Keiryu Fishing

“Keiryu” is the Japanese word for "mountain stream." Keiryu fishing, then, is mountain stream fishing in Japan. Tenkara is also a method for fishing mountain streams - often the very same streams. One will occasionally see both tenkara and keiryu anglers in the same fishing party.

Like tenkara, keiryu fishing utilizes a long rod with the line tied to the rod tip. Unlike tenkara, though, keiryu is primarily a method for fishing with live bait - often a mayfly nymph or caddis larva that anglers collect from under rocks on the stream they are fishing. In the US, there seems to be a general sense that bait fishing is something you grow out of - kind of like going barefoot. Almost everyone starts that way but almost no one stays that way. Most move on to spinning gear and some move on to fly gear.

Among trout fishermen in the US, particularly among trout fishermen who fish mountain streams, fly fishing is considerably more popular than bait fishing. Not so in Japan. Keiryu is probably ten times more popular than tenkara.

The Rods

Just as tenkara rods have evolved to be very well suited to fishing unweighted wet flies on small mountain streams, keiryu rods have evolved to be very well suited for fishing with weight on the line and for fishing larger streams. Perhaps the biggest difference between keiryu fishing with live nymphs and tenkara fishing with sakasa kebari is keiryu's use of split shot.  Unweighted tenkara flies are generally fished in the top few inches of the water column. With the benefit of split shot, keiryu baits are fished in the bottom few inches.

To be able to handle casting the weight, and also getting good hook sets when fishing deep,  most keiryu rods tend to be stiffer than tenkara rods. However, there is a very wide variety of keiryu rods, ranging from the very stiff to the very soft. With respect to action and stiffness, there is no clear dividing line between keiryu rods and tenkara rods, and the softest keiryu rods are very nearly as soft as the softest tenkara rods.

Keiryu rods also come in a much wider range of lengths. In Japan, tenkara rods are pretty generally from 3 to 4.5 meters in length (roughly 10' to 14.5'). Keiryu rods, on the other hand, run from perhaps 2.4 (under 8') meters to as much as 8 meters (over 26'). Main stream rods, still for bait fishing but arguably no longer for mountain streams, run to 10 meters (33 feet!).

The extra length of the rods is probably the reason that many, though by no means all, keiryu rods are tip flex rods with fairly stiff mid and butt sections. Most keiryu rods are not rated by the familiar but woefully inconsistent 5:5, 6:4, 7:3 system, but if they were, many would be rated as 8:2 rods. The tip is flexible to protect light tippets, but the mid and butt sections have to be stiffer to support such a long rod and to get good hooksets when fishing deep in the water column.

I think it is very important to note, though, that many - perhaps even most - keiryu rods will cast a tenkara line beautifully! And perhaps surprisingly, the longer rods seem to cast better than the shorter ones. They have more inertia, and it is largely inertia that loads the rod when you are using a very light line.  I have now fished with a number of 5.4m and 6.3m rods and all but one cast a size 3 tenkara line beautifully. The very long "Honryu" keiryu rods intended for larger rivers have so much inertia, though, that casting a tenkara line becomes difficult. For dual use rods, I would say that 6.3m is the sweet spot.

The Lines

In tenkara, as in fly fishing, the angler casts the weight of the line. The essentially weightless fly goes along for the ride. In keiryu, on the other hand, since split shot is used to get the bait deep, the angler can cast the weight of the shot. Not only can the line then be pretty light, lighter is actually better. The lighter the line, the less wind resistance it causes when casting. The less it limits the free and natural drift of the bait. More important, though, the less it sags from its own weight.

Compared to fly fishing, tenkara fishing is a tight line method. Much is written here in the US about the advantages of keeping your line off the water's surface. Tenkara anglers find that hard to do, though, unless they utilize not only a light line but also a relatively short line. Compared to keiryu lines, though, a tenkara line is extremely heavy and sags noticeably. (And that’s a light, level fluorocarbon line. Furled lines and PVC coated running lines are even heavier and sag horribly!)

A quick rule of thumb for converting Japanese line sizes to the American system of pound test breaking strength is to multiply the Japanese size by 4. Size 3 line, relatively light for tenkara, is thus about 12# test line. Keiryu anglers, though, routinely use lines of less than 4# test. Some of the newer keiryu rod models, like the Daiwa Zero rods or the Suntech Aoi ZPRO or Keiryu ZPRO rods, can handle lines that are less than 1# breaking strength. It is the ultimate in ultralight fishing!

The Suntech FMX ZPRO is rated for lines as light as 1lb test!

Because the line is almost weightless and the weight of the split shot is holding it tight, keiryu anglers are able to fish with a line that is virtually straight from the rod tip to the split shot. The split shot is attached to the line perhaps 8" or so above the hook. There can be a little slack between the shot and the hook, but very little. Anglers who utilize a hybrid of tenkara and keiryu, fishing weighted artificial nymphs rather than a split shot and a live nymph  can eliminate even that little bit of slack, fishing a tight line from the rod tip all the way to the fly.

Keiryu anglers also fish with a shorter line (relative to rod length) than the vast majority of tenkara anglers, with the line length from rod tip to hook generally no more than the length of the rod and often a bit less.  Two of my best days were with a 4.4m rod and a line (including tippet) two feet shorter than the rod, and with a 6.3m rod and a line (including tippet) four feet shorter than the rod. That's shorter than most Japanese keiryu anglers use, but Oh My, what great drifts! 

With a tight line from rod tip to hook, combined with a very long rod, keiryu anglers can fish with their line entering the water almost vertically. Drag is essentially nonexistent and cross currents are very nearly irrelevant. That is a huge advantage!

The Markers

There is one disadvantage to fishing with a line as light as keiryu anglers use. You can't see it. The rods, despite their length, are quite sensitive, though, and many takes will be felt. However, as with tenkara, if you wait until you feel the take, in many cases you will have waited too long. With an artificial fly, if you wait too long the fish will spit out the fly. With live bait, if you wait too long the fish will swallow the hook.

Despite the common belief that bait fishing causes substantially higher fish mortality than fly fishing, that does not seem to be the case with keiryu fishing. As a kid just starting out fishing with bait, I was taught to wait a bit before striking, to "make sure he's got it." That is referred to as passive bait fishing and it allows the fish time to swallow the bait. The resulting deep hooking clearly does increase the chances of fish mortality.

Keiryu uses an active bait fishing approach rather than a passive approach. With an active bait fishing approach, one sets the hook at the first indication of a strike, just as in fly fishing. My own experience, and that of John Vetterli of the Tenkara Guides in Salt Lake City, is that virtually all the fish caught are hooked just where you would hook them if you were fishing with flies. With no deep hooking  there is no greater mortality.

In order to set the hook quickly, at the first indication of a strike, you need a very sensitive method of strike detection. Spin fishermen use a short rod and long line, much of which is under the surface and because of different current speeds, is not a straight line from rod tip to hook. Keiryu anglers use a much longer rod and relatively short line that is nearly vertical, with little line actually in the water. They use what are called "markers" on their line, fixed so they are just above the water's surface.

There is very little slack between the hook and the markers, so they are extremely sensitive to the slightest movement of the hook. Seeing the markers dip or even just hesitate is a much more sensitive indicator of a fish taking your bait than feeling for a strike when spin fishing. You will know that a fish has taken your bait before it has a chance to swallow it. You can react instantly, and the long rod magnifies the slightest move of your hands so your hook sets can be extremely quick. Thus, keiryu fishing isn't just active bait fishing, it's hyperactive bait fishing!

There are two main types of markers. One is a series of little plastic flags that are attached to the line. The other type is a series of short pieces of brightly colored polypropylene yarn tied around the line. After having tried both, I prefer the yarn markers. The plastic flag markers weigh more and cause noticeable line sag.

In the US, yarn indicators are commonly used in what is called "indicator nymphing." There is a big difference, though, between a fly fisherman's yarn "indicator" and a keiryu angler's yarn "marker." The purpose of the markers is not to suspend the nymph, so they can be much smaller. Being smaller, they are less affected by wind resistance when casting than a large indicator would be.

Keiryu anglers will use two to four markers at a time, attached to the line so that the lowest one will still be above the water's surface.  With three or four on the line, spaced a few inches apart, you can easily see the angle change if your bait hesitates at all, whether because it hits a rock or a fish hits your bait. Finally, since the markers are just a few small knots on the line above the surface instead of large foreign object floating down the stream, they are much less likely to scare highly pressured trout.

The Bait

In Japan, keiryu anglers will often gather mayfly nymphs and caddis larvae from underneath rocks on the stream they are fishing. This is the ultimate in "matching the hatch." It is not legal in New York state, however. Please check the regulations where you fish before doing it.

Japanese anglers also use earthworms (red worms rather than night crawlers), meal worms and salmon eggs.

In the US, I suspect that most keiryu anglers will use artificial nymphs rather than live bait. The use of artificials is too deeply ingrained in our fishing culture – particularly among stream fishermen. I see that as no particular problem, though, and I would expect them to be extremely successful in that approach. Personally, I'm more interested in the fishing method than with whether the hook holds a real nymph or an artificial one, an earthworm or a San Juan worm. (Fly fishing purists will claim a San Juan worm isn't really a fly. I wonder if keiryu purists would claim it isn't really a worm, either.)

I'm not sure where you would draw the line (if you even have to) between tenkara fishing with a weighted nymph and keiryu fishing with a weighted nymph.  Given that Japanese tenkara anglers do not use weighted artificial nymphs, and Japanese keiryu anglers do not use weighted artificial nymphs, I'm not sure we can get much guidance from Japan on this question. Whichever rod is used, it really falls into the gulf between the two pure pursuits.

Daiwa Kiyose 30SF

Following my introduction of the Daiwa Kiyose 30SF to US anglers in the spring of 2011, lots of tenkara anglers have experienced the benefits that one of the stiffer keiryu rods can provide for fishing heavily weighted nymphs. Increasingly, tenkara anglers are also learning the benefits of using one of the longer keiryu rods for fishing not only nymphs but also wet flies and even dries.

One of my best days ever was when I first used a 4.5 meter rod on a small stream. Despite the overhead branches and the tree-lined banks, using the extra long rod with an extra short line I got drifts I'd never gotten before. I caught lots of fish on both wet flies and dry flies! On a larger stream or river, the same result can be obtained with a 5.4 or 6.3 meter rod and a commensurately short line. I recently had my best day on particular a stream by using a 6.3m rod and fishing Killer Bugs with a relatively short line. 

If you feel as I do that the main advantage of tenkara is improved presentation rather than simplicity, you will probably also agree that the improved presentation and drag-free drifts really are pretty much limited to relatively small streams. You can certainly use tenkara rods on larger rivers, but if you want the same drag free drifts, you will have
fish at the same close range in a large river that you do in a small stream. To get the same great drifts further away you will need a longer rod.

People in the US are only starting to fish with the longer keiryu rods but I suspect more and more people will discover the benefits of fishing with a longer rod rather than just a longer line. Keeping the line off the surface is just as important on a larger river as it is on a smaller stream. Whether the two handed 5.4 and 6.3 meter keiryu rods are used with light tenkara lines or with keiryu lines and markers, and whether they are used with split shot and live nymphs, weighted artificial nymphs, unweighted wets or even dries, I think the benefits are real and will be realized.

Keiryu Gallery - The Search for
Monster Yamame is a company in Japan that makes and markets excellent fishing videos. I was given permission to embed the following video on the TenkaraBum website.

The 55 minute video shows Choji Hosoyama, perhaps the best known keiryu fisherman in Japan, explaining how he fishes for yamame in a large river. Although the rod he uses in the video is longer than any I carry on, the principles are the same.

For best viewing, click the full screen icon in the lower right hand corner.

TenkaraBum Home > Keiryu Fishing

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- Eiji Yamakawa

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Keiryu Rods

Keiryu Line

Keiyru Markers

Split Shot


Keiryu Starter Kit

Small Stream Keiryu Starter Kit

Mummy Worms

I have been fishing Tenkara for 4 years. I only fish lakes and creeks and only used unweighted flies. During the past 4 years I have caught lots of fish. Tenkara is wonderful but with so many trees and people around casting has always been a problem!

One day I read your introduction to Keiryu. So I thought why not try it.

All I can say is Keiryu is much more practical for fishing lakes and creeks from shore. I can now present my flies in any spot that a spin caster can fish. I am catching more fish, more adult fish and more species than with tenkara. I just wanted to thank you for introducing Keiryu.

Michael M, New Jersey

Thank you for writing about keiryu style fishing. I like to catch a lot of fish when I go fishing. You have me so intrigued with it, I have order a red wiggler farm so I can raise my own worms. I am 63 years young and I see myself returning to the fishing of my youth.

I am coming full circle, but with much more understanding of fishing. I feel like a kid again thanks to tenkara and keiryu fishing. So, I just want to let you know that I support you 110% in what you are doing. So please continue to ignore the purists.

Thanks for returning my excitement for fishing again.

Les A, Idaho