Essay Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tenkara

Is There Really A Wrong Way to Fish Tenkara?

Article by John Vetterli

If you happen to be new to tenkara, sooner or later you will run into the phrase “The ten colors of tenkara”. It basically means that if you ask ten tenkara anglers what tenkara is, you will get ten different answers.

This simple concept has been the root of at least two “Tenkara Wars” here in the United States.

The tenkara wars were a series of extremely heated online/social media arguments between tenkara anglers who want to pursue the “pure tenkara” and those anglers who want to explore fixed line fly fishing for a wider variety of fish species other than trout found in high mountain streams.

John Vetterli - Wrong Way Tenkara - River

So, here’s my question for all of you.

Is there really a wrong way to fish tenkara?

I think that before you answer that question, we need to discuss some definitions and terminology to help organize and develop a common language around tenkara as it is done outside of Japan and in particular here in the USA.

This is how I define a couple of things:

TENKARA: A system of fixed line fly fishing using a telescopic fishing rod made of either bamboo or synthetic fibers designed to cast a light line using a single or multiple set of artificial flies targeting trout/char in high gradient mountain streams. This style of tenkara closely follows the modern Japanese tenkara methods and philosophies.

John Vetterli - Wrong Way Tenkara - Masami Sakakibara

FIXED LINE FLY FISHING: A system of fixed line fly fishing that can utilize telescopic fishing rod made of either bamboo or synthetic fibers that can be designed for fixed line mountain stream bait fishing, tenkara fly fishing as described above, and utilized for fly casting with either a single fly or multiple set of flies on a single line.

Water types and conditions can vary widely from mountain streams, large rivers, warm water ecosystems, lakes, and ponds. A wide variety of fish species may be targeted to include micro fishing, carp, trout, steelhead, bass, panfish, or salt water marine fish.

John Vetterli - Wrong Way Tenkara - Erik Carp

With all that on the table, there are two completely different types of fixed line fly fishing being done here in the USA. In Japan, there are dozens of specific fixed line fishing systems that are clearly defined and differentiated with specific rods and terminal tackle for each specific discipline of fixed line fishing.

Here in the United States, “tenkara” has become a generic term used for every type of fixed line fly fishing. In the beginning of tenkara here in the USA, we as a community of tenkara anglers dropped the ball and lumped everything together under one word. Now tenkara is akin to Kleenex. Kleenex is a brand of facial tissue and yet everyone refers to all facial tissue as Kleenex. Tenkara is any type of fishing using a telescopic fixed line rod.

Now, back to my original question, is there a wrong way to fish tenkara?

I don’t think there is, but that is just my opinion.

I do think it is important for us as a community of anglers to more clearly define if we are actually doing tenkara or fixed line fly fishing. One is not higher than the other. In my eyes they are equal yet individual.

How we further define the sport is becoming more important as the sport continues to grow. Clear definitions really help newcomers to our beloved sport and eliminate a lot of stupid arguments that drive people away from wanting to join in or even leave it behind altogether and search for some other outdoor pursuit with less drama.

I bounce back and forth from tenkara as practiced in Japan and fixed line fly fishing all the time. I don’t feel one is a superior art compared to the other, some days I want to catch big ass carp, some days I want to work on refining my mountain stream fishing techniques, and other days, euronymphing is what works best so I’ll switch my line rig to suit that.

As long as you are getting out there and enjoying your fishing however you choose to do it is the right way.

John Vetterli - Wrong Way Tenkara - Hisao Ishigaki

John Vetterli is one of the founders of Tenkara Guides LLC. His story? He likes to fish with his friends Erik & Rob. Yeah, that’s about it.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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5 comments

  1. The “Tenkara Wars” and the discussions around Tenkara in the U.S. have always seemed to have many of the aspects of Religion; highly fixed and considered almost immutable in structure and language, and a highly judgmental sense of right and wrong with a moral imperative to correct or denounce (at least in my opinion). It seems to follow the line from Norm McLean’s, “A River Runs Through It”: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing…,” and odd train of thought I find nowhere else in fishing except fly fishing. Many in fly fishing find this phrase great. Considering how religion is and has been used across the globe, I’m not one of them (I don’t wish any of my fun activities in life to be compared to Religion or held to such concepts).

    When people ask me what I am doing when on the water, or when I write about what I am doing, I say, “I’m fishing Tenkara Rods for Smallmouth Bass.” Sounds clear enough and accurate to me. Still, when I get printed, my words are sometimes changed to “Fixed line….” Sometimes the “Fixed line…” is simply added in italics and/or parentheses. I choose not to protest.

    Oddly enough, I have three friends from Japan (they are Japanese). They fish with (in addition to other techniques) Tenkara rods up in the mountains. Each of them were somewhat surprised at the attempts in the U.S. to promote such rigid definitions and structure to using Tenkara rods. Each of them fishes the mountain streams differently. The similarities between each of their uses of Tenkara are more a result of water conditions, location, and chances for success than any dictates of a “tradition” (two are in their 50’s, one in his 60s). When they fished here with me here for smallmouth bass, they followed my lead and seemed quite comfortable doing so.

    I think, and hope, that as the rods I use are marketed, labeled and sold as Tenkara Rods (both here and in Japan), I can avoid some of this debate and doghouse (discussion is cool though) by saying, “I am using Tenkara rods for…..”

    1. Amen brother…wait, that has religious connotations…Hallelujah….oh wait. LOL! Nicely said. Its a very very small group in the US and in Japan that feel the need for these definitions. My question is why do we continue to have these conversations and ferl the need to write about it? What’s the draw? That’s what I want to know.

      1. Hey Karin, we’re just slowly posting all of the back-articles from the print magazine to the web, this one included.

        Although I must say that from the amount of people that visited the site to read it, it certainly does remain a compelling subject in the tenkara & fixed-line community. I mean heck, it made you comment… and me reply. LOL – go figure!

    2. I think you do a great job of making that distinction Bob, as evidenced by some of your articles for Tenkara Angler. You’re always very clear in what you’re using the tackle for and how you describe it. I mean how can you argue with somebody who says they are “tenkara rod fishing” when they are fishing with tenkara rods? I hope you don’t mind that we categorize them as “fixed-line fly fishing” in terms of style in our site navigation.

      Examples for those who would like to read some of Bob’s wonderful writing on smallmouth bass & tenkara rods:

      https://tenkaraangler.com/2020/06/19/tenkara-rods-smallmouth-bass/

      https://tenkaraangler.com/2019/09/15/fixed-line-tenkara-fly-fishing-for-smallmouth-bass/

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