What Is Tenkara Fishing?

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

When tenkara fishing came onto the scene, I dismissed it as a fad. Years back, when I had a regular column in a local newspaper here in Utah, I even wrote that I didn’t think tenkara would last long.

Boy, was I wrong.

Tenkara is here to stay, it seems. And just for the record, I don’t have any problem with tenkara fishing. It’s a great way to introduce people to the idea of fly fishing, even if it only roughly resembles fly fishing.

So, what exactly is tenkara fishing, and how does it differ from conventional fly fishing? Let’s take a look.

An Overview of Tenkara Fishing

Tenkara fishing is a style that originated in Japan; specifically, in the mountainous region of that gorgeous country. There, fishermen perfected the art of using long, thin rods with level lines and a single fly to entice fish to bite. There is no reel, and the line you use is a fixed length.

According to DiscoverTenkara.com, it wasn’t until the 1980s that tenkara got its formal name, and was established as a legitimate form of fly fishing in Japan. Since then, tenkara has found a good foothold here in the United States, especially on the smaller streams in the Rockies.

Tenkara rods tend to be much longer than a conventional fly rod, and even put some Euro nymphing sticks to shame. A rod of 11 to 14 feet in length is the most common in the tenkara world.

At first glance, you might think such a rod is too heavy, and therefore unwieldy. However, tenkara rods don’t use line guides, reel seats, or other hardware. That reduces the weight of the rod overall, and allows for a lighter, more responsive rod that also gives you the length to lift almost all of your line off the water when presenting flies. For small streams, that’s a dream for those of us who know that big trout are just waiting for a perfect dead-drift in a back eddy, or tucked in an undercut.

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Most tenkara rods are telescoping, too, which provides an ultralight fishing solution for the high country. As I spend more time in the high country, I run into more and more backpackers who brought a tenkara rod along for fun, and ended up catching enough fish for dinner.

Finally, you have the fly used in tenkara. The traditional name in Japanese is “kebari” which translates to “feathered hook.” How apropos.

The kebari is essentially an inverted soft-hackle fly. Instead of wrapping the hackle a fly hook with the fine hackle points pointing towards the back of the hook, a kebari has the hackle fibers pointing forward, towards the hook eye.

And that’s all you really need for tenkara fishing. No reels, no fly floatant, no extra line sizes – just a few flies, a rod, and level line. It’s a minimalist’s dream, and isn’t as limiting as it might appear at first glance.

The Kebari

When I tried tenkara for the first time, the kebari interested me the most. I’ve always been a fly tyer – my grandfather tied commercially for 27 years, and he’s responsible for both my dad and I tying for nearly as long – and the kebari looks like a beginner’s mistake.

It’s not – the kebari is actually an ingenious idea.

First off, a kebari doesn’t attempt to imitate specific flies. This is largely due to where tenkara itself originated. The high mountain streams of Japan are fairly similar, ecologically speaking, to the high county of the Rockies here in America. The streams are gorgeous, but most high mountain waters aren’t as fertile as tailwaters or lower-elevation fisheries. Here, the hatches are smaller, and fish don’t have the luxury of being picky when eating food.

The Japanese anglers who developed tenkara recognized this phenomenon hundreds of years ago,. And, since they were fishing for survival and not just for fun, they needed to develop the easiest way possible to put fish in the net. They found that a wet fly, presented correctly, caught plenty of fish. So, why bother with boxes of dozens of patterns when you find one that works well?

The kebari is designed to imitate wet flies, and the reverse hackle creates more friction against the surface of the water. This reduces line sag, and increases the chances that you’ll hook fish – an important feature when you’re fishing for survival.

Now, you’re not limited to just a kebari. A lot of tenkara anglers use dry flies, nymphs, and other wet flies that you’d find in any fly shop here in the Western U.S. The fly you choose depends largely on the type of water you’re fishing, and how you want to fish.

The Line

Tenkara uses two primary types of lines – level and furled. Level lines are exactly what they sound like – stretches of line with no taper. Furled lines are similar to furled fly fishing leaders. They have a taper, but are much longer than a simple furled leader.

Furled lines generally give you a better presentation if you’re fishing dry flies.

Level lines are so simple you can virtually make your own, and you can cut them down to any size needed.

Line length matters because, just like in traditional fly fishing, you attach a section of tippet to the tenkara line. Jason Klass, over at Tenkara Talk,  explains that he usually fishes a 10 – 11 foot line, with another 2 – 3 foot section of tippet.

Your line length depends entirely on the style of fishing you’re doing. For example, if you’re fishing nymphs, you’ll likely want to use a shorter line – maybe 5 feet – with double that length of tippet. This enables you to achieve a nearly-perfect copy of a Euro nymphing presentation.

If you’re fishing dry flies, or in other situations where you need more stealth, then a longer line is what you’ll want to use.

For more info on line length, I highly recommend reading Klass’s article. He does a great job of breaking down all the info you’ll need.

The Cast

Casting a tenkara rod proved more difficult than I expected, because I kept trying to cast it like a traditional fly rod.

As you can see in this great video from the Tenkara Rod Company, though, tenkara casting is really simple.

Once you get the hang of it, tenkara casting is a piece of cake. I managed to figure it out after 15 minutes of frustration, and if I can figure it out, anyone can.

Wrapping Up

Tenkara fishing is an interesting method of fly fishing, and it’s a good option for those looking for an ultralight fishing method. It’s certainly here to stay, and if you ever have the chance to try tenkara fishing, I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it’ll reinforce the good habits you need to achieve great presentations in traditional fly fishing.


Spencer Durrant is the owner and lead guide at the Utah Fly Fishing Company. He’s also the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant. 

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