Tenkara: A Brief Look At Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing

J. Stockard Pro Tyer: Tim Morales, Caladonia MI

Firstly, I would like to address a very common topic in many fly fishing circles. Many believe that tenkara is not fly fishing at all and rather more closely resembles a form of dapping. This could not be further from the truth. Dapping is a traditional and very old method of fishing where the user takes advantage of the wind to carry a fly to where fish are feeding. There is essentially no casting as conventional fly fishers know it. Dapping is fairly simple and easy to accomplish. It can also be extremely effective.

Now with that out of the way, I will outline some of the history and fundamentals of tenkara. Due to the lack of written history of tenkara, it is hard to say just how old it really is. Due to the simplistic nature of tenkara, it can be assumed that the style was developed to be a means for food in its early days. The records that do exist indicate that rural fisherman developed the “sport” of tenkara to target Japan’s native trout in mountain streams. On another hand, in a more urban setting, practitioners began to target Dace and Chub. Tenkara, like dapping, uses a fixed line secured to the end of a long rod. However, Tenkara uses many casting techniques to present simple flies to feeding trout. Much like conventional fly fishing, each casting technique has its own strengths and weaknesses and its own specific application. In one particular casting method, the fly is made to hit the water just so that it catch’s the fish’s attention much like a hatching or fluttering bug caught in the surface film. Care must be taken as any dry fly fisherman knows because if the line also hits the water with too much force, the fish will spook.

When it comes to equipment needed for tenkara, only a few pieces of gear are necessary. These include a rod, leader, and a single fly. Rods vary in length but 10 – 15 foot rods are common. These rods allow fishermen to cover the entire stream from a single strategic location. In the truest form of tenkara, fishermen would use only a handful of flies. Due to the nature of Japan’s mountain streams, it just isn’t reasonable to carry several boxes of flies and other equipment. This means that fishermen have to use a very limited selection of flies to imitate hatching insects. The emphasis then is placed much more heavily on technique than equipment. Unlike western fly fishing, flies are actively “animated” using very specific techniques whereas in conventional fly fishing, much of the focus is on dead drifting flies to feeding trout.

The flies used for tenkara very closely resemble English and American soft hackles. They are very simple and can imitate a wide range of insects at nearly any stage of their life cycle. One of the most iconic of tenkara flies is the sakasa kebari. This type of fly has a forward facing soft hackle which undulates beautifully in the current and with the help of a skilled tenkara practitioner appears to actually swim.

Upon a recent trip to Japan, I was able to see first hand just how remote and inaccessible many of Japan’s mountain streams are. Many of these streams occur at very steep grades and would be very hard to cover with more complicated and intensive equipment. It is easy then to imagine a fisherman using tenkara to take trout. Tenkara can certainly be applied effectively to nearly any small stream wether in North America, Europe, Japan, or elsewhere. Of course tenkara is not for everyone and it may not be your cup of tea. However, upon closer examination, I feel that all fly fisherman can gain something from closely studying its methods. At the very least, tenkara is well worthy of respect.

4 thoughts on “Tenkara: A Brief Look At Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Didn’t want to let your article go by without scoring a comment Tim. I enjoyed it very much–an excellent & informative intro to Tenkara. The simplicity of a line of constant length would be welcome in many situations. It’s similar in some respects to Czech Nymphing technique I suspect. While I use a reel, I’ve made zero use of it at times on small creeks.

    I suppose small Japanese streams may not typically have low tree canopies, else 10-foot to 15-foot rods might be a problem…?

    The flies look good. I’m tempted to tie up a few soft-hackles with forward-sloped barbs and see how they compare with identical flies tied to slope backward.

    – Mike

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  2. Doc L

    As a point of reference I just spent part of a week in Hida and Maze rivers in the Gifu prefecture of Japan. I was “shown” the way around by the very well respected Tenkara master Amano San. It isn’t that the rivers are over grown in that area as it is they are free stone river where getting a good drift is very difficult (read impossible for more than a few feet). The Tenkara method makes use of long rods short lines and mad wading skills (with knee pads on) to get you close to boulders to present your flies with a current driven drift and no drag. Amano San ties 1 fly 1 size (my wife will never forgive my fly materials collection after seeing his half shoe box sized kit with room to spare). Number 12 hook with white sewing thread and a Japanese pheasant feather died reddish brown and silt thread for the hand made loop (persimmon color according to him). (Oh and no vise). The soft hackle points severely forward and he says the feathers undulate in the current when fished properly, using his fingers to demonstrate. Mike, they pretty much tell you that once a bug hits the water it is beat up anyway. Making the perfect fly requires a fly that looks live, not stiff in the current.

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    1. Michael Vorhis

      That’s hilarious about the fly-tying kit! And I can just imagine trying to stay upright in such streams. I know of one…I never thought of using knee pads, but I’ll bet it’d be a great Tenkara stream. Big trout in it, too…I just find it impossible to fish with the skills I have today. Knee pads, eh? I might need full hockey shin guards.

      So imitating a live but beat-up bug is the way to go…makes sense. I might try tying a few soft-hackles that way. I’ll use a vise. : )

      – Mike

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  3. Steve

    It all sounds similar to much of the method, and even the fly-style, surrounding the use of Yorkshire spiders: A very effective approach on free-stone rivers and mountain brooks not just in Yorkshire, UK, but also in New England and northern New York.

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