I’m a fly fisherman. I’ve been a fly fisherman for over 45 years. As such, I gravitate towards that tradition. Years ago, when I first discovered Tenkara fly fishing, I was perhaps, a little dismissive, a bit amused, but in general, not overly intrigued. Why would I consider wasting my time on this goofy, less effective way of fly-fishing? Like so many things in life, it’s probably wise to not be dismissive without adequate investigation. I have now, finally tried Tenkara Fishing, and I like it! As they say, better late than never. Time changes and perspectives change. I have used fly rods, most of my life, and in many interesting locations around the world, for all manner of fish, great and small. It took becoming a father to change my perspective on Tenkara Fishing. Fatherhood changes one’s perspective on many many things, if not everything! Why not fishing?
We live on a few acres with a pond full of bluegills and bass out back. We also are fortunate enough to live near a little stream that has a few brown trout in it. Mind you this is a suburban area, not terribly far from Detroit, but we live at the edge of what I would call the country. There are farm fields almost within a stones throw. Some would say we have the best of both worlds, but personally, I don’t find many redeeming qualities associated with city life. Yes, there are shopping malls and restaurants and movie theaters, but there is all the bad stuff that goes along with being in close proximity to a large major metropolitan city too. I digress.
My daughter is 11 years old now. She shows a fair amount of interest in my hobbies and pursuits. She will sit in a pop-up deer blind with me, though I believe that experience is mostly all about the snacks that she likes to pack. She is also shaping up to be quite the fisher girl. Being fairly well initiated to bobber fishing and even casting lures for small bass, she is showing quite a bit of fishing aptitude . When I tie flies, she is interested and tries her hand at it, and does pretty well.. So I thought it was high time that she learned a bit more about flyfishing. Having been a fly fishing instructor years ago I thought I would be able to get her casting in short order. When deciding which flyrod to pull off the shelf to let her try out, it seemed a bit of a tough decision. Most of the fly rods on the shelf are a little bit expensive, and the lighter rods, that would be good for a young girl to begin on, also seemed a little too delicate. Starting her out on a durable eight weight suited for saltwater, didn’t seem practical either. It was right about at this time that I happened upon an ad online for a very cheap Tenkara Rod. It was a bit generic as a Tenkara rods go, it looked fairly lightweight, and because it was cheap, I wouldn’t be too nervous about handing it off to a kid. I placed an order online and began our dive into the Japanese tradition of Tenkara Fishing.
Like any type of hunting or fishing I strive to become knowledgeable to the greatest extent possible. To wit, I started researching Tenkara gear, techniques, methodologies, and history. When our cheap Tenkara rod arrived, I rigged it up in the traditional way, which, as an experienced fly fisherman, seemed a little odd. Tenkara rods have a 2-3” piece of string permanently attached to the very tip, which is called a Lillian for some reason (seems an unlikely name for a Japanese technique…which Tenkara is…all the “L”s and such…).
The Lillian has a small knot tied in the end and the leader is supposed to be attached to this short Lillian string with a loop connection that defies a clear written explanation. The connection is completely counter-intuitive to the way it’s done in fly-fishing, and seems to create a bit of hinge at that critical connection, which always is to be avoided with loop connections in regular fly-fishing. I broke tradition and turned the Lillian into a loop, and used a loop to loop connection typical to fly fishing. I will be the first to admit that I don’t do everything exactly as indicated with Tenkara tradition. In particular the knots that I use, and the flies that I use, and even the techniques that I use differ a bit from what a Tenkara traditionalist would do, but it’s close enough. Starting my daughter off, I decided to use a long tapered, braided leader, or what most Tenkara fisherman would refer to as a furled leader. This is what serves as the “fly-line”. Generally speaking the leader for a Tenkara rod should be about equal in length to the rod with an additional 3 to 5 feet of Tippet added to extend the cast just a bit and as your terminal connection to your fly.
Wanting to ensure that there was enough feel for the line, in order to teach my daughter a fly fishing stroke with the traditional 10:00 to 2:00 power stroke, including the slight pause and slow acceleration that is necessary for a good fly cast, I added a 12 foot long, heavy braided leader and 5 feet of tippet material. To that, I tied a medium sized dry fly with the point, and barb snipped off. My goal was to teach her the casting stroke without the fear of anybody getting hooked unintentionally. I mention all of this, because as a tool to teach a beginner how to move a line in a traditional fly-casting stroke, the Tenkara rod works extremely well. In fact, I have modified old fly lines and added short sections of those to Tenkara rods, which don’t generally use a Flyline material, but typically opt for either, a level line of specialty mono filament or a braided leader as a replacement for what would be a fly line in traditional fly fishing. Tapered braided leaders are used frequently with Tenkara rods. So our experiment using that with the Tenkara Rod, as a flyfishing, instructional tool worked out very well, to the point that we took it to the pond in our backyard and tried for bluegills and small bass with a very small hopper pattern, replete with hook. Thinking that this would be a fun experience for my daughter I would let her do everything herself and just sit back and watch and try to only offer occasional instruction, so as to not overwhelm her. Well, of course those plans didn’t pan out. Like almost all beginners in flyfishing everything that you’ve learned, practicing without a hook tends to fly out the window once you attach a real fly and hit the water. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in flyfishing schools that I’ve taught over the years. Luckily, after a short period of panic, and or confusion, students will typically go back to their instruction and get back on track. My daughter caught on quickly and was making pretty good casts, but did ask me to demonstrate something for her so I did, taking the rod, in my hand, kneeling down next to her on the edge of the pond. For the very first time I was actually using a Tenkara rod to cast to a fish. I showed her how to pause and make a smooth, casting stroke, the line rolled out gently. The fly landed on the water, and instantly a small bass of about 11 inches inhaled the fly. Instinctively, I set the hook, and the fight was on. Needless to say, I was hooked on Tenkara Fishing right then and there. With no reel for fish to peel line from, you are tied directly to the fighting fish, and have to play it pretty gently. There is no drag, there is only a fairly short piece of line, tied directly to the tip of your fairly wispy rod. It turns out that Tenkara fishing is a real hoot.
So the fishing lesson continued, my daughter caught a few nice bluegills, and a small bass, squealing with delight each time a fish engulfed the fly. We had a fun, dad and daughter experience. The two of us became fans of Tenkara Fishing and I began a bit of a journey into a new interesting, pleasingly simple way to fly fish.
I quickly realized that, like with fly rods, there was a wide range of lengths, actions, and quality with Tenkara rods. There are many options online and rods come from many sources. Japanese rods tend to be of higher quality and there are many Chinese made rods, with a wide range of features and quality. Some pretty decent, some pretty bad. If shopping on-line, read the description well and look closely at the pictures. You can discern a lot from pictures. Our budget rod was made of fiberglass, was mid-length at 9 feet and wasn’t as balanced in the hand, or sensitive as some others. It also didn’t collapse down as short as some. Tenkara rods are telescopic and have varying numbers of sections to achieve their length. Some rods are fiberglass, some are graphite, some offer two different useable lengths when extended…..with the ability to “extend” an extra section, gaining perhaps a foot or so, depending on the model. These are called “Zoom” rods, and are pretty useful in rivers that transition from narrow brush choked, to wide open areas. Extending, or shortening the rod at will is useful. Other rods are more one-dimensional and can be pretty tiny for very small streams and fish, or longer and stouter and able to handle larger fish in theory. The options, and as mentioned, and the quality differences are vast. Here are a few that I’ve now tried, with my impressions and ideas on when and where they’re best suited. Note, this is a very short list. There are almost too many options. A great resource for more reviews and opinions on YouTube is the channel named “Tenkara addict”, appropriately enough. For a full deep dive into Tenkara fishing techniques and traditions, there are many great books and tons of content on YouTube. Like many things from Japan, Tenkara is viewed as an art, and traditions are viewed as very important. You can choose to be as esoteric as you want, but after all it’s just a way to catch fish….a fun way to catch fish! It’s a cross between “Cane-polin” and fly-fishing. You can choose a straw hat or a tweed cap, zen or Woo-haw. It’s up to you.
FishingtimUSA – FishingtimeUSA.com
I tried two rods from FishingtimeUSA. A 12 foot model that packs down to 22” and a 10 foot model that packs down to 20” Both are inexpensive, and what you’d expect from a very low cost option around, or under $50.00. They both worked fine. Sensitivity and build quality/finish was on the lower end of the scale, of my small list. Both are fiberglass I believe, but in that they aren’t marked. I’m not sure. As I said, they worked fine. The 10 footer was the better performer, but I don’t love the black foam handle. The 12 footer is better suited for larger fish and bodies of water, and was pretty fun on bass. The 10’ model was the “cheap” rod that my daughter had her first lesson with.
Like all the rods, they came in nice hard tubes, either aluminum or rigid fabric covered, and with accessories like line holders, (either clip-on line winders or foam discs to spool your line when collapsing the rods), extra tips (tenkara tips are ultra fine…and a little delicate), a basic assortment of flys and leader/line.
Tiny Tenkara – TinyTenkara.com
Tiny Tenkara, as the name would suggest, specialize in very small, delicate rods ideal for tiny streams. At 7’-8” and a packed down size of just under 13” the Tiny Tenkara is by far the smallest in my arsenal. It’s also one of the best. Build quality is great, as is sensitivity, it being graphite. It has a Matt black finish and a nice cork grip and is aesthetically very pleasing. It’s a blast on smallish trout and pan fish…and small bass. It casts, and is balanced very well. If you fish very small trout streams this is the best rod, though a bigger fish will push it to its limits….anything over 12” will be thrilling to say the least. I hooked a medium sized bluegill with this rod only to watch a huge bass inhale the bluegill and charge back to the depths. It was no contest. Luckily the tippet popped before the rod exploded. Heavier tippet would have been disastrous..
Dragontail Tenkara – DragontailTenkara.com
The Kaida “Zoom” rod from Dragontail Tenkara is a dual length, or “Zoom” rod. The actual model is “Kaida ZX320”.. 320 being the metric measurement, which all tenkara rods use…along with a numerical rating that denotes flex, i.e. a #5 flex, #6 flex etc. I’ve used Feet and Inches here because…..well, just because. The Kaida packs down to 18” It converts from 9-10’ by extending…or collapsing the last rod section, closest to the handle. That feature, combined with the great build quality, sensitivity and slim cork handle make the Kaida the best all around rod that I’ve tried. Good for small to medium sized streams, its graphite construction, flex, balance, backbone and flexible tip provide the perfect combination of features. I’m not the only one that has this opinion. Online reviewers rave about the Kaida, with good reason. It’s what one would consider a premium tenkara rod. Not the most expensive, but not cheap by any means. It’s worth the price for sure though.
Reyr Gear – Reyrgear.com
Last but not least is a rod that deserves an honorable mention. Not a true tenkara rod, and not a fly rod, the Reyr Gear 9’ collapsible Hybrid rod is interesting. It packs down like a tenkara rod, to 19” but it also has a surprisingly nice fly reel, with a good disc drag system, included. It collapses like a tenkara rod because the are no eyelets for the line…and it uses real fly-line, which runs inside the blank and out the end, through a specialized “tip eye”. Having a reel gives it a bit of extra utility over tenkara rods because you can extend and vary the length of line to be used in casting, and if you do hook a large fish, it can peel line from the reel. It casts surprisingly well and it’s made well too. It arrived in a very nice, soft neoprene rod/reel case that tucks into a small pack or fishing vest very neatly. It’s not quite as capable at stripping and shooting long lengths of line, mid-cast, like a fly rod, but that is a minor issue, especially compared to the advantages over a fixed line tenkara rig. Reyr Gear also carries traditional tenkara rods, but I haven’t tried them yet. Based on the impression of the company and the rod that I did try, I’d bet they’re pretty good.
Regardless of your experience level…..or prejudices, you ought to try tenkara if you’re at all predisposed to fly-fishing. The simplicity and minimalist approach is refreshing. I typically take 1 spool of tippet, a tiny fly box the size of a zippo lighter with maybe a dozen flys, the rod and a pair of line nippers. That’s it. Wet wadding mid summer, in a little trout stream with this minimalist outfit is fun. Would I embark on a full day float down a prime Michigan, or Montana river with only these bare minimums? Probably not, but there are plenty of situations where a tenkara rig is just what the Dr. ordered. They are surprisingly good fish catching tools….and are just a lot of fun!
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.