Tenkara Line

The first tenkara line was made from twisted horsehair. Most are now made from nylon monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line. The two main types are tapered lines and level lines. In the US, most tapered lines are really just long furled leaders. Most level lines in both the US and Japan are fluorocarbon.

If there is one area of tenkara fishing where I get away from the simplicity, it is with the lines. You can certainly choose one line, either tapered or level, and do all your fishing with it. I like to fine-tune things a bit and prefer to use different lines with different rods. To some extent, I'll also match the line to the fly, using heavier lines with heavy or wind resistant flies. I also match the line to how much of a breeze there is. In every case, though, I'll use the lightest line I can get away with.

As with everything else in life, the choice of which tenkara line to use is a compromise. Each type has advantages and disadvantages. I believe that anglers in Japan pretty much choose to fish tapered or level lines, and don't switch back and forth. 

To me, the greatest single advantage of tenkara over Western fly fishing is the improved presentation. The long rod and relatively short line allow you to keep most of your line off the water and fish a tighter line.

For years, I recommended fishing the lightest line you could get away with. A light line is easier to hold off the water's surface, and keeping a hi-vis line off the water at all times is directly related to catching more fish. Hi-vis line in the water alerts the fish much more  so than hi-vis line in the air. 

You cannot eliminate line sag entirely, nor would you want to. The amount of sag in your line is an extremely sensitive strike indicator. When a fish hits your fly, the fly either stops its downstream drift or moves in a different direction, which could be down towards the stream bottom, to one side or even upstream depending on where the fish goes after taking your fly. Any of those movements will change the amount of sag in your line, which will be a visible indication of the strike. Better yet, taking up the slack of the line sag does not cause any tension on the line for the fish to feel, so you will know it's there before it knows you're there.

I would recommend fishing a hi-vis line, though, as I am convinced that that the better you see your line, the better you'll see what are occasionally very subtle movements in the line. Some strikes are violent, but some are extremely subtle.

To some extent, how light line you can fish will depend on your rod, the flies you are fishing, and whether there is any breeze. Casting into a breeze or casting a wind-resistant fly requires a heavier line.

I now mostly agree with John Vetterli's view regarding line choice, which is to use the line which best loads the rod. Stiffer rods need heavier lines. As a general rule, for a Nissin 6:4 rod or a soft seiryu rod I might use a size 3 level line, while I might go to a size 3.5 for a Nissin 7:3 rod and a size 4 with a Daiwa Kiyose SF or Keiryu-X. For some rods, such as the TenkaraBum 36 and 40, which will fish a rage of line sizes well, I'd choose based on the fly or the breeze.

If you want to embrace the simplicity of tenkara, this section should help you pick which line to use. If you want to fine-tune things to match your lines to your rods, flies and weather, this section should help you pick which line to use when.

Line Length

Line length is mostly a matter of personal preference and the place where you are fishing. You may want to use a shorter line when fishing a very narrow, overgrown stream  and a longer line in a river or lake.

As a starting point, though, I would suggest a line about equal to the rod length, plus about 4.5' of tippet. After you fish more, you will recognize for yourself when a shorter line or a longer line would seem to work better. Experiment with different lengths. Again, as a starting point, for extremely narrow streams, you might try a line length about 2' shorter than the rod plus 2' of tippet, so rod tip to fly equal to rod length. For rivers and lakes, perhaps a line 3' longer than the rod with about 5-6' of tippet. Please note, I have only recently realized that the 3.5' of tippet I used to recommend is actually too short. There are probably still references in the site to 3.5 feet. I will change them as I find them.

The advantages of a very short line are fewer snags on the back cast and truly excellent drifts (Long Rod, Short Line). The disadvantage is you are much more likely to scare the fish before you get close enough to cast to them. The advantages of a long line are greater casting distance and more stealth (Longer Line Tenkara). The disadvantages are that it is harder to keep the hi-vis line off the water (which is surprisingly important), more susceptibility to drag and having to bring the fish in by hand because you will not be able to reach it with your net. To help keep the end of the hi-vis line off the surface, it is important to lengthen the tippet as you lengthen the line. That really does help to keep the end of the line in the air.

Early in my tenkara journey, I fished with a short, simplified tapered leader between the level line and the tippet (just a foot each of 2X  and 4X). When I learned that tenkara anglers in Japan tied their tippet directly to their line, I bowed to convention and dispensed with the tapered leader.

I have again started using a hand-tied tapered leader between the line and the tippet. I believe it gives better turnover of the fly, and provides a greater length of clear material, making it easier to keep the hi-vis line off the surface. The tapered leader certainly isn't as simple as just tying 4 feet or so of tippet directly to your tenkara line, but I believe it is worth the slight effort it takes to make one.

Level Lines

In general, I recommend level lines rather than tapered lines. The fact that they are "level" rather than "tapered" is not the issue. The difference is that most level lines used for tenkara are made from fluorocarbon, while most tapered lines are either nylon or furled from tying thread or kevlar. Fluorocarbon is denser than nylon and is thus less affected by wind resistance. Tying thread absorbs water so the lines furled with it get quite heavy.

I have gotten many questions about whether you could just use any fluorocarbon line sold to bass fishermen. My answer has always been that yes, you could, but there is a substantial difference between fishing with a clear fluorocarbon designed to be invisible and a hi-vis fluorocarbon that is designed to be easy to see - which makes it easy to see subtle strikes. The other side of that coin is that a lo-vis line, perhaps a smoky gray fluorocarbon, is much stealthier.

Although I have not found that hi-vis lines scare fish (if kept off the water's surface), Rob Worthing of the Tenkara Guides LLC has found that to be the case with large trout that are subjected to heavy fishing pressure. He also finds that when Tactical Nymphing he frequently will want to sink his casting line below the surface to allow the nymphs to get deeper in the deepest pools. He can sink a lo-vis, stealthy gray line without spooking fish. If he did that with a fluorescent orange line he couldn't catch those large, pressured fish.

There is a general consensus that furled lines are easier to cast than level lines. Although that partially is due in to the taper (ie. the physics of how a line is cast). In practice, I believe it has more to with the fact that nearly all of the furled lines are considerably heavier than level lines. Heavier lines are easier to cast.

However, although with a heavier line it is easier to cast, with a lighter line it easier to catch fish! I would suggest anyone starting out (and any tenkara angler who fishes with a furled line) to read my essay Why Level Line for a Beginner. It won't take long to read but it could help you catch a lot more fish.

Personally, I use level lines probably 95% of the time just because they are the easiest to hold off the water's surface.

Most people who fish level lines fish fluorocarbon, but not all. There are a few who prefer nylon level line because it yields a more delicate presentation and is easier to hold off the water's surface. It is harder to cast if there is any breeze at all, but everything in life is a trade-off, and the best isn't always the easiest.

Instructions for how to attach fluorocarbon level lines to the rod are on my Rod Care page.

Tapered Lines

Although the first tenkara lines in Japan were tapered lines, made from twisted horsehair, most tapered lines in Japan are now made from nylon mono or fluorocarbon. I have seen several different Japanese tapered lines, and none of them were furled, which is how virtually all the tapered lines available in the US are constructed. None of them were made from tying thread or kevlar, as are the US lines.

The best I've seen are the Nissin SP Pro lines, which are made of fluorocarbon and are twisted, not furled (which sounds a bit like James Bond's "shaken, not stirred" martini). They are heavier than level lines and thus harder to hold off the surface, but many people prefer them because they are so easy to cast.

I have gotten several questions about whether you could use a regular tapered leader sold for fly fishing. You can, but they all have one serious disadvantage - they are very low visibility (either clear, smoke or very light green). There are tapered lines from Japan that are essentially the same as knotless tapered fly fishing leaders, but they are dyed a hi-vis color. They are nylon, so they do not cast as easily as fluorocarbon, but they turn over well and do work very nicely.

Instructions for how to attach tapered lines to the rod are on my Rod Care page.

Floating Lines

Some tenkara anglers in Japan and in the US use floating lines made from thin fly fishing running line. It is not my favorite line by any means, but I do see advantages in some situations.

When fishing still water, where drag from current is not an issue but drag from the wind blowing the line around certainly is, you might want to anchor the line in the water. Also, when fishing poppers or bass bugs (oh yes, with the right rods you can fish bass bugs) you might want a floating line. It is heavier and will turn over the bugs better than a fluorocarbon line, and it won't sink like fluorocarbon while you are letting the bug sit still.

Not just still water! I think the wind always blows in Montana and in the canyons of Colorado. Having floating line in the water anchors it, so the wind won't ruin your presentation. You will still get drag from current differentials in the stream, but that can be a much smaller problem than having the wind blow your level fluorocarbon line so badly you can barely even fish. If you fish hoppers, poppers or bass bugs, or if you fish in the west, you might want one of these in your bag.

Horsehair Line

I've also included a page on horsehair line. Despite all the latest, greatest, hi-vis, high tech lines, I really enjoy fishing with a horsehair line. It just seems to have the right density and stiffness to cast very nicely. If you would like to make your own horsehair line, the Horsehair Line page has detailed step-by-step instructions.

Horsehair lines are attached to the rod with the same method used for tapered lines.


And don't forget the tippet which you obviously need between your tenkara line and tenkara fly. Use any brand of tippet you want, but do use a light tippet to protect the rod.

If you have any comments or suggestions, or would like to get more information about tenkara lines, please go to the contact us page.

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"Be sure in casting, that your fly fall first into the water, for if the line fall first, it scares or frightens the fish..." -
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Suntech Kurenai II AR (Waiting list signup)

Chris, many thanks. By the way, I tried out my new tenkara rod with your Hi-Vis line last weekend on a small stream nearby. I found that all the advice you give on your website is absolutely spot on.

With western style fly casting I have nothing but problems and seem never to be able to "mend" my way out of drag, which must be obvious to the fish.

With the tenkara style and your fabulous Hi-Vis line all that was in the water was the 6X tippet. After a catch-less first season of fishing last year, on my first outing with my tenkara gear and your line I caught a 9 inch brownie in a fast moving riffle - and I am hooked. You have a customer for life!

Paul G, Maryland