Tenkara Techniques should probably be divided into several sections. On the one hand, there is a general sense in Japan that everyone finds their own tenkara, that each angler will have his own style. On the other hand, though, some Japanese tenkara anglers, and a few Americans who have been
to Japan, maintain that most of what we do here really isn't tenkara.
Alhough there are Japanese books and magazines and DVDs on tenkara, they're in Japanese - and if you don't read or speak Japanese they are of limited benefit. Some time ago I wrote a page on Japanese tenkara techniques. However, it is pretty basic, and better information is available from Paul Gaskell and John Pearson of Discover Tenkara.
I have been to Japan and fished with a couple of the masters, but Paul and John have been there more and have gone with the specific purpose of learning the techniques and bringing them to a Western audience. I would highly recommend taking advantage of what Paul and John have learned.
Tenkara as we know it today was developed to catch stream dwelling salmon (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 10 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.
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.
Discover Tenkara has a section on their website entitled Expert Guide to Tenkara. It explains in detail a couple of problems tenkara anglers face in trying to get the drag-free drifts everyone talks about. Hint: both are related to line weight. It is easier to cast with a heavier line, but it is much easier to achieve a drag free drift with a lighter line. Better drifts will yield more strikes. You can read the first installment here: Expert Guide to Tenkara.
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. 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.
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.
Some will claim that there are no American tenkara techniques, and that my next page should more appropriately be called "Fun with a Tenkara Rod" rather than American Tenkara Techniques. I'll let you be the judge.