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
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 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.
In tenkara fishing, the whole emphasis is on the fishing rather than the fly choice; on presentation rather than imitation. Matching the hatch is not emphasized. Interestingly, in Europe, which has an even longer tradition of fishing with a long rod and line tied to the rod tip, flies have been tied to match specific insects for almost 2000 years.
I suspect the different approach to fly design is based largely on the waters that were fished. The high gradient mountain streams of Japan are not very fertile so the food supply is limited. The fish could not afford to be picky eaters. In more fertile streams, trout can at times be very selective.
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 rod up to perhaps 1.5 times the length of the rod (to which anglers add from 3 to perhaps 5 feet of tippet), 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. And as good as the drifts are with the traditional wet flies, using a tenkara rod with a dry fly and relatively short line will give you better drifts than you have ever had.
The Japanese use tenkara rods only for trout and only in mountain streams. Here in the US, just a few weeks after tenkara rods were first available, someone posted photos of some really impressive bluegills and largemouth bass that he'd caught with his new tenkara rod. From that day forward, people in the US have used tenkara rods to catch just about every fish that would take a fly and in just about any type of water - mountain streams, alpine lakes, warm water streams, farm ponds, the lake in the town park, wherever.
People have pushed the envelope in ways that would have been unimaginable in Japan. Bluegills, bass, catfish, carp - everything from micros to salmon - and even salt water!
To be sure, tenkara rods are not always the best tool. For carp fishing, there are carp rods. They look a lot like really long, really beefy tenkara rods, but they have the strength to battle carp. The situation is pretty much the same with salmon - there are fixed line rods designed specifically for salmon, and they are truly a better choice.
For that matter, there are rods that are better than tenkara rods for fishing weighted nymphs, which is something nearly all American tenkara anglers do. Keiryu rods are used in Japan for bait fishing in mountain streams. Unlike tenkara rods, which are designed to fish unweighted flies, keiryu rods are designed to be fished with split shot. Whether the weight is a split shot or a bead head nymph, the physics are the same. Keiryu rods, in general, have firmer midsections, which makes it easier to get good hook sets when fishing with weighted flies.
Since the Japanese do not fish artificial flies with keiryu rods, they wouldn't call it keiryu fishing. However, since they don't fish weighted flies with tenkara rods, they wouldn't call it tenkara either. Similarly, since they don't use tenkara rods to fish for bluegills, or any other warm water species, they don't call that tenkara.
When they do in fact use tenkara rods, they do call it tenkara though!
So what does that all mean? I think what it means is that much of what we do here does not fit any of the Japanese definitions. I would suggest you not get too wrapped up in the definitions or the terminology used to describe a specific type of fishing that just isn't done in Japan. Not everyone in the US thinks that what we do here should be called tenkara. Not everyone in Japan thinks what we do here shouldn't be called tenkara.
After fishing with tenkara rods for over a decade now, fishing in Japan, fishing with Tenkara no Oni at a few of the Oni Schools here in the US, taking a couple years concentrating on spinning and baitcasting to get the sister site Finesse-Fishing started, and then coming back to tenkara, I am coming more and more to the belief that tenkara is a fishing style, a method, not just a rod with the line tied to the rod tip.
To me, now, tenkara is fishing with a single unweighted (or perhaps very
lightly weighted) fly. I have come to agree that Euronymphing with a
tenkara rod is Euronymphing - not tenkara. Fishing panfish poppers is
fishing poppers, not tenkara. For some insight on how my views have changed, read my 10-14-17 trip report.
I have not gotten to the point, and I doubt I ever will, where I think tenkara is only for trout and only in mountain streams. I am certain that a Japanese master, fishing the Wisconsin Driftless area, would consider what he was doing to be tenkara - even though the stream he was fishing ran through a cow pasture. The stream features are the same, the techniques are the same. I am not at all sure that what is behind him, out of sight, matters at all.
Besides, in Japan, even western fly fishing (fly rod, fly reel, fly line) is done only for trout and only in mountain streams! Are we to redefine "fly fishing?" Is it really a question of the proper definitions or is it more a question of geography and cultural differences?
Even though tenkara is often called simple, and it does not take long to learn how to cast a tenkara rod and catch a fish, there is a surprising amount of nuance in fishing a mountain stream. The moving water, in which the current speed and direction changes from one foot to the next, and in some cases almost from one inch to the next, makes each cast different. Utilizing the currents to get your fly to where you want it, and manipulating the fly by twitching the rod to entice a fish to strike offers as much complexity as any angler could want.
You don't have to spend a lifetime studying tenkara. If you wanted to, though, you could.
Truly, there is much to learn from the Japanese. Some of the masters have been tenkara fishing for fifty years. There are techniques, honed over decades, that can be learned only from the masters.
However, 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. Increasingly, people would say that's not really tenkara - but what does it matter if you enjoy it? No point getting into an argument over definitions. Fish any way you want (as long as it's legal).
TenkaraBum will maintain a very open view of fishing in general, including fishing for fish that most people don't fish for and using flies that most people don't use. You will find keiryu fishing, which in Japan is fishing mountain streams with bait. As with tenkara rods, though, people in the US do not limit their use of keiryu rods to mountain streams, or for that matter, 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.
On these pages 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 nor baitcasting originated in Japan. 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 largely a Japanese pursuit.
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 (and probably any outside of Japan). All the rods sold here at TenkaraBum are produced by Japanese companies, designed by engineers and anglers who have been fishing and making tenkara rods and keiryu rods for decades. Most of the rods are actually made in Japan. 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. 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 slick videos and
there aren't many bloggers touting TenkaraBum rods. I don't have
discounts for bloggers, book authors, guides, military personnel, veterans, seniors or volume. Those all may be
effective marketing strategies but in school I always hated marketing. From day one I have felt that the only way to be fair to everyone is to ask everyone to pay the same price.
I haven't done any glitzy Kickstarter campaigns to raise funds. I started small, tying a few flies and selling a few lines, and just grew as early customers became repeat customers, and as new customers come almost every day. Top quality products and top quality customer service pretty much speak for themselves.
One last thing: any shop that can afford to sell stuff for 50% off on Black Friday charges too much every other Friday!
Chris Stewart, Tenkara Bum