WTF is Tenkara?

We hear about it more and more as tenkara videos and photos show up in our favorite magazines and blogs. We stumble upon the inevitable booth at a trade show, or a dedicated section in even the most traditional of fly shops. Satirical videos have popped up making fun of it, and some of rod & reel’s most respected anglers openly shunned it as “cane pole fishing”. Simply not fly-fishing, they said. But no press is bad press I guess, and even though tenkara looked like a fad a few years ago, I think we can safely say that it is here to stay.

But what is this “fad” they call Tenkara? And why should we try it instead of western fly fishing or simply tying a line to a stick?

I had these questions too, and so I skeptically introduced myself to founder of tenkara USA, Daniel Galhardo, at the Somerset Fly Fishing Show in New Jersey. We arranged a phone call to discuss the merits of tenkara, and what makes it different from other forms of fly-fishing.

Simply put, tenkara is fly-fishing with an especially long rod and a fixed line. Tenkara is more about presentation and technique than about gear and perfect fly imitation. Most tenkara anglers carry only a few flies, and their rods are telescopic so they collapse down to less than two feet. It is simpler than western fly-fishing, yet more advanced than basic cane pole fishing.

When Daniel Galhardo says tenkara, he doesn’t pronounce it like an American. He emphasizes the end of the word itself, speaking the word as a Japanese man would (ten-kah-rá), a habit that could only come from picking up the sport in its country of origin. He grew up fishing with a cane pole and bait, an interesting start for the man who would go on to bring tenkara to the United States. In his early teens, Daniel found western fly-fishing and fell in love with it. Fourteen years of dedicated rod & reel fly-fishing followed.

In 2007, Daniel traveled to Japan with his Japanese-American wife. A passionate angler, he researched some rivers to fly fish in Japan. He discovered that the Japanese had their own form of fly-fishing called tenkara. It wasn’t quite western fly-fishing, nor was it cane pole fishing. For Daniel, tenkara had “the elegance of fly fishing and the simplicity of my childhood fishing with the cane pole. It kind of combined the best of both worlds”. Inspired by this sentiment, Daniel quit his job as an international banker and concentrated full time on introducing the sport of tenkara to America. A few years later, Tenkara USA was born and Daniel found himself shaking up the established and notoriously averse-to-change fly fishing community.

The appeal of tenkara is its utter simplicity. But would the straightforwardness of this sport appeal to novice fishermen, or would it attract more experienced fly fishermen looking for something different?

“It was truly split between both”, says Daniel. “A big chunk of our customers are very, very experienced fly fishermen. They might have an easier time understanding that it’s not all about gear and also have an easier time grasping the concept that there is no mending – that the line stays off the water and those things. At the same time, fly-fishing can be a very intimidating sport to get into, so we also get a lot of beginners that have never touched a fly rod.”

Ok – that all makes sense, but what if you want to get catch big fish? Surely you can’t just lift the rod tip on a fish that’s going to make a big run, like a steelhead or a pike. Daniel tells me that there are no plans to make heavier duty rods for big game fish. Their heaviest rod now is the Imago, which is comfortable doing battle against 20-inch fish and slightly bigger. Tenkara rods are not designed for targeting steelhead or pike, even though both have been caught on tenkara rods. Daniel explains his reasoning like this: “Once you start going that way, then you start having to make a lot of compromises. You’d have to make a heavier rod with thicker walls and heavier segments. Even with our rods that we developed, there’s a limit that I’ve arrived at with both the length and the weight where beyond that I don’t even think it should be called tenkara.”

Recently, the method of Euro nymphing has swept across the United States (See: WTF is Euro Nymphing). European nymphing shares multiple similarities to tenkara. Both utilize longer rods and longer leaders, and concentrate heavily on presentation and technique. I asked Daniel if he was worried about the sudden upswing in Euro nymphing affecting Tenkara rod sales.

“It’s been really interesting for me to watch the adoption of nymphing rods, like ten or eleven foot rods. It starts to make people realize that long rods are a really strong asset”. We both agreed that Tenkara is much more simple than Euro nymphing, which requires a decent amount of preparation before you’re actually fishing. “With Tenkara, it takes like 40 seconds to tie a line to the tip of the rod and you’re fishing.” He also pointed out that since Tenkara rods don’t have guides, you don’t have the line falling back into your hand as you raise the rod during a drift. “You just fish” he says.

The other remarkable thing about tenkara fly-fishing is the lack of importance that is placed on the fly itself. Tenkara pretty much throws the idea of “match the hatch” out the window and concentrates on presentation rather than imitation.

“A dry fly in general, is really good at doing one thing, which is to float. If all of a sudden you’re finding the fish are deeper, you can’t really sink the fly very easily unless you change flies or put split shot on it, and even if you do that it’s not going to sink very well. On the other hand, if you’re using a nymph, especially a heavier nymph, and you’re trying to fish on the surface – it’s going to be a little bit harder to get that fly to stay on the surface.” With tenkara, simply adjusting the height of your rod tip off the water can put any type of fly in whatever water column you want to fish.

That flexibility made me think that maybe there is something to this tenkara business. With western fly-fishing, it’s almost impossible to fish a nymph anywhere but the absolute bottom without using a “strike indicator”, a device that draws a comparable amount of scorn as Tenkara from your average “River Runs Through It” dry fly angler.

Tenkara rods deserve credit for being one of the best, if not the best, methods for fishing a small mountain stream, where presentation is key and long casts are few and far between. A tenkara rod is a useful weapon to have in your arsenal, and I’m looking forward to watching the method grow in popularity.

To sum it up in the words of fly-fishing legend Lefty Kreh, tenkara has “many great applications, particularly for the trout angler and for teaching people how to fly-fish.”

Check out Tenkara USA for more information. Tight lines boys.


  • Anne Jackson says:

    I really like the idea of winning $300 for a guided fishing trip, but when I read the rules it says entries must be received by December 31, 2015. What gives? Is the trip old news, or the rules old rules? Inquiring minds want to know! Well, at least I do.

    • Alex Ford Alex Ford says:

      Hey Anne, I think that the rules for a previous contest must have gotten accidentally transferred to this one. This sweepstakes doesn’t end for a few weeks. Sorry about that!

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