Commentary Tips/Tactics

The Trouble With Tenkara — And Why You Don’t Need It

on
May 30, 2018

The advantages of a Tenkara presentation are not exclusive or unique to Tenkara itself, and in fact, the same benefits are achieved just as well — and often better — with a long fly rod and (gasp) a reel.

I bought a Tenkara rod for my young boys a few years ago, because the longer a rod is, the more control the boys have over a drift. And the lighter a rod is, the easier it is for their small arms to cast. Long and light Tenkara rods flex easily, allowing them to load with minimal effort. That’s great for both kids and adults.

I’ve used the boys’ Tenkara rod extensively — long enough to understand exactly what I don’t like about Tenkara and to understand that a fisherman can achieve the same things with a standard, long leader (long Mono Rig) setup.

Update, May 2018: The introductory paragraphs above go straight to the heart of this article — that Tenkara-style presentations can be achieved effectively with a standard fly rod. Two years later, my boys and I still pull out the Tenkara rod on occasion. I like the extra length without the weight. This article simply attempts to highlight the similarities between a Tenkara style and a modern tight line style. Options are a good thing.

Present the fly, not the line . . .

The main asset of Tenkara is the ability to present the fly and only the fly — there’s no fly line or leader laying on the water complicating or destroying a good drift. But is that exclusively a Tenkara advantage? Certainly not. Long leader tactics and all-mono rigs are now commonly seen on many streams, and not just in fly fishing competitions. I fish with a system that keeps all fly line completely out of the equation while fishing wets, nymphs and streamers, and I usually incorporate fly line only when I’m casting dry flies at a distance.

My primary rod is a four weight, 9’6” Sage Z-Axis, and the only advantage that the Tenkara rod gives me over the Sage is length. Make no mistake, the extra length of the Tenkara rod is significant, but to me, it’s not worth the trade-offs and the shortcomings of Tenkara (which I’ll address below). I use the Z-Axis because it’s what I have, but I’ve also spent time with longer rods that get closer to the Tenkara length and flex. A 10′ or 10.5′ three weight rod come closer, and many of the competition rods available make it easy to cast even light flies on an all-mono system.

Precision control over the fly . . .

For many fly fishermen, Tenkara is their first experience with a true tightline presentation. The precision with which you can drift a fly through current seams while tightlining is a satisfying, startling shock when you first see it. After dealing with the weight and mass of fly line for years, many anglers are giddy about gaining true direct contact with their flies, and they quickly learn to enjoy the benefits of directly guiding their flies and having greater control over the outcome. (They catch more fish.)

But remember, tightlining with monofilament is not a Tenkara exclusive. I concede that the softer action and longer rod make the tightline delivery easier to learn at first, especially with light flies. But the same presentation can easily be accomplished with a five weight fly rod. I do it all the time. In fact, I prefer stiffer and faster rods for tightlining (4 and 5 weights),because they are more versatile than their softer counterparts.

The bottom line? I’ve tried taking the leader off my Tenkara rod, attached it to the line on my four weight Sage Z-Axis and had identical results — all with the added benefits of a fly reel. Wets, nymphs, streamers and dries: If you can cast them on a Tenkara rod, they can be cast the same way on a long fly rod with the Mono Rig.

— — — — — —

There are strong opinion in this piece. And I don’t mean to disparage Tenkara fishing or fishermen. Fly fishing has a lot of opinions though — and ever so many options. It’s all fun to explore. I’ve received my fair share of negative comments for using the long Mono Rig, or because I sometimes use Thingamabobbers and Squirmy Wormies. “None of that is fly fishing either.” Right?

I’m not trying to say anything like that here. My intention is to argue that what makes Tenkara a deadly method of fishing can be done just as well, and perhaps better, with a long fly rod and a Mono Rig.

Some argue that Tenkara’s limitations are a strength.

One example is often sited: It forces you to fish close. But the argument is weak. Because with some general self-discipline while fishing a standard fly rod, you can teach yourself to wade closer to your target instead of pulling more line from the reel.

We’re also told that Tenkara is great because it’s so simple. But is it really?

Is Tenkara simple?

In my experience with a Tenkara rod, the elements that make it simple also make it more complicated.

My Tenkara rod telescopes into a light, eleven-foot fishing tool. And it packs away easily for transport. The sections fold into themselves like an old-school radio antenna. That’s excellent. I have carried a Tenkara rod to places where I could not conveniently carry a fly rod, even if it was broken down into four pieces. And the lack of a reel makes Tenkara even more compact.

However, that same design is also the root of Tenkara’s multiple troubles.

Before walking through the brush to a new stream location, I can’t just put the fly on a hook keeper and reel up the extra line. No. Instead, I need to either wrap the line on a plastic Tenkara spool made for the job,  or I figure-eight wrap the line (by hand) around an add-on hook keeper system. It’s time consuming and not very simple.

Granted, threading up or breaking down a fly rod is also a time investment, but I keep my fly rods rigged and broken into two sections that I hold together with a rubber band. I can remove that rubber band, put the two sections together and be fishing much quicker than I can with the Tenkara system. In this case, using a reel actually makes things simpler.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about a Tenkara rod is how it collects a small amount of water inside the sections while fishing (even when not submerged), and if I don’t want corrosion or nastiness inside the rod, I must disassemble the rod after every fishing trip (as per the manufacturer’s instructions), let the sections dry, and then reassemble. I fish too much for all that.

By far, my biggest issue with Tenkara is the lack of a reel. Yes, I do understand that’s supposed to be the whole beauty of it — the simplicity, right? While I can recognize and appreciate the aesthetic of fishing with no reel, I just can’t get around the inefficiency.

Picture the following: I’m standing in water up to my knees, with a Tenkara rod, fishing a pocket behind a large boulder twenty feet away. I’ve caught two trout. I now want to fish the other side of the pocket, an extra seven feet away. But because of the fixed line and no reel, I can’t reach the extra length. The Tenkara angler will tell me to wade seven feet closer. In fact, that likely is the best solution (I always prefer to fish as close as possible to my target). But as I take two steps forward, I start down a ledge and I’m quickly waist deep in the water. I simply cannot wade the extra five feet to reach my target. So now what to do? I can either give up on the far seam, or I can pull in my line, cut a new length of material, add it to the existing line, reattach the fly and then cast to the far side of the pocket. When I’m done fishing that far-off spot, I probably don’t want the extra length of leader, so I’ll clip out the extra line and tie more knots. Lots of downtime there.

By contrast, with a rod and reel, I strip off seven more feet of line and fish it. Then I reel it up when I’m done. That’s simplicity.

Realistically, if I’m fishing the Tenkara rod in the above scenario, I’ll probably ignore the far side of the pocket and move on, deciding it’s not worth the trouble and maybe passing up the best fish in that section.

But that’s the beauty of Tenkara, right? The limitations of the system just presented me with a new challenge, because now I have to adjust and find a new way to approach the pocket and that far seam — perhaps from the other side of the river where there’s no ledge?  Fair enough, but I personally don’t enjoy the self-imposed handicap.

We choose our own handicaps while fishing. If I wanted to catch the most fish, I’d throw chum and a baited hook. In truth, I fish a fly rod and flies because I honestly believe it’s the most efficient tool for the job of catching wild trout in my home waters. With the fly rod, I can meet the trout on their terms — at whatever stage of feeding they are in. I can effectively imitate all life-cycle phases of any insect or baitfish in the river. With Tenkara, I have a hard time doing that as efficiently.

The long leader, Mono Rig approach is extremely effective for nymphs, wets and streamers. Even dry flies can be comfortably cast at distances approaching thirty-five feet. All of it can be done with either a fly rod or a Tenkara rod. To me, the extra length of a Tenkara rod is the only significant advantage for fishing a tightline method, and it’s not worth the trade off.

Now give me back my reel!

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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For medium sized rivers I prefer 13 to 15 foot long Tenkara rods and nymphing rigs so the arguement is elementary until manufacturers begin making longer nymphing rods with guides and a reel seat for tight line nymphing at greater distances (and longer nyphing drifts). I le tmy clients try both and about half prefer nymphing with a tenkara rod.

Nathan Fowler

Dom, Great write-up. I have to admit, I got a good chuckle over this. I too purchased a Tenkara rod mostly to try and relive the nostalgia of when I used to fish as a kid for bluegill with a long bamboo pole and line directly attached. When I recieved the Tankara rod in the mail and started the assembly, the memories of what I hated about that bamboo pole started to filter back in my mind. The line storage issue was my biggest dislike of the bamboo pole as I would just wrap the line tightly aroung the pole… Read more »

I too feel you are limiting yourself with a ten foot Tenkara rod. I own a 9′ and a 13.5′ rod and only use the 9′ rod for smaller streams and overgrown areas. Both rods are easy to carry in a sling pack.

Thank you for your thoughtful replies Domenick! Charlie

Well Domenick, your last line is my argument. When you have 30 different fly reels and 30 different rods to chose from why would I need to add another rod, etc. I have no problem with people who enjoy Tenkara…I enjoy my reels!

Thanks for putting the Tenkara and traditional Western style fly-fishing in perspective. I agree with your assessments here, and Howard’s comment, too. Well done!

Chuck

Suppose you compared a 10′ tenkara rod to a 10′ 3wt western rod using mono and fairly light flies. I would think the tenkara rod would cast better since it has a much softer tip and is designed to cast light lines. A 3wt rod casts 3wt line better than a 7wt rod and for the same reason a tenkara rod casts “00000” wt line better than a 3wt rod.

Alex Argyros

I have fished with a 14 ft. Tenkara (Keiryu) rod a lot, but I’ve gone back to my ESN for two reasons o.besides the ones discussed by Dom above. 1. Tenkara rods are more brittle than graphite or glass fly rods. A lot more brittle. They break quite easily (I don’t mean while playing fish; I mean if they fall on a rock or something else that’s hard). 2. If you get stuck in a tree or in an underwater rock or log in water that is too deep to wade to, you’re in trouble. Since you can’t let out… Read more »

Spencer Norcross

I bought my (then 8 year old) son a tenkara rod because he was having trouble controlling excess line in his casts. He used the tenkara rod 4-5 time practicing and sorted out his issues. The first time he used the rod fishing, he decided it was too difficult to bring fish to hand and hasn’t used it since. Fortunately we had his traditional fly rod with us.

With all due respect, I was very surprised to read the following comment in your article. Taking my rod apart chews up less than 3 minutes and it forces me to examine it for wear and tear. “Perhaps the most irritating thing about a Tenkara rod is how it collects a small amount of water inside the sections while fishing (even when not submerged), and if I don’t want corrosion or nastiness inside the rod, I must disassemble the rod after every fishing trip (as per the manufacturer’s instructions), let the sections dry, and then reassemble.” …You wouldn’t like bird… Read more »

I enjoy some of your writing, but was struck by the hypocrasy of you writing this: “I’m to the point where I enjoy the transition between styles. I remember streamside moments, years ago, when I felt like every fly change, every knot and leader adjustment, came with wasted time. But I don’t believe that anymore. I now think that I waste more time by not adapting, and so I’ve made peace with the expiring minutes as I clip monofilament, and I wrap and twist and pull to form the knots and make the adjustments.” here: https://troutbitten.com/2017/11/19/fifty-fly-fishing-tips-17-pick-one-water-type/ And you writing the… Read more »

James Dubious

I mainly fish a 10’ 4 wt. I can see how a Tenkara would be good in some circumstances. I would not like a Tenkara rod when going after 20”+ fish. The rod can take a lot of stress off your 6x if held properly, a guide told me about 40% less stress on the line. With Tenkara you can not get that kind of relief. My 10’ 4 wt can handle 20+ fish with 6x, I have done it many times. The same rod does great catching small fish. Go ahead, fish Tenkara, it is not for me. When… Read more »

Dennis Franke

A Point on Fly-Casting with the Tenkara Rod (Hand-Lining your catch left to a future post): There is certain elegance in the (proper) casting of a Tenkara rod. The necessary tight, short arc stroke is all you need for the tangental multiplier of the long rod to take over and give you a twenty foot to thirty foot, tight-loop cast with barely a whisper of exertion. And a super delicate fly presentation, that bodes well for fooling selective, challenging trout. It can be a thing of “Zen-like” beauty. That is, if you are casting the Tenkara rod properly. But almost… Read more »

Mark Denovich

Ah, but one benefit of Tenkara you’re not going to get with a standard fly rod: The joy of hearing someone say “look at the size of that guy’s rod!”

(For a few years I went after everything from trout to bass and carp with Tenkara. I now fish mostly a 10’ 2wt for trout and an 5/8wt for everything else. Too many situations where the fish are more than 2’ deep and where Tenkara is no fun)

John Oh

Hello, I agree for the most part on your article and it was a great write up! I just have a minor question. I feel like I get a better dead drift with a tenkara in most situations as the line attachment at the end of the rod eliminates a lot more of the “line-sag” than a traditional flyrod with a reel (even with a mono rig). It might not be a lot but the fact that you have the mass of 10ft of 20 lb chameleon through the guides does drag the flies a bit towards your rod. Interested… Read more »

Dave

I have never fished the Tenkara system, but I have watched people do it. Landing a fish seemed odd to me – hand over hand on the line with the rod tucked away somewhere out of the way. And I wondered what one does with a larger fish that may require a bit more line to avoid a break off, especially when following the fish down stream isn’t possible. I won’t give up my rod and reel either. Dave B

Not sure why this even needed to be written. Tenkara sucks! hehe

I love tenkara for the weight savings when backpacking, I love seiryu rods for small brook trout streams. I really want to hate your article, unfortunately I have came to the exact same conclusions. My Redington classic trout 3 weight strung up with 2 weight line gets the nod more times than not. It will do everything my tenkara rods do except be lighter. 😉 Love the article and the blog.

mike

Thoreau would have been an advocate for Tenkara. “Simplify, dammit!” And while I like reading his writing I don’t want to emulate his life. I am not a follower of Tenkara and I have no desire to try it; though I like to read about it in pieces like yours. Anything that sparks discussion abut the various differences in our chosen fly fishing disciplines is good. I like the fact that you can stir up shite without going all Halfordian on the subject and making it about the people who do love the method. Nicely done. I like the fly… Read more »

greg

I rarely fish tenkara but there are several sitauations where it really shines. I like to hike in for miles up to the headwaters of remote mountain streams, I can pack 3-4 different tenkara rods with different lengths and different leaders (I’ll have a nymphing set up, a dry fly set up, a wet fly/kebari set up) for minimal weight. The delicacy of presentation with a light furled mono leader with tenkara when dry fly fishing also cannot be understated….you could do that with a mono rig (and i have) but the cast/delivery is not as easy/effortless. I fully agree… Read more »

fz80504@gmail.com

I think you are not very good at tenkara

Domenick Swentosky
BELLEFONTE, PA

Hi. I'm a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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