Tenkara is a style of flyfishing developed by commercial fishermen in the mountain streams of Japan roughly 400 years ago. Its essence is simplicity — a rod, line tippet and single reverse-hackled fly, which can be fished as a wet fly, dry fly or nymph.
There's no reel, indicator, split shot, huge fly selection.
With Tenkara fishing growing, I went to learn more at Tenkara Jam two weekends ago in Hereford, organized by Maryland Trout Unlimited, Jason Sparks of Appalachian Tenkara and others. There were about 100 people in attendance with 11 vendors plus five great conservation and fishing service organizations.
Tenkara fishing started in this country about 10 years ago, but probably took off when Daniel Gelhardo founded Tenkara USA in April of 2009. Galhardo's approach can be summed up, "Simplify," which may well be his mantra. (He and Henry David Thoreau really would have hit if off.)
Tenkara has its critics. Some see it as a fad, a gimmick, another variation on high-stick flyfishing and nothing really new. The latter critique has some truth. Fixed line, long rod, single fly fishing was used in Europe and this country at least as far back as Colonial times, and flies similar to the distinctive Tenkara-style flies were found in Italy.
My conclusion at the end of the program is that Tenkara is not "the one method" of flyfishing but a niche with numerous benefits. It is:
Affordable — A complete outfit costs about $250-300.
Portable — The rods typically telescope from as long as 14 feet to 20 inches and weighs only a few ounces, and all other equipment can fit in one's pocket. Tenkara is ideal for bikers and backpackers and for fishing brook trout and mountain streams.
Effective — It allows the most accurate, natural, drag-free fly presentation of any flyfishing method.
Easy to learn — Tenkara does require a different casting stroke from conventional flyfishing, a 12 o'clock to 2 o'clock stroke with the arm tucked against the body and employing some wrist movement. But Alan Alborn of Healing Waters stated he can have people catching fish within 15 minutes of introducing them to Tenkara, and other speakers agreed. Tenkara could be a great approach to teaching newcomers to flyfishing.
Not strenuous — Anglers with shoulder problems will likely find Tenkara far easier, using either their usual casting arm or switching to the other and quickly learning the Tenkara stroke.
Speaker after speaker stated, "There are no rules," and proved it with their range of opinions, some contradictory.
Limits versus Extremes — Tenkara is often described as a method for fishing for small to medium-sized trout, perhaps 8 to 18 inches, in small streams mostly less than a few feet deep. This rule of thumb may have a lot of exceptions. Two factors just as critical could be the nature of the fish and waters and the condition and style of the fisherman. For example the Green River in Utah is a big, world-class tailwater with lots of fast water and big brown trout. I've fished the Green four or five times. My trout typically ranged between 14 and 18 inches, and almost all of my browns were taken on foam surface flies in quieter water within inches of the bank. With easy bank access along many sections, a good Tenkara fisherman could do well there and have a good chance of hooking a trout of 20 inches, which only the skilled and lucky angler could handle.
Likewise a fisherman who likes to walk and wade could do well with Tenkara. You may remember a story I did a few years back about Pennsylvania angler, Frank Nale, a spin fisherman who catches astronomical numbers of wild trout, with a bit less than one percent of 20 inches or more. Frank fishes one lure, a size #1 spinner, and covers as much as five miles in a day's fishing. While Nale's methods are extreme, you can see the parallel. His one lure, "take it or leave it" presentations and "keep moving" approach would also work with Tenkara in many waters.
A standard Tenkara formula is: "12-foot rod, 12-foot line, 4-foot tippet, one size 12 fly." But it seems there is an American tendency to strive for the outer limits, so anglers are using "heavier" Tenkara rods in the questionable pursuit of big trout, steelhead, salmon and various saltwater species. Experts may have some success here but probably to the detriment of the fish and the tackle.
Japanese versus American — This might be better described as simple versus complex. So experienced anglers, such as fly fishing experts John Gierach and Lefty Kreh, believe in also using Tenkara rods to fish typical American fly rigs, including weighted flies and dry fly and dropper and other tandem rigs. Lefty uses the analogy of the Americanization of Tenkara to the way anglers in this country imported flyfishing from England and then adapted it to American waters. He endorses the 2014 book "Simple Fly Fishing." Galhardo just shakes his head, "Too complicated."
Likewise Chris Stewart of Tenkara Bum in his presentation said basic Tenkara tackle is designed for the upper six inches of the water column and prescribes longer, stiffer Keiryu Tenkara rods, shorter lines and weighted flies for Czech/Polish nymphing and other deeper water fishing. So now one needs two rods, and things aren't as simple.
My advice on exploring Tenkara is to begin with a search of its many web sites. Both Temple Forks Outfitters (TFO) and Tenkara USA offer complete kits and simple booklets describing how to fish Tenkara. Rob Lepczyk of Great Feathers is a Gunpowder River guide who also caters to anglers wanting to fish Tenkara style.
Tenkara fishing is a good fit for the majority of Maryland trout streams, especially brook trout streams and smaller waters like Big Hunting Creek and Beaver Creek. It can also work for bluegill/sunfish.