Tenkara Fly Fishing

A stick, some string and a fly


The following words are not mine.  As a matter of fact, I received these words of wisdom at least fifth or sixth hand.  I do not know the author's name.  The author is at the twilight of his journey here on earth, and wanted to pass along the wisdom he has learned over the course of a rich life to his family and friends -

    • Look the world in the eye and shake hands like a man
    • Always do what you say you are going to do
    • Live your life as deeply as you can and love how you are living it
    • Do what is “right” and trust your heart and soul to tell you what right is
    • Put your family first
    • Be the man that your true friends know they can trust and count on
    • Become the man you are destined to become …  be the best man you can be
    • Dare to love and allow other to love you
    • When the world looks the blackest, be true to yourself and follow your heart and keep doing what you know is right and it will somehow work out


      o You know a few fish by name
      o You can tell a particular pool, riffle or run by the sound of it alone
      o You have your own rock in the middle that is your own private “thinking” place
  • • Go fishing when your heart needs too
    • Give yourself permission to catch fish any way you want too
    • But remember to sometimes fish however you love the most …….even if it isn’t the best   way to catch fish
    • Go to streams you have never been too before and truly experience them
    • Fish your favorite river often enough that • Teach at least one person to fly fish each year
    • Take the time to stop when you have caught “enough” and just listen to the river rolling by
    • When you think you have walked far enough and should start fishing now….. walk fifteen minutes more …… at least
    • Make time to fish with your friends
    • Enjoy a drink and a campfire with your true friends 
    • But, enjoy a campfire and a stream by yourself occasionally
    • And lastly enjoy the lights …….   Sunlight, Firelight and Starlight ……… because you never know when they may burn out ………

Tenkara Line Options

There are a number of different options currently available to the Tenkara Fly Fisher regarding how to string up a Tenkara outfit.  Alot of opinions, and at least a fair amount of confusion. At least from my perspective, I think part of the confusion comes from the terminology. Alot of people refer to the entire "string" part of a Tenkara set up as a leader. I think just as with western fly fishing, there are several components to that "string". There is a line portion, than perhaps a leader portion, then a tippet portion. Each of those component serve a similar function to their western counterparts.

The line needs to capture and transfer energy generated at the rod tip by the caster. The leader portion (if there is one) provides a transition from the line to the tippet. The tippet adds suppleness/stealth and all the other stuff a tippet is supposed to do. (Especially in the case of Tenkara, being the weakest link)

I'm not sure it's any easier to answer the Tenkara line question, than to answer a question directed to western fly fishing - "Why doesn't everyone just use a level fly line?" There are tons of tapers developed for countless combinations of environments, situations, species, and conditions. I think by the time all is said and done, Tenkara will also have more than it's fair share of variations. No right, no wrong, no better no worst, just alot of "It depends".


About a year and a half back, I ran across a minor reference to a concept I had never thought about before, a weight forward leader.

The good news is, Tenkara line options, at least for the time being, are alot cheaper than western fly lines. I think that alone encourages a fair amount of experimentation, rather than just settling for the first and only $70 western fly line you happened to buy.

Some folks like their furled Tenkara lines to terminate with a metal ring, others (myself included) prefer a piece of transition momo ending in a loop.  As with all things fishing, ask 100 fishers a question, you will get about 300 opinions.

Speaking primarily from a furled leader perspective (there are alot of furl leader users) rather than from a furled tenkara line perspective (relatively fewer users),  I'm pretty sure the discussion points carry over between leaders and Tenkara lines. There are two basic schools of thought - ringers vs. no ringers.

The primary advantage touted by the ring school, is easy of use.

The primary advantage touted by the no ring school (loop to loop), a more secure connection that won't hinge at the connection.

As with most these discussions, I don't think there is a right or wrong answer. I personally am in the no ring (loop to loop) camp. In terms of convenience, you have to tie a knot one way or the other. I tie several hundred perfection loops a month, I can do them in my sleep, so that's not an issue for me. Plus I'm usually tying on a 4 - 5 foot tippet so it lasts a long time, unless I break it off on a snag. So I'm not making the connection very frequently anyway.

I'm more concerned that the connection is going to effectively transfer energy from the leader to the tippet. In other words, I don't want it to hinge. I could argue if I wanted to design a hinged connection, using a nice smooth metal ring would be a good starting point. Granted that may be a minor exaggeration (but maybe not). Just make sure whatever knot you use doesn't easily rotate around the ring.

A good test of any connection you make within your line system (except maybe line to backing), grab the line and/or leader about 4 inches on either side of the connection. Now push your hands together to form a arc with the knot in the middle of the arc. What you want to see is a nice smooth curve, something like this U. What you don't want to see is a sharp bend at the knot, something like this V.



Fighting Big Fish

Granted, large fish (and small) present a challenge, but I personally think the challenge is what makes fishing fun. The one thing I like about Tenkara, I think it will make you a better fisher person. This is particularly true in the process of trying to control (and hopefully land) larger fish. THhe challenge is certainly there, but I do think in most cases, all the odds aren't on the side of the fish.

There are alot of real nice conventional fly reels on the market today, and that has become a mixed blessing. It allows the conventional fly angler let the disk drag reel do the work in subduing larger fish. The angler strikes the "orvis pose" (rod high over head) and hangs on. When the fish runs, the reel supplies resistance (and about a mile of line), when the fish gets tired, the angler derricks in the prize.

The one thing to remember when fighting fish, the fish always follows his/her head. The fish can only go where it's head is pointing. A fish's head does not move up and down, so when you apply overhead pressure, it needs to be sufficient to lift the fish out of the water column, if not, it doesn't do much good. The fish feels pressure and responds by heading in the opposite direction. That's exactly what you don't want to happen in Tenkara. (It isn't all that great with conventional fly gear either, but that's where our old friend, Mr Fly reel comes in with several hundred yards of line and a disk drag that can slow down a Buick Park Avenue.)

A fish's head is made to move side to side. When a fish's head is side loaded, it has one of two choices, either follow the direction it's head is being pulled, or expend alot of energy trying to pull it's head in the opposite direction. Of course, things can get even more complicated for poor old Mr./Mrs. fish when that direction of pull suddenly changes from one side to the other. Once the fish starts getting turned, he/she must now also fight any current, which will tend to try to further spin the fish. (When pulling straight up and back on the fish, it takes off straight downsteam, so the current is working in the fishes favor).

Tenkara equipment is great for providing side pressure to the fish, and with the mere flip of the angler's wrist, suddenly that point of pressure moves 24' in the opposite direction from where it was just a second ago. Bottom line, in my opinion, Tenkara equipment can be a very effective fish fighting tool.

Of course, everything sounds easy in principle, and things don't always go exactly as planned. But that's the challenge and what makes it fun.

Single Pattern Fly Box

For the past 15 or so years, I have been using a single fly pattern for 98%of my time spent trout fishing. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is a simple, impressionistic dry/damp fly pattern . On rare occasions,when the mood strikes, I will use an equally simplistic bead head pattern which I can fish slightly deeper.

Although I never heard of Tenkara until a year and a half back, I have fished Tenkara like for along time. By that I mean I've fished a very short line, in order to have optimal control of my fly. In my mind, the active (or passive) manipulation of your fly is what makes fishing, fishing.

I'm not sure I agree with some folk's contention that fish have poor eyesight, and will hit anything that comes by. Of course, particularly in fast water conditions, the fish never does get a clear, long view at anything passing by on the conveyor belt. I think they at best get a fleeting partial glimpse of the food item, and have to quickly decide to take or pass. That at least is my assumption, and based on that assumption, I think fishing a very impressionistic fly makes sense. Let the fish see something somewhat vague, and let the fish figure out exactly what he/she thinks it is.

The one thing I will add, I think in order to be optimally successful, and angler must be actively engaged in "fishing" their fly. Over the years, a dead drift presentation has accounted for about 25% of my catch. The other fish have all been caught while the fly was moving some way other than dead drift.

Again, this is where a simple, generic impressionistic pattern excels. It can be effectively fished in a variety of presentations cast to cast, sometimes varying the presentation in the same cast. Being able to seamlessly fish the same fly in a variety of ways provides me much more variety than fishing a number of different flies in the exact same manner. I know it works for me.

I should add that I spend the majority of my time fishing my home river, the Muskegon River in Michigan. It is a big, fast river, with a wide variety of food items. It is very rare on my river that the fish will selectively feeding on one particular blanket hatch. I'm not sure how well the one fly approach would work in other situations, particularly slower moving bodies of water, or environments which have a less diverse forage base. I certain can see situations where an exact pattern would be more effective.


Get a Grip

The good news is I'm not sure there is a "wrong" way to grip a Tenkara rod.  If you have fished with a fly rod and reel, you may start out using the same grip.  If not, start off using what seems the most comfortable.  Here are some of the most commonly used grips

Thumb on Top


The thumb on top was pretty much the standard grip used in fly rod and reel fishing back in the day.  It does allow significant power to be applied on the forward cast.  Tenkara typically doesn't require as much power to be applied as you might be used to while fishing with a fly rd and reel.  If it feels comfortable and familiar to you, don't hesitate to use it.  Just be sure to use a light hand when casting.

Extended Forefinger on Top


The forefinger on top grip is often times useful for a first time fly fisher.  Extending the forefinger tends to restrict rotational movement in your wrist.  This may be helpful to get a feel for casting, it prevents you from over rotating you rod on the back cast.  Keeping the wrist straight tends to keep your back cast high, rather than driving your back cast into the ground/water behind you.

Three - Point Grip


The Three-Point utilizes the thumb, the forefinger and the heel of the hand to produce a firm, secure grip. The thumb and forefind extend along the side of the rod. This is the grip that I personally use most often.  In order to properly execute this grip,estend your hand as though you were shaking hands, and insert the rod into your hand.  Not only does this grip give me good control, but it tends to be comfortable and less tiring to use over long fishing sessions.



 Note, you can also move your hand up and down the hand.  Chocking up on the rod tends to provide a bit of counter balance, thus making it not quite so tiring to fish for long periods of time.