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”
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 musky. They were designed to catch trout and char.
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. It doesn’t mean you can’t use one in those settings; 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.
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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