The Upside to Tenkara

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. fly fishing

While I understand the mentality of making fun of 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 a type of fly fishing. 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 the fly fishing category.

But I don’t hate tenkara.

A tenkara rod and tube sitting on the floor.

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.

A tenkara fly and line holder.

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.

A hunter takes some drifts with a tenkara rod along a small stream.

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.

Takeaway

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.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Murtagh LaCroix

    Great pictures stream side (by the way). Just getting into Tenkara over the past couple of months. They say when you retire (which I recently – finally – did) you should learn 3 new things. Tenkara is one of them for me. Agree, its a glorified cane pole. Recently found my childhood cane pole in the backyard shed at my 95 year old mother’s house with a line, small bell weight, and hook still tied on. My Tenkara telescoping graphite rod is about the same length. I knew nothing about flies as a kid in the 1960’s and 70’s. I really have enjoyed fly fishing for 30+ years. So for me, Tenkara is taking what I’ve learned about fly fishing (and still learning) plus coming back to my beginnings as a tadpole with a fishing pole – which kind of gives it that completing the “full circle” feeling.

    It isn’t fly fishing, it isn’t cane pole fishing – but there is a beauty, a simplicity in Tenkara style fishing which takes you to some wonderful places of pursuit, which does deliver fish to the hand. And as we all know – being in those places and landing colorful aquatic “trophies” are why we fish.

    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks for reading, Murtagh! And thank you for addressing the point of the blog post, which was to share all the positive aspects of tenkara. It seems a few people got hung up on my comparison to modern fly fishing, which was not supposed to be the main subject of the discussion. I like the fact that tenkara is a stripped-down, simple version of fishing (like a cane pole), and that’s why it shines. I grew up fishing a spin rod, not a cane pole, but I can see how tenkara would be a great way to get “back to your roots” if that’s the fishing you first fell in love with!

  2. Randy

    You do realize that the first fly fisherman didn’t pick up his or her large arbor, disc drag, CNC machined reel and slide into the burled wood reel seat of his 10′ 3wt carbon nymphing rig, tightening the downlocking titanium ring, right?

    That first guy might say that rod and reel really isn’t fly fishing.

    There isn’t a dark cloud hanging over Tenkara. Those that don’t or won’t fish with Tenkara rods like to think that there is, but that’s ok.

    1. Katie Burgert

      I don’t feel like I implied the first fly fisherman did that, but if that’s what you took from this, I’m not sure what to tell you. I was simply trying to encourage more people to give tenkara a chance for its own sake.

      1. Jonathan Antunez

        We have records from 2AD talking about fishing with flies. Fly fishing, for the much larger part of its entire history has been performed with a fixed line. Just because you think it isn’t fly fishing is irrelevant. History speaks for itself.

        The Halsinger Breviary, the Treatise, the Astorgan Manuscript were all written by passionate fly fishermen and women of their time. If you had a chance to meet the fabled Juliana Berners, would you be able to tell her that what she does isnt fly fishing? I doubt it. It is just as disrespectful then as it is now to the practitioners of the fixed line sport.
        You said “However, I would also argue that by saying tenkara is fly fishing takes away from tenkara’s own history in Japan.”
        The original name for Tenkara was Kebari Tsuri…and it translates to Feathered Hook Fishing. Literally their way of saying “Fly Fishing” . Tenkara is fly fishing historically, and by the Japaneses’ own definition. I think you saying that Tenkara isnt fly fishing takes away from Tenkara’s own history in Japan.
        Now, what Tenkara definitely isn’t, is “Modern Fly Fishing”. I would classify it as Classical Fixed Line Fly Fishing.

        1. Katie Burgert

          With all due respect, it seems like you focused on a single section at the beginning, which was only included to lay out my purpose for writing this post in defense of all the positive aspects of tenkara. I’d noticed that tenkara has received a lot of criticism by some, and I wanted to encourage people to give it a try. Therefore, I started with a quick explanation of my observations on why some people haven’t warmed up to tenkara, before spending the rest of the post discussing its positive attributes. It seems if I had simply included the word “modern” in front of “fly fishing” we would be in agreement. So, I’m not sure why the negativity. But thanks for reading.

  3. Jenny

    Interesting take on things. I grew up spin fishing, got into Tenkara because it made so much sense for backpacking and fishing the small creeks and beaver ponds here in the Rockies, and ultimately ended up owning a couple of fly rods. Part of what I love about fishing (aside from occasionally being smarter than a trout)) is mixing it up: I sometimes use small spoons with a Tenkara rod or even on the end of a fly line, and using a Kast-a-bubble with a fly on the end or even a hopper-dropper combo on my spinning rig can be extremely effective. I find it highly amusing that some people get bent out of shape if you’re not fishing the “right” way.

    Do the fish really care who or what is at the other end of their dinner?

    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks Jenny! That’s basically what I was trying to get at in this blog post. I think too many people focus on what tenkara is and is not, instead of looking at it as its own thing, that may or may not occasionally come in handy for someone based on their style of fishing. People get worked up about whether it’s fly fishing (and often dismiss it on this basis), and I prefer to think of it as a different way to catch fish in specific situations. P.S. I do still pick up a spin rod from time to time as well.

  4. Randy

    “Tenkara is not fly fishing”

    That’s where my take came from. Tenkara is a method of fixed line fly fishing not terribly dissimilar to the European origins of fly fishing. Tenkara (Fixed line) is more fly fishing than the rod and reel stuff that we all do today.

    Progress must progress, and that’s why we are where we are today with rods and reels. Saying that Tenkara isn’t fly fishing is ignoring where we all came from.

    1. Katie Burgert

      I do see your point, and I appreciate looking into the “where it all came from,” of fly fishing. However, I would also argue that by saying tenkara is fly fishing takes away from tenkara’s own history in Japan. Yes, it may not be dissimilar to the European origins of fly fishing, but tenkara itself is not European. I prefer to think of them separately because I think tenkara has its own rich and interesting history that developed completely separately from European fishing methods. If you choose to think of tenkara as fly fishing, I have no problem with that. All the power to you. But I will still choose to think of them as separate, but both fun and interesting, styles of fishing.

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