Anything Fly Fishing

Give Tenkara a Try

5 Mins read

“Fishing from Heaven.” That’s the English translation of the Japanese word tenkara, a traditional Japanese style of fly fishing that has journeyed from the mountain trout streams of the Land of the Rising Sun to our own mountain streams—and beyond.

Having lived in Japan for three years while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Cold War, I’ve wanted to try this form of fly fishing for some time. Everyone in the Virginia fly fishing community I asked about tenkara sent me in the direction of Tom Sadler.

Tom is a well-known angler in these parts. He’s an award-winning outdoor writer, a conservation advocate, fly fishing guide, and, I think it’s fair to say, a go-to tenkara guy at Mossy Creek Fly Fishing in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

I reached out to Tom. He graciously said he’d be glad to get together and show me around tenkara world, proposing that we chase down some brook trout on a local stream in the Shenandoah Valley. After a couple of aborted attempts due to scheduling issues, we set up a date to meet up this spring.

I did a little research on tenkara before meeting Tom.

It turns out that in line with a Japanese preference for simplicity (as contained in the Zen Buddhist concept of wabi-sabi), tenkara basically involves a fishing rod with a short fly line attached to the end. At the end of the fly line, attached with tippet, is the fly.

That’s it—fixed lined fly fishing; there’s no fancy machined-aluminum reel with a disc drag with yards and yards of synthetic backing and high-tech, plastic-coated fishing line—not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Look Ma, no reel!

In a way, I couldn’t help picturing a well-worn Norman Rockwell print from the 1940s of a pack of barefoot kids hustling off to the old fishin’ hole with hand-me-down cane poles over their shoulders, a couple of well-worn bobbers in the pockets of their overalls, some night crawlers in a jar that they’d dug up themselves, and a yet-to be-filled creel.

At a roadside pull-off next to the river, Tom popped open the tailgate of his TAV (trout assault vehicle—what else?!), and, like a samurai proudly displaying battle-scarred katanas, spread out several, compact tenkara rods.

Tenkara Tools of the Trade

Tom patiently went through the kit piece by piece, including the choice of different fly lines (e.g., level and furled) as well as an assortment of traditional, reverse-hackle kebari (Japanese flies).

In showing me some examples of the odd-looking kebari, sensei Sadler shared with me that he prefers to fish local flies that produce hook-ups, such as using the parachute adams for brookies, over the kebari-style flies.

That makes sense; Japanese fishers would also probably agree with Tom’s view. Indeed, a Japanese friend recently told me that in Japan there is an old proverb that goes: When in a foreign land, follow the local customs.

Tom finally extended the different tenkara rods. The rods grew from 2-feet when collapsed to—tahdah!—9-feet to 14-feet in length when fully extended. Tom attached a 10-foot, thin fly line to the tip of one of the rods.

Quickly geared-up, like a pair of fly fishing ninjas, we stealthily (at least as stealthily as middle-aged men can…) descended the steep bank in hot pursuit of stocked and wild brookies in the near-perfect spring water conditions of the river below.

Tenkara Tom teaching…

Tenkara Tom demonstrated the casting of the graphite tenkara rods, which involved little more than a flick of the wrist due to their amazingly flexible tips. No false casting needed here, just a simple snap of the wrist to get that fly line in front of a fish.

Even I could do it….

In no time, I was landing brookies from pocket waters, plunge pools, and runs between the river’s rocks. Due to their length, “high-sticking” these rods is natural; leaving just a little leader on the water is easy and extremely effective for fooling fish as we all know.

Can you say: “Drag-free drift?” Ahhhh, a gift from heaven…

The reward: a byoot of a brookie!

Moreover, the casting accuracy of the rods was impressive, delicate presentations of dry flies came easily, and getting the fly across tricky currents often took little effort due to the variable length of the rod.

In addition, while I used an 11–foot-plus rod length in a wide, unobstructed section of the river, I shortened that same rod to 9-feet when working a tight spot, around menacing brush, or for a shorter cast. I felt no difference in moving the line, even with the shorter rod length. Again, just a flick of the wrist.

And collapsing the rod literally took seconds.

A couple of other terrific things about tenkara. The set-up is super small; great for the backpacking fly fisher. In fact, I couldn’t help but wish I had one of these rods along on a hike through a section of the Appalachian Trail a few years ago, which took us near the (very-trouty) Whitetop Laurel Creek in the Mount Rogers area of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Sadler-san also told me that trout (and other fish) much bigger than brookies can be tackled on a tenkara, too.

I also think tenkara is ideal for introducing beginners to fly fishing. While brookies aren’t everywhere, taking a fly fishing-wannabe adult or the kids/grandkids to the local pond to fish for opportunistic-feeding panfish on a popper or spider fly would be a super start.

Plus, tenkara rods are a fraction of the cost of your standard fly rod, reel, and line.

It was a great half-day on the water. Equally fun was finding out that Tom and I—unwittingly—crossed paths in the Navy; we both supported a Soviet Navy friendship visit to the Mayport Naval Base in Jacksonville, Fla. near the end of the Cold War.

Tom worked as a public affairs officer, and I served as a Russian- language interpreter for the exchange; Indeed, based on my unbiased assessment of our diplomatic work during that visit, I figure that Tom and I jointly played a role in bringing the Cold War to a quick and quiet end.

I’m pretty sure that Cold War historians wouldn’t agree with my (possibly immoderate?) estimation of our influence on the arc of 20th century history. My delusions of grandeur aside, I’m definitely hooked (pun intended) on tenkara.

As much as I’d like to, I don’t see myself getting to the mountain streams of Japan to chase local fish such as the iwana, amago, or yamame any time soon. But, fortunately, there are plenty of great spots in the good ol’ US of A to give tenkara a try.

Dr. Peter Brookes is an award-winning outdoor writer based in Virginia, who clearly knows too many Japanese words from watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with his kids to be able to resist using them in this article.


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