In the Tenkara Way

Photo of a Bonneville cutthroat trout I caught on my new Tenkara Iwana.On the drive up Blacksmith Fork Canyon, I keep glancing over at my new Tenkara rod like it’s some exciting passenger, and even though I’ve driven up this way lots of times, it feels like a whole new road.

It’s one I started down last weekend, when I and some guys from my Trout Unlimited chapter worked as volunteers in Salt Lake City at the Wasatch Fly Tying Expo, a big fundraiser for TU chapters in Utah. Unfortunately, one of our volunteers got in a car accident on his way there. He wasn’t injured, thank goodness, but it left us shorthanded, and I ended up working the registration table by myself for the whole day.

So, I sit there watching TenkaraUSA founder Daniel Galhardo work his own booth, preaching the Tenkara Way to dozens of passing anglers. TenkaraUSA is a fast-emerging fly fishing company that produces fly rods modeled after traditional Japanese fly rods, which employ no line guides or reels. Tenkara rods are long for leverage and reach, and the line is fastened to the rod tip.

Tenkara’s main selling point is simplicity: “Only rod, line, and fly.” It’s an appealing doctrine—I used to carry just my rod and a few flies, but now I wear a fly vest that rattles like a toybox and weighs enough to negatively affect my gas mileage.

Photo of Daniel Galhardo (left) and his Tenkara guys at the Wasatch Expo.As the Expo wraps up, we shut down the registration table and I beeline for the TenkaraUSA booth. The best way I can describe the Tenkara guys is equal parts samurai and evangelist—tranquil, yet fervent. I tell Galhardo and his disciples I want the full sermon, and I don’t have to ask twice. They never say their way is better, but they’re careful always to maintain the distinction between what I do and what they do. They refer to my way as “western-style fly fishing.”

“It’s the best way we’ve come up with to distinguish it from Tenkara-style fly fishing,” says Galhardo.

Intentional or otherwise, it’s canny marketing. It puts me and millions of other fly anglers, who see themselves as contemplative and down-to-earth, into the same box as all those brand-conscious, hawgs-only, lip-ripping pagans. Almost feels like I should go out and get some crankbait or a dozen nightcrawlers.

I say, “Tell me more.”

So, they tell me stories. They show me videos. They put a 14-foot rod in my hand.

I cry, “Halleluiah!”

Photo of a western mountain stream.A few days later, I haul up State Route 101 to baptize my new Tenkara rod (an 11-foot Iwana, which I purchased from the RoundRocks booth) in a small mountain creek steeped in local fly-fishing lore. It’s a somewhat isolated place, often fabulously productive, always serene.

I unpack the sleek, collapsed Tenkara rod and try to recall all the things I’ve recently learned from Galhardo and his Tenkara videos. I’m a little giddy, so I fumble with the tackle and drop things. The Tenkara rod seems too fragile for mountain duty, but it’s eventually ready to fish.

Then, a moment of weakness: I sheepishly set up my “western” 4-weight and carry both rods to the stream. I feel like the guy in that joke who prays to Jesus, Buddha, and Allah all at the same time, just to be safe.

A small caddisfly is on the wing and I spot a rising trout. I stop just short of a bend pool I’ve visited many times. I know just how to fish it western style. I know where to stand, which tree branch will catch my fly when I backcast too far, but I lean the 4-weight against some brush and false-cast the Tenkara rod a few times.

The geometry is all different—rod much longer, line much shorter. The action is quiet and dreamy. Even the finest western fly lines rattle in the guides and hiss through the air, but the Tenkara line is dead quiet. I keep looking up to see if I’m really casting. I can cover that fish in the bend pool with the Tenkara rod, but I’ll need to get closer, and to get closer I’ll need to be on my knees. This seems fitting.

Photo of a Bonneville cutthroat trout I caught on my new Tenkara Iwana.I creep into position on all fours and make my first Tenkara casts. My Elk Hair Caddis falls not exactly where I want it, but close. A few more attempts and I get a vague feeling for the power I need to cast, and I don’t need much. I get the fly where I want it, and this time a fish snatches it from the surface.

Landing fish with a Tenkara rod requires faith. Without control over line length, there is an overwhelming impulse to hoist the fish straight up out of the water, but the disciple must resist this temptation—the rod could break or (more likely) the fish will shake the hook in the open air. Each fish must be played thoughtfully, even small ones, with total trust in the rod to absorb the fight.

With my first Tenkara fish in the net, I exhale. I examine the little cutthroat, take his picture, and rest him in the current for much longer than he needs. It’s not a miracle, but it feels like an accomplishment of some lesser order. I check the rod and line connections, and they’re all intact. I fish some more.

Turns out all this elegant simplicity can be a lot of work. I’ve done the “Curtis-Creek sneak” to hide from fish before, and I often cast from bended knee. But just as often I simply stay back and cast farther. That’s not an option with the Tenkara rod, so I crawl and crouch. My knees get more shaky at each pool. I put my hands in desiccated thistles and damp deershit, but the caddisfly hatch gathers strength, and the fish start jumping.

There’s not a fish behind every rock, but fortunately there are lots of rocks. I miss a few fish and catch a few, and it’s starting to come to me—the new angles, the casting action. What impresses me most is the way a Tenkara rod presents a dry fly. It’s not just a natural presentation, it’s authentic, sincere. It’s also obscenely easy to keep the line off the water. The fish respond with nearly instant takes, as though they’ve committed to strike the fly before it touches down.

I have no logical reason to attribute all of this to the Tenkara Way, of course. The fish might have reacted the same way to a fly cast from my old 4-weight, but I’m trying to exercise a bit of faith here.

That’s when I realize I left my 4-weight back at that first bend pool. There’s a moment of panic, but leaving the old and familiar behind feels like another minor accomplishment. The sun comes low and my shadow has grown so long it’s hard to keep it off the water in front of me. I’ve fished most of the water I came for, and I got my Tenkara proof-of-concept.

Photo of a brown trout I caught on my new Tenkara Iwana.I doubt I’ll permanently leave my western angling brethren, but I can see why others have—we are noisy and quite foolish at times, and there are things Tenkara cannot do. No hauling line, stripping streamers, or stack mending. You’ll never throw a sixty-foot cast with a Tenkara rod, and hook a fish longer than twenty inches at your peril. Small-stream anglers don’t catch a lot of fish at that range or of that size, but I’ve caught creek-dwelling 17-inchers at half that distance, a feat that would surely daunt my Iwana.

The Tenkara samurai would commit seppuku before referring to these aspects as “limitations.” Galhardo himself doesn’t talk much about (let alone apologize for) the things his Tenkara rods can’t do. There are plenty of workarounds and substitute methods, some furnished by TenkaraUSA, others by the growing number of at-large Tenkra anglers. However, discussing them is really beside the point. Tenkara enthusiasts don’t reluctantly trade down and then make up the difference with workarounds, they willingly exchange fly fishing’s many useless complexities (and the useful ones, too) for a more direct and elegant connection to the fish.

As for the casting range issue, I’m just a novice, but the only way I got around it was crawling on the ground—not everything associated with Tenkara is elegant, I guess.

I’m still stalking fish when the sun goes down. There’s one more good bend right in front of me, then a big beaver pond, and a few good holes a hundred yards up from there. I figure I’ve still got thirty minutes before it’s too dark to find my 4-weight, so I cast into the bend. A mid-channel brown calmly mouths the seemingly guileless fly. I lift the rod tip. The fish bolts and the Iwana hoops over, signaling a bit of heft in this one. It occurs to me that here would be a good place to say “amen.” I work the fish onto a sandbar, unhook him, and sit on the bank. The beaver pond and the good water beyond can wait.

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22 thoughts on “In the Tenkara Way

  1. For more reach, just use a longer line!

    Great report, and glad you got into some fish.

    ERiK
    TenkaraGuides.com

  2. Who are those three guys anyway? That one in the middle looks stragnely familiar..

  3. tenkarausa says:

    Great post Chadd! Really like your writing, you should consider submitting an article (this?) to a magazine.
    Thanks for writing and joining the “cult”.

    Daniel

  4. Tom Davis says:

    Nice blog entry Chadd! Welcome to the Wasatch Front tenkara goupies. I just started Tenkara a few months ago and have been having a blast ever since. We ought to get together sometime and tenkara-fish the local waters.

    -Tom
    Tetontenkara.blogspot

    • Thanks, Tom. I’ve been reading your blog and we could definitely get together and fish — I’ve only read three or four of your posts and one of them mentions a place I fished two days ago!

  5. Luther says:

    Great story and photos – and a very interesting product. I recall hearing somewhere about people doing this with a cane pole and a jitterbug for bass at night. No reel – just a short piece of line. One guy rows the boat and the other works the lure. Look out for the explosion. I suspect they had some heavy braided line. Thanks for posting!

    • Tenkara has launched a big campaign to differentiate Tenkara methods from dapping — “Tenkara is not dapping.” On the other hand, dapping is a technique you can use with Tenkara, and it’s really effective on small streams. I’d say anyone who’s at all interested in it should give it a try.

  6. Interesting read on a popular subject of the day. Tenkara isn’t really new, of course. Not only is it steeped in Japanese fishing culture, but it’s archetype is found in European culture (read Izaac Walton if you dare) and in Southern cane-pole culture and in… I’d probably try it also, but there’s little chance it would be practical in the brushy environments that I frequently haunt. I suspect there’s some fashion statement involved with this new piscatory phenomenon, but that aside, your report is the best of its kind that I’ve yet read.

    • Definitely fashionable, definitely gaining popularity, and definitely, undeniably, irrefutably sexy. One of the interesting dichotomies of Tenkara is that it’s ancient and contemporary at once. However, I’m a big fan of Walton and Cotton and another one of the big attractions of Tenkara is that the fly fishing forefathers used similar gear — though I don’t think they used it because it was simple, elegant, or fashionable. They used it because that was the technology they were equipped with — they continuously adopted more complex and more western-style contrivances just as soon as technology allowed.

  7. Excellent read. What a great story. I couldn’t help but think back to Brad Pit’s line in A River Runs Through It, “Hes going to bring back a coffee can full of worms. Red can Hills Brothers” after reading your somewhat feelings of shame of the “western style fly fishing” when you wrote, “Almost feels like I should go out and get some crankbait or a dozen nightcrawlers.” I had to laugh.

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, there was some shame there. I try not to take myself too seriously as a fly angler because it leads to snobbishness, but, well, it doesn’t always work.

  8. Benjamin says:

    Great post! I’ve watched some Tenkara videos and am kind of curious but would like to learn the ‘western styles’ a little bit more before trying my hand at it!

  9. Parker James says:

    Yea well–it sounds kinda cool. Something new and all, but I’e got another decade or so before I’m out of fly fishing kindergarten and ready to consider a rod big enough to slap low flying aircraft. Great pics!

    • I’m not sure how to go about using your school analogy to explain this… it’s like you’re in fly fishing school, and you’re in the 11th grade or so, and suddenly you discover there is a another fly fishing school that takes only a couple weeks to graduate. That’s Tenkara — it’s sort of outside the normal school fly fishing school system, and while it definitely takes some getting used to and maybe even a slight transformation in brain chemistry, it doesn’t take long to become competent, especially if you have even a wee bit of experience in western-style fly fishing. Tenkara is not suitable for every single fishing situation, and it actually may not be for everyone, but I’ve been warning people to be careful about trying Tenkara because it’s easy to fall so in love with it that you might find yourself becoming partial to fishing places and situations that favor Tenkara — to the neglect of other fishing opportunities.

  10. theflyline says:

    Great post! I barely use my 5-weight for stream fishing these days. The tenkara rods are more effective and just as much fun.

    • One thing I’ve got to do is find a way to do Czech nymphing with my Tenkara. I’m know it can be done, but right now my plan is to continue using my 4-weight for Czech nymphing duties, especially in very tight, technical spaces (which is what I did last Tuesday), and break out the Tenkara for dry fly (or dry-dropper) action. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • You can do Czech nymphing, but you’ll soon find that the tenkara rod’s tip is a little too soft. Weighted nymphs are just a bit too far outside the box to work well, although most tenkara anglers fish them anyway. Ideally you would use a slightly stiffer rod.

      • I use Tenkara rods all the time for Czech nymphing with a lot of success. Try using the Amago or Yamame rods by Tenkara USA. You can also check out a video of me explaining how to setup a Czech nymph rod and then catching a fish first cast on YouTube.

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