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The Newest Fly Fishing Challenge: Tenkara

Tenkara is gaining popularity with its simple design and technique.

High in the ancient mountain streams of Japan stands a lone man, his fishing rod long and tapered.

His lure is of feather and fur. He lifts the rod up so that the line extends over his head. He pushes the rod slightly forward upstream to land his lure gently in the cascading crystal pool.

As his lure drifts, his rod tip bends. He has no reel. With only his hand to strip in the lone line streaming from the end of his rod, it's just him, his rod, and the fish that surround him.

This is tenkara.

In recent years, this simple and elegant form of fishing has grown in popularity thanks in large part to Tenkara USA, a company dedicated to bringing this beautiful ancient Japanese art form to the American outdoorsman.

So, what is tenkara?

It's the traditional Japanese method of fly fishing, which uses only a rod, line and fly. It's as simple as can be, or at least that's what Tenkara USA likes to say.

The term tenkara translates to "From the skies, from heaven." The term is believed to have come from the thought that the flies look as if they fell from the heavens to the fish.

Who can do it? Everyone. With a little practice, you should be fishing the traditional Japanese way in no time.

Where did it come from? Well, we are not really sure. While the art of fly fishing has ancient roots in Japan, it is interesting to note that tenkara itself was not discovered until the last 200 years.

As stated on Tenkara USA's site, "The first reference to tenkara fly fishing was recorded in 1878, a quick passage in the diaries of Mr. Ernest Satow, an English diplomat who lived in Japan, describing the sight of someone fishing for yamame, a native Japanese trout, at Mt. Tateyama using flies. This was originally the domain of commercial fishermen in mountain areas of Japan. The [pioneering] tenkara angler would camp in isolated mountain streams, then come into the nearby villages to sell dried and fresh fish to inn-keepers and other people."

While many aspects of this form of fishing are different from traditional western fly fishing, there are also some similarities, like the use of flies and the casting of line rather than lure.

Hopefully, with the following information and a rod fit for the job, you will be a master of tenkara in no time.


The rods used are long, tapered rods ranging in length from 11 feet to nearly 15 feet, with 12 feet being the standard length.


While the original rods were long strands of bamboo, Tenkara USA rods are telescoping carbon-fiber for easy storage.

They average about 3 ounces per rod and can be shortened to just a couple feet, ideal for the backpacker.


Like traditional fly fishing, the lure has no weight in tenkara, thus the fisherman must cast the line.

Traditional tenkara line is designed to cast with an ideal balance when combined with tenkara rods. Precision is the name of the game, and a very delicate presentation is possible with practice.

Traditional lines come in a fixed-length (10 1/2 feet or 13 feet) and are a breeze to set up. With no reel, there's a huge element of the technicalities that are eliminated.

At then end of the line the tippet is attached at a length between three and six feet. The biggest difference is that there is no excess line in hand. There is no reel, just the line and the tippet.

In my opinion, it seems very similar to roll casting up river with a traditional rod set up, only more involved in the fishing of the fly itself.


One of the stark contrasts between traditional fly fishing and tenkara is that more emphasis is placed on technique in fly presentation rather than having a box of flies to match every possible situation.

TheTenkara USA site says that it's all about the idea of giving life to a fly. With the right motion and action, tenkara flies can be very versatile and effective.

The reverse hackle fly is a common favorite of tenkara anglers.


The instructions provided by Tenkara USA are great, and I highly suggest checking out their site for the full scoop. I'll attempt to paraphrase things here.

The basic tenkara cast uses a 10 - 12 o'clock approach, instead of the usual 10 - 2 of western fly-fishing. A short stroke and more wrist action is best.

The traditional grip of a tenkara rod puts the index finger above the handle. A higher grip adds more precision.


Tenkara USA's biggest advice is simple: relax. They say to lead the cast with the arm on the back cast while moving the arm up slightly, then break your wrist to cause the rod to load.

On the forward cast, move the arm back down slightly and break the wrist a touch to unload the rod.

Don't overpower it, you need speed but not force. Keep your wrist relaxed to avoid stiffness at the stopping points.

Check out this video from Tenkara USA's founder Daniel Galhardo, to get a great visual and technical explanation of the technique:

There are plenty of other helpful videos on Tenkara USA's site, so be sure to soak them up.

Tenkara, while new to us, seems really exciting, like a great way to hike in and explore some hidden back water, or spend the day wading your favorite river. 

Hopefully, at the very least, it will recruit more people who will be interested in preserving our wild fisheries and the beautiful places where trout and other fish habitat.


Images via Tenkara USA

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The Newest Fly Fishing Challenge: Tenkara