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I first became aware of tenkara three years ago after a three-day float trip fishing the stonefly hatch in Colorado’s Gunnison Gorge. My friends and I were settling up our accounts with the trip outfitter, RIGS Fly Shop and Guide Service in Ridgway, Colorado (http://fishrigs.com/fly-shop). As I scanned the shop’s inventory for something that I couldn’t live without, I noticed a display of tenkara rods.
When I asked about the rods, I was told that tenkara had been introduced to the United States recently by Daniel Galhardo, founder of Tenkara USA. It was pointed out that the Tenkara USA rod models vary in length from 11 feet to more than 14 feet and are used without a reel – simplicity personified. Further, I was told that the tenkara method of fly fishing has an ancient history and was developed by anglers seeking food or selling trout at small village markets. Tenkara anglers made use of unsplit bamboo readily available in the Japanese countryside and the technique evolved in small, fast-moving mountain streams, much like those found in mountainous areas of the United States. On that occasion, I was mildly interested in learning more, but needed to hit the road.
In the last three years, I thought no more about tenkara until a recent incident revived my interest. Our chapter of Trout Unlimited sponsors a retreat for breast cancer survivors each fall. The retreats are cosponsored by Casting for Recovery (www.castingforrecovery.org). Our TU chapter also sponsors an ongoing program of fly tying and fishing outings for disabled military veterans. The veterans program is cosponsored by Project Healing Waters (www.projecthealingwaters.org) and the Veterans Administration.
With both of these programs I have noted that many participants are overwhelmed by the complexities of managing the fly line with one hand and the rod with the other. In addition, some participants have physical limitations. This was driven home to me last fall when one of our breast cancer participants had lost one arm yet very much wanted to participate in the fly-fishing activity. One of our TU members saved the day by loaning her his tenkara rod.
The idea occurred to me that tenkara might be a useful way to introduce fly-fishing techniques to newcomers to the sport, as well as to people with some physical impairments. I vowed to explore the possibilities of tenkara this year on a planned 10-day fishing road trip with my friend, Dick Hyde.
Dick lives in Sacramento, California, and he visits me each summer or fall for a fishing road trip, usually to Colorado, Idaho, or Montana. This past July, I decided that Dick and I should return to Ridgway and arrange for an education in tenkara. Luckily, RIGS Fly Shop not only carries tenkara equipment, but it is the only Colorado fly shop that specifically guides tenkara. RIGS’s tenkara specialist is Paul Vertrees, an early U.S. tenkara convert. Paul is a fifth-generation Coloradoan with a keen interest in lightweight
backpacking and backcountry angling. He is a contributing expert to the new book, Tenkara Fly Fishing, Insights and Strategies by David E. Dirks, available through Amazon.
After a few phone calls, we had Paul lined up for two days of guided tenkara lessons, with all tenkara equipment provided by RIGS. And, best of all, our classroom would be the three forks of the Cimarron River, high in the picturesque Cimarron Mountains. The graded 21-mile Owl Creek Pass Road to the Cimarron River from Ridgway has been described as the most beautiful drive in Colorado.
On our first morning Paul gave us a streamside crash course on the equipment. He provided us with two different Tenkara USA rod models to try. Both rods were made of graphite with telescoping sections. When the sections were collapsed, the rods were less than two feet in length. One rod was a 12-footlong Iwana model and the other a 13-foot Ayu model. Paul described the speed and flex characteristics of each.
Next, he showed us the choices of line. Traditional tenkara lines were braided horsehair, but of course these are not commercially available. Instead, an angler can choose between a braided nylon tapered line (easy to cast, but harder to keep off the water for drag-free drifts) or a level fluorocarbon line (wind may impair casts, but great for keeping the entire line off the water for long drag-free presentations). Regardless of which style of line an angler chooses, they are much lighter than the typical fly line and therefore easier to keep off the water.
We then proceeded to construct a 13- foot level line for the Ayu rod. We practiced tying the few necessary knots to attach the line to the rod tip and a 6X tippet of about five feet to the line. The Iwana model was already fitted with a special floating line. Paul also discussed some other line choices, including some special “bi-viz” nymph lines being tied by RIGS Fly Shop staff members. It should be noted that in addition to Tenkara USA, Japanese manufacturers Shimano, Daiwa, and others produce tenkara rods that are imported to the United States in limited quantities. One source for these products is a Web site created by Chris Stewart, www.tenkarabum.com.
After rigging the rods, Paul gave us a lesson in flies. Traditional tenkara is based on using a single fly presented subsurface. The flies were developed in Japan’s mountains using simple materials. Most tenkara flies are tied with a simple thread body and a single soft hackle. One distinctive tenkara fly style is the sakasa. Sakasa-style flies have the hackle swept forward over the eye of the hook. They are often fished with manipulation by twitching the rod tip during the drift.
We asked whether we would only be using traditional tenkara flies. Paul answered that we would not limit ourselves to traditional flies. In fact, we would not limit ourselves to subsurface flies.
With both rods set up, we spent a few minutes talking about the history of tenkara. It was interesting to note that the long tenkara rods evolved naturally due to readily available bamboo, a material with great strength-to-weight characteristics. In contrast, natural European materials of similar length were unwieldy and heavy and therefore necessarily shorter, leading to the necessity of reels in order to make effective casts. The fixed-line length of tenkara was not a limiting factor given its use on small streams for small mountain trout.
Paul noted that Daniel Galhardo, founder of Tenkara USA, limits himself to traditional tenkara subsurface flies, but tenkara in some areas of the United States is evolving beyond that. Those who follow Galhardo in their choice of flies are of the view that the key to catching fish is presentation, not imitation. Many Americans dispute that view and have turned to utilizing “Western” flies, including those designed to “match the hatch.” Paul is of the view that Americans are innovators by nature and it’s perfectly natural that tenkara is a work in progress in this country. Indeed, some American tenkara anglers are really pushing the boundaries of the sport by angling for warm-water species in lakes and ponds. Some have reported taking fish such as baby tarpon, salmon, and spotted gar.
Now that we were fully rigged and initiated into the lore of the technique, we headed to the nearby Middle Fork of the Cimarron. As we started for the water, I felt almost naked. No vest, no net, only a tippet nipper, dry fly floatant and a small fly box with about half a dozen patterns. Everything fit into my shirt pockets.
After a short walk, we started to fish the narrow pocket-water stream. The overhead tenkara cast is similar to a standard cast, just a little more “wristy” with a shorter, softer touch. Surprisingly, the long rods didn’t snag nearby bushes as much as expected. This was due in part to the fact that a tenkara cast is a more vertical up and down stroke than a typical cast. That was a great advantage on the narrow mountain stream.
Dick and I were both surprised by how accurately we could cast into pocket water and what great drifts we got by keeping the rod tip high and the line off the water. We also noted that little false casting was required – just an upstroke and back down on to the water. It wasn’t long before we started hooking fish. With no reel, the landing technique is simple. You raise the rod and tilt it back until you can grasp the line. At that point, you trap the line under your rod hand and use your free hand to grab the fish and release it.
Later in the day we fished below the confluence of the forks in bigger water, but our tenkara rods and lines were still very effective, producing nice drag-free drifts of small hopper patterns. On our second day we fished the East Fork of the Cimarron in the spectacular Uncompahgre Wilderness Area. On both days, we caught a mixed bag of wild stream-born cutthroats, rainbows, and browns up to about 12 inches. By the end of day two, we felt that we were ready to experiment on larger streams with larger fish. We wondered what stress a larger trout would put on the equipment, especially in a fast current.
The next morning Dick and I both purchased a tenkara outfit. We were quite taken with the simplicity of the equipment and we each could visualize its effectiveness on small streams near us. In my case the streams of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are as close as five minutes from my house. In Dick’s case, a family-owned cabin in the Sierras east of Sacramento is surrounded by small mountain streams. We each opted for a 12-foot Iwana model from Tenkara USA ($158) and a level line spool with enough line to make at least five lines ($18). We already had tippet material and had tied some tenkara-style flies. We were ready to explore boundaries.
Our first stop was the big pocket water of the Taylor River, near Gunnison, Colorado. By the time we arrived at the Taylor River, a few miles below Taylor Park Reservoir, I had read the fish-fighting chapter of Insights and Strategies, mentioned above. I was anxious to use the leverage of the long rod rotated from side to side to steer a worthy fish into calm water and land it.
The Taylor River, I should point out, is noted for large trout, some as large as 20 pounds just below the dam. Those behemoths feed heavily on mysis shrimp that are swept into the river from the reservoir. A few miles downstream, where we would fish, the trout are smaller, yet a trout of several pounds is a possibility. This is especially true during July, when the Taylor has a mix of hatching pale morning duns and green drakes that bring larger trout to the surface.
Another factor enters into fishing the Taylor. It has a high gradient and is boulder strewn. This creates an environment of fast currents with some slack water behind structure. A large trout hooked on tenkara can be landed if it can be steered into slack water, we theorized.
In approaching the river, I wrote off several promising sections simply because the current and lack of nearby slack water looked too daunting to land trout more than around 12 inches. Ultimately, Dick and I found a suitable section of the Taylor and fished it for two days. There were good hatches both days and willing fish. We did not encounter any tackle busters, but I did land an 18-inch cutthroat with little problem, steering it into a backwater and landing it. Admittedly, if I had hooked it in a different part of the river or if it had been a rainbow of the same size, the outcome may have been different.
We continued to fish tenkara on a variety of streams during the remainder of our road trip with good success. These waters included a small meadow stream with oxbows and flat-water stretches with pools at the bends. We also fished the Conejos River, a medium-sized mountain stream that happened to be flowing at a very low rate due to southern Colorado’s drought. In each stream we caught fish, spooked fish, and lost fish – all par for the course.
At the end of our road trip, Dick and I discussed the pros and cons of tenkara equipment. On the con side is the fact that tenkara rods and line are not designed to cast big bushy flies or large streamers. It’s not really designed for using a hopper/dropper rig, either, or an indicator/nymph rig. Windy conditions are also a problem with tenkara equipment, and because of the limited length of the line, tenkara is not ideal on slow, flat water. Finally, the equipment also has fish-landing limitations that are still being explored by adventuresome anglers.
On the pro side is the great usefulness of tenkara equipment on small mountain streams with small to medium (up to 15-inch) trout. Since such streams exist in many places in America, tenkara has broad geographical application. It allows pinpoint casting, drag-free drifts, and little wasted time with false casting or managing the line. Because the rod collapses and the line can be wrapped around your hand or a small spool, it lends itself to walking through heavy streamside brush. It is also a nice alternative for the backpacker or cyclist looking to reach unpressured water.
Ultimately, tenkara’s greatest strength is probably its efficient simplicity. Tenkara is not an equipment-based method relying on the latest high-dollar rod, reel, and line technology. Tenkara angling success depends more on reading the water, utilizing the rod length to make a flawless presentation, and then, if the fish is large or the current fast, using the leverage of the rod to steer the fish to a preselected slack-water landing area. Dick and I concluded that in tenkara the most important technical equipment is the gray material between an angler’s ears. – Bill Owen.
Postscript: There are few printed sources of information about tenkara written in English. Besides the book mentioned above, the best sources of information are on the Web. The Tenkara USA Web site (www.tenkarausa.com) is informative and has links to several videos. There are also tenkara videos on You-Tube. Additionally, great information is available on a number of blogs. Here are some: www.tenkaratracks.blogspot.com; www.tenkara-fishing.com; www.tenkarabum.com (as noted above, tenkara equipment is available on this Web site); www.tenkaraguides.com; www.tenkaratalk.com; www.americansakasakebari.blogspot.com; and www.tenkaraonthefly.net.