Tenkara in Japan – Part I

When adopting flyfishing as our way to catch trout, we often impose certain restrictions on what we technically can or cannot do. For example, there are the dry fly purists, or those who refuse to use an indicator.

Then there is a Japanese branch of flyfishing (or is it?) called Tenkara. This restricts the flyfisher by tying flyline to the tip of a long (10-12ft) rod without a reel. The flyline is about the same length as the rod, then add some tippet. What would it mean to fish within those equipment limits? I was about to find out…

I had fished once before in Japan on a guided trip with Christopher Bassano and had greatly appreciated the Yamame (cherry salmon) and Iwana (spotted char) fishing Japan offers. This time though, I was going to walk 160km of an old Samurai road between Kyoto and Tokyo, called the Nakasendo Way. This walk is not advertised as a fishing trip, nor was there anything published that I could find about fishing along the way. Yet, I like to think that my readiness to fish is like the readiness of a Samurai warrior before battle. I was very keen to have a cast if we crossed one of the many mountain streams that were mentioned in the walking guide notes.

Going on a walking holiday rather than a dedicated fishing trip, imposed a couple of restrictions. Mainly time (we might not have enough of it to fish) and backpack space. So I started researching Tenkara, and the more I read about it, the keener I was to give it a try. It appeared those clever Japanese had evolved a simple method to fish their mountain streams for Yamame. A Tenkara rod first appears as  little tube 40cm long, consisting mostly of the cork handle. Then you take the plug out of the top, pull out a telescopic tip and keep extending until suddenly you have 12 feet of flexible rod! As already mentioned, there is no reel in Tenkara fishing; just 10ft of flyline of sorts attached to the end of the rod, then tippet and a fly. That’s it! As the walk was long and we had to carry everything, minimalist packing was a must and Tenkara was a perfect fit.

The classic fly of choice for Tenkara appears to be a wet fly (‘kebari’), which is tied with a reverse hackle. The idea is to cast the fly upstream and gently pulse it as you bring it back towards you. This motion, and the rise that is created when you pick up line for a new cast, creates what the Japanese call ‘the invitation’ (‘sansoi’) for a Yamame to take the fly. The thought behind it is as simple and as beautiful as how they present food in an Izakaya, run their Shinkanzen bullet train system, or shape their bonsai trees. It’s simplicity, perfected.

Kebari flies.

But does Tenkara actually work? Before I left Australia, my fishing buddies were highly skeptical. Clearly, you can’t make long casts – and what if you hook a larger fish? Nope, the vibe I got at home was to forget Tenkara and just pack my 3 weight outfit instead. However, this wasn’t the first time I’ve decided to go against the grain, and I settled on Tenkara as my only way to fish on the trip. I didn’t have space in the pack for waders or even wading boots, but it turns out that keeping dry feet is (conveniently) part of the Tenkara tradition.

I found soon enough that casting a Tenkara line is very much like normal fly casting, with the obvious difference that you can’t shoot line. It offered enjoyable light-weight and subtle presentation on some of the best pocket water I’ve fished anywhere. And when the river was too wide, I simply walked around to fish it from a better angle, or left that water to fish more accessible spots instead. Tenkara fishing required me to position myself smarter along the stream. Doing that, the fly remained on the water most of the time, which I think is a good measure of efficiency! It does help if you are familiar with single nymph fishing or Czech nymphing, as a tight system is needed to detect takes and set the hook rapidly.

An idyllic Tenkara location on a Japanese stream.

To my surprise, fishing in close quarters with lots of trees overhanging the stream, proved much harder than with a conventional outfit. Here, reeling in excess line to make a bow-arrow cast is a great option, but a Tenkara 12 foot pole with a fixed line made that impossible. I had thought Tenkara was for close range fishing, but it turns out it works perfectly for what I would call ‘medium range’ in fairly open terrain, with both very short and longer casts out of reach. That still left me with plenty of water to fish though!

How I actually went catching those beautiful Yamame, and my experience with the kebari, I’ll discuss in part 2. For now, it suffices to say that I discovered Tenkara turns what looks like a restriction of line length, into an invitation to fish with pure simplicity. It will become a core part of my flyfishing toolbox, as I tend to do a lot of hikes and fish many waters in Australia that are perfectly suited to Tenkara’s effective range. Tenkara is simple, lightweight and easy. The Japanese had this concept sorted out perfectly a long time ago, and I encourage you to discover this great method of fishing for yourself.