You longtime fly anglers might reach for the reel the first time you try tenkara, but it won’t be there. Sure enough, modern fly casting typically uses a line-holding reel. The reel also often helps put the brakes on fish you’ve hooked. Standard angling gear, this tried-and-true item often offers a drag system; at times it can spell the difference between landing a fish and possibly losing one. Properly placed, your hands on the reel or line can assist with swim-slowing action, too.

Reels also match and marry to specific weighted lines. Everything is balanced and, at times, highly technical by necessity. After all, a panfish-handling outfit is far lighter and smaller than a robust one for oceangoing striped bass and steelhead—and, of course, you need both (and one for every fish in between). Or do you?

Say hello to a simpler experience: tenkara fly fishing.

What Is Tenkara?

A traditional form of fly casting for trout on Japanese mountain streams—but largely unpracticed in the Western world until recently—tenkara angling indirectly de-emphasizes your fly-fishing gear obsession (or at least offers a leaner departure from it). Again, no fly reel is used.

Literal translations of the word tenkara mean “from the sky” or “from heaven above,” and many devotees might agree. Contemporary anglers might simply embrace the simplicity of both form and function, along with maybe a dose of nostalgia.

Fly presentation includes a simple approach. A close-range cast and spot-on placement of the pattern in a small, intimate area of the water you’re angling is required (yes, that’s true for some forms of traditional fly angling, but it’s pretty much the only option with tenkara). There’s no weight-forward line for reaching out great distances here. Timing in close quarters is important, creating a kind of stealth hunter mode while fishing. You stalk. You cast. It’s up-close and personal.

Predatory or not, you’ll likely adapt and enjoy it. Yep, it’ll probably remind you a bit of cane pole fishing, which is also a simpler angling form. While sources indicate tenkara’s origins did involve cane, Japanese anglers centuries back didn’t set forth to create the manufactured fly rod options you see today. The idea was to catch fish.

As with “dapping” on small waters, a tactic where you entice fish from their hiding places with repeated taps on the pool’s surface with a dry fly or other buggy pattern, tenkara also offers this option; something you likely did as a kid, back in those simpler days. These forms of angling all put you in closer touch with the fish.

Tenkara Japanese
Tenkara is a form of Japanese fly fishing first practiced on mountain streams centuries ago.

The Setup

Line, tippet and flies—all three attach to your telescopic tenkara rod once it is extended.

Flies: Even tenkara flies are spare, reflecting the rod’s easygoing attitude.Feathers, fur and thread, all tied on a hook. That’s it! Reverse hackle wet flies are typically used—dubbed kebari by the Japanese—and slightly altered from Western-tied patterns of this kind, as the hackle faces forward. This creates a pulsating effect when you work them in the water.

Soft-hackled wet flies are also perfect for tenkara angling (the hackle faces backward, but also moves nicely in the current). But yes, you can fish most any pattern on these long telescopic rods; the philosophy isn’t prohibitive at all. Some tenkara buffs take pride in not “matching the hatch,” something certain dry-fly purists revel in. Practitioners often speak of using just one fly pattern—or one fly, luck providing—for an entire season.

Tippet: As the business end goes, hair-thin tippets link the line to the fly, a familiar expectation to fly anglers and necessary to fool wary fish. As a fly angler, you likely have a favorite tippet or two. Use these sizes. Since fish can’t run against a reel’s drag (as you don’t have one), select a lighter tippet from your favorites. Balance what the rod can handle to the likely strength of fish you’re catching.

LINE: What about the line? Use tapered or level lines, either nylon monofilament or fluorocarbon, roughly the same length as your tenkara rod (if not a bit shorter, as rods can be a dozen feet long or more. Both lines and tippets are spooled on easy-to-pocket foam or cork line holders.

The line allows for casual casting in a small area where simplicity is required. Tenkara lines operate with a loop attachment as well. Square and slip knots can be used to link line monofilament to the thicker “lilian” (hollow, braided string) extending from the thinnest rod section at the tip.

When done, you carefully collapse the telescopic rod sections, stash them in your rod sock and slip it into the storage tube (often less than 2 feet long). Want to fish? Reverse this action with relative ease. Break a collapsible blank section? That’s the beauty of tenkara—simply order a new blank and replace it. Each section is removable.

Tenkara Flies
Even tenkara flies are spare, reflecting the rod’s easygoing attitude.Feathers, fur and thread, all tied on a hook.

Mastering Tenkara Style

Casting is instinctive. You hold the rod at roughly the 10 o’clock position and cast line forward. You’ll get a feel for it almost immediately. The simplicity of the effort insists on it. You’ll find the short line/long rod combination allows for direct contact with the surface and subsurface water you’re fishing.

When a fish takes your offering, simply set the hook with a lift. Let it fight a bit, then land it by either walking further on shore or lifting the rod higher and a bit behind you. If the fish is small enough, you can simply hand line the catch.

Let’s be clear, though: Forget about hooking monster salmon or big striped bass on your rig. Tenkara fly angling is suited for catching small- and medium-sized fish. But there’s a joy in this. This size limitation energizes native brook trout and lily-pad-lounging bluegills. Hook one and you’ll feel it right up the rod and into your arm. Try it from your kayak and see what I mean. Though tenkara emerged several centuries ago in Japan (and for largely utilitarian purposes, history tells us), the pleasure is now ours as we somehow connect with these anglers from another culture.

Why choose tenkara? It’s simple fishing, direct casting and basic angling. It’s highly portable. It’s great if you’re traveling with limited space, backpacking and want to fish, or simply casting for a meal while camping. Yep, all this without a fly reel.

Related Stories: Get Hooked On Steelies

Tenkara Online Hookups

As you begin exploring tenkara fly fishing, check out these sites for practitioner advice, video tips for tying tenkara flies and fishing with this style, and yes, even equipment to enhance your angling experience, including rod-building kits, which are unassembled, pre-fitted components that allow you to build a tenkara rod. The pleasure is in the making and fishing with what you’ve built.

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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