Tenkara has caused a big splash in the fly fishing community since it started to become popular a few years ago. Fly anglers became extremely divided on the subject, with some extolling the virtues of a simple, lightweight setup, and others making endless fun of the fancy modern version of a cane pole.
My opinion of tenkara covers both sides of the spectrum: I don’t think it’s fly fishing, but I do think it can be a useful tool to catch fish in the right circumstances.
Tenkara vs. (modern) fly fishing
While I understand the mentality of teasing tenkara for being a glorified cane pole, I think most of the hatred for it stems from the fact that many anglers treat it as being synonymous with modern fly fishing. (A quick aside, I have added the word “modern” here, since many readers have seemed to take issue with the fact that I consider tenkara and standard fly fishing to be two different things. My only reason for pointing this difference out at the beginning of this post is to preface why I believe some people haven’t warmed up to tenkara yet, and why I’m here trying to defend it. I have no issues with tenkara, as evidenced by this entire post extolling its virtues).
What “counts” as fly fishing has always been up for debate (can Euro-nymphing be called fly fishing if you don’t use the fly line to make a cast?) and tenkara falls into that argument all the time. There’s no right answer to this, and it comes down to the angler’s beliefs.
Because tenkara involves flies, many people do consider tenkara to be fly fishing. But unlike standard fly fishing, there is no real line management apart from, possibly, mending. You can’t strip line, you can’t make progressively longer false casts, and there’s no reel or drag. In my opinion, that takes it out of what most people would consider to be modern fly fishing, and where some of the public contention has come from.
I have a hunch that if tenkara anglers had never referred to it as fly fishing, there wouldn’t be a dark cloud hanging over it. I tenkara fish on occasion, but it’s not the same as when I fly fish. I don’t need to reconcile it with myself because I consider it a different beast, one that catches me fish, and therefore one I’m still happy to do once in a while (the same way I spin fish once in a while).
The silver lining to tenkara
Because I consider tenkara something different than fly fishing, I don’t have a problem using it when I feel like it’s the right tool. It’s usually not the right tool for me, but when it is, it’s perfect.
If more anglers thought of tenkara as a tool for the right situation instead of fly fishing dressed in a trenchcoat trying to sneak into the party, I think they might get over their hatred for it.
I’ll be honest, I nearly always prefer fly fishing. I like managing the line, making longer casts, stripping in fish, and the like. It’s part of what makes fly fishing so fun. But I can also recognize when fishing is taking a backseat to something else, and that’s when tenkara comes in.
I do a lot of stuff apart from fishing. In the spring and summer, you can find me hiking and camping. In the fall, you can find me chasing elk and deer in the mountains. In the winter, I’ll be on a pair of skis. Fishing finds its way into my life throughout the year, but dedicated fishing-or-bust trips make up only a fraction of what I’m up to.
On a dedicated fishing trip, I will never opt for tenkara. The limitations it brings in terms of casting and fishing aren’t worth the quick setup and simplicity. A fly rod and reel can hardly be called cumbersome, considering they’re weighed in ounces and can fit in the bottle holder on the side of a backpacking pack. On those trips, I want to go through all the motions I love about casting a fly rod.
But, I’m not always going on a dedicated fly fishing trip. Sometimes I’m going for a hike with a non-fishing group. Sometimes I’m hunting. Sometimes I’m taking a quick walk with the dog. On trips like these, I’m not too keen on spending time building up a rod, stringing it up, and breaking it down afterward. And on backcountry hunting trips specifically, I’m not into the idea of adding even mere ounces to a pack that’s already bursting at the seams with gear.
In these instances, tenkara shines. It’s my non-fishing-trip fishing setup. It’s not uncommon to end up along a stream while out for a quick jaunt. It’s also impossible to walk by any lake or stream at any time and not inspect it for fish. Tenkara rods take up next to no space and take very little time to set up. They can easily be brought on hikes, runs, or hunts as an opportunity item. If you come across a fishable piece of water, great, take some drifts. If not, no biggie, because you barely took up any space bringing your gear along.
Earlier this year, I was on a particularly frustrating archery elk hunt. Extreme drought and hot weather led to a nearly silent rut, and I felt like I was spinning my wheels every day looking for game. I didn’t have much desire to add a full rod and reel along with a fly pack to my hunting setup, which I was carrying around for 10 miles each day, so I threw a tenkara rod and a handful of single flies into my backpack. I didn’t shoot an elk that trip, but I did land some brook trout at one of my river crossings. It wasn’t much, but it brightened my day a bit, and I wouldn’t have had that chance if I’d been limited to true fly fishing gear only.
Additionally, tenkara can be a great transition activity for folks looking to switch from spin to fly gear. Spin fishing actually overlaps pretty heavily with fly fishing. Reading water, understanding fish behavior, and knowing how to work your retrieve are all transferable skills.
The main difference lies in the gear and casting. For someone just getting started with fly fishing, it can be a lot to take in. Flies, false casting, mending, drag-free drifts, and stripping are all new concepts. Tenkara takes away about half of these things, but leaves a few. It can provide the opportunity for someone to learn how dry flies drift, without having to worry about working the line with their hand. While many adults are probably fine just jumping in to fly fishing, kids can benefit greatly from not being overwhelmed right off the bat.
I’m not here to convince you to make tenkara your next big hobby. I actually rarely do it, and probably will never do it more than a few times each year. But, what I do want to convey is that it’s not the demon it’s made out to be.
What we need to do is stop getting hung up on whether it counts as fly fishing. Appreciate it for what it is, and consider which you care more about: getting a chance to fish as often as possible, or strictly adhering to what “counts” as fly fishing. As for me, I’ll throw a tenkara rod in my pack if it means I can catch a brook trout when the elk take their afternoon rest; fly fishing purity be damned.