The picture above is the first Tenkara fly I ever fished and is the first fly I ever caught a fish with using a Tenkara rod. It’s retired now and a little worse for wear with a tail missing and the dubbing roughed up. But it sits on a shelf in my fly tying desk stuck in the cork stopper of the original glass vial it arrived in from Tenkara USA.
I keep the fly there on its “trophy shelf” as a reminder of the day I officially became a Tenkara Angler and not just someone with a passing interest in the sport. Every time I look at it, I see it as a symbol of a major transformation in my fly-fishing life.
It all started years ago when I got in touch with Daniel Galhardo, owner of Tenkara USA, and the person single-handedly responsible for popularizing Tenkara in the U.S. and the West in general. At the time, I was doing a lot of backpacking in the Colorado high country and had the opportunity to fish some of the most pristine lakes and streams I could ever imagine. Yet, I felt encumbered by carrying Western fly tackle that was bulky and relatively heavy. When I first stumbled upon Tenkara USA’s website, I was intrigued and skeptical at the same time. It seemed like the perfect solution for fly-fishing and backpacking, but would it really work?
The simplicity, compactness, and light weight of the rods definitely seemed interesting. And given the fact that the telescoping design essentially eliminated the need for a heavy rod tube, my ears were perked up. I could just throw it in the side pocket of my backpack and it would take up very little space and weigh next to nothing.
But could something that looks like a telescopic “crappie rod” really be an effective fly fishing tool? Could it replace my $600 Thomas & Thomas rod and Hardy fly reel? After a good phone conversation with Daniel, my skepticism subsided enough for me to give it a try.
When my rod, furled line, and flies arrived I was both excited and slightly intimidated. I felt a strange mix of confidence and doubt about this alien new gear.
Some things were familiar. The furled line looked like just a longer version of the furled leaders I had already been fishing. No big deal there.
The caddis-mayfly variant flies were a little different in design than any pattern I was used to tying, but not a huge stretch. And they looked buggy enough.
The radical departure was the rod. No reel, no guides, a strange cord at the end to attach the line to, and the 12’ length of the Iwana felt monstrous compared to the 7 and 8 ft. rods I was used to fishing on small streams. I had never seen any rod like this before.
Half eager and half intimidated, I took my new Tenkara gear to a place I know I fish well—the Roaring River in Rocky Mountain National Park. If I was ever going to get the hang of this thing, I thought I needed a safe training ground–a place I was comfortable with.
I remember the day clearly (though not the date). It was a typical Colorado bluebird day. The water was crystal clear and at the perfect level for sight fishing. I rigged the rod up, tied on the fly in the picture at the beginning of this post, and started upstream.
To be honest, I felt a little embarrassed that other fly fishers might see me so I purposely headed for some pocket water that I knew was concealed by bushes to avoid the inevitable questions like, “Hey, why don’t you have a reel?” (The answer to which, I still did not know at this point).
I spotted a couple of small Cutthroats in a nice pool and started casting the way I would normally cast my 2 wt. Western rod. But the line and fly weren’t going where I wanted them to go. Something didn’t feel right. The rod was “telling” me I was doing something wrong. It wasn’t long before I figured out that I had to use more wrist and a shorter stroke than I normally would to get good turnover and more accuracy.
Within minutes, I “listened” to the rod, adjusted my cast, and caught my first fish Tenkara style! It wasn’t a monster—just a typical, 6” gorgeous cutthroat that RMNP is famous for. But to me, it was a monumental event and that first fish instantly obliterated whatever doubt I had when I first held that Tenkara rod in my hand.
From there, my confidence and catch only got better. The more I cast, the better I got and at the end of the day, I had landed about two dozen fish with ease. The big epiphany for me that day was that Tenkara casting is intuitive whereas Western fly-casting is counter-intuitive.
I was immediately struck by how much easier it was to get a dead drift since you don’t have a thick, heavy plastic fly line to worry about creating drag. With a lightweight Tenkara line and the extra length of the rod, it was easy to keep the line off the water. Whatever line was on the water was far more supple than a normal fly line and created a lot less drag.
Plus, there really was no line management to speak of. I didn’t have to worry about stepping on stripped-in line at my feet or slack line getting caught in rocks or vegetation. I could just concentrate on fishing and keep my fly in the water more often. What an unburdened way to fish!
As a person who has instructed countless people over countless hours on how to shoot line, double haul, and mend line, I felt almost as if I had deceived them into a more complicated technique when such a simpler technique is more effective, easier to learn, and more enjoyable. Of course, on the stand, my defense will be that I didn’t know about Tenkara during my guiding days so I don’t think I’ll get the chair (witnesses please?).
Since that day, I have not used any of my Western fly gear for trout. My Orvis, Sage, Powell, and even bamboo rods are collecting dust as showpieces in my office. It’s not that I’ll never use them again. It’s that I literally haven’t felt the need to use them. I’m sure one day I’ll pull out a 5 wt. for some deep nymphing or streamer fishing but not until I absolutely have to. In the meantime, I’m just enjoying fishing the way I want to fish–simply.
What is your Tenkara Story? What got you into it? Why do you stick with it?