By John Pearson
A Brief Introduction to Tenkara
The popularity of tenkara seems to be growing year on year and it's a fair bet that if you're an internet savvy fly fisher you'll have heard something about this Japanese phenomenon that's captivated so many western fly fishers.
Tenkara was only introduced to a wider western audience in 2009 with the launch of the company Tenkara USA but it has a history spanning hundreds of years in Japan. That's not to say that tenkara is widely known in Japan... in fact quite the opposite, historically speaking, tenkara was confined to the remote mountain streams and largely to the peasant classes until it underwent something of a rebirth in the later part of the 20th century when tenkara began to be adopted as a pleasure angling method.
In competent hands the sheer efficacy of tenkara is hard to dispute and in high gradient streams with a multitude of complex currents you'd struggle to think of a better suited fly fishing method. Whether you choose to fish western fly methods from a tenkara rod or explore the intricacies of the Japanese techniques; the precision and drag free presentation possible has captivated a whole host of forward thinking river anglers the world over.
It would be impossible to condense an entire culture of fishing in to one article but it is useful to sow a few seeds of knowledge for those interested in exploring tenkara further. One of the problems likely to be encountered by any new tenkara enthusiasts exploring the web is the wealth of poorly researched, inaccurate or just plain wrong information out there. That may seem like a harsh statement but the truth is that outside Japan the fly fishing community's understanding of the method is still in its infancy and it is very easy for myths and incorrect assumptions to propagate and become accepted as facts. One such example is the belief that all tenkara flies are defined by their reverse hackle (sakasa kebari). Our investigations in Japan showed us that the sakasa kebari style of tenkara fly, while iconic in tenkara, is far from the most commonly used; perhaps only accounting for around 30% of traditional kebari patterns.
Before laying out the basics of the Japanese tenkara method it's worth mentioning that you can use a tenkara rod for a whole range of western fly fishing methods and this can be one of the best ways to get the hang of the tackle before even thinking about tying on a Japanese kebari. Tenkara rods can be great for presenting dry flies especially in tricky pocket water situations. Another good use is long line nymphing in the style of French leader fishing... it's best to focus your efforts on lighter nymph patterns with this for a more delicate approach rather than larger tungsten depth charges which can prove unwieldy on a tenkara rod (I find tungsten beads of 2mm to 3mm work best). In general the key to the best presentation with any of these methods is to keep as much of your casting line off the water as possible. A good combination of the above would be a duo consisting of a dry fly and a small weighted nymph which can be an incredibly productive method when fished on a tenkara rod.
So, onto the basics of Japanese tenkara...
It can be a minefield making a rod purchase of any kind and with a bad tenkara rod your fun can stall before it has even begun. The number one problem I see when teaching tenkara is related to casting and a big part of that problem tends to be poorly designed rods. The sign of a good tenkara rod is good recovery after each casting stroke. The rod should recover very quickly with no extra bounce down the blank or in the tip. Bad rods tend to continue to wobble after the cast and this can wreak havoc with the light casting lines used in tenkara. A good rod needn't be stiff, in fact a softer action is preferred by many Japanese experts but even with a very soft action a good rod should recover almost instantly at the end of the casting stroke.
Rod length is typically longer than found in modern western fly fishing with anything from 11' (3.3m) to almost 15' (4.5m) being commonly used in Japan. For those starting out I would recommend trying rods in the 11' to 12' range. Don't be too tempted to go for something significantly shorter even if you fish on quite small streams. Choosing a very short rod will sacrifice most of the advantages tenkara has to offer. On the other hand a 15' rod may be a little bit daunting and may be better saved for a later purchase unless you're fishing much larger open rivers.
Another point on tenkara rods worth mentioning is the delicacy of the tips. A good rod should be capable of dealing with quite a lot of stress when playing and landing fish (even very large fish) but the tips can be very easily broken by careless handling while rigging up and packing away. It's always good practice to make sure the tip stays inside the rod butt while attaching line to the lillian (the short piece of cord at the end of the rod). It's also worth checking out the cost and availability of spares when considering a rod purchase should the worst happen and you accidentally break a tip. I can honestly say that in my experience I've never had a rod break while playing a fish and by far the biggest cause of rod breakages is user error (especially when rigging up and packing away).
The Casting Lines
Tenkara lines can be divided in to two types, tapered lines and level lines. Tapered lines range from the more traditional hand furled horse hair (still in quite common use in Japan today) through furled nylon and fluorocarbon and even extruded monofilament tapers which are similar to what we might call a tapered leader. You may see the term "leader" used when referring to tenkara lines but this is a slightly inaccurate way to view the line and probably down to the western familiarity with “furled” and “French” leaders. Strictly speaking a leader is a graduated transition from the casting weight of the fly line to the tippet. In tenkara there is no leader - just the casting line tied directly to the level tippet.
Level lines for casting seem to be the most popular among modern tenkara anglers in Japan. These lines are (as their name suggests) level in thickness with no taper whatsoever. It may seem counterintuitive but these lines are probably one of the best and easiest to cast once you've developed the basic casting skills. It's important to note that the composition of the line is fundamental to its success and there is absolutely no substitute for genuine Japanese fluorocarbon manufactured as tenkara level line. Avoid nylon as a level line and any other cheaper alternatives such as hi-vis lines intended for sea fishing; they may look like tenkara level line but they absolutely do not cast like it.
When it comes to tippet the good news is you can continue with your favourite fly fishing tippet material. The extra stealth and delicacy of presentation afforded by tenkara means you can often step up to a slightly thicker tippet with no adverse effect; my go to tippet with a western outfit was often 3lb breaking strain but with tenkara I often fish with 4lb.
The traditional flies of Japan are known as kebari which literally translates as a feathered needle or hook. The most iconic style often erroneously cited as the mainstay of tenkara is the sakasa kebari (sakasa meaning reverse or inverted in Japanese). These soft hackled flies are often simply tied using hen pheasant feathers with a bare minimum of extra materials. Sometimes just a thread and feather are used, sometimes some dubbed material for a body or occasionally a few turns of peacock herl.
Another common group of kebari/fly patterns are the stiff hackled wet flies. In the early days of tenkara in the west many commentators mistook these for tenkara dry flies. Perhaps the best known pattern of this type is the Ishigaki kebari named after Japan's foremost tenkara ambassador Dr Hisao Ishigaki. With the strong flows found in Japanese rivers, stiff hackles are often preferred for their ability to "anchor" in a current. It is also common to see "normally" hackled wets that we would recognise here in the west. This style of fly are referred to jun kebari or futsu kebari (jun and futsu both meaning normal or regular).
In our extensive investigations while filming for two DVDs about kebari in Japan we found the underlying principle seemed to be simplicity with the emphasis on how the fly will interact with the river (how it fishes) rather than strict imitations of specific prey items. There is a wonderful range of traditional kebari styles in Japan and it's a little sad to see some commercial tiers in the west simply sticking backwards hackles on familiar patterns such as the GRHE and calling them tenkara flies without really understanding the concept at all. It really is worth doing a little more research as there are some really great traditional Japanese patterns out there.
There are so many different subtleties and techniques within tenkara that it would probably take an encyclopaedia to describe even a fraction. Tenkara is definitely a 360° technique and presentations can be made at any angle to the flow and can consist of natural dead drifts or actively manipulated presentation techniques.
The range of casting skills is surprisingly wide too and the learning curve for an experienced fly fisher can sometimes have a very steep start -with even very high level fly western casters struggling to cast some of the longer light tenkara level lines. With a little practice and starting out with Japanese level line of around the length of your rod with a #3.5 or #4.0 rating on the Japanese scale, you should soon get into the swing of things provided you keep the following points in mind:
- the casting arc is shorter (12 to 2 o'clock instead of 10 to 2)
- avoid any pause on the back cast
- the rod stops high on the forward stroke around 2 o'clock not dropping parallel to the water
- keep the elbow relaxed by your side and upper arm should remain still
- a little wrist break is acceptable (even preferable)
The general principle with a casting line around the length of the rod (plus 3' or 4' of tippet) is to land the fly on the water with just a few inches of tippet and no casting line touching down. This presentation style may sound simple but it's surprising how many people struggle to break the habit of dropping the rod tip as they would at the end of a western cast. Once you get things right, it's simply a case of keeping in contact with the fly as it dead drifts in the current with takes indicated by a stop or kick in the line. This simple description is both correct and deceptive! As the saying goes "minutes to learn and a lifetime to master".