Tenkara techniques should probably be divided into several sections,
as the traditional techniques used in Japan will seem much too limiting
for most Americans. When the Japanese notion that "The nail that sticks
up will get hammered down" meets the American notion that "Rules are
meant to be broken" tradition may not be lost altogether, but it
certainly loses a lot of authority.
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
The Ballad of East and West
I'll try to explain a few Japanese tenkara techniques first, as the techniques certainly influenced the way the gear developed, or in other words, the gear we have now was designed specifically to fish the Japanese techniques. You can certainly use it to fish in other ways, but the more you use a tenkara rod the more you are likely to realize that it was exquisitely designed for a certain purpose.
Tenkara as we know it today was developed to catch trout (amago and yamame) and char (iwana) in small mountain streams. The fish are not very large, reaching no more than about 15", and most are much smaller than that. Because both the streams and the fish are small, there was never a need for long casts or reels to hold excess line. A long bamboo pole and horsehair line was sufficient.
Although we don't know how long the poles or the lines were,
modern tenkara rods generally range from 11 to 14 feet.
Lines tend to be about the length of the rod, although the "long line
tenkara" practiced by some anglers in Japan (and in the US) uses a much
longer line. Daniel Galhardo has contributed a convincing article
explaining the benefits of
long line tenkara.
The mountain streams on which tenkara was developed are generally pretty small, but it is a mistake to think that tenkara is limited to small streams. Erik Ostrander has contributed a page on tenkara fishing in rivers that explains some of the techniques he has used successfully on the Madison River in Montana and the Green River in Utah. A long line is one approach, but certainly not the only one. Erik also has a different take on the "ten colors" of tenkara (a play on words, as "ten colors" written in Japanese is テンカラ which is also how tenkara is written).
When you are fishing smaller streams, though, I would highly recommend that you also try a long rod short line approach which will give you excellent drag-free drifts. You do need to use one of the longer rods to keep from spooking fish, though, and the technique may not be effective when fishing low, clear streams, where fish are very skittish.
Beyond getting drag-free drifts, the combination of a long rod and a short line can greatly improve your strike detection.
What I find very interesting is that a long bamboo pole and horshair line was also the fishing gear that was used for hundreds of years in a small area of northern Italy.
Technically, pesca mosca Valsesiana (fishing in the manner used in Italy's Sesia River valley) isn't exactly tenkara, but it's close enough I think to include in the Tenkara Techniques section. It is fascinating to me that very similar techniques developed - almost certainly independently - on opposite ends of the earth.
Trying to find information on pesca alla Valsesiana now is about like trying to find information on tenkara was two years ago. Harder, actually, because there was plenty of information about tenkara, it's just that it was nearly all in Japanese. I get the impression that there's not that much information available on pesca mosca Valsesiana even in Italian. It seems this is one of those bodies of knowledge that was passed along father to son.
Luckily, Andrea, who lives in Valsesia, has shared some of that knowledge on the page he has contributed to TenkaraBum.com. Although I'd initially thought of it as a technique for larger streams, small stream pesca mosca Valsesiana is a fun and effective technique.
I find it also quite interesting that about the same time, long rods with horsehair lines tied to the rod tip were also used in England and Scotland. For various reasons (including the industrial revolution and salmon fishing). Anglers in England and Scotland gradually adopted short rods, reels and silk lines. What they kept, though, is a method of fishing a team of wet flies that is similar to tenkara. Fishing upstream spiders is a method that uses a relatively short line to fish wet flies with frequent upstream casts and short drifts. I really think tenkara anglers could learn from the UK upstream spider fishermen, and in turn, the upstream spider fishermen would be very well served to use tenkara rods and lines.
I definitely think the short drifts are important. You often read
about the wonderful long drifts you can get with a long tenkara rod. I
am convinced that
shorter drifts = more fish.
I've just touched on a few American tenkara techniques and in time many will be expanded upon. Although tenkara is not used on ponds or lakes in Japan, it certainly is here. I've asked Jason Klass, who writes the TenkaraTalk blog, to do a page on tenkara fishing in alpine lakes. Tenkara fishing is really a hit with backpackers, and alpine lakes are pretty high on the list of favorite backpacking destinations. Many people would assume that you need to be able to make long casts. Read his article to find why that isn't so.
Before leaving this page, I think it is important to add another couple lines from Kipling's Balad of East and West:
They have looked each other between the eyes,
and there they found no fault,
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood
on leavened bread and salt
I don't know the significance of leavened bread and salt, but even though our techniques may differ, I think we in America can can consider ourselves to be brothers-in-blood with Japanese tenkara anglers.