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.
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 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. 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!
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.
Although tenkara in Japan is predominantly a wet fly fishing method, the advantages from
drag free drifts 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.
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 - and that to stray from that path is disrespectful. The second is that "as practiced in Japan" it is too narrowly defined.
The traditional Japanese definition 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. Most keiryu rods, which are designed to be fished with weight, are much better suited to fishing weighted nymphs than
most tenkara rods, which are designed to fish unweighted flies.
Even worse, tenkara as practiced by the masters 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.
Does it make sense to claim, as some Americans do, that fishing for bass and bluegills is fine, but you shouldn't call it "tenkara" because it isn't in a mountain stream? Neither fly fishing nor spin fishing has a different name if done in a pond or in a mountain stream.
I certainly understand that there is something unique about the way the Japanese masters fish in Japanese mountain streams. The casting and fly placement is precise. Drifts are short - no more than 4 or 5 seconds before making another pinpoint cast. The hi-vis casting line is completely off the water's surface. The fly is pulsed, or manipulated in any of several different ways to entice a trout to strike. The fishing style is definitely not like western fly fishing.
Tenkara is still young in the US, and neither the concepts nor the definitions are yet fixed in stone. Perhaps the word "tenkara" is more analogous to Czech nymphing than it is to fly fishing. Czech nymphing is a subset of fly fishing. Unlike fly fishing, which covers any locale and any species, Czech nymphing is understood by one and all to be a technique that is limited to moving water, and realistically, to just trout or grayling. No one would say they are Czech nymphing in a farm pond for bluegills.
The purists maintain that "tenkara" does not just mean rod, line, fly. They maintain it really means a set of techniques, specific to mountain streams which use a rod, line and fly. Without the current seams and the eddies and the stream features to play with, it just isn't quite the same dance.
Many descriptions of tenkara call it fly fishing without a reel. I believe that misses the point entirely. 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 keep most (or even all) 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's the long rod and light line together that give you the benefit.
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 regular floating fly line and western fly fishing techniques. The long, heavy fly line eliminates most of the advantage tenkara offers. With a long, heavy line, you can't keep your line off the water's surface. You have to repeatedly mend your line to get good drifts. Truly, you might as well just stick with a fly rod and reel.
TenkaraBum will follow the second school of thought. Tenkara is a wonderful way to fish. It is a lot of fun on a bubbling mountain stream for native trout, but using a tenkara rod and line is also a fun way to fish for sunfish and bass in a warm water stream or lake, something that just isn't done in Japan. And whether you call it tenkara or something else, perhaps fixed line fishing, does it really matter? It is effective and it is fun. That's what matters.
I have been to Japan and have fished with a couple of the Japanese masters, but I have not become a disciple. I have followed my own path and I urge you to do the same. There is much to learn from the Japanese, but 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 of the biggest differences between what you will read here on TenkaraBum.com and what you will read from the proponents of pure tenkara is that I feel no need to preserve the purity of Japanese tenkara. This isn't Japan. We don't fish only in mountain streams. We don't fish only for trout. We, or at least I, don't care how you want to fish or whether it would be recognized by the Japanese as "tenkara."
To me the name is not that important. If you enjoy it, that's what matters. Besides, words can have different meanings. Think of "football" in the US and "football" in the rest of the world. If that wasn't enough, the Japanese think our traffic lights are red, yellow and BLUE!
The purists are getting more strident. However, TenkaraBum will maintain a very open view of fishing in general, including fishing for fish that most people don't fish for and flies that most people don't use. You will find keiryu fishing, which in Japan is fishing mountain streams with bait, but in the US is not limited to mountain streams, and for that matter is not limited 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.
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 or baitcasting was developed in Japan, as was tenkara. 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 pretty much uniquely Japanese.
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. The rods sold here at TenkaraBum are all produced by Japanese companies, and most 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 think top quality products and top quality customer service 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