The subject of Tenkara fly fishing has gotten more recent coverage in the mainstream media, just in time for summer. NPR Colorado aired an interview with Tenkara guru Daniel Galhardo on the relatively recent history of the sport in America, and the advantages of angling in a more simple way.
Tenkara is a traditional method of fishing in Japan, where artificial flies are used just as in conventional fly fishing, but via a considerably longer and more flexible rod without employing the use of a reel. Updated to now utilize telescoping carbon fiber designs, the rods can be collapsed to easily fit in a backpack. A specially constructed braided leader is attached directly to the rod tip, which is typically of extremely small diameter that allows for excellent feel and control. Modern synthetic tippet materials are generally attached to the end of the braided leader section to give anglers the options of fishing dry flies, nymphs and even soft hackles or small streamers.
Galhardo first became aware of Tenkara fishing in 2008 while on a business trip to Japan. Already a committed fly angler who was involved with directing a fishing club in the San Francisco bay area, he was intrigued and sought out more information about the style of fishing. This led him to be introduced to a Dr. Hisao Ishigaki, who is considered a grand master of the discipline. Ishigaki took Galhardo under his wing and the rest is history — Galhardo has since penned a book on Tenkara fishing and founded the company TenkaraUSA (now based in Boulder, CO) to import and distribute the equipment in the US and abroad.
The style has not gone unnoticed since it’s introduction in America, most notably with preeminent outdoor industry voice and Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard embracing it and writing about the experience both in an essay for Fly Fisherman and in a book of his own that was covered by the Wall Street Journal after it’s publication.
I personally had no exposure to Tenkara until three years ago when I had the opportunity to guide a very experienced client with his own Tenkara equipment on the Big Thompson River outside of RockY Mountain National Park. The Thompson is not a large river by most standards, but is very steep and has strong channels that can stop you from crossing or even being able to get a decent drift near the far bank. After watching my guest take several fish on the other side of the river without much effort, he handed me the rod and invited me to give it a try.
The rod felt outlandishly long — probably a 13 foot Amago model — but extremely light, and very, very flexible. Being mindful of not immediately embarrassing myself, I stepped up to bat and executed a gentle roll cast with the dry fly rig. Whoah! The braided leader turned over immediately, having weight of its own, carrying the large inverted hackle fly into the target water with no effort. More impressively, with the nearly four meter reach of the rod, I was able to get on top of my drift instantly, resulting in a response from a fish within several casts.
I hooked up within a couple minutes, and was impressed at how much of a connection to the fish I felt — every lunge and run was telegraphed to my hand, where I could respond in kind and finally net the 14” trout without having to chase him down river more than a few feet. I imagine that a really large fish leaving a pool might require a hot pursuit, but for the most part, experienced Tenkara anglers don’t report the need to run down fish.
Galhardo makes an excellent point in his interview about Tenkara coming into it’s own on small mountain streams. Not only is the fishing style suited to precise presentations in close quarters, the gear itself is outlandishly light, compact and well suited to back country travel. Even a 13 foot rod telescopes down to about 20 inches long, easily within the capability of being stowed inside medium sized backpacks or lashed to the outside.
Envision this: a self contained, multi-day mountain bike / fly fishing expedition taking advantage the latest bikepacking in-frame pack systems in conjunction with Tenkara gear. The rods should be easily accommodated below the top tube span of most hardtail bike designs, and the lack of reels and other requisite accessories would allow the angler to pack minimally, maybe with just a pair of wading sandals and neoprene socks to round out the fishing kit. Now, all that’s needed is to decide on what river would make for a nice downhill trip.