The Road to Tenkara

Tenkara fishing a Montana spring creek

O’Dell spring creek, Montana

How does a perfectly good modern trout guide become devoted to an ancient style of fly-fishing? Blame it on an article called “Simple Gifts” that appeared in Fly Rod & Reel’s October 2009 edition. If I hadn’t read that piece I wouldn’t be messing around with tenkara rods today.

But that’s what happened—a quick evolution from fishing trout with standard fly rods and reels to a stick and string, and a whole new approach to the water.
In fact, after reading Yvon Chouinard’s article, I called a friend, Craig Mathews, who owns Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, Montana, and asked about tenkara. I could hear a grin in his voice as he said, “Oh sure, we’ve been fishing them [tenkara rods] on O’Dell Creek and we are having a blast. They would be fantastic for your [eastern] brook trout streams.”


Crystal Creek, Wyoming

At the time I was struggling with my own guiding experiences. Too many trips with new or novice anglers were coming up short. They wanted to catch brook trout on dry flies, but their limited casting and presentation skills made success elusive. It was all about managing that fly line, and most of them just couldn’t get the knack. As a good guide I could adjust the rig to help them catch fish by going to streamers and nymphs, but the joy and excitement of the surface take remained a challenge. And I wasn’t the only one noticing this problem—anyone who takes up fly-fishing has an important skill set to acquire. In order to fly-fish with any reasonable chances of success, a person has to be able to cast. This can be frustrating to the novice and is probably the main reason there are so many one-rod owners—people who quit the sport before they really gave it a chance.

And that’s why tenkara caught my attention. I thought to myself, if casting becomes less of a challenge and people can start catching fish sooner than they would on standard gear, that’s a good thing, something to be embraced, right? In my opinion people who get hooked on fly-fishing will buy more rods, gear and accessories as they progress in the sport. But if they give up early because they can’t master the cast, nor catch any fish, and they become frustrated and take up some other sport, that’s not good for anyone’s business. With that thought in mind, I ordered a Tenkara USA 11-foot Iwana rod and gave it a try.

Tenkara is a traditional Japanese method of fly-fishing that has been proven for centuries in Japan’s high-mountain streams. It reduces the necessary gear to three basic elements—a rod, a line and a fly. There’s no reel and there are no line guides. The line is attached to the end of the rod. Traditional tenkara has many devotees here and, as practiced in Japan, it is really more of a wetfly technique. They use a simple reverse-hackle fly, a sakasa kebari, (similar to our soft hackles), and fish it wet.

Tenkara lines are either level fluorocarbon or furled braid. They are very light and easily cast with the very flexible tenkara rod. Because they don’t float, they are best suited to the traditional style of mostly sub-surface tenkara fishing. Many of us dryfly guys are tinkering with traditional fly lines, trying to incorporate them in our tenkara fishing, hoping to turn over larger flies, such as beetle and hopper imitations, with more success. The advantages to using fly line include better energy transfer, tapers that can be varied to suit particular presentations and situations, and a “feel” that many anglers are used to. The rods are relatively stiff at the butt, but they flex significantly, especially at the tip, which protects extremely light tippets. Tenkara rods appear to be delicate, and they are, but they also stand up to the typical rigors of fishing as well as traditional rods.

the tug is the drug...

Flat Creek, Wyoming

These rods make teaching the basics of fly-fishing very easy and they allow me to get my clients on the water and fishing much faster than if they were trying to master a traditional rod. With the tenkara rod the angler spends most of his or her time focusing on fishing technique, not line management. And, as I quickly learned, tenkara allows anglers to get incredible drag-free drifts, sometimes three or four times as long as you might achieve with a standard setup. As you probably know, the drag-free drift is one of the most important, if not the most important, elements of dryfly success.

Since buying that original rod I’ve added more Tenkara USA rods to my collection and fished them on a variety of waters. Today, tenkara rods are a good substitute for any of my trout rods from 5-weight on down, and I like the method so much that in 2010 I joined Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, located in Harrisburg, Virginia, as their in-house tenkara guide and ambassador.
Again, what has captured our attention and created excitement for those of us who prefer fishing dry flies, and worship at the altar of the drag-free drift, is how effectively tenkara improves those drifts.

The light lines make high-sticking nearly effortless. The long rods, from nine to 14 feet or more, help keep the line out of pesky currents. Fishing small, light dries or dry/dropper rigs is deadly effective. You only have to try it once to believe it.

I’m not the only one who feels this way, and I’m not the only one who sees great growth potential in tenkara. Mathews, for instance, feels so strongly about tenkara that he signed on with Chouinard and Mauro Mazzo to write a book about tenkara, with hopes of bringing more people into the sport. Mathews says he sees tenkara as a great teaching tool and a great way to get people excited about fly-fishing. And he agrees that a new method is good for business.

Crystal Creek Cutthroat

Crystal Creek, Wyoming

“[With tenkara] you get people into the sport,” Mathews told me. “Initially they come in and they get a tenkara in their hand, they catch a few fish, six months later they are buying a Winston rod and a Hatch reel. The sky’s the limit here.”

In the end tenkara is just an effective technique, and fishing in its most basic form. As such, an angler gets to focus on the fishing rather than the gear. For me, tenkara represents simplicity and a return to the basics, and that’s how Chouinard summed it up in his article in this magazine: “I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge, hard work and skill.”

That notion continues to intrigue me.

Author’s note: This article first appeared as Back To The Basics in the Summer issue of Fly Rod and Reel.

Tenkara Subdivisions

Loadout edited-1The Tenkara Jam last month was loaded with good information and hands-on opportunities. One of the better presentations was by Rob Worthing of Tenkara Guides LLC. Rob’s presentation was a detailed exploration of handling big fish and is now a guest post on Casting Around. If you are interested learning a field tested way of handling big fish you will be hard pressed to find a better resource.

While Rob’s article is educational, helpful and very well illustrated (courtesy of Anthony Naples), what caught my attention was his insights into the Japanese tenkara world. He points out that there are three “subdivisions” of tenkara in Japan. Subdivisions is a good word as the distinctions are geographic:

we’ll refer to these subdivisions as headwater tenkaramountain stream tenkara, and mainstream tenkara. Rods intended for tight, small headwaters located deep in the mountains are relatively light and usually shorter. Rods intended for mountain stream tenkara are a bit sturdier. Rods intended for mainstream rivers, where casting tends to be more open, are frequently longer, and may be beefier still.”

This then becomes a great way to help tenkara anglers look at the spectrum of fixed line rods that are now available. For quick reference here in the Valley, I would equate these subdivisions to the following local waters; headwater = Rapidan or Skidmore Fork, mountain = Dry River or Mossy Creek and mainstream = South Fork of the Shenandoah.

Mossy Creek Fly Fishing. has rods that work in all these subdivisions and I plan to adopt Rob’s explanation as a way to help my clients and customers understand what rod to use where.



Tenkara Jam!

Come and get it!Tenkara Jam Logo
The registration for the Tenkara Jam is open!!!
Thanks to Jason Sparks and Lance Milks we will have Tenkara in the Appalachians!
Saturday October 11th 11:00AM – 8:00PM
Sunday October 12th 9:00AM – 6:00PM

Just click on this link to the Tenkara Jam Registration page.
The cost per person:
1 day $30.00 this can be for either day for those that cannot attend both days.
2 day $48.00 this is for both days and covers all expenses.
Sessions will be held at Foscoe/ Grandfather Community Center (

And there are a pile of vendors bringing their toys to the party!

Wait there’s more, a Kebari swap too!

More Details from the Tenkara Jam website:

Tenkara Community gathering in Foscoe, NC.
There will be presentations on the tenkara style of fly fishing covering topics such as:
1. Overview: Rods, Lines, Flies
2. Kebari History and current patterns
3. Big Fish Wrangling
4. Small Stream Techniques
and more…

Special Guest presentations by:
Lance Milks
Robert Worthing
Tom Sadler
Al Alborn
Bob Ivins
and more…

Day One: Big screen presentations and live demonstrations inside
Day Two: Casting Clinics, Technique Tutorials, Stream-side Classroom, Small Group Guides

We have set Day One to begin presentations at 12:00pm. This is to accommodate travel for people needing to come in Saturday Morning. We will still have a full day of content going into the evening. The Foscoe Community Center will be holding/ serving (independently) a fund raising breakfast at the Center that morning. For $8 you will get all the country breakfast fixin’s you can stomach.

For those coming in Friday evening I will be providing maps to local waters should you want to get wet that evening. Hit up the breakfast Saturday morning and go back out for a few more hours on Saturday morning. There is plenty of fishing to be had.

There is a campground on site (next door) that has tent pads, RV space and Cabin Rentals

Right next door to our facility is Grandfather Campground
Tents, RV space and Cabin rentals available.

STFU it’s just fly fishing…

Now and again the tenkara world gets it’s nickers in a twist about what is and is not tenkara and then the fly fishing community chimes in about tenkara in general and everyone gets butt hurt and sulks.

Well, one of my favorite commentators on current events is the very talented Erika Napoletano, a featured speaker at the upcoming AFFTA Dealer Summit.

She recently graced the pages of the ever entertaining Moldy Chum in  So you’re bitching about Tenkara. Worth watching, listen and learn but be warned, she is NSFW!


Tenkara Rod Round Up

Three years ago Tenkara USA bravely stepped into the industry spotlight and brought tenkara to the fly fishing industry’s annual trade show, IFTD. Since then a number of rods have appeared on the market and this year Tenkara USA, Patagonia and Tenkara Rod company all had space at IFTD.

When I started guiding tenkara trips the number of tenkara rods available in the US was pretty limited. Today, not so much.

Mostly because my clients regularly ask the question, “How many tenkara rods are there on the market?” I decided to pull a list together of the various tenkara rods currently available in the U.S. that I am aware of.

As I get a chance to try different rods, I’ll post a review.

In all likelihood I will miss someone, if I do please let me know and I’ll add you to the list.

Here is my current list (Mark 1, Mod 3 087614):

26AUG14 1030:  Thanks to Rick for pointing out the links snafu!!!

The Reel Case for Tenkara

Earlier this month I traveled to the International Fly Tackle Dealer show (IFTD), the fly fishing industry’s trade show in Orlando, Florida. There is a virtual smorgasbord of fly fishing gear at the show and much has been and will be written about that.

However, one item caught my attention and appealed to my tenkara loving ways.

Dan Rice at Bozeman Reel Company got my attention when he showed me what they had done to the reel case they include with every reel they sell.

First Dan showed me how they had put a series of small holes in the bottom and a some stretch fabric in the top flap to aid in air circulation. They added a space on the label so you can mark the line weight.

Bozeman Reel Case closed Bozeman Reel Case open

Then Dan pointed out two pieces of velco inside the top flap and a band of elastic fabric inside the main section of the case. He pulled the top flap under his belt, securing it with the velco and the reel case now had a higher purpose; a beer holder!



Of course, I immediately saw this as essential tenkara gear. You may not need a reel but a Bozeman Reel case is a whole other matter…