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 needed.
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.
The Japanese did not invent fly fishing, and very similar styles of "rod-line-fly" fishing existed throughout Europe - and probably throughout much of the world. What is different, though, is that the Japanese did not give up on the "fixed line" fishing style after reels were invented or even after reels became common. A very similar style also held out in a small area of northwestern Italy, but it is the Japanese version that has been introduced - or perhaps reintroduced - to the world in the last few years.
Fishing a mountain stream in Japan
In Japan, tenkara has been used for hundreds of years to fish for trout and char 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 in the air and not on the water, 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. Plus, the whole emphasis is on the fishing rather than the fly choice; on presentation rather than imitation. Matching the hatch is not emphasized - and learning Latin is absolutely not necessary!
Masaki Nakano, Gallatin R. MT
The rods are long - most are 10 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.
It has often been said, by me as well as others, that tenkara in
Japan is a fishing method that uses only a single unweighted wet fly.
The more I learn about tenkara the more I realize that is not correct.
It is probably true that the handful of "masters" use only a single
unweighted wet fly most of the time, but I have have seen videos of both
dry flies and weighted flies used by masters. For the average tenkara
angler (or at least the average tenkara blogger) in Japan, the use of
dry flies and bead head flies my not be usual but it certainly is not
Although a few Japanese anglers use only one fly pattern, and many use only a handful, it is important to point out that if you already have favorite flies, you can continue to use them. Soft hackles in particular work quite well. To put it another way, tenkara rods are really very effective for fishing soft hackles.
The drag free drift advantages you get with tenkara rod and line are even more striking when fishing dry flies. With a long rod and relatively short, light line, only your fly and a few inches of tippet are on the surface. You can't get better drifts than that. A light line does not have sufficient energy to turn over wind resistant flies like a Wulff, but an aerodynamic fly like an Elk Hair Caddis works not just well but surprisingly well.
There seem to be two main schools of thought with respect to tenkara in the Western World. One suggests that it should remain pure and true to the way the masters practice it in Japan. The second is that "as practiced in Japan" it is too narrowly defined.
The traditional Japanese definition of tenkara excludes many of
the techniques and fly choices that most Americans use. The narrow definition also excludes
lots of very nice rods - rods that in some cases are better suited to
the way we actually fish than "tenkara" rods are. Keiryu rods, in particular, are much better suited to fishing weighted nymphs than tenkara rods.
Even worse, tenkara as practiced in Japan excludes some wonderful fishing opportunities. In Japan, it is only practiced on mountain streams. In the US we have warm water streams, ponds and lakes full of bluegills, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappies - I mean, how could you not fish for them? There is just way too much fun to be had to limit yourself to tenkara fishing as it is done in Japan. That just makes no sense.
Bluegills are too much fun to ignore.
Many descriptions of tenkara call it fly fishing without a reel. I believe that is missing the point. To me, the essence of tenkara is not the lack of a reel. It is a long, supple rod and a relatively short, very light line, which allows you to get keep most of the line off the water's surface. That, in turn, allows presentations that you just cannot get with a shorter rod and certainly not with a heavy line. It's not just the rod, it is the long rod and light line together that give you the benefit.
Very recently, a third school of thought has been introduced, which really is fly fishing without a reel, and is essentially a hybrid of tenkara and western fly fishing - using a tenkara rod to fish with a PVC fly line and western fly fishing techniques. The long, heavy fly line negates most of the advantage tenkara offers.
It may simplify fly fishing, but it certainly complicates tenkara!
To each his own, though, and I welcome the new anglers who are being introduced to tenkara.
TenkaraBum.com will follow the second school of thought. I was not drawn to tenkara because it is Japanese and I do not feel wedded to its traditions. I do not like it because it is "simple." I like it because for the streams I like to fish, it is the most effective method. I like to use the longest rod and lightest line I can get away with. I want the perfect drifts and the fly manipulation you just can't get if your line is caught in the water's surface. I like tenkara not because it is simple but because it is fun - so much so that I now choose it even where it may not be the most effective method. For me, tenkara is not a religion and it's not a life style, it's just fishing - but it's really great fishing.
I'm not a missionary. I'm a merchant. My goal is not to
spread the word. It is to make available the best rods, the best lines
and the best accessories I can find. And I can assure you that many of the world's best rods and lines are available on these pages. They may not have been the first rods on the scene here in the US, but they are very definitely the best.
Chris Stewart, Tenakara Bum
| TenkaraBum is like no other! This is the only place where I can find those specialty items. My order was here in 2 days flat. My order even had a sample with it called Utah Killer Bug yarn. Thank you TenkaraBum, you made me a customer for life.
Patricia T, Connecticut
|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
|Thanks for putting the "fish" back in in "fishing."
John K, New York
| 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