Tenkara – no – Oni — Masami Sakakibara’s World of Tenkara —


Yvon Chouinard’s Articles 3

Lessons from the Tenkara

In Japanese, the word Tenkara means “from the heavens.” It could be

a prescient name for this simple and ancient technique, as it just might be

salvation for the dying fly fishing industry. Let me explain.

I’ve been disappointed lately by what I’m seeing as the “state of the

art” of fly fishing. It seems that it’s defined by sports sitting in a guided drift

boat mindlessly throwing Chernobyl ants to the bank. Trout rods are

designed to throw that bug clear across the river. Reels have drags that will

stop a truck, even though we know any old click drag will stop a trout. I can’t

understand why an angler would not want the direct experience of palming

the rim (if there is a rim to palm).

I enjoy doing manual labor and love using good tools that lever the

efficiency of my efforts. But when tools become too effective and too robotic,

they get between the user and the real experience. The satisfaction and

pleasure to be gained from the synergy between hand, eye and muscle is


When you have put in the 10,000 hours to master a sport or craft, the

Zen master would say, “now see if you can accomplish the same without all

the impedimenta. The more you know, the less you need.”

When any sport matures, the gear and techniques can become too

efficient and burdensome. When there is too much information and no

secrets left, there will always be the oddball who, for the sake of novelty, will

choose to handicap himself by doing what David Brower calls “turning around

and taking a forward step.”

In skiing it meant going back to the old free-heel Telemark turn, in

surfing using finless surfboards from the 17th century. Then there’s ropeless

rock climbing, hunting big game with handmade long bows or spears. In

short, when all the basketball players are seven feet tall raise the basket!

For me, it meant going back to the 17th century of Izaak Walton and

Charles Cotton and fishing with a pole with a line tied to the end. This

method of fishing has been practiced for over 500 years in Europe, Asia and

wherever people lack the means to buy modern gear. In Italy it’s called the

Valsesia method, named after the Sesia River, where a few devotees still fish

the old way for trout and greyling. In Japan this reeless technique, known as

Tenkara, is used to fish for small mountain trout.

It’s been my observation that in Japan and Italy, those who fish the

Tenkara rarely, if ever, fish with regular fly gear and vice versa. In both

places the flies and techniques are very similar and dogmatic.

Something that’s been done the same way for 500 years is not about to change.

And that’s the beauty of it.

We Americans have a knack for taking established doctrine and

blowing it up to suit ourselves. Twenty years ago I was given a gift of

a Japanese Tenkara rod and later a horsehair line from Italy. The line was

made by furling 18 strands of White Stallion tail. The end tapered down to

three strands where a leader was attached. I found this line cast beautifully,

in fact better than the furled nylon or level fluorocarbon line now in use in

Japan. The horsehair line was stiffer, had more heft and could penetrate the

wind. It was also better at throwing heavier flies.

A big disadvantage became apparent when I started fishing it with

weighted nymphs. Whenever I would snag the bottom the weaker three

strands would break before the tippet. A few years ago I started using level

floating running line but more recently I’ve been using a Sage Quiet Taper

double taper in a 000 weight. I make two lines by cutting one from each end.

These floating lines work well for the way I mostly fish the Tenkara. It works

for nymphing because you can see the take and they have the heft to turn

over streamers. Most importantly you can mend the line to slow or speed up

the drift when fishing wet flies.

My eleven-foot rod is beefier than the small stream Tenkara’s and I

use a twenty-foot line for the larger rivers and trout of the West. For small

streams, nymphing or for dry fly fishing I go to 15-foot length to keep as

much line off the water as possible.

For the past decade I’ve been using soft hackle flies for 90% of my

trout fishing. I’ve found that trout, steelhead and salmon do not prefer to

attack dead drifted drys or nymphs. Just like your house cat or any predator,

they want action. They want that movement that imitates emergers, diving

caddis, swimming nymphs or wounded minnows. The best way to imitate

that action and to trigger a response is by using a slow action rod with a

delicate tip and a short light line. The best rod for that is the Tenkara.


It’s all about the twitch


This is how I fish the Tenkara in Western Rivers with a floating line and

soft hackle or traditional wet flies. I tie on a six-foot leader tapering down to

ox or 1x.  At the business end of this, I tie on a 2mm ring. From the ring, I

attach 12 inches of 2X for the dropper and three feet of 2X for the point. The

ring helps keep those lines apart. The point fly is tied on a heavy nymph

hook, while the dropper fly uses a lighter dry-fly hook. In the autumn my

favorite rig is a size 12 royal blue and grouse soft hackle for the point and a

size 16 olive green/blue dun hackle for the dropper.

Cast the whole line about 45 degrees downstream in moving water like

a riffle. Mend the line upstream to slow the drift. Keep the rod up at a 45-

degree or so angle to the water and when the line straightens I start to give

an occasional twitch with the tip of the rod. What’s important is the tip of the

rod only moves up 2 or 3 inches, no more. My thumb is on top of the handle,

my arm is held straight down in a totally relaxed position (easy on the

rotator cuff). The twitch is imparted to the tip by squeezing the bottom

fingers of my hand, not by raising the rod. If you were to look at my hand

when I do this you would hardly see any movement. Almost everyone trying

to do the twitch will overdo it at first.

You can somewhat replicate the Tenkara Twitch with a regular fly rod,

but only if you use a long, slow-action rod of no more than 3 or 4 weight. A

long cane rod would be best. If you try to do this with a faster-action rod you

won’t be able to create a subtle twitch, as the whole rod will rise up.  Don’t

try to cast more than 20 or 30 feet of line; especially with the heavier lines,

which will droop down from the tip, causing slack and preventing the critical

transfer of action to the fly.

Most of the time a fish will take immediately after the twitch, whether

you are using a waking fly for steelhead, a wet fly for salmon, or a dry caddis

for trout. The latest “secret” nymphing technique from Eastern Europe is

to cast a short tight line and twitch the drifting nymph.

In the 17th Century, this subtle action of the tip was considered so

important, the rods were made with a different, more flexible wood for the

last 18 inches or so of the rod.



Fish On! Now What?



When you hook a fish on Tenkara gear with this tight line method, the take is

often violent. All that stands between you and the prize is the line and that

long, flexible rod. For most trout, you keep the tip up and fight the fish with

the flex of the rod. Connect with a bigger, hotter fish, though, and you better

start running. When your only drag system is your feet, good wading boots

are critical. In extreme cases, you can always throw your rod in, strip off

your clothes and swim after it like Eddy, the fishing goddess, in the “River


Things get really interesting when you hook two fish at once, which

happens more frequently than you might think. For some reason, doubles are

usually a brown and a rainbow. Browns are Republicans and rainbows are

Democrats and they never pull together. If they did you would have a rodeo

on your hands.

Believe it or not, what started as a novelty for me has actually

increased my catch rate by three or four times. It turns out, when done

properly with the tiny twitch, short line and soft hackles, this method for

fishing the Tenkara outfishes every other method of fishing with a fly.

I say Tenkara could be the savior for the sport of fly fishing because

it’s simple, inexpensive and can be taught to an eight year old in minutes.

Put the kid on a riffle with a soft hackle and he can outfish dad on the first

day. Without getting kids involved in fishing, the sport will continue to be a

last man standing club. The current state of fly fishing may also be a good

metaphor for society as a whole, which keeps trying to make an old, failed

economic system, based on endlessly consuming and discarding, work.

Maybe we should turn around and learn from the past.


What I described is only one method for fishing the Tenkara. I would suggest

the following books for more information:


Tenkara: Radically Simple, Ultralight Fly Fishing

Kevin C Kelleher & Misako Ishimura

 Lyons Press

** The definitive book about Tenkara fishing.



The Compleat Angler

Izaak Walton & Charles Cotton

Arcturus Publishing

** The classic fishing book. You will realize that not much has changed since 1655.



Wet Flies

Dave Hughes

 Stacpole Books

** This book will convince you of the effectiveness of wet flies.



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