Essay Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tenkara

Tenkara is Misunderstood, Let’s Fix That

Social media can be a very ugly place. Openly discussing politics online can destroy friendships. Name-calling can run rampant. There’s a lot of divisiveness. But as I’m sure you know, this phenomenon extends way beyond the weighty issues of the day, it can even trickle all the way down to mundane, innocent things like hobbies.

For whatever the reason, it’s fairly clear that over the last ten or so years that tenkara, while gaining a bit of foothold in the fly fishing industry, still largely remains a bit misunderstood… often reserved for the butt of jokes. Even when popular fishing websites write articles about the topic, the authors often feel the need to insert some sort of disclaimer to maintain their standing as a “real” fly fisher to their readers. Heck, just look at any time it’s mentioned in a more “mainstream” fly fishing themed Facebook page, fishing forum, or Instagram account.

It usually goes like this. Somebody excitedly posts a picture of a fish and mentions they caught it with a tenkara rod. Initially, all is well. Then the comments begin rolling in…

“Ain’t cane pole fishin’ for little kids?”

“You fish tenkara because you can’t cast!”

“Tenkara is only for small fish.”

“You know the hardest part about tenkara?… Telling your dad that you’re gay.”

So yeah, I know a lot of those comments, even the ones made in poor taste, are mostly made for a quick, cheap laugh. Heck, if they’re original, they can even be funny. But hang around long enough, and you’ll see a pattern of misconception and ugliness. It’s been the same slights over and over and over for the past decade. It can become annoying and tiresome even to people with the thickest skin.

In this entry, I’ll address some of those slights, attempting to diplomatically note why each is unfounded. We all like to fish, and nobody should be openly demeaned for their choice of recreational tackle.

“That’s Just a Cane Pole”

No, not really. It is similar in the fact that there is no reel, just like the “Breambuster” you fished as a kid. Were the original tenkara rods made out of bamboo? Sure. But they were still refined instruments.

Today’s tenkara rods are made of graphite. They can be delicate yet extremely rugged, distributing pressure along the balance of the blank’s “power curve” while fighting a fish. Landing a large fish requires a bit of technique. You’d have a heck of a challenge horsing in a large fish (particularly through underwater vegetation) with a tenkara rod like you would/can with a cane pole. They just don’t work like that, unless you want to break a section.

So no, a tenkara rod isn’t just an expensive Walmart “cane pole.” They might look similar, but it’s a totally different animal.

“You Use A Tenkara Rod Because You Can’t Cast!”

I have no idea where this one comes from. Anybody who has ever handled a tenkara rod knows that they clearly flex and load, they throw loops, and they land the fly delicately without an audible splashdown. Unlike a cane pole, there’s no lobbing, and definitely no weight of the bait or lead sinker to help propel the line forward. Heck, my cast with a tenkara rod is probably more “authentic” than your cast with a team of weighted nymphs and a thingamabobber lashed to your leader.

While it’s true a fixed line rod doesn’t have extra line in reserve to “shoot” for additional distance, tenkara rods and lines were designed for use in the mountains. High gradient streams. Pocket water. The kind of fishing where accuracy and precision is valued over length of cast. Outside of that environment, you’re not using a tenkara rod as designed.

Tenkara rods cast just fine, and those that are skilled at doing so can simply pick apart the water.

“Tenkara is for Kids (Simple)”

Patrick Wrath Photo

And by that, the reference is usually that it too simplistic to be “real” fly fishing. Well, tenkara can be simple. It was definitely initially marketed as a form of fly fishing that needs nothing but a “rod, line, & fly”. I also read a lot of articles that reference that it’s the “perfect tool to get kids started on the path of fly fishing with a rod and reel.” That can also be true.

If you’d like to take a tenkara rod, tie on a dry fly or nymph, and just cast it out and let it dead drift, then you’re right, tenkara rod fishing can be simple and you’ll likely catch some fish. However much like the larger sport of fly fishing is more complex than just tying a woolly bugger to a 5-weight and casting it out and stripping it in, the sport of “tenkara” is also much more complex than a simple rod, line, and fly.

Tenkara is an entire system of fishing that was designed to be efficient in cold water mountain streams. There are many different methods of casting a tenkara rod to achieve specific orientation or depth of line. There are countless techniques of (wet) fly manipulation that can be used to to entice a trout to take. Modern tenkara draws from a very rich history, but also evolves and includes some surprising variations once you peel back the covers. There are just no reels.

“Tenkara is Only for Small Fish”

Well, it kind of is.

Most tenkara rods are ultralight by design. When used correctly, they can be quite elastic and give a nice sized fish a really good fight. They tend to work like a rubber band under tension. However, they were never designed to catch largemouth bass… or carp… or pike… or tarpon… or salmon.

The desire to use what most of Americans identify as tenkara rods to target larger, non-trout species is largely a Western adaptation. While beefier, longer mainstream (honryu) tenkara rods are used in Japan in larger rivers for larger trout, the Japanese also do have other fixed-line rods that can be used to fish for species such as salmon or carp. However, they are not tenkara rods. They’re different types of rods and have specific names (I won’t go into them here).

So, just like you’re not going to use an ice fishing rod when you go deep sea fishing (even though you technically can), tenkara rods aren’t really meant for big fish in lakes or ponds or the ocean. And that’s okay. Although you might be surprised with what they can handle when tested.

“Tenkara is for Wussies”

Out of respect to women, I won’t write what comparison is more commonly made. (Fishing social media can be a very sexist place.) As such, when it comes to the pecking order of fly anglers, tenkara anglers seem to rank at the very bottom.

The “real men” of fly fishing evidently only run driftboats and chuck streamers. They religiously swing for steelhead or pole skiffs through the salt flats. Carp anglers now have gained much respect. Warmwater fly fishing is hip and cool in an alternative way. Dry fly fishermen are often considered snobs, but still remain generally out of the crosshairs. Even Euronymphing has gained steam as the “it” trend… and… well… tenkara anglers are “effeminate” noobs. Awesome.

Perhaps it’s because the rods are ultralight. Maybe it’s because it’s Japanese in origin. Perhaps it’s because when collapsed a rod looks like a fairy’s magic wand. Maybe it’s because a guy with a funny Brazilian accent introduced the West to the sport. Beats me.

The truth is tenkara is far from being for the weak. Did you know tenkara’s historical origins likely lie with Japanese bear hunters? Or that it was popularized in its modern (sport) form by a bunch of badasses who enjoyed nothing more than going miles into the backcountry, traversing treacherous genryu landscapes, living off the land… oh, and getting drunk around a campfire at the end of the day. We’re talking Jeremiah Johnson kind of stuff. What’s not to like about that?

The folks I fish tenkara with aren’t weak either. They’re skilled outdoors people, retired military, fantastic leaders and teachers in their respective fields, and incredibly street smart. They’re a diverse, welcoming group. And they don’t resort to name-calling.

“But You All Are Super Weird. Like a Cult”

Okay, you may have me there. But who isn’t?

Tenkara anglers are just like any other niche within the fly fishing family. Or actually any hobby that people have a passion toward for that matter. There’s the small percentage that dive in with both feet, sell all their other fishing gear, and only fish tenkara. There’s the small percentage that give it a try, don’t really take to it, and give it up. And then there’s the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, who just like to fish.

I own a half dozen tenkara rods. I also own 6 fly rods and reels ranging from 3-weight to 9-weight. Oh, and toss in a handful of spinning rods and reels for good measure. To me, there’s nothing sweeter than the sound a click and pawl reel makes when a fish takes line. I want nothing more than to learn how to fish with a spey rod. A tenkara rod is just an ultralight tool I like to use for mountain trout fishing. It’s the right tool for the job. (Oh, and bluegill feel like whales on them as well).

But I do get it, when tenkara was introduced to the U.S. about 10 years ago, it is very true that there were a vocal minority claiming it was “the best way to fish,” that they “caught more fish with tenkara than they ever did any other way,” or simply wanted you (and everybody else) to know about this “simpler” way of fly fishing. It was probably annoying. It probably turned people off. Heck, it even made me cringe a little.

But do you know what? They were just excited. Just like you’d be if you spent $700 for the latest fly rod from Orvis or Sage or Scott. You wouldn’t be publicly trashing it, you’d be saying it was awesome, perhaps the perfect tool for the job, showing all the fish you caught with it, sharing your joy with others. That’s all they were doing.

Fortunately, there’s a lot less of that now. The “new car smell” has worn off tenkara. And while there are still a bunch of enthusiastic anglers that will willingly show the “ten-curious” many things they have learned if interested, nobody is going door-to-door anymore, interrupting your dinner, and trying to extol the virtues of the “Book of Daniel.

“I Went Tenkara Fishing for Bass”

No you didn’t.

This is actually a mistruth that the “Tenkara Community” perpetuates rather than the “haters.” It’s something we do to ourselves, and I feel that it’s something everyone should at least be cognizant of.

When tenkara was introduced to the West, namely the United States, people were drawn to the spartan tackle and wanted to use tenkara rods to catch fish on their local waters.

What resulted was the lumping of all forms of fixed-line fishing into the generic nomenclature of “Tenkara.” Kind of like how some regions of the country refer to all sweetened carbonated beverages as “Coke.” It unfortunately somewhat blurs the lines of what the modern sport of tenkara actually is. Admittedly, we’ve been guilty of it here at Tenkara Angler too, and have tried in recent years to correct ourselves through proper phrasing while also maintaining support of all forms of fixed line fishing.

“So What is Tenkara Then?”

As mentioned, the sport of tenkara is generally accepted as a set of techniques and fixed line fly tackle used to target trout and char in high-gradient mountain streams.

Can you cast dry flies into a lake with a tenkara rod? Sure. Can you toss a foam bug to a hungry panfish with a tenkara rod? Absolutely. Can you high stick nymph to your heart’s content with a tenkara rod? Yes! All of those are totally fun and great ways to catch fish. But none of that is tenkara fishing. It’s fishing with a tenkara rod. A minor difference, but one worth understanding.

Going back to the ice fishing rod… when you take that rod off the frozen lake to moving water, you’re no longer ice fishing, no matter how you slice it. Take your tenkara rod to the ocean or a pond, you’re just not tenkara fishing… you’re fishing with a tenkara rod.

Again, there is nothing wrong with fishing with a tenkara rod! It’s just important that people know the difference between the two. Especially since it’s frustratingly common for brands to use the term “tenkara” to sell and market other types of fixed line rods to consumers. Consumers trust brands to sell them authenticity. Unfortunately, some are not. The devil’s in the details, and until people understand the difference, the details matter.

Conclusion?

Hopefully, some of the commentary above can go a little way to clear up some of the confusion, or (should you choose to engage) put down some of the snarkiness experienced either in online or real life circles. Even the attitudes within fly shops due to a lack of understanding of tenkara can sometimes be just as bad as social (or the mainstream fly fishing) media’s.

In the end, tenkara is more than a valid form of fly fishing. It is one that has a rich history, interesting complexities, and specialized techniques developed for specific water characteristics. It fits right alongside other standalones such as euronymphing and spey as a unique niche within the larger sport of fly fishing. The more we understand the current misconceptions about tenkara, the better equipped we will be to advocate for, and be good ambassadors of, the sport we enjoy.

(Oh, and remember no matter what we do, or what we say, some haters are just going to hate. Screw them, they’re not worth your time.)


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12 comments

  1. Funny, my association with Tenkara is as a way to keep me in the game – as it for my friends. We are either septo or octo, or disabled to one degree or another.

    The poor us stated in your well written article is the super fine side – best foot forward of Tenkara. Exhaled not to be defended. Some of us who have salty veins do think of Tenkara and 2- to 5-weights as small fish rods. There are exceptions to that. New Zealand, Patagonia, Alaska, and so on trout.

    I enjoy you observations – nice article, but the chip on the shoulder needs to Be overhauled among the Tenkarans.

    Skip Clement, publisher fly life magazine.com

    1. Thanks for stopping by Skip. I’m happy you and your friends have found tenkara as a way to continue to be active in fly fishing. It’s an awesome tool.

      I wrote the article hoping it might help both those with the chip, as well as those who insist on placing it there.

  2. One of the things I observed before I made the switch to Tenkara (2009) was while fishing the tight streams of Indian Peaks Wilderness, I typically kept my finger over the line. This made it a fixed length, so I could work a tight section with less foulups in the trees. When I purchased my first Tenkara rod, it was like a light went on! I felt more confident, less catching in the trees (but it still happens..) and if anything, more fish! For me, its just another tool in the arsenal for catching more fish.

    1. It’s strange, tenkara has definitely made be a better fly fisher with a rod & reel. And I couldn’t agree more about it just being another tool in the arsenal… it compliments my other rods & reels in a great way.

  3. Thanks for the article, Michael. I agreed with every point you made. I also likened it to my desire to use hand tools to do woodcarving rather than a Dremel tool. There is just a sweet pleasure in simple things. Simplicity is what drew me to Tenkara. It has brought a great deal of enjoyment and contemplation. Thanks again, great job!

  4. Although I have not tried tenkara in the traditional sense, I am developing a love of fixed line fishing and have been taking my bamboo pole to my local mountain trout streams. Fixed line fishing in a simpler alternative to other forms of fishing and can be challenging due to not having a reel and drag to work with if the fish makes a run. I can’t wait to pick up a tenkara outfit to start my adventures! Great article!

  5. I must say I am left with mixed feelings after reading this article. I think at times, simply the “need” to clarify and “fix” the definition of tenkara is the very reason why so many other anglers and fly fishermen and women, have issues with the method. It is that need, in my opinion, that makes tenkara so “secular”. Full disclosure, I am the owner of Zen Tenkara. We, it would seem, are one of those brands that “use the term tenkara to sell and market other types of fixed line rods to consumers.” We design an entire series of rods that can be used for small, high mountain streams and for landing large powerful fish. All of our rods with the exception of our Kyojin can cast 3.0 tenkara level line, furled or braided and tapered Uni thread line and several can also cast PVC fly line as well. Versatility should not deplete or negate authenticity. How a consumer fishes their tenkara rod is up to them. I’m not in the business of policing anglers on how they fish or accusing them of not doing tenkara because one day they fish a sakasa kebari on a furled line and the next day they tie on a dry dropper or a nymph pattern. To feel the need for people to clarify, “yesterday I fished tenkara, but today I did fixed line fishing'” is rhetoric that again, in my opinion, does no one any good. This is exactly why tenkara anglers are often teased, ridiculed and made fun of.
    The products Zen creates are “authentic”. We are often complimented and praised at fly fishing manufacturers and fly tackle shows such as ICAST and AFTD, by both Japanese and Chinese tenkara rod manufacturers. As a company we routinely distinguish between traditional tenkara practices and American tenkara practices- in an effort to respect the culture in which it came. Methods, material and technologies evolve. The first hammer was probably a rock, A handle was added. Is it no longer a hammer? It may have first been developed as a weapon, for killing animals or defending ones self. Later it was used for sinking posts and splitting wood. The claw feature was added. While there are many different types of hammers: club hammer, sledge hammer, joiners hammer, soft-faced hammer, we can all look at the standard tool, sitting in our garage, that’s used to bang on things and generally be satisfied with calling it a hammer. Very few feel the need to specify “claw hammer”. This doesn’t make the hammer any less authentic. The first tenkara rods were certainly not made of carbon fiber. Are any of our tenkara rods today, literally “authentic?”
    I agree that when I cast a 30ft 7wt PVC floating saltwater line on the Kyojin, I’m not practicing traditional tenkara. That’s obvious and it would seem that by having to clarify that, would be underestimating the intellect of the average consumer. Why go there? The 13.5ft Zen Sagi rod is highly versatile. It can cast traditional furled lines and ultralight tenkara level lines (fluorocarbon). Some days I fish it traditionally, some days I don’t. Do I mentally need to keep track of that? Am I not being authentic on the days I tie something else on? Innovation, creativity, productivity and effectiveness is what commercial and subsistence fishing is and was all about. The Suzume, Zako, Suimenka and Sagi rods are all tenkara rods. The fact that they can do other things, doesn’t make them any less authentic, and the fact that some anglers use them in a nontraditional way, also doesn’t make them less authentic. It just makes those anglers more versatile in their skills.
    As the fly fishing industry progresses over the years, many changes have occurred. It has always been a sport steeped in tradition. Thoughts and ideals from England and European fly fisherman have melted and morphed over the years. Heck, women are finally being welcomed into the historically all-male pastime. Even now the fight to allow “tenkara” rods on certain waters that are exclusive to fly fishing, continues. I am perplexed at the continuance and need for this very conversation. If the aim is to carve out a very specific niche that describes and categorizes tenkara’s most minute features, beware that in the end, you don’t exclude it from fly fishing all together.

    As the world turns and moves forward, we at Zen, will continue to design rods, explore possibilities, push the tools we create in the effort to make them even better, throw traditional lines, throw long lines, throw stigmas and judgement, and rules and specifications that separate and secularize anglers on the water, down the river. Instead, we will encourage and welcome all uses for our rods. Support anglers is their enjoyment on the water, and simply have fun fishing. In other words, we respectfully disagree.

    Karin Miler, Owner
    Zen Tenkara
    Zen Fly Fishing Gear
    http://www.zentenkara.com

    1. Karin, thanks for the extensive reply. I’m sorry if you took some of what I wrote personally. I never mentioned Zen or your rods in the article. I’m sure the Suzume, Zako, Suimenka and Sagi are properly categorized as tenkara rods.

      You are right, progression, innovation, & evolution are awesome. The first hammer may have been a rock. But over time as it evolved and took its form as a hammer, it can no longer be accurately described as a rock. It would be inaccurate to call it one. Even though it’s only a hobby, I take my “job” as Editor seriously for the benefit of informing the larger community.

      My personal issue with the blanket phrasing of “tenkara” is that you’ll find many companies on social media using the hashtag or phrase “tenkara” while posting photos of fish caught with a rod and reel, or photos featuring alternative fishing gear (such as keiryu rods, Korean gyeonji rods, or even rudimentary cane poles) that clearly are not tenkara. They’re just using the phrase to get more “clicks”, generate interest, and/or market their personal brand or products. (Or sadly, may not even know the difference).

      Heck, I mentioned in the article that I am guilty of it myself. This website is called “Tenkara Angler”, yet we frequently cover things that really can’t be considered tenkara (in both gear AND technique). I’m too far down the road to rename it “Fixed Line Fisher”, but moving forward, I’m simply trying to do a better job of delineation.

      It’s not going to stop TA from covering and accepting content on non-traditional pursuits, (we LOVE articles about warmwater and saltwater species), we’re just going to refer to them as either fixed-line fly fishing, or “tenkara rod fishing” moving forward based on the type of tackle and techniques used. It’s something I’ve actually been quietly doing for the better part of 2+years now, I’m just being more transparent with it now.

      Finally, I’ll reiterate, just for the sake of doing so… I don’t care how people fish with their tenkara rods. I live in Florida, I tie foam poppers on the end of mine and fish for bass and panfish. It’s fun! This article passes zero judgment on people for how they choose to fish. I’m not exactly sure why that insinuation was made in your response.

      None of this was meant to be divisive, only meant to better educate – mostly the “haters” from the outside of the community, but also a little bit within. And from the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received, I think I achieved my goal. If what I wrote hits a little too close to home for you, I can’t help that.

      I personally value the contributions you’ve made to Tenkara Angler over the years and sincerely hope they continue. As part of the larger community, your adventures abroad are stories that deserve to find a wide audience. That said, any articles about chasing sharks, bonefish, or tarpon in the salt with your Kyojin and 7-weight fly line will be described to the reader appropriately as fixed-line fly fishing. Calling that hammer a rock (or tenkara) would be inaccurate.

  6. If ever there was a hobby where people could leave each other alone entirely, it is the solitary hobby of angling. I found tenkara maybe four weeks ago, and discovered also, to my complete dismay, if not surprise, yet another cock-wagging controversy that only Americans could contrive. Yet more reason to disconnect from the internet and disappear into the mountains, tankara in hand, as if more reason were needed.

    1. Preach on Jon. Fishing is a form of recreation, nothing more. We encourage and embrace all forms of fixed line fishing here, (and most times, even the kind with reels – I love the sound of a click and pawl reel). Enjoy the mountains. Wish I were there with you, albeit at least 6 feet away.

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