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The Temple of Tenkara

Posted by on April 27, 2012

Tenkara.  If you’ve stumbled upon this blog, you probably already have a good notion of what tenkara is.  If you don’t, let me explain.  First of all, tenkara is not a religion as some people would like to make it.  Quite simply it is a fishing tool, inherently no better than bait fishing, spin fishing, traditional Western fly fishing, spey fishing, etc.  Most practitioners, including myself, would consider tenkara as a form of fly fishing, but there is nothing to prevent someone from attaching a bare hook to the end of the line and impaling a night crawler, grasshopper, etc.  Tenkara consists of a rod, a line (and tippet) and a fly (or hook).  Thus it is a very simplified form of fishing.  This is probably this technique’s greatest appeal to those who try it and choose to stick with it.

Tenkara is said to have originated in Japan a few hundred years ago by anglers using long bamboo rods with braided horsehair lines and artificial flies called “kebari.”  Certainly there exist parallels in European and early American fly fishing; think sixteen or twenty-foot greenheart rods with a similar line attached.  The modern version of a tenkara rod is a generally eleven to thirteen foot collapsable rod with a heavy monofilament “fly line” that can either be braided or level.

Developed to catch the small coldwater fish of Japan’ s mountains, tenkara rods are perhaps the ultimate small stream tool.  The length of the rod coupled with the low drag of the thin monofilament makes it easier to cast to the pockets of a high gradient, freestone mountain stream, and keep the fly in the “zone” longer than with traditional Western gear.  Think how often we use our regular fly rods in a “tenkara” fashion, high sticking with just the leader or a bit of flyline extended from the rod tip  Purist tenkara anglers use only one kebari or fly pattern.  I don’t, at least not yet.  I use all my familiar fly patterns:  dry, wet, or nymph.  My catch rate has not declined and has probably increased due to the ability to control slack more easily and concentrate on my fly.  Additionally, I am able to fish spots on my favorite stream that were relatively inaccessible with my six weight due to crowding from vegetation or swift, conflicting currents.

Who is likely to adopt tenkara?  If you are a small stream angler who likes above all catching fish, this is for you.  If you are a “gear head” and appreciate the beauty and craftmanship of quality reel, or if you like the mental challenge of choosing an appropriate line for the occasion (floating, sinking, etc), the simplicity of tenkara may not be appealing.   If you enjoying hauling and mending line (and there’s nothing wrong with that; a well-executed cast is truly something to admire) then you make not find this technique satisfying.  What y0u may find is that not having to attend to line management in the traditional sense will free you to concentrate more closely on stalking fish and managing your fly on the water.  If you often fish where large fish are common, tenkara may not be the best choice.  While it is possible to land respectable fish with tenkara, your chances of doing such are significantly reduced.  Did I mention that tenkara rods collapse to about 20 inches in length and are great for backpacking?

I would respectfully choose to disagree with Mr. Lefty Kreh and others, who have been quoted as stating that tenkara is just a “fad” and somehow seem threatened by the notion of tenkara.  Tenkara is not a fad;  like spey fishing,  tenkara is, I believe, a niche.  It’s just too good a small stream tool not to persist and probably grow in popularity.  Even the most ardent tenkara practitioner probably would not predict tenkara surpassing the popularity of traditional Western flyfishing.  Of course, there is absolutely no reason you can’t add a tenkara rod to your existing equipment.  Tenkara can complement your angling, not necessarily supplant it.

Next…my personal tenkara journey.

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