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Tenkara Tapered Leader

Tenkara Tapered Leader? Doesn't exist. We don't use leaders in tenkara
.
.
.
but we should!

For the last ten years, we have been told to tie the tippet directly to the line. That is very simple but it is also very inefficient. No fly fisherman seeking trout would fish without a tapered leader. We shouldn't either.

The physics of casting a fly line and casting a tenkara line are almost identical. In fly fishing, a tapered leader provides an efficient transmission of energy from the thick line to the thin tippet. In tenkara, the line is considerably thinner than fly line, but the lack of a tapered leader insures that there IS NOT an efficient transmission of energy.

This is a question I have pondered for years. When I first started fishing with a tenkara rod, back in 2008, I used a bare-bones tapered leader consisting of one foot of 2X and one foot of 4X between my line and my 6X tippet. Then I met Dr. Ishigaki and he told me to tie 5X tippet directly to the line.

I have done so ever since - until a couple weeks ago.

On the day before my August 23rd trip, I made a line and tapered leader for a 12 foot rod. My tenkara line was 12 feet of level, hi-vis size 3.5 level fluorocarbon. My leader was one foot each of size 3, size 2.5, size 2, size 1.5 and size 1 clear fluorocarbon tippet material (equivalent to 0X, 1X, 2X, 3X and 4X). My tippet was 2 feet of 5X. That created a 19 foot line, rod tip to fly, which is longer than I generally fish with a 12 foot rod.

Despite being a longer line (including leader and tippet) it was very, very easy to get a fly first cast and prevent the hi-vis tenkara line from ever touching the surface. The turnover was the best I have ever experienced. By far! Truly, I doubt I will ever again fish tenkara without a tapered leader.

One reads online comments written by people new to tenkara referring to the entire line, rod tip to fly, as a "leader." They must assume that since tenkara anglers do not use the familiar fly line, what we do use must be the leader. That is not at all what I mean by the word "leader." To me, the leader is that which goes between the line (in our case, the tenkara line) and the final section of tippet to which the fly is tied.

No tenkara angler uses a leader. Well, one does now. I sent a very brief outline of this article to a friend. He tried it and wrote back "Wow, what a difference. I noticed a much nicer, tighter loop, more control, and a gentler landing. I also feel I didn't have to put quite as much effort in the cast."

No, actually two. I really think I will use a leader from now on. Why this radical change? (And within the world of tenkara, using and advocating a tapered leader is indeed radical.)

Over the last couple years, I learned two things that have led me to again try a tapered leader. The first was Paul Gaskel and John Pearson's  discovery that keeping the hi-vis tenkara line off the water's surface at all times - not letting it touch the surface at all, even briefly - resulted in a seven-fold increase in the catch rate. I had learned early on that keeping the hi-vis line off the surface increased my catch, but I had no idea it was that dramatic, or that even a brief touch was so damaging.

The second thing I learned was that fishing a longer line and longer tippet can be much more productive. For years I had championed a "Long Rod, Short Line" approach. 

Of course, fishing further away reduces the chance that the fish will see you and be spooked. That is obvious, but the longer line has other benefits. A longer line creates more line sag, which for years I thought should be minimized (more tippet in the water, more drag). For all those years, though, I fished a dead drift almost exclusively. If you are manipulating the fly, though, drag is no longer a major concern. Granted, a manipulated fly is not drifting along at the exact speed of the water surrounding it, but the subtle pulsing motion seems to attract fish rather than scaring them.

The greater line sag provides a bit of slack so the fish can take the fly and not feel immediate tension on the line. With a little slack, the fish can turn - back down to deeper water or to the side from which they came to take the fly. After the fish turns, when you tighten the line it sets the hook, it doesn't pull the hook out of the fish's mouth. Plus, the sag is an extremely sensitive strike indicator. If you are pulsing the fly a few inches under the surface, when the sag disappears it is probably a fish.

Fishing with a longer tenkara line two problems, though. First, it is much harder to keep a longer tenkara line off the water's surface if you don't also have a much longer tippet (5.5-6 feet compared to 3.3-4 feet). Second, if you do have a much longer tippet, it is much harder to get complete turnover of the tippet and fly.

Fishing with a tapered leader between the hi-vis tenkara line and a short (two-foot) tippet solves both of those problems. First, your hi-vis line can be relatively short - no longer than the rod itself. A portion of the tapered leader will be in the water, but it is clear fluorocarbon, so it should not scare fish as your hi-vis tenkara line does. Second, the tapered leader produces a very efficient transfer of energy from the tenkara line to the tippet, so complete turnover becomes very easy to achieve. 

I am breaking with convention and recommending fishing with a leader between the tenkara line and the tippet. Consider what the leader does. The leader provides a smooth transition from the thick line to the thin tippet. It will give you much, much better turnover of the tippet and fly. 

Basically, keeping the hi-vis line off the surface is critical. That is easier to do if there is a longer distance between the fly and the hi-vis line. However, if that longer distance is all 5X tippet, it just doesn't turn over well. If it is a tapered leader, though, it turns over beautifully!

It will take some experimentation to find the optimal ratio of clear and hi-vis in the overall line length (meaning rod tip to fly). If you want a shorter overall length, I think it might be that you should shorten the level tenkara line, rather than the leader. However, if the hi-vis line is too short it may be too high above the water's surface and may make strike detection more difficult. If that is the case, you may want the first section or two of the leader to be hi-vis. It may be, though, that shortening the length of each segment of the tapered leader might be better. More research is needed.

It is all about managing the extent and the curvature of the sag, and making sure the hi-vis line is always above the water's surface. Using a leader that gradually tapers from the diameter of the level tenkara line down to the diameter of the tippet makes that much easier to do.

To construct a smoothly tapered leader, you will need to purchase fluorocarbon material covering all the sizes between your level line and your tippet. If you normally fish a size 4 line and 5X tippet, your leader will consist of 1 foot each of size 3.5 line, 0X, 1X, 2X, 3X and 4X. If you want to fish a relatively short line, you might want the 0X and 1X to be size 3 hi-vis line size 2.5 hi-vis line, respectively, to keep the hi-vis line close enough to the surface to be a good strike indicator. You definitely want the hi-vis line to be above the surface at all times, but if it is too high it loses the sensitivity you will need to detect subtle takes.

If you normally fish a lighter tenkara line, the tapered leader still should start with the next lighter line or tippet size. So, if you fish a size 2.5 line, the leader will start with either size 2 YGK line or 2X tippet (which are the same diameter). Which to choose depends on whether you want that section to be hi-vis or clear.

Obviously, constructing a tapered leader is more complex than tying your 5X tippet directly to your tenkara line. However, the leader will last for many trips and it will improve every cast on every trip. It will help you make fly first casts. It will help you to keep your hi-vis line off the surface at all times. It will help you catch more fish. It takes minutes to tie and it will help you catch more fish. Why wouldn't you use one?

Tenkara tradition? Please. The traditional horse-hair tenkara line was hand-tied and was tapered all the way from rod tip to fly. Somehow that tradition got lost on the road to simplicity.


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“The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten” - Benjamin Franklin

"Be sure in casting, that your fly fall first into the water, for if the line fall first, it scares or frightens the fish..." -
Col. Robert Venables 1662

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