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Back to the Future with Tenkara

By Paul Gaskell


Tenkara (which translates roughly as “from heaven falling” or “from the heavens”) is a traditional method of fly casting and fly fishing that is gathering a growing following in its native Japan – and is beginning to gain popularity in western countries too. Its origins are associated with isolated rural communities in mountain regions of Japan and Tenkara was a favoured method used by professional anglers who relied on their catch for subsistence. In the later part of the era of the Samurai class, the absence of widespread warfare from the 17th century onwards freed up spare time for these most intellectual of warriors to indulge in more abstract pastimes. One such pastime favoured by the Samurai was Tenkara fishing.   Watching the video clips on the website of the first tackle company to manufacture and sell rods, lines and gear for the market outside Japan; two things are very apparent. First of all, Daniel Galhardo (owner and founder of the company “Tenkara USA”; http://www.tenkarausa.com) must be very used to people saying “ah, it’s just like dapping”. Second of all, it is immediately apparent that the technique has little - if anything - to do with dapping! If the company had been started in the UK, you would probably also have to add a similar qualifying statement to these videos along the lines “...and its bugger all to do with whip or pole fishing either!”.  From the responses that I’ve seen to date, I reckon that around 90% of UK fly anglers at the moment respond to a description of Tenkara by saying either “it’s just dapping” or “it’s just whip or pole fishing with a fly”. It seems to be a really good example of our human tendency to shoehorn unfamiliar ideas into categories that we are already familiar with. Whilst it is physically possible to use a Tenkara rig in ways that are similar to dapping or pole fishing – it is not what they do best and nor is it anywhere near the limit of what they can do.
Perhaps somewhat strangely, despite the fame of “The Compleat Angler”, we flyfishers also only seem to regard an extremely modern version of flyfishing as “Traditional”. Namely, upstream dry fly using a relatively short rod and a reel loaded with heavy fly line. Contrast this with older (and arguably more “traditional” styles) of the upstream wet fly practiced by Izaak Walton under the tutelage of Charles Cotton. Here, extremely long rods, fixed line and no reel were the norm. In fact, many almost uncanny resemblances exist between the various original forms of fishing with the artificial fly across the globe (from the Macedonians, to the Japanese, to the English and so on). The major advantage that Japan had over the western world was the presence of many species of bamboo – so that the perfect, hollow rod building stems could be selected. In the UK, we had to rely on big muscles and greenheart branches!
It is very interesting for me to note that the modern international river flyfishing competition scene is dominated by approaches that use as long a rod as the stream vegetation will allow, holding all the line right up to the fly (or the point at which the leader penetrates the surface) off the water. This is true of such staple methods as duo/trio fishing in pocket water, the most common forms of Czech/Polish nymph fishing seen in competitions, French dry fly fishing, French/Spanish/Belgian nymph fishing. In fact, these latter methods of dry fly and nymph fishing using highly specialised leader constructions (long, custom tapered and chemically treated for supple turnover) are by far the most comparable in terms of “feel” to Tenkara in my experience. More of this shortly though. Before that, it is worth mentioning that – in terms of teams topping the rivers world flyfishing championship leaderboard - there are relatively few departures from the super-effective “everything-off-the-surface-dead-drift-with-the-occasional-induced take-lift”methods.  These “everything off” methods, we should acknowledge, owe so much to the original long rod, fixed line, upstream dead drift methods of ancient times! The modern competition method exceptions would include the streamer fishing or flood-water wet fly fishing that are undertaken with sinking lines and a “downstream” presentation and a retrieve (often with a submerged rod tip). Similarly, some of the wetfly/nymph presentations used by anglers such as Jiri Klima to search shallow and relatively featureless water with a floating line also utilise downstream drifts and induced take “dangles”. This allows Jiri to cover more water than could be achieved by upstream casts and dead drift presentation in water that offers few clues as to fish holding features.
So – back to the gut “feel” of Tenkara. As I mentioned earlier, if you arranged all fly fishing techniques along a gradient, then French Leader and Tenkara would be extremely close neighbours. This is especially evident when the former is practiced with the longer/lighter AFTM rods (in the 10ft 3 weight or longer/lighter range). The Tenkara, though, would still come in as the slightly more extreme version. Tenkara rod action (in the tip of the rod at least) and weight of lines cast would typically come in as sub “0”-weight. The rods are also generally longer (ranging from around 11 feet to 14 feet; with 12 feet being probably the most common).  In continuing the comparison with French leaders, it should be noted that the Tenkara leader length can be varied from less than the length of the rod (for cramped conditions) up to around 9.5 metres on large, wide rivers (i.e. similar to the upper limit of French leader lengths).
So, down to the nitty gritty then – what do you actually do with the gear? Well, from the very first act of hitching the leader butt around the short tag of knotted yarn (the so called “lillian string” that is permanently glued to the Tenkara rod tip), it is apparent that we are a country mile away from rigging a coarse fishing pole.  The fine diameter of the tip seems intimidating in its apparent fragility (see photo). As soon as you have unravelled your leader (which may be a furled tapered line for delicate touchdown – usually between 9ft and 12ft in length – or the denser monofilament “level” line that casts better into a breeze and can be cut to any length) you can telescope the rod sections out of the cork handle to their full extent.  A short tippet between 3ft and perhaps 6ft can be added along with your choice of fly. Dry flies and wet flies have traditionally been used in Japan – with the majority favouring the wet fly as being more consistently deadly (important if you are fishing to live). Regional variations in traditional Japanese flies are many with both “stiff” and “soft” hackles represented as well as fancy silk/gold leaf works of art alongside the predominantly drab imitative patterns. The western fly angler can also achieve superb presentation of their usual bead head nymphs, weighted shrimps (for grayling in particular) and north-country spiders and, of course, favourite dry flies.  Perhaps, though, the most iconic of the traditional Japanese Tenkara patterns are the “reverse hackle” flies (sakasa kebari). I have tied up some reverse hackle versions of black terrestrial flies (pictured) as well as British classics that belong to the related pedigree of upstream wetfly fishing such as the waterhen bloa ready for the upcoming trout season. The significance of the reverse hackle is that when manipulated by the classic “induced take” movement of the rod tip – they “pulse” wildly in response to every tug; very enticing.  For the moment though, I am still at the beginnings of my exploration of Tenkara and have focussed mainly on relatively long range nymphing for grayling using a 12-ft furled leader, along with some trials with a 12-ft level leader also. Some of the noteworthy findings of my outings so far include the ease with which superb drag free presentation of nymphs with great “contact” can be achieved at a range of around 6 to 7 meters (combined reach of a raised rod and 4 to 5m total length of leader). It is also evident just how forgiving and effective the soft tip and progressively meaty mid/butt sections of the rod are in subduing fish. I find that I lose very few grayling – even when they get downstream of me doing that nerve jangling lashing/figure of eight twisting that they use so well to throw the hook.  The length of the rod imparts a great deal of leverage to lead the nose of the fish – and playing grayling with a very low rod tip helps to encourage them to swim in the water column (rather than thrash “belly up” on the surface where they are often able to shed the hook when downstream of the angler). Of course, the main thing that gives concern to the fly angler used to having a reel and backing, is what happens if you hook a big fish? Well – firstly it is wise to avoid the method on rivers where 3 and 4lb plus fish are the norm (clearly). Secondly, as a sensible insurance for fish welfare, the tippet strength should be balanced to being “close to but still less than” the sensible breaking strain of the rod blank! I would suggest 3 to 5lb being about right. That way, with barbless hooks, if you do find yourself hopelessly outgunned and unable to follow a fish – the short tippet will part and the fish stands a good chance of quickly shedding the hook (think how often the fly falls out in the net when they are barbless). Thirdly, and somewhat surprisingly, there are many, many examples of really large fish being landed on these long, flexible rods. There seems to be something about the action and length that quickly tires fish. Migratory fish in the “over 60cm long” category have been subdued on Tenkara rods – and this may be due to partly to the extreme flexibility (acting a bit like the “give” provided by a pole elastic in British coarse fishing). There is said to be a significant benefit to the length of the rod in turning the head of a large running fish as well as a substantial role of angler skill. Turning the fish and bringing it parallel to the current as well as lifting its head to cause it to gulp air instead of water are techniques that the Japanese masters such as Dr. Hisao Ishigaki cite in the successful landing of a large fish. This is one of the things that attract me to the method – the possibility that I might learn something that is new to me but that was second nature to our angling predecessors in this country and abroad. The opportunity to relearn skills that we have forgotten through technological crutches that inflate our ability is very appealing. Not least because such lessons are likely to increase our abilities with our normal fly fishing gear.
Clearly, this method is but another tool in the whole box available to us as fly anglers. It is not a universal panacea and I won’t be selling my beloved western rods and reels any time soon. As with any method, it has its strengths and weaknesses – but there are hundreds (if not thousands) of venues in Britain that are ideally suited to its strengths. Some of these strengths of Tenkara are wonderfully unique though. For my day job with the Wild Trout Trust conservation team, I often have perhaps half an hour or an hour available to fish during a working day. This might be either when I work at home – when I can take a lunchtime trip to one of my local rivers for 45 minutes or so (I am 3 to 5 minutes drive from 3 urban rivers). It could equally be after I’ve concluded the day’s business on a site visit or practical habitat works on a river that is miles from home. The fact that I can keep a Tenkara rod ready rigged (and there is no reel to attach or rod rings to thread) means that I can be fishing in seconds. When I pack up, I just need to collapse the rod and wind the rig onto its holder on the butt of the rod – another task of seconds. Actually within my job itself, as part of the “Trout in the Town” urban river restoration and community engagement work – Tenkara offers a superb way of getting youngsters straight into casting and catching a fish on a fly they’ve tied themselves. It is also ideal for people who have limited mobility in one arm, or who need the support of a stick in one hand in order to be steady by/in the stream (there is no line to strip or reel to operate with the non-rod hand). That’s not all though; if you find yourself in a tight spot under trees, you can instantly adjust the length of the rod by collapsing the required number of telescopic sections. I find that you can collapse and extend sections quite easily – even whilst playing fish if required - and there aren’t many normal fly rods that you can say that for! But here is the kicker – even though it is simpler to learn to the point that you can catch a fish than western fly fishing; you can still spend a lifetime improving your skills with it. It forces you to learn and apply river craft in reading the water and positioning yourself before delivering a precise (fly fishing!) cast with a tight, accurate loop.  Oh – and did I mention it is some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on?
For a good impression of what Tenkara involves check out these videos: http://vimeo.com/6426184 , for casting techniques: http://vimeo.com/7444084 and for landing fish on long leaders with no reel: http://vimeo.com/7995203
Author info:
Dr. Paul Gaskell is a freshwater biologist and life-long angler who works for the Wild Trout Trust (www.wildtrout.org), primarily on their “Trout in the Town” urban river restoration project. He is currently discussing the possibility of making a DVD with Fish On productions (http://www.fishonproductions.co.uk/) about his journey into Tenkara (alongside other planned titles that provide in depth coaching on a range of river flyfishing techniques)