Horsehair Lines
THE Traditional Tenkara Lines

Horsehair lines are the "traditional" tenkara lines. Not nylon, not kevlar, not furled. Horsehair was used as tenkara line for hundreds of years before nylon or kevlar were even invented, and has been used as fishing line for thousands of years in various cultures. In some ways it is still the best material. I suspect many people may question that view, but I bet most of them have never fished with it!

Horsehair seems to have just the right combination of density and stiffness to make a wonderful tenkara line. By tying together segments made from different numbers of hairs, you can make a line as long as you want and with any taper you want. With modern graphite tenkara rods, you can cast a surprisingly light horsehair line.

The only source I've seen that reported the number of hairs used to make a tenkara line in Japan indicated a line of five segments, with 5 hairs in the first segment, 6 hairs in the second, and then 7, 8, and 9 hairs in subsequent segments. A line like that would actually work very nicely with the Daiwa Kiyose 30SF, which has been disparaged by some as not being a true tenkara rod. (But if it casts the traditional horsehair line well - and it does - it is probably closer to the traditional tenkara rods than are the modern big name rods of today). For most tenkara rods, I generally start with 3 hairs at the tippet end and do not exceed 5 at the rod end.

Horsehair lines even heavier than the traditional Japanese lines are used to this very day by a few anglers in northern Italy who use a technique called "pesca mosca Valsesiana." The Valsesian rods are similar to tenkara rods, although based on the line they use, I suspect they are a bit stiffer. The line used in Italy was described by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, in a wonderful article entitled "Simple Gifts" which was in the October 2009 issue of Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Mr. Chouinard described the line as tapering from 14 or 16 hairs at the rod end down to 3 at the tippet end.

Horsehair tenkara linesThe line on the left is made to Charles Cotton's specifications. The line on the right is made to Yvon Chouinard's descripton.

Compare that to the line that Charles Cotton specified in The Compleat Angler. He indicated that the first two lengths nearest the hook should be of two hairs, the next three lengths of three hairs, the next three after that of four hairs, then 5, 6, and 7 hairs up to the length required for the rod. They used longer rods, and much longer lines than are generally used with modern tenkara rods. With a tenkara rod as soft as the Nissin Zerosum or Shimano Keiryu Tenkara 34-38ZL, you only have to go up to four hairs. The full length of the line that Cotton described (up to three lengths of 7 hairs) is up to 34 feet long. For tenkara rods, going up to three lengths of four hairs can create an incredibly light line up to about 16 feet long. Even that is longer than I use. I make my own "Charles Cotton" lines about 13 to 14' by ending the taper at 4 hairs.

I suspect that most modern anglers believe that Charles Cotton only dapped, and required a breeze from behind in order to blow his line out in front of him. I am convinced that view is incorrect, and that he could cast his line and fly very much like tenkara anglers do today. When describing the line, he wrote that the taper he specified will "cast your fly to any certain place, to which the hand and eye shall direct it" and also that it will fall "with much less weight and violence, that would otherwise circle the water, and fright away the fish."

You really don't want to fright away the fish!

Fishing with Charles Cotton's line

Having fished with horsehair lines made to his specifications, I will attest that Cotton's line does fall very softly, and the delicacy of the presentation you can get with a light horsehair line is hard to match with a modern line. Charles Cotton's lines are so light, though, that not even all tenkara rods cast them well. They cast well with the new Daiwa Expert tenkara rods and the Nissin 6:4 tenkara rods (5:5 for the Air Stage Fujiryu) and of course, the TenkaraBum 36. Although I have not yet tried one on longer keiryu rods like the Suntech Keiryu Sawanobori, I am sure they would do well with it. Cottons lines are quite a bit too light for the Daiwa Kiyose and the Suntech Genryuko though. That's just as well because those rods really aren't soft enough to protect a two-hair line anyway.

The line described by Yvon Chouinard, on the other hand, cuts through the wind just as he says in the article, but I find it a bit heavy for most tenkara rods. It casts like a bullet with the Kiyose, though! For fishing in the wind, or casting four flies as in pesca alla Valsesiana, it actually works reasonably well with Daiwa LT39SF and quite well with the big water / big fish Nissin Pro Square 8:2 390 and 450. By varying the number of hairs in each segment, it is possible to make a line for any tenkara rod - from the softest all the way up to the stiffest.

The only problem with horsehair is that it just isn't very strong. Cotton boldly states that he who cannot kill a trout of twenty inches with a line of two hairs does not deserve the name of angler. I guess that leaves me out. I've landed a couple 12" trout on a single-hair tippet, but I've also had a trout that couldn't have gone 8" break a two-hair line when he got into the current and headed downstream.

Huge chub caught on horsehair line

A single-hair tippet or even a two-hair line may be taking things to extremes, but a horsehair line made from more hairs, starting with either 5 hairs at the tippet end, like the old tenkara lines, or 4 hairs like the pesca alla Valsesiana lines, is plenty strong enough for the fish you are likely to catch with a tenkara rod.

Ronald Girnus is a German angler who has been experimenting with horsehair lines for some time. He caught this fine chub with a line tapered down to 4 hairs. One hair broke, but the remaining three were sufficient to land the fish.

Even with that limitation, I love the way horsehair casts, and I enjoy working with it to make lines. My lines aren't historically accurate - I don't whip the knot tag ends with silk thread, as David Webster instructed in "The Angler and the Loop Rod." Doing it that way does look nice, but it takes three times as long to make each line. And I don't leave a "straw's breadth" of tag end exposed, as Dame Juliana Berners instructed in "Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle." Doing it that way lets all those tag ends catch the line, your tippet, grass, etc. I cut the tag ends short and coat the knot with flexible glue. I'm not a historian or a historical re-enactor - I just like fishing with horsehair lines.

Storing Horsehair Lines

Much as I like EZ Keepers, horsehair lines and EZ Keepers do not mix. I do not recommend using EZ Keepers with horsehair lines, and I definitely must warn against allowing a horsehair line to dry while held by EZ Keepers. I recently received a line for repair that by the kinks in the line I could tell had been stored on EZ Keepers. Out of the six segments, five had to be replaced. Of all the horsehair lines I've fished and had to repair, I've never had a break or had to replace any segment other than the last one to which the tippet is attached. When moving between spots on the stream, I use the round blue small tenkara line holders. For storing the line after fishing, I coil it, put it back in the plastic envelope (unsealed) until I get home, where I take it out of the envelope and let it air dry before putting it back in the envelope. The line will have a definite coil the next time I use it, but it won't have any sharp kinks that lead to breaks. To remove the coil, do not stretch the line. Just let it dangle in the water as you tie it to your rod tip, tie on the tippet and tie on the fly. When it gets wet enough, the coils will disappear on their own.

If you have any questions about horsehair lines, please go to the contact us page.

Horsehair Tenkara Line

If all that sounds like horsehair lines are delicate and should be in a display case rather than on the end of your rod, all I can say is that I really like the way horsehair lines cast, and even after many attempts, I have not been able to duplicate it with a furled line of any other material. To me it's worth it.

I deeply regret to say I no longer have time to tie horsehair lines for sale. They are not difficult to make, but they are time consuming. If you are interested in a horsehair tenkara line, I would highly recommend the Horsehair Line Kit. It contains everything you need to make your own lines.


Horsehair Line Kit

The Horsehair Line Kit solves the only significant problem that keeps most people from experiencing the outstanding qualities of a horsehair line. Horsehair lines cast beautifully. The only real problem with them is that they aren't very strong so they will break. That alone keeps most people from ever trying one. Being able to make one yourself, and better yet, to repair it if it breaks, solves that problem. (It doesn't make the line any stronger, but it makes a broken line a fairly minor event.)

Horsehair line kit

The kit includes a hank of premium quality horsehair (enough for several lines) and detailed instructions. No tools are necessary other than a pair of scissors.




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Overall the line is very nicely put together, and the taper is well designed -- the line turns over like a rocket without being too heavy. Chris' horsehair line only needs a gentle flick to completely unroll all the way to the fly. I found roll-casting in tight spaces to be fantastically easy, and normal tenkara casting to be a real pleasure.

Laurent M, Massachusetts