Tenkara is the modern Japanese version of the earliest fly fishing.
People have been fly fishing for thousands of years. And for thousands
of years, a rod, a line and a fly were all they had - and all they
The fly reel is a relatively modern invention, and it offers a significant advantage - holding extra line so a fisherman can make long casts and a hooked fish can make long runs. With every advance, though, something gets left behind.
In fly fishing, what got left behind was the ability to get drag-free drifts in tricky currents by keeping a light line off the water's surface. Also, the direct connection between the angler and the fish was lost when fish started pulling against the drag instead of the rod.
In Japan, tenkara has been used for hundreds of years to fish in small, high gradient mountain streams. For small mountain streams, it really is an ideal way to fish. You don't make long casts and the fish don't make long runs, so you don't need a reel. There are cross currents everywhere and the long rod and light line make it much easier to get a drag-free drift or to keep a fly in an eddy. Because the line is off the water's surface, there is no need to mend. There is no excess fly line to get caught underfoot or get tangled in sticks and snags.
That lack of excess line to manage makes this the easiest way for a beginner to learn fly fishing. It is really pretty intuitive and a complete beginner can pick it up without having to take casting lessons.
In tenkara fishing the whole emphasis is on the fishing rather than the fly choice; on presentation rather than imitation. Matching the hatch is not emphasized. Interestingly, in Europe, which has an even longer tradition of fishing with a long rod and line tied to the rod tip, flies have been tied to match specific insects for almost 2000 years.
I suspect the different approach to fly design is based largely on the waters that were fished. The high gradient mountain streams of Japan are not very fertile so the food supply is limited. The fish could not afford to be picky eaters. In more fertile streams, trout can at times be very selective.
The rods are long - most are roughly 10.5 to 14.5 feet. Despite their length, they are very light, ranging from under 2 ounces up to perhaps 4 ounces for the longest rods. They are also telescopic, and most collapse to between 15" and 24", depending on the model. That makes them very easy to transport - whether walking down the trail to the next pool or taking on the plane in your carry-on luggage. They are so supple that they can subdue larger fish than you would expect and still protect very light tippets. (There are photos on the site of 20+ inch fish caught on 6X tippets.)
The lines are usually about the length of the rods, but they
are very light - lighter than the lightest fly line. The long rod and
light line allow you to keep almost all your line off the water, greatly
reducing drag. Reduced drag yields better presentation, and better
presentations yield more fish. And as good as the drifts are with the traditional wet flies, using a tenkara rod with a dry fly will give you better drifts than you have ever had.
The Japanese use tenkara rods only for trout and only in mountain streams. Here in the US, just a few weeks after tenkara rods were first available, someone posted photos of some really impressive bluegills and largemouth bass that he'd caught with his new tenkara rod. From that day forward, people in the US have used tenkara rods to catch just about every fish that would take a fly and in just about any type of water - mountain streams, alpine lakes, warm water streams, farm ponds, the lake in the town park, wherever.
People have pushed the envelope in ways that would have been unimaginable in Japan. Bluegills, bass, catfish, carp - everything from micros to salmon - and even salt water!
To be sure, tenkara rods are not always the best tool. For carp fishing, there are carp rods. They look a lot like really long, really beefy tenkara rods, but they have the strength to battle carp. The situation is pretty much the same with salmon - there are fixed line rods designed specifically for salmon, and they are truly a better choice.
For that matter, there are rods that are better than tenkara rods for fishing weighted nymphs, which is something nearly all American tenkara anglers do. Keiryu rods are used in Japan for bait fishing in mountain streams. Unlike tenkara rods, which are designed to fish unweighted flies, keiryu rods are designed to be fished with split shot. Whether the weight is a split shot or a bead head nymph, the physics are the same. Keiryu rods, in general, have firmer midsections, which makes it easier to get good hook sets when fishing with weighted flies.
Since the Japanese do not fish artificial flies with keiryu rods, they wouldn't call it keiryu fishing. However, since they don't fish weighted flies with tenkara rods, they wouldn't call it tenkara either. Similarly, since they don't use tenkara rods to fish for bluegills, or any other warm water species, they don't call that tenkara. When they do in fact use tenkara rods, they do call it tenkara though!
So what does that all mean? I think what it means is that much of what we do here does not fit any of the Japanese definitions. We will have to make our own way. I would suggest you not get wrapped up in the definitions or the terminology used to describe a specific type of fishing that just isn't done in Japan. Not everyone in the US thinks that what we do here should be called tenkara. Not everyone in Japan thinks what we do here shouldn't be called tenkara.
Personally, I think it's just fishing. Simple fishing with simple flies. Don't let the dogma get in the way of your enjoyment.
However, even though tenkara is often called simple, and it does not take long at all to learn how to cast a tenkara rod and catch a fish, there is a surprising amount of nuance in fishing a mountain stream. The moving water, in which the current speed and direction changes from one foot to the next, and in some cases almost from one inch to the next, makes each cast different. Utilizing the currents to get your fly to where you want it, and manipulating the fly by pulling or twitching the line to entice a fish to strike offers as much complexity as any angler could want.
You don't have to spend a lifetime studying tenkara. If you wanted to, though, you could.
Truly, there is much to learn from the Japanese. Some of the masters have been tenkara fishing for fifty years. There are techniques, honed over decades, that can be learned from the masters. However, there is also much to learn on your own. If you want to fish weighted nymphs or hoppers or panfish poppers, you will not learn that from a tenkara master. The Japanese tenkara masters don't fish that way and there are no American masters - not yet. No one becomes a master in the short time tenkara has been in the US.
One thing that I have been wondering about lately is why
people in the US have been so smitten by traditional Japanese fly
fishing, while virtually ignoring the traditional European fly fishing
that is at least 1600 years older.
Granted, the Japanese equipment is modern and commercially available, which is what initially got me interested in tenkara. As a tool, though, a tenkara or keiryu rod would serve nicely to explore traditional European fishing methods. Start perhaps with pesca mosca Valsesiana, a fixed line fly fishing style which today is experiencing a reawakening in northern Italy.
Although it is easy to find examples of tenkara flies online, it is also easy to find examples of traditional European flies, from the twelve recommended in the Treatyse of Fysshyng with an Angle in 1496 all the way down to the simple but deadly North Country Spiders.
TenkaraBum will maintain a very open view of fishing in general, including fishing for fish that most people don't fish for and using flies that most people don't use. You will find keiryu fishing, which in Japan is fishing mountain streams with bait. As with tenkara rods, though, people in the US do not limit their use of keiryu rods to mountain streams, or for that matter, to bait. A San Juan worm or an artificial nymph works just about as well as a real worm or a real nymph taken from under a rock on the stream you're fishing.
On these pages you will find micro fishing, fishing for minnows, which is a lot of fun if you can let down your hair enough to actually try it.
You will also find fishing with bait. Open and unapologetic. Unlike so many American fly fishers, I do not look down on worm fishing or worm fishers.
Increasingly, you will find Japanese spinning and baitcasting gear (in conjunction with the sister site Finesse-Fishing.com). It seems many tenkara anglers have become anti-reel. Not me. It's just another way to fish. In some waters, tenkara is more productive and more fun. In some waters, spin fishing is more productive.
Neither spin fishing nor baitcasting originated in Japan. However, it was the Japanese who developed baitcasting reels capable of casting the light lures used in trout fishing, and the use of baitcasters when fishing for trout in mountain streams is still largely a Japanese pursuit.
What you will also find at TenkaraBum is a wider selection of rods, lines, and accessories than at any other tenkara rod company in the US (and probably any outside of Japan). The rods sold here at TenkaraBum are either produced by Japanese companies or are actually made in Japan, designed by engineers and anglers who have been fishing and making tenkara rods and keiryu rods for decades. No other tenkara rod company in the US can say that. Experience matters. The technique is Japanese. Shouldn't your rod be?
More than a few people have asked me why I haven't written a
book. In a sense, I have and you are reading it now. At last count, this
site had over 800 pages. Granted, some are just photos, but you'll find
that in books as well. I think you'll find that TenkaraBum.com has the
most complete coverage of Japanese fixed line fishing styles of any
English language site in the world.
You will also find that the marketing effort is understated. There aren't many slick videos and there aren't many bloggers touting TenkaraBum rods. I don't give bloggers (or book authors) free rods in exchange for favorable coverage. After all, you have to pay for a rod, why shouldn't they? It may be effective marketing but it just doesn't seem fair.
I haven't done any glitzy Kickstarter campaigns to raise funds. I started small, tying a few flies and selling a few lines, and just grew as early customers became repeat customers, and as new customers come almost every day. Top quality products and top quality customer service pretty much speak for themselves.
Chris Stewart, Tenkara Bum
|On the first cast I caught a nice Yellowstone Cutthroat! I was ecstatic. I have caught fish 8/10 times I have been out with my new Tenkara rod. Thanks.
Tracy H. Colorado
| Hi Chris,
I just wanted to write with an update since I purchased the Zerosum for my wife (and then the Tenkarabum 360 for myself) earlier this summer.
We've been having a blast with these rods. We have made 8 or 9 trips to various local waters. Amazingly, we have yet to have a tenkara rod get skunked. Basically, if a Tenkara rod puts line in the water -- even for a short stint -- it catches something. Might be small, sometimes, but it always seems to connect. And, of course, even the little guys feel like whales on these rods. And when the larger fish show up, boy is it a gas!
Kevin L. New York
| Just a quick note of thanks for the order. I picked up my rod today and it is simply stunning--I am so impressed with the quality, and my only regret is that I waited so long to order it.
Patrick O. Wyoming
| Tenkara has me fishing water that in the past I would drive by on my way to the crowds. I am literally fishing waters that nobody wants to but are full of fish!
Alan J, Colorado
|I just wanted to say thank you for the information on this site. I have never been fly fishing before. I bought the kids starter kit, thinking that if I liked it I could let my 8 year old have this one and get a rod for myself. I took the kids kit out to the creek today and caught 15 rainbow and golden trout! About half were caught on the killer bug you supplied, and the other on a wooly bugger another angler that I met today gave me. My 8 year old had a blast as well, obviously and has taken to it naturally. Needless to day I will be getting myself a rod soon.
Gabe L, Illinois
|I find I am laughing while fishing. That's good medicine.
Paul S, Connecticut
| You really do have the most complete site for these styles… easily referenced and cataloged.
Michael E, Texas
|Just wanted to thank you Chris again for the great site & tips you gave me. While I'm no Tenkara pro, I am nailing our finicky trout like never before. Such fine control over drift & depth without an indicator, I absolutely love it. I've passed your site along to friends.
Good fishing, & thanks again!
G B, Utah
|I am writing simply to tell you how much I appreciate your incredible customer service. I have never experienced such a consistently high level of service from any person or business and it has definitely made an impression on me. You have a customer for life and I look forward to any excuse to buy more stuff from you.
Noel H, California
| I purchased one of your "starter packages" several months ago and have been very happy with everything I received. I have actually caught more trout via tenkara than the past few years combined with traditional fly rods.
Chris E, Newfoundland
You are the fastest and most efficient shipper/seller I have ever dealt with.
Thanks for your attention to my orders.
Roger H, West Virginia
Thank you for the advice and the prompt shipment. I have fished 8
Western rods for 25 years now, but as a total newbie to Tenkara, I
felt a little lost. Your site was a great help, but I mostly
appreciated the time you took with me last Saturday. I
felt you were really trying to get me a rod that fit my fishing style,
instead of just trying to sell me stuff.
Mike W, Colorado
|Thanks for a great rod, and thanks for helping me find the simplest, most efficient, most productive, most fun, and most relaxing fishing of my life.
Joe J, North Carolina
|I really do love your site. It is informative, enticing and you sell good stuff at a good price with a personal touch....can't really say I've encountered all that anywhere.
David B, North Carolina
|I just want to say "thanks" for the personal care you took in preparing my recent order of my first tenkara outfit. The order process, packaging, and products were all top-notch. And also thanks for the fine website; from within was all I needed to rig-up my rod and learn some basic techniques. I'm not sure I'll ever take out my fly rods again! I fished with my new Suntech Fieldmaster for the first time yesterday. I was able to hook and land several fine wild brownies from a dead-still pool, complete with spooky fish and crystal clear water. I NEVER could have caught those same fish with my fly rods. Tenkara is EXACTLY the answer to many of the problems I have while flyfishing on my Sierra Nevada streams; tenkara is the solution I wish I had discovered years ago! Again, THANKS!!!
Mark D, California
|I just got back from a backpacking trip to the southern Sierra, where I introduced 2 novice teen aged boys to tenkara fishing. Neither had been trout or fly fishing before but it took them literally a half dozen casts before they were extending the line fully - and catching fish.
The Daiwa is so intuitive that the light level line we were using unfurled naturally. Casting and catching were a blast. Thanks for recommending it - for the boys and me. I love the rod.
Lorenzo B, California
Thank you for your note included with the recent shipment of keepers, a nipper and some Utah Killer Bugs. I received them as a birthday present from my wife yesterday morning, and mid-afternoon took a quick break from work and tested everything out on the Provo River. The keepers are great, the nippers clip well, and I caught 3 nice browns on one of the UKBs, so you have just earned a satisfied customer!
Many thanks for your dedication to simple fishing!
Scott M, Utah
My wife and I have really enjoyed the equipment we've purchased from you (yarn, rods, and so forth). We've caught dozens of bluegills, green sunfish, channel catfish, Guadalupe and Largemouth bass, plus stocker trout. Frankly, we just catch more fish this way than we did previously. Plus, when you do get a fish on a tenkara rod, it's almost guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a laugh to your heart!
John E, Texas
I appreciate the care and personal attention you have given. I looked at a lot of tenkara sites before ordering anything and I know that I made the right decision. Tenkarabum.com will be my go-to site for information and gear. Thanks again!
Mitch H, South Carolina
Thrilled with your company, customer service and passion for fishing.
I bought 2 rods from you last year for my 11 yr old son and myself. Last summer, we ended up driving coast to coast across the US and fishing along the way. It was amazing. The rods were perfect for traveling and 'quick fishing' the unknown roadside waters we found...
Chris H, Maryland