American Tenkara Techniques

It's hard to write about American tenkara techniques. Are American tenkara techniques really tenkara? A number of Japanese tenkara anglers, and a few Americans who have been to Japan maintain that any technique we employ here that isn't done in Japan just isn't tenkara.

Perhaps we are wrong, but so far at least, we Americans call what we do "tenkara" even if it is not what the Japanese call tenkara. As an aside, what we call football is not what the rest of the world calls football and everyone (well, most everyone, seems to be fine with that.

Czech Nymphing

At first glance, Czech nymphing seems like a natural way to take advantage of tenkara rods' length. Developed by the Poles and refined by the Czechs, what we know as Czech nymphing is an outgrowth of European fly fishing competitions. Because attaching split shot to the leader is prohibited by competition rules, the flies themselves are weighted, often with tungsten, and have a narrow profile that allows them to sink quickly and fish deeply. The curved "scud hooks" ride with the hook point up, allowing the nymphs to be fished right on the bottom with less chance of getting snagged.

With a relatively long leader and little, if any, fly line beyond the rod tip, the flies are flicked upstream and lead back down with a tight line.  Strike indicators that are attached to the line are not permitted either, so a segment of hi-vis mono or hi-vis fly line backing is tied between the leader butt section and the tippet.

European competition anglers have gradually used longer and longer rods, and the rods of choice now even approach the length of tenkara rods. Although a reel is part of the kit, it certainly isn't used except to hold the fly line (which also isn't really used). Casting is pretty much just flicking a fixed length of leader upstream.

Sounds like a tenkara rod would be ideal and Czech nymphing would naturally be one of the core American tenkara techniques. People are using tenkara rods for Czech nymphing - and catching fish. The length of the rod really does help, not only in getting a slightly longer reach, but also in guiding the nymphs down current seams.

The only real problem with classical Czech nymphing, and why I think it may not become one of the American tenkara techniques, is the weight of the nymphs. Tenkara rods are designed to cast a single unweighted wet fly on a very light line, and to do that requires very soft tip sections. The soft tip and midsections make it  harder to set the hook when fishing heavy flies deep and in strong currents. Not that it can't be done, just that it is a bit harder than with a stiffer rod.

For Czech nymphing, people are turning to keiryu rods and more specifically, keiryu rods designed for genryu fishing. Daiwa Keiryu-X rods are good examples of rods that are well suited to Czech nymphing. They are considerably stiffer than tenkara rods, which is what you need to get good hook sets.

French Nymphing

French nymphing is not as well known as Czech nymphing, but it is actually quite a bit closer to classic Japanese tenkara, and is a discipline that dedicated nymph fishermen might want to seriously consider as one of their main American tenkara techniques.

Rather than three heavy nymphs, French nymphing generally utilizes two relatively small, much more lightly weighted nymphs. A narrow profile is still important to allow the nymphs to sink to the fishing depth quickly. As with Czech nymphing, little fly line is beyond the rod tip and often the line isn't even off the reel.

Instead, the leader may be up to 25' or even longer, and the leader itself is cast rather than the fly line. The length was an adaptation for fishing low, clear water for very skittish wild brown trout. That length is near the extreme of Japanese "long line tenkara" which uses a much longer than normal level line. Because of the leader's length in French nymphing, a section of hi-vis mono or hi-vis fly line backing incorporated into the leader is necessary to detect strikes.

Given the length of leader used, to utilize French nymphing techniques, a longer tenkara rod would be needed. The Suntech TenkaraBum 40 would be a good choice. Even with the 4 meter rod, which is longer than any of the French nymphing rods, I wouldn't go beyond about 5 meters for the tenkara line and no more than two meters for the tippet.

Aside from the extreme length of the leader, one of the signature characteristics of French nymphing is the extremely short drifts that are utilized and the precise casting that is required. French nymphers almost follow a grid pattern with their casts, dropping their nymphs into every possible lie. Small wild brown trout are found in surprisingly shallow water and in riffles that most anglers walk just through rather than fish. A good rule of thumb, and what should become one of the standard American tenkara techniques, is to never wade through any water you haven't already fished. You never know, and you will be surprised at some of the places you'll pick up fish (and you'll be surprised at the size of some of the fish, too).

I have noticed that a large percentage of my fish are hooked just as I pick up my nymph or wet fly for the next cast. It is the same principle behind Kite's "Induced Take" or the "Leisenring Lift." A wet fly or nymph ascending to the surface is like ringing a dinnerbell for trout. Whatever it is, it's moving which means it's alive and therefore edible, and it's escaping! For fishing any subsurface flies, short drifts and induced takes should be standard American tenkara techniques.

Shorter drifts means more casts, and more casts means you show ascending flies to more fish. A guide I know who teaches French nymphing techniques in seminars and to his guiding clients has said, make your cast, count to three, and pick up for a new cast. Be ready for a strike immediately as the flies hit the water, and just as you are picking up.

The rapid fire casting is somewhat similar to Japanese wet fly tenkara fishing. In small Japanese mountain streams, anglers are generally fishing upstream, and after stopping their cast with the rod held high (to keep the line off the water), it only takes a very short drift before the rod gets too high to effectively strike, so a new cast is made. If you watch videos of Dr. Ishigaki fishing, he seems to often fish to a four count: cast, pulse, pulse, pulse, cast...

Indicator Nymphing

I had been pretty adamantly against fishing with floating indicators, preferring to watch my hi-vis line for hesitations or twitches. Fishing with Coach made me reassess. He fishes with a bead head nymph and 1/2" Thingamabobber most of the time (if he isn't fishing a CDC & Elk). He catches a lot of fish, and there are some pools on the streams we fish that are much more conducive to indicator nymphing than fishing with a tight line instead of an indicator.  

There are times when a light hi-vis line works better, and I have come to learn that there are times when a floating indicator works better. Once I became convinced, I decided to carry the Nakazima ball floats, which I like better than Thingamabobbers.

Dry / Dropper

Perhaps better known as "hopper/dropper" to western anglers, it's a very effective technique, but hoppers are big and wind resistant enough that you really need one of the stiffer rods to cast them effectively. However, if you use an unweighted nymph or soft hackle as the dropper, a dry as small as a #14 elk hair caddis can be used quite successfully instead of a hopper. Even the softest rods, like a Suntech Kurenai will cast that combination effectively. In reality, this is pretty similar to indicator nymphing with a high floating dry fly as the indicator. And there have been enough stories of fish hitting indicators that it seems a shame not to have a hook in them. There have also been enough stories of large, bright indicators scaring wild trout that it seems a shame not to use something that actually catches fish rather than scares them.

Skittering Caddis

The average dry fly fisherman probably uses a parachute Adams more than any other fly. There's nothing wrong with that. The long rod and light line, which allows you to keep all but a bit of tippet off the water, provides improved presentation with any dry fly. To get the most advantage out of a tenkara rod, though, I think an Elk Hair Caddis is hard to beat. With the longest rod the stream will allow, and the lightest line the wind will allow (which should definitely be one of the standard American tenkara techniques), you can cause an Elk Hair Caddis to skate and skitter and bounce in a way that just isn't possible with the 7' 4 weights that other anglers on the stream are using. For fishing pocket water, you may find there's nothing better.

I have come to learn that a lot more tenkara fishing in Japan is done downstream than I had realized before. Although they will often use a stiff hackled wet fly to skate on the surface, an Elk Hair caddis will skate very effectively when fished downstream!

Soft Hackle Flies

The more I fish soft hackles, the more fish I catch with them (funny how that is). Although many of the fish I catch are on either a killer bug or a CDC & Elk, soft hackle flies are right up there as well. Many of the traditional Japanese tenkara flies are soft hackles. Whether the hackle is "kicked" forward like the sakasa kebari or the pesca alla Valsesiana flies, or slightly swept back like the North Country flies, the soft hackle will pulse when the fly is manipulated.

As with the ascending nymph or wet fly, the pulsing hackle suggests that whatever it is, it's alive and therefore trout food. Fished upstream, the soft hackles suggest either emergers, cripples or drowned duns. As you pick up the fly for the next cast, the hackle collapses around the body and the fly assumes a perfect nymph shape. When fished on the swing, the hackles also collapse, assuming the shape of a mayfly nymph. Either way, the pulsing action of a soft hackle fly is virtually identical to the Japanese "invitation" and is one of the American tenkara techniques you really should experiment with.

Bucktails and Buggers

Fishing bucktails with a tenkara rod is probably not a technique most American (or more than a handful of Japanese) anglers have tried. It has worked for me, though, and it certainly worked for the participants of my Streamer Challenge. Obviously, with the line tied to the rod tip, you cannot strip in line. What you can do, however, is twitch the line in such a way that the bucktail or streamer swims in short jerks. By keeping the line off the water and moving the rod first to the left and then to the right, you can swim the bucktail in almost aimless spurts one way and then the other (another thing you can't do with a short rod and heavy line).

I would suggest that you tie your bucktails sparse, so that they are lighter and easier to cast. A sparsely tied bucktail may also be more effective, though. I've read that Bob Clouser, the developer of the Clouser minnow, tied the ones he used for himself so sparse that his customers wouldn't buy them. I've also read that a bucktail that has been chewed on to the point that there may be no more than about a dozen hairs left is just as effective (if not more so) than one right out of the package. They don't have to be large to be effective, either. I'm sure that a lot more American anglers have been casting woolly buggers with their tenkara rods than sparse bucktails, but I'll bet the bucktails work just as well and are a lot more pleasant to cast. Add bucktails to your American tenkara techniques? I certainly would.

And buggers? Well, the Killer Bugger has turned out to be an excellent fly for fishing with tenkara rods. It is small enough, and lightly enough weighted that you can cast one with any tenkara rod. And, boy do they catch fish!

Warm Water Tenkara

Now for some truly American tenkara techniques: tenkara bass and bluegills - but that's a whole 'nother page (at least).

And to push the envelope even more: carp!

This is really where American techniques are going to diverge from Japanese techniques. Tenkara fishing in Japan is pretty much limited to fishing for trout and char in the mountain streams of western Japan. Here in the US, that would be like tenkara fishing only in the mountains of Colorado and Utah. No, the genie is already of of that bottle. We fish tenkara from Maine to California and Florida to Washington (and Alaska and Hawaii)! Lakes, farm ponds, warm water streams all hold fish and all those fish are fun to catch. Tenkara, at least American tenkara, is not just for small mountain streams!


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