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Fly Fishing Zen: Getting Started with Tenkara

Try out this 200-year-old technique. 

By Trent Jonas

Fly Fishing Zen: Getting Started with Tenkara
Image Courtesy of Lars Reber

If you're interested in experiencing fly fishing in one of its purest forms, it's time to give tenkara a try. Tenkara is a style of Japanese fly fishing that dates back over two centuries. Equipped with only a rod, line, and fly, it brings fishing back to the basics. Whether you're an experienced fly angler or new to the sport, we'll walk you through what you need to get started.  

What is Tenkara?

Tenkara, which translates as “fishing from the skies/heavens,” is a Japanese angling technique that strips fishing down to its most basic elements: a rod, a line, and fly. For purists, it is a form of fishing specifically used to target trout in Japanese mountain streams. But, on this side of the Pacific, where it has been catching on over the last decade or so, it’s less about the target species and setting and more about the equipment. Tenkara gear consists of a long, ultralight, telescoping rod; specialized fly line and tippet; and a simple fly, of which there are only a handful of varieties. One could make the argument that it’s more like cane pole fishing than modern fly fishing, and therein lies its simplicity.

Choosing a Rod

Image Courtesy of Tenkara USA

When it comes time to select a tenkara rod, you’ll find that you have a huge number of choices in front of you. What it really comes down to is what kind of fishing you plan on doing. If you’re looking for a rod that you can slip in your pocket or your day pack, in case a fishing opportunity arises, look at something like the Nissin Pocket Mini from TenkaraBum, which is a 9 to 11 foot rod that weighs no more than a couple ounces and collapses to less than 10 inches in length. If you’re chasing big trout or salmon in larger rivers, you’ll want something more akin to the Rocky from Tenkara Rod Co., which is designed for bigger fish and bigger water than most typical tenkara rods. In the United States, Tenkara USA is the granddaddy of rods, having sold the first rods in the country in 2009. Dragontail is another major tenkara rod player in the U.S. market.

Setting Up

Image Courtesy of Tenkara USA

Setting up your tenkara rod is almost as simple as fishing with it. A small piece of fixed line should be attached to the extreme tip of your rod. This is called the lillian. To set up your rod, you need to carefully tie a stop knot (overhand or figure-eight, for example) at the end of the lilian. Then take the tenkara line—which you need to purchase separately, or if you bought a package, that came with your rod—and tie a double overhand knot above the knot on the lilian. As you tie these knots, be especially careful not to exert pressure on the tip of the rod, as it can easily break if it is forced against the side of the pole. The next step is to attach the tippet—usually a two-to-four-foot length of light line—to the end of the main line. Many companies will ship line with loops or rings built into the line to simply the process and reduce the number of knots you have to tie. If a loop or ring is not provided, use a double surgeon’s knot to accomplish this. Finally, attach your fly to the end of the tippet using a surgeon’s knot. A traditional tenkara line holder or rod clips can be used to store your line, without disconnecting it, as you move between fishing spots. Tenkara Rod Co., Tenkara USA, and a number of other companies offer online video tutorials that show you, step by step, how to set up your tenkara rod.

Flies

When it comes to flies, you’ll find that the selection for tenkara is much smaller and much less elaborate than the flies you might use in a modern fly fishing rig. That’s not to say you can’t use such flies, it would just stray from traditional tenkara methods. Plenty of places out there carry tenkara-specific flies, including the larger tenkara merchants mentioned above. Places like Badger Tenkara and The Fly Stop are also good places to check out for tenkara flies. If you’re interested in tying your own flies, there are plenty of resources and tutorials out there on the Internet from experts like Tenkara Bum.

Hit the Water!

Image Courtesy of Lars Reber

And that’s it—you’re ready to hit the water. You may be well served to check out some casting tutorials on line, and if you’re new to fishing, read up on how and where to target certain species. But the point of tenkara is its simplicity and to get you out on the water. If you’re serious about stream fishing for trout, you may want to consider some wading gear, but you can just as easily fish from the shore line, given the long length of tenkara rods and lines. Good luck!

Due to the escalation of the coronavirus outbreak, local destinations for outdoor recreation may be closed. Please visit official websites for more information.

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