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Tenkara for Beginners: The Quick and Dirty Guide

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David Lor/Flickr

Tenkara: Japanese fly fishing for American rivers. 

When I heard about Tenkara USA, who’ve been promoting the sport stateside for a few years now, I was enthralled. Traditional tenkara is a no-frills subsistence fishing optimized for Japan’s mountain streams. It’s simple by design, and modern technology has taken that principle to an extreme. These elegant, collapsible rods can fit in a pocket but be ready to fish in seconds.

Tenkara offers major advantages for small stream fishing, and it stands to become an essential part of American fly fishing.

Tenkara for Beginners

A tenkara rod has few parts. All 13 to 15 feet of the rod collapses into the handle for portability. The line is tied directly to the tip, eliminating reels and guides. The line is usually around the length of the rod, with a few feet of tippet on the end. Extra line can be tied on if longer casts are needed, but tenkara really shines at close range.

That simplicity makes it an excellent introduction for newbie fly fisherman. The price is manageable: starter kits are available from around $100 to $150 dollars, with rod-only deals starting in the $70-dollar range. High-end rods generally stay competitive with similar western style rigs.

The real advantage comes with the way tenkara streamlines the process of learning to fish. With no line management to complicate things, apprentice fisherman can focus on the most challenging aspect of fly fishing—casting and presentation. There are some important differences between tenkara and western casting. The backcast usually stops much earlier, the grip is different, and there’s much more wrist action in a proper tenkara cast. But the physics are identical, and training your reflexes on tenkara will greatly ease the learning curve of western fly casting.

Tenkara is Surprisingly Versatile

Tenkara’s short list of features doesn’t come at the expense of versatility. Tenkara was first introduced to Americans as a dry-fly only method, but techniques have been improvised to retrieve and animate a swimming fly, allowing streamers and nymphs to be fished. For shorter casts the fisherman can move his grip up the length of the rod, holding it farther above the handle the closer he wants to land the fly.

Extra lengths of line can be tied on if longer casts are needed. This comes with some drawbacks—it becomes harder to land the fish the more the line exceeds the length of the rod.

Image courtesy David Lor/Flickr
David Lor/Flickr

Tenkara For the Seasoned Fisherman

Tenkara makes a strong argument for its inclusion in the arsenal of any fly fisherman. It’s a good alternative to the highly niche 1 to 3-weight rods. It’s an excellent choice for backpackers or travelers who want a rod handy but have limited space.

For a veteran fisherman looking to try something new, it’s a great new perspective on the sport.

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Tenkara for Beginners: The Quick and Dirty Guide