Without a reel, tenkara fishing really catches on in Maryland

Rob Lepczyk hadn't been in the Gunpowder River for more than five minutes on a late September morning before he felt a tug on his line. The 26-year-old Sparks resident yanked at the long rod before gently guiding the small green-and-white trout with brown spots, now flopping on the end of his line, to the water's surface. After examining his catch, he tossed it back into the river.

Lepczyk, a guide at Great Feathers fly shop in Sparks, didn't need a high-tech reeled fishing rod to make the catch. He instead prefers to fish tenkara, an ancient Japanese style of fly-fishing that uses a telescopic rod, typically about 12 feet long, with no reel. Attached to the end of the rod is a Kevlar line that is just as long and usually tapered — thicker near the top and thinner by the hook.


It's essentially a more modern, more advanced form of a stick with a string tied to the end.

One morning, Lepczyk and his fishing companion, Val "Coach" Pinhey, 60, of Baltimore, had brought two of their friends to this same secluded spot on the Gunpowder to fish. Lepczyk and Pinhey fished with these simple tenkara rods while their friends fished with "Western" fly rods, with reels used for the type of fly-fishing typically practiced in the United States.


"They didn't catch a single fish," Lepczyk said of his friends using the Western rods. "I caught five, and Coach caught three. … Those guys, I could tell they were getting a little fussy. [One of the friends] told me to get out of the pool. He said: 'Go sit on the bench — your turn's over.' "

Lepczyk credits his more prolific day on the river to the simplicity of the approach.

"There is an innate connection with nature, more so than most fishing has," Lepczyk said of tenkara.

Fly-fishing, particularly tenkara, is premised on essentially tricking fish into believing the fake fly on the end of the line is real. In Maryland, tenkara fishermen are trying to imitate tricorythodes, or "tricos," as they are often known. Male tricos die after mating and fall into the river, floating along with the current. Trout see them and come to the surface to eat them. The Japanese word "tenkara," in fact, means "from the heavens," referring to the way the flies flutter down onto the river.

"Fly-fishermen have to have a greater understanding of nature and the way things work to be successful because we're imitating a natural food source, not just putting like a worm or a shiny thing in the river and hoping that we catch a fish," Lepczyk said.

Tenkara's simplicity and focus on natural movement has many benefits, Lepczyk said.

"The most significant advantage of tenkara style is no drag on your fly," Lepczyk said. "Drag" is an unnatural movement of the fake fly, in which it pulls against the current of the river or stream. Lepczyk compared it to the V-shaped wake of a boat. "Bugs don't do that. It's unnatural. So fish usually aren't going to come up and eat that," he said.

With tenkara, Lepczyk emphasizes, "it is almost physically impossible to drag your fly with a line that's as long as your rod."


"In Western, you can remain remote — 30-, 40-, 50-foot casts," Pinhey added. "The fish don't see you, but you lose control of your fly and an unnatural drag comes in. With the tenkara, we have to sneak up on them physically because we have no reach, but we have so much more control over the fly itself and keeping it natural and interesting to the fish."

Tenkara fishing is also significantly less expensive than Western fly-fishing. Lepczyk had a tenkara rod he bought for $68; Western rods can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

Tenkara is also ideal, because of the simplicity and portability of the equipment, for backpacking trips, according to Daniel Galhardo, founder of Tenkara USA in Boulder, Colo., and the man responsible for bringing tenkara to the United States.

Tenkara originated centuries ago in the high mountains of Japan, when fishing was done primarily by commercial anglers, rods were made of bamboo, and lines were made of silk or twisted horsehair. Because fishing was the main trade of commercial anglers, most of them probably were illiterate, meaning there are few records of the beginnings of tenkara. Detailed information about the practice has been available for only the past 20 or 30 years, according to Lepczyk.

Galhardo brought the style to the United States after being exposed to it during a trip to Japan, where his Japanese-American wife has family. In 2007, the couple was planning a trip there and Galhardo was researching where he could fly-fish. A book he was reading on Japanese fishing featured just one short paragraph on tenkara, but Galhardo was intrigued.

When he arrived in Japan, he began seeking more information. "I went to pretty much every fly shop that I could, trying to find rods and stuff. When I first saw the rod, I was already aware that they were telescopic, so … it actually brought me back to my childhood a little bit, because I grew up using telescopic rods for bait fishing," he said.


"I bought a rod and brought it back [to the United States] and started taking it with me on backpacking trips, and I just fell in love with the simplicity," Galhardo said, "and when I was fishing mountain streams, it really worked better than anything I had ever tried because I had this much longer rod and I was not casting a rod that would splash in the water."

Galhardo since has made it his mission to teach North Americans about tenkara. He founded Tenkara USA, an organization dedicated to the teaching and promotion of the method through blogs, classes and presentations, and its annual Tenkara Summit.

Lepczyk heard about the method through Tenkara USA and credits the organization with popularizing the method across the country and in Maryland.

"Speaking as someone who sits in the fly shop and talks to pretty much every fisherman in the area, over the past few years, it's gotten significantly more popular," Lepczyk said of the influx of tenkara fishing in Maryland. "A lot of that has to do with the spreading of tenkara by Tenkara USA."

Some of the interest locally might be attributable to natural curiosity.

People will "see us fishing and ask," Pinhey said. "In my experiences, my God, the number of people we've talked to in just the parking lot alone. ... You know, they're interested and they want to have a go at it."


Lepczyk said: "To put it this way, last year, I had one friend that tenkara-fished. One. Now I have, like, seven of them."

Lepczyk and Pinhey believe it's love of the sport — the process of figuring out how to entice a fish onto your line — that makes tenkara addictive. "We spend hours trying to solve the puzzle," Pinhey said.

¿Said Lepczyk: "There's so much mystery in fly-fishing, it really draws people in. If you like learning and you like researching, but you also like simplicity and clearing your mind and being outside, then it's perfect for you."