Traditionally called “kebari tsuri”, meaning “hair hook fishing”, tenkara fishing originated in the Japanese mountain streams for Yamame trout, Iwana char and Amago. The beaches, streams and small lakes on Vancouver Island make this the perfect place to try this angling technique for trout, char and even bass.
The long, telescoping rods of modern tenkara fishing allow precise placement of the fly, and light line allows maximum control and stealth.
The appeal to me of this style of fishing can be found in the minimalistic approach. There’s something freeing about a simple setup of a rod, a line and a handful of flies. Sometimes opportunities can be fleeting, whether it’s the final moments of last light, a school of sea-run cutthroat trout porpoising during a stroll on the beach or a hike in backpacking trip and this setup allows me to seize the moment.
Under many fishing regulations, including British Columbia, tenkara fishing is allowed wherever fly fishing is. Like fly fishing rods, tenkara rods were originally made from bamboo but nowadays are made of carbon fiber, graphite and fiberglass. Rod considerations when choosing a tenkara style rod include the size of water you are fishing, the size of the target fish and the price point.
Unlike fly rods, these rods are not classified by line weight, but by their action, which tends to be a bit slower than a fly rod. 5:5 would be considered the softest action, progressing up to 6:4, 7:3 and the ultra stiff 8:2. Basically the action is a ratio of where the rod bends, not the force to bend it. This is only a guideline and it can vary widely between manufacturers. The rod length is usually listed in centimeters, with common sizes being: 290, 320, 360 and 450 (9.5-15 feet).
True tenkara rods are the mid-action of these rods and have a soft tip to cast light lines. They are designed for fishing unweighted, wet flies a few inches under the surface and are mainly intended for small mountain streams. Seiryu rods are the tenkara equivalent of a 2 weight fly rod for smaller fish on small water. Keiryu rods are the stiffest and longest rods – for bigger fish on big open water. They are intended to fish deeper, with weighted nymphs and larger flies.
Attached to the end of the rod is a small line with a knot in the end, called the lillian, to which the main line is connected. As far as line goes, there are three choices. “Traditional” or furled line is a tapered, multi strand line attached to the lillian with a girth knot. It casts like a dream, but can get water logged and like braided line, it can be difficult to untangle. Level line is a single diameter of monofilament, nylon or fluorocarbon, fixed with a lasso loop that the lillian is wrapped three times around. The setup is economical, easy to adjust and has a delicate presentation, but clear lines are tough to see. The third option is a Western innovation, light, floating fly line cut down to size. Benefits are improved castability, high durability, good visibility, few tangles and stiffer action.
Like with a fly line, the line loads the rod and propels the fly forward. Normally for line length when starting out, match the rod length and add 3 to 6 feet of tippet, maximum 5lb to protect your rod. As far as tippet goes, fluorocarbon is preferred for its stiffness, lack of line memory, increased sensitivity as well as its sinking properties. Although most tenkara rods come with hook holders to hold your line, I’ve learned the hard way that I prefer a simple foam spool, as I have yet to get the furled line off the hook holders without creating a birdsnest.
The final part of the setup are the flies. Unlike Western flies, these flies do not attempt to match a specific insect, as they were developed on high gradient, nutrient-poor mountain streams and are more of an attractor fly. Japanese tenkara flies tend to be of simpler construction than Western flies, designed to be tied streamside without a vice. Tenkara also stemmed the ‘one fly philosophy’, with many anglers using one pattern of kebari (fly) to fish every stream, every fish, every time. The emphasis is on presentation and technique over a specific fly pattern.
Three main profiles are used, differing in hackle and action. Most widely recognized for its reverse hackle is the Sakasa Kebari style with a hackle that opens like a parachute when you pull on the fly. The opposite is the Jun Kebari or swept back soft hackle with a hackle that closes when pulled. Said to be the most effective is the Futsuu Kebari, which is fished as a wet fly, with a stiff rooster hackle that maintains its profile in strong flows. Western flies can also be used and my first fish on the tenkara rod was a cutthroat on a rolled beadhead Muddler Minnow.
The beauty of tenkara fishing is its universal appeal – it offers a simple, uncomplicated way for beginner anglers to get into the sport of fly fishing, and for more seasoned anglers, another way to connect with the water and to get back to the essence of fly fishing.