Essay Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Tenkara

Tenkara’s Future Outside of Japan

Winter is here, and I’m not fishing all that much quite yet. Instead, I often go on long walks around the neighborhood to get exercise, and in doing so my mind tends to wander towards my hobbies. Recently, it strolled a bit down tenkara memory lane.

For those that have been around the sport for a while, we’ve experienced quite a few highs and lows since tenkara’s introduction outside of Japan in 2009. However, today it feels to me as if most of the prior decade’s momentum has stalled.

It made me wonder what we as a community could do to continue to move things in a positive direction. At the end of this article, I explore a few of those ideas, however before we get there, let’s take a look back at the past.

The Beginning

The year was 2009. For all intents and purposes, tenkara’s birth and introduction to the Western world. Daniel Galhardo introduced a line of reel-less telescopic fly fishing rods and a few accessories through his startup, Tenkara USA using social media and some hypnotically appealing videos. This immediately strikes a chord with anglers who are looking to streamline their gear, perhaps find a better backpacking rod, or scratch an itch they didn’t even know they had.

Perhaps the most the ironic part of this era is that while the rods came from Japan, very little of the unique techniques or culture developed around them made the trip. Perhaps it was due to the immense language barrier, but as this new legion of “tenkara anglers” picked up their new rods they began applying familiar western fly fishing techniques. Dry flies. Nymphs. Tandem rigs. Indicators. There was no playbook, and those anglers eagerly exchanged and developed their findings in online forums and blogs.

This was a very brief chapter in tenkara’s history. Essentially, everyone was getting their feet wet at the same time. There were no self-proclaimed experts, minimally focused business interests, and no perception of what tenkara was or wasn’t. Ignorance was bliss.

The Boom

It didn’t take long for things to really take off from there. This charming new kid on the block was noticed quickly by the fly fishing mainstream, for better or worse quickly making “tenkara” a buzz word and a way to attract attention. It was difficult to pick up a fly fishing publication without seeing an article describing the basics of tenkara equipment and quoting many early adopters who described it as a more efficient (and perhaps more effective) way to fly fish. Heck, even John Gierach included a tenkara in a chapter of one of his books.

In parallel, many different tenkarapreneurs began staking claims in this fishing land grab. Most of the non-Japanese tenkara companies you’re familiar with today started getting into the game… with perhaps the apex predator being being Patagonia, with Yvon Chouinard’s book “Simple Fly Fishing” and complementary TFO-sourced product line pushing tenkara’s exposure far beyond its previous boundaries.

Unfortunately, and likely due to over-exposure, this was also the time period when the first tenkara “haters” began making themselves heard. It only makes sense, as something gains popularity, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a target to be torn down. Politics, celebrities, athletes… fishing is no different.

However, all was not negative during “The Boom”, as this was also time when our community collectively began learning more and more about the modern sport of tenkara directly from the Japanese.

Daniel Galhardo was the primary catalyst, readily bringing tales and teachings back from Japan… and his teacher, Dr. Ishigaki became everyone’s favorite “Tenkara Master.”

Tenkara Summits and other regional gatherings were organized and information was readily exchanged. We started learning techniques, terminology, and theory, all coming from a wealth of knowledge that the Japanese had built over the prior decades.  

And for those looking for perhaps a more “authentic” gear experience, Chris Stewart and TenkaraBum’s product offerings exploded, making all types and brands of tenkara (and other fixed line rods) from Japan readily available to consumers, particularly those in North America.

This era in tenkara’s past was extremely fast paced, with something “new” happening almost daily. It was exciting to be a part of, and at least to this angler’s delight, lasted for quite a few years.

The Bust

If you follow the stock market, you’re aware that it’s natural that following any sort of boom, you’re bound to have a bust, or what some might call a “correction.” In this case the Western tenkara market became highly saturated. There was just excess everything and the dam began to burst.

Anglers started leaving the fold. Some just felt the need to move on. The novelty had worn off and they decided to look for the next “new” thing.

Others were tired of the omnipresent bickering on social media. These interactions repeatedly called the validity of certain techniques or target species into question. Pointing out to those that practiced them that they were not real tenkara. It really doesn’t matter which side of the fence you sat on during those discussions, the result was the community was fractured for a period of time, creating additional abandonment.

With the dip in novelty and popularity, everything “tenkara” also appeared to follow. First, there was less media coverage, the story had been told. Next, tenkara-related companies began closing their doors or reducing their offerings. The once enthusiastic Patagonia got out completely. Many gatherings and events also ceased due to several of the vendors claiming the inability to turn a profit. The machine that had built the sport up, now ceased to operate.

Coincidentally Daniel Galhardo, tenkara’s biggest champion outside of Japan, has also pulled back his presence dramatically in recent years. While his contributions were once extremely prolific, they have been reduced to a mere trickle. We don’t hear from Daniel as much as we once did, and while he’s done more than his fair share for us as a community already, his absence is definitely noticeable.

The Future Begins Now

So where does that leave us now? Certainly in a bit of a lull. Looking back on the past ten+ years, tenkara probably has the least amount of “buzz” around it than it ever has.

For better or worse, I personally think this creates at a really interesting point of inflection for tenkara outside of Japan (and frankly, within Japan as well). One I hope that is of opportunity.

Today, the strongest tenkara brands have survived to find a far less cluttered playing field. Those looking to get rich quick or capitalize on a trend are largely gone. The gear has also gotten much better and far more specialized, with “me too” or copycat products that don’t really serve a purpose now fewer and far between.

As the tenkara community, we also know a heck of a lot more than we did back in 2009, 2012, or even 2016. A wealth of knowledge has come over from Japan, be it conveyed from Tenkara USA, wonderfully detailed videos and texts by Discover Tenkara, or even accounts from individual anglers or guides who have made the pilgrimage.

We now know that all tenkara flies aren’t sakasa kebari, understand the difference between sasoi and yokobiki, and if not appreciate, are at least aware of the culture of mountain lifestyle that accompanies the sport.

I’ve also noticed we’re far less apt to fight among ourselves these days. It appears with all of that knowledge, more people recognize modern Japanese tenkara for what it is and seem to be willing to acknowledge it as somewhat separate from more “Western” tenkara pursuits. The latter of which have more commonly been referred to as fixed-line fly fishing… or to some, “Amerikara.”

Today, we’ve got a richer, more informed user base combined with a much smaller but steady influx of new anglers, just waiting to become the next batch of tenkara ambassadors… how we treat the next few years will go a long way in deciding if tenkara keeps its foothold outside of Japan, or is relegated to a mere 2010’s sideshow curiosity, like the Kardashians.

In neighborhood walk brainstorming, I pondered three things that I believe will be crucial for the tenkara community not only to survive, but thrive over the next ten years.

1. Continue to Look to Japan

Recognize we don’t know it all. There is still a wealth of tenkara and mountain craft knowledge from Japan to learn, and let’s face it, some of the “Masters” we’ve relied on for guidance aren’t getting any younger. How can we better catalog the lessons that have already been learned for the Western audience? The fact that some of us are only now researching some of the more nuanced forms of tenkara, such as Adam Trahan’s recent plunge into Honryu tenkara, is a perfect example of such information gaps that are looking to be filled.

Tenkara's Future Outside of Japan - No Tarin Club

2. Document the Last Decade

While we didn’t start as experts, we now have more than 10 years’ worth of Western tenkara rod fishing as a community to dissect and conduct a post-mortem upon. Believe it or not, some of you are now “experts” in what you do with a tenkara rod, even if it isn’t exactly the same way they do it in Japan.

Let’s figure out a way to better record these learnings, especially the ones that lie beyond the mountains, trout, and wet flies. Now that most of us have landed on common terminologies, and understandings that tenkara equipment and tenkara techniques can be mutually exclusive, topics such as fixed-line fly fishing for warmwater species deserves a deep dive. Be it modest or ambitious, a short book or perhaps even a quality YouTube video on the subject would certainly educate and be well received. We’ll never successfully move forward until we solidify our launch pad of previous self-learning.

Tenkara's Future Outside of Japan - Chris Stewart - Smallmouth
Image courtesy Chris Stewart

3. Be Selfless and Unafraid

One of the odd byproducts of 2020’s pandemic year is that we’ve now got a new surge of outdoor participation and people are once more picking up tenkara rods for the very first time. As previously mentioned, tenkara, particularly in online discussions, got ugly there for a while. It can’t happen again.

Encourage these new anglers. Let them make mistakes, but don’t be dogmatic when you show them ways to improve and learn. Absolutely don’t let them see us bicker with each other. Tenkara anglers are the sport’s best and most informed ambassador. Be that ambassador you wish you had.

Oh, and if you happen to participate in fly fishing groups, be it in person (such as a Trout Unlimited chapter) or online, don’t be shy about sharing the things you enjoy about tenkara. Sure, there will be some push back from the vocal minority that just don’t want to “get it”, but don’t let their shortcomings take away your pride and enjoyment in fishing with tenkara rods. Yes, you do cast a tenkara rod, it’s not a cane pole, and many times the fish are small. Happiness and enthusiasm is infectious, let’s do our part to spread some of that for a change.

But What Can I Do?

Now perhaps all of the above isn’t for you, which is understandable. You might not have access to Japanese anglers… you might not have much prior experience fishing with a tenkara rod… and you may not belong to a fishing club. You may just want to fish, maybe read an article or two about the subject from time to time (like this one), and be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. We wouldn’t fish if we didn’t enjoy it.

My challenge to the individual angler is simple. Mention tenkara as an enjoyable pastime in casual conversation. Share your positive experiences, but don’t shove tenkara down anyone’s throat. If they take interest in what you’re talking about, maybe point them toward a tenkara-centric website, Facebook group, or favorite Instagram account. Heck, we’d love it if you’d send them here. Even better, once they’re engaged, get a rod in their hand and show them a thing or two.

Tenkara's Future Outside of Japan - Matt Sment

As for those more so in what I’ll loosely call “the industry”… even us at Tenkara Angler… it’s time we pick up our collective game. If you’ve made some money selling tenkara rods over the years, or even reached some level of tenkara “celebrity” status, it’s time to reinvest that clout back into the community. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard from some of the folks that have been around greater than five years, and we’ve yet to hear from many of the newer voices that have been on the scene for less.

The larger fly fishing media has moved on. We are the ones that need to document our history. We need to reach out to the current lot of Japanese Masters who are aging by the year. We need to create a library of new resources for people to use, both basic and more importantly, advanced. Don’t just post a photo of your latest fly, take a video or write a recipe on how to tie it. Recycling that same content from 2011 on how to attach a line to a lillian just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

And most importantly, don’t do it for the “likes” or “follows.” Don’t do it to sell more rods or accessories. Do it because tenkara has impacted your life in a positive way and because you’d like it to have the same impact for others. If you put the proper thought and effort toward that goal, the sales and/or adulation will certainly follow.

If we can all agree to do this, and actually follow through with doing our part, tenkara will be assured to have a lively future outside of Japan for many years to come.

And if we don’t… well, I’d prefer to not think of that scenario.


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11 comments

  1. Great article and a good timeline! As an early adopter of tenkara here, I used to want to promote tenkara as much as possible. At the time, I thought growth was important. But 11 years later, I wonder … is it? Why do we want to grow the sport? Whenever things get too big, they get distorted. I can’t remember if it was Aristotle or Plato who said it, but whoever did said democracy can’t work with more than 500 people. My point is I don’t think we need to burst out britches on tenkara in the West right now. There was an ebb and flow but it stabilized and I’m comfortable where it is right now. I can get anything I want online in terms of gear and I have just the right number of people I’m connected to. No need to make it overwhelming like mainstream fly fishing. I just want to fish in my own interpretation of tenkara. And I relish in the fact that it’s still a niche. And even if tenkara does go “mainstream”, I’ll still fish my own way and ignore people who tell me how to fish.

    1. Points well taken Jason.

      As I wrote this article, bringing new anglers or growing the sport of tenkara really wasn’t my motivating factor. Sure, it’s an easy grassroots thing I mentioned as something anybody could do, but I really wanted to rattle the cage and see if we as a community can be better stewards for the sport we all enjoy… and not look like bickering jerks to the new people that happen to peek in.

      I just wonder who wants to take the lead in helping document all that has been learned to date, now that blogs are mostly a thing of the past, Facebook buries anything meaningful within a day’s time, and some of the early leaders in information share like Daniel and the Discover Tenkara guys have largely gone quiet.

      I just think it would be a shame for us to have Japanese tenkara (or even American-learned tenkara) knowledge to never be documented as extensively as it could or should, even if you as an angler choose not to utilize it. Others can and will. We’re trying to do our part here at Tenkara Angler, but we have limited resources. I know you’ve done more than your fair share over at Tenkara Talk as well.

  2. After spending the last couple years really biting into the Japanese traditional methods, I have to be very thankful for the people who came into my life to teach me and guide me in that discipline. I am finding the skills a valuable stepping off point for other traditions of fixed line fly fishing. Italian and Spanish traditions now consume my fascination as does old fly patterns. All of this inspiration comes from other Tenkara anglers that have dynamically contributed to my interests. I think without them, I would definitely be in the lull you speak of. If we take the time to help others and inspire them in the sport, I think Tenkara will grow organically here in the States. Social media can be full of landmines of misunderstandings. Its funny how that all goes away when we meet face to face on the river.

    I’d also like to thank you guys at Tenkara Angler for pressing on in the documentation of the sport. Its been a pleasure for me to read about peoples adventures in learning.

    1. Thanks for the great article! It has been very interesting watching changes year to year since 2009 or so. We’ve talked quite a bit at our business about how the tenkara market (yes, business is business) has grown and matured. It makes me wonder what it’ll all look like in another decade or two! I think you hit the nail on the head as far as some of us old timers are concerned…stewardship. I think that what tenkara anglers experience going forward and how our community comes together for the common good is up to us. That gives us a responsibility, but also gives us great blessing. Thanks again for this article!

  3. In the fall of 2007 I started fishing with both tenkara and fly fishing. In a sense, the tenkara was the school desk for fly fishing. As you mastered one and the other, the differences and similarities between these fishing methods – relatives – became clear.
    In my opinion, the correctly noted decline in interest in tenkara is also due to unjustified promises that tenkara adepts have given to the fishing community: unique tackle … everywhere … any fish … fly fishing is yesterday ….
    Naturally, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction: this is a very limited tackle … of narrow application … it only catches small immature fish …. etc.
    In Russia, too, sometimes they try to reduce all-all-all methods of fishing with telescopic rods to tenkara. The tenkara fishing method is also called tenkara in the image and likeness of Japanese practice, and any fishing method where only the tenkara rod is used for their own purposes. At the same time, they often do not think: what generic characteristics does the tenkara method in the Japanese understanding have, what benefit can be derived from this, what are the limitations of this method and what possibilities?
    In my opinion there are two fishing methods – Keiryu and tenkara – complementary to each other. Once upon a time, 12-13 years ago in Russia, very little was known about tenkara, we talked a lot about this method, and slowly this method became popular. Similarly, keiryu is now becoming a popular fishing method alongside the tenkara fishing method. Although there are tenkara fishermen who still believe that if he catches heavily weighted nymphs on tenkara rods, he still catches tenkara. I think time will put everything in its place.
    My intermediate conclusion about the possible development of tenkara:
    1. Tenkara should be allowed to fish in the near-surface layer of a mountain river, and to leave behind keiru fishing at the bottom and in the thickness of the mountain river. Together, these two tackles make up two sides of the same coin. And considering them as a single system, it is possible to build the future development line and tenkara
    2. Treat tenkara and fly fishing as one and the same fly fishing using a line to deliver weightless lures, each with its own distinct characteristics. Bury the “axes” of the fly-fishing and tenkar war deep into the ground, and successfully transfer the experience from one to another
    (all that has been said is personal opinion for internal use!)

  4. A different perspective…I’m a female in my 60s and have fished most of my life and have a brother who is a fly fisherman with 50 yers of experience who could probably be called an expert (who makes fun of my limited fly fishing experience and casting technique).

    I bought a DRAGONtail Tenkara rod just for fun for frequent camping trips to the MO Lower Ozarks and I have a blast with it! I try not to read about any negative press for tenkara but know that anyone who sees my rod and gets to try it out is “hooked”. No overthinking…it’s just plain fun. Fine with me for the true connoisseurs to get into all the details, nuances, debates of tenkara but also keep some information simple enough for kids and others to get a start. There is a confusing array of line setups for the beginner to sort through.

    1. Thank you for the reply! And I’m so happy you’re enjoying your tenkara rod.

      I think your last two sentences get to the heart of the matter. The fact that there isn’t a concise (and easy to find) buyer’s guide out there, is exactly the point where “we” that can help, could be better stewards.

      In the meantime, I created a really remedial infographic back in the day on my personal blog. It may be more basic than what you’re looking for, but please feel free to check it out.

      https://www.troutrageous.com/2016/10/infographic-yay-or-nay.html

      1. Thank you for the infographic! I have several different lengths of furled line for my length adjustable rod and tippet line to attach to them but I struggle with what to use to best cast tiny little flies when I’m just dinking around with little longeared sunfish and others in the creek. I’ll keep trying combinations and figure it out eventually!

  5. Hi Mike, thanks for writing this piece. It was good reading the perspectives shared here.
    Coincidentally, last week I had started writing a retrospective piece about tenkara and Tenkara USA. With the holiday and holiday sales behind us I finally felt like I had the time to sit down again and work on some writing. Since I was specifically mentioned here, my piece became a bit of a response to some of the thoughts you shared. And to be clear, I didn’t think the piece here was negative about us, but I thought I should chime in with some stuff that wasn’t very visible, since I and my team have actually been active, just not in the same way as we may have been in the past.
    Specifically, I should mention that even though I have not been so visible in the recent past, that has more to do with the growth of our business and the need for me to dedicate time to other aspects of the business rather than a potential “bust” of tenkara. In fact, far from it, tenkara has continued to grow, and we saw a surge of new tenkara anglers coming through Tenkara USA of about 40% over the year prior, a huge amount more than I could have expected. And at our current size it was quite a challenge to work through, but a good indication of where we are at the moment.
    I agree, we can always do more in terms of content, but I feel that we focused our time on things that were perhaps less visible to the community but in my opinion equally important to the continued successful growth of the sport for years to come. Some of those are mentioned in my blog post below
    I have written a full response with my perspective here on our blog, and would invite anyone interested to read on some of the things we have been working on: https://blog.tenkarausa.com/2020-retrospective
    Thanks again for being such an active part of the community and continually providing good content for all the new tenkara anglers coming in. We’ll see if they find their way online for more activity, or if the new batch of tenkara anglers is more interested in just spending more time outside and less time engaging online.

    1. Hey Daniel – Thanks for taking the time to read the editorial! I’m thrilled to hear Tenkara USA is thriving, and you took most of 2020 to ensure its success for the future. That’s probably the most exciting bit of info to learn in all of this.

      I’m also happy you didn’t take this as a slight on you or Tenkara USA, or the bit of sensationalism used with the “boom” and “bust” comparison. It’s difficult to write a retrospective on tenkara without mentioning you. I hope you realize you could say or write absolutely nothing about tenkara for the next ten years and the body of work produced by Tenkara USA would remain among the best and most comprehensive, none of which is taken for granted. At least not by me.

      The outdoors industry (much like fitness, home electronics, & tiger king-ing) was gifted a huge opportunity in 2020, albeit under less than ideal circumstances. The call of action in this post is for those with the wherewithal to pick up the collective mantle and be good stewards for this wonderful sport. It presents a unique opportunity to further engage and invest in incoming and existing anglers both on and off-line. So a year from now, we don’t have a bunch of unused Peloton bikes, I mean tenkara rods, collecting dust in corners of houses across the country.

      I certainly hope you are correct in surmising that things are just more quiet because people are out fishing and not on their phones. That would certainly be a welcomed development!

      Talk soon my friend. Hopefully near or on a trout stream… and perhaps with a new rod and/or net in hand. 🙂

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