some Tenkara flies. I’ve made a few of my own creation, however, am unsure as to how much hackle is needed on the hook. Are they suppose to be sparce (2 to 3 wraps) or more on the full side (5 to 6 wraps)? I’ve made both, however, want to know which is most productive.

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