idaho cutthroat trout
Jens Hegg

Fly Fishing with a Tenkara Rod

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Fish on! My fingers immediately jump to the task of mending line, reaching for the reel to gather up the slack as I pull up on the rod tip . . . and they grab nothing but air. This is the stuff of a fisherman’s nightmare, the one where a trophy trout is on the line but some bizarre equipment malfunction lets the big one get away. And even though I realize in passing that the rod has seemed almost nonexistently light this morning, it is not a nightmare — it’s the stuff of dreams: It’s 6:30 a.m., near the mouth of a small creek flowing into Priest Lake in Idaho, and I am fighting a 17″ native Westslope Cutthroat Trout with no reel — my line is simply tied to the tip of a rod so light it feels like a toy. Now this is fishing!

trout in fishing net
A nice cutthroat trout safely in the net.

This is my first time catching a big fish on my new tenkara rod and it is a welcome challenge, even if my fingers still reflexively expect to mend line and use a reel. I’m using a Shimotsuke 3.6 tenkara rod that weighs in at only 3.1 ounces yet extends to 11’8″. And yes, I said it extends.

Tenkara rods are built on the same concept as the cheep extendible spinning rods you see at discount stores. Unlike those cheap rods, tenkara rods use space-age carbon fiber engineering to collapse down to just over 20″ for transport . . . but also extend into an incredibly long and responsive rod with surprising strength. A good tenkara rod blends willowy responsiveness in a slow action that allows you to cast a light fluorocarbon line that hardly ripples the water when it touches — if you even let it rest upon the surface of the water at all.

Tenkara Rods and Natural Drifting

The casting line rarely touches the water on most of my casts this morning. The length of the tenkara rod allows me to hold the majority of the line off the water even when casting to the center of a large eddy, which my son and I simply call, “The Hole,” by the time our weeklong vacation is done. With a 5X or 6X tippet I can keep a drag free presentation for almost two rotations around this eddy, long enough to take in the scenery and the sapsucker that keeps darting over the water to eat insects. With a regular (and stiffer) 9′ fly rod, this same sort of presentation is possible, just much harder to manage without scaring the fish — but there’s more to fishing with a tenkara rod than nearly 12′ of length.

Once in awhile I give the rod a slight jerk. This translates through the willowy rod tip as a short, languid, and apparently irresistible movement of the soft reverse hackles on my tenkara-style fly. This often draws an immediate strike, so I watch intently for the silver flash of a fish turning back to the depths of the pool. When it happens I lift the rod to set the hook and the fight is on.

With a fish on everything else dulls into the background; the sun is less hot on my shoulders, the birds are not singing quite as loudly. All my attention is focused on where the closest submerged logs are and where I can safely wade to keep the fish in what little open water exists in this creek, which is filled with old cedar strainers. This is the difference I notice the most with a tenkara rod: I have to think hard about how to land each fish. And a good net is absolutely mandatory, even for small fish.

I can tell this fish is a big one — she’s hugging the bottom and feels like a rock on the line. In order to bring this fish to the net, I must get the line in my hand and yard it in. This requires attention and some danger of losing the fish. Since the rod tip is no longer there to absorb the fight, the fish can create slack faster than your hands can adjust and be gone. After losing several this size of cutthroat trout right next to the net on 6X tippet — I wasn’t expecting this size of fish here! — I’ve gone up to 4X, which is probably more than the rod is rated for. As much as I want to, I can’t shorten my line until this fish tires a bit and I can safely yard it in. I slowly work the rod tip back behind my head, giving me almost 25′ of control over the fish, including the length of the rod and my arm, if I use it correctly. The heavy trout decides to go for a submerged log a few feet away and ends up jumping when he can’t get there. I can see the dark red over her operculum and down her sides as she sprays a rainbow of droplets into the air. Up here in this little creek in North Idaho, these are some of the most colorful cutthroat I’ve caught.

Landing Big Fish

She’s finally getting tired, still fighting like mad but no longer jumping — at least, I think I’ve got a female on the line. I pull the rod tip back until I can grab the line with my free hand. As soon as I grab the line I am directly connected to a wild animal. It’s amazing to feel just how strong these fish are and how much work a rod does in fighting a fish. I’m fishing with a line a bit more than twice my rod length, so I have about fifteen feet of fight left. I’ve learned that you have to let your elbow relax and flex with the fish to keep them from building slack. Twice she decides to make a run and I have to follow a few steps to keep from snapping the tippet.

Keeping the rod under one arm, pulling in line with both hands, knowing when to reach for the net, and keeping the line away from my feet . . . is a multi-tasking tenkara rod-using skill that I’m still learning. At some point my rod ends up trailing behind me in the water and I look like I’ve been walking a puppy — I’ve got yellow fluorocarbon line wrapped around both feet. I’ll spend ten minutes untangling this mess after I release this lady, but at this point that isn’t really on the radar. She’s close now, I can see the spots on her back and the fly in her mouth. I reach for the net but she makes another lunge for deep water. Finally, she rolls sideways and I slip the net under. That was a fight!

Using Tenkara Rods for Kids

I initially bought a tenkara rod for my son. He was frustrated using a spinning setup on the river while dad caught all the fish on a fly, but he wasn’t ready for the complexity of a fly rod. I bought my him a seven-foot, ten-inch Shimotsuke Kiyotaki rod and starter kit last year when he was eight years old. The rod itself, weighing in at only one-ounce and lacking a cork grip, seems even more like a toy than the rod I use. With a fluorocarbon line the same length as the rod and 3-4 feet of 6X tippet, he’s caught numerous northern pikeminnow, sunfish, crappie, smallmouth bass, and trout. He had a five-species day last summer with that rod. With a short line, this is an amazing setup for kids. He caught so many sunfish one weekend last year that we stopped counting. It’s a great way to get kids fishing . . . and actually catching fish . . . which is the only thing aside from a bucket of worms that will keep a kids attention on fishing for long.

tenkara rods with kids
Kids can easily learn to fish with a tenkara rod — which also works great for drifting worms.

As a fly fisherman, it’s easy to forget that there are lots of fish at our feet and that a long cast often isn’t necessary. That far bank just always seems to have the best water. “The grass is always greener,” as they say, which is why companies can get people to spend hundreds on the latest fast action fly rods. Tenkara proves how wrong that mentality can be. My son had fun catching yearling cutthroat parr in the riffles with a short line. Some of them were only five feet away.

That said, sometimes you need to cast a bit farther than the length of your rod. I find that I often use a line one-and-a-half to two-times the length of my tenkara rods. I’ve stretched it to three rod-lengths on a lake before, but this doesn’t work for kids. For instance, I extended my son’s line so he could reach the center of “The Hole” and it ended in frustration and multiple Medusa-like tangles. These rods are so bendy that they make a typical “slow action” fly rod feel like a 2X4 stud by comparison. You have to have the patience to let the rod and line catch up on the backcast or the tangles can be epic. That said, I was easily able to cast a long line with my son’s rod, so I would cast and he would bring the fish in . . . fish that included a 15” cutthroat.

Finding a Tenkara Rod

There are plenty of outlets online for tenkara rods, and a few stores are carrying them now. Tenkara USA was the first to come along and is the most established. Personally, I have bought all my rods and gear from so far. I’ve done this for a few reasons. First, the prices are great (each rod kit was less than $150) and second, because I agree with the owner’s philosophy to fishing. I’m not a purist, nor am I a trophy fisherman, and I greatly dislike the elitist advertising and pricing strategies of the major rod companies. People have been catching fish for eons, and it was once a way to keep your family alive and not just an aesthetic pursuit of the rich. You will never convince me that the latest graphite blank will “get you into the range of more fish” than the $60-$100 rods at the tackle store who’s graphite composition was advertised the same way, by the same companies, 15 years ago.

tenkara flies
Soft-hackled tenkara-style flies.

I’m a bit of a fly fishing curmudgeon I guess, but I’m just as glad to be catching native pikeminnow and chiselmouth on the Palouse as I am to be catching native trout on Kelly Creek. Sure, native trout are amazing and the scenery is inevitably beautiful, but I’m a fish ecologist and I appreciate the whole underwater menagerie. Chris at also eschews the “trout only” and “one fly” purist strains of tenkara, and he isn’t above showing that fish will bite almost anything (if it looks buggy and is presented well) with his Blue Fly Challenge. In fact, we caught several cutthroat on this trip on reverse hackle flies tied with Chris’ blue yarn.

Speaking of flies, I’m impressed with the tenkara-style flies so far. I use all kinds of flies with these rods, but we caught all but one fish on tenkara-style, reverse hackle, wet flies on this trip. There is something about the neutral buoyancy of these flies and the hackle action you can get with the tenkara presentation that make them work in lots of situations. They are also ridiculously easy to tie and remarkably durable. Just build up a body with thread, add peacock hurl on the body (or my favorite, UV krystalflash for a tail), both of which are optional, and wrap cheap soft hackle backwards. You can crank out tons of these flies in an hour.

The Tenkara Experience

Overall, I’m incredibly impressed with fishing tenkara style. Tenkara offers a simplified and minimalistic way to fly fish that you can adapt to whatever flies, gear, or conditions you care to try, and tenkara-style fishing works great for kids. The knots are unbelievably simple. With a tippet ring on the casting line you can get away with only a simple slipknot, a modified overhand knot, and two clinch knots for the entire setup. The rods are so portable and easy to break down that it’s easy to collapse them and bushwhack your way to the next hole. They are a backpacker’s dream for anyone who likes to fish in the backcountry. I also think they are the most productive and least frustrating way to fish small creeks, which makes sense given they were used for hundreds of years to commercially fish small creeks in Japan. In the United States and elsewhere, tenkara fishing is growing in popularity and is a great adventure in fishing for anybody who wants to try something new.

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