Tenkara: An ancient approach to fly fishing

Courtesy Photo/Dave SartwellDave Sartwell and Nate Waggoner fly fish with a tenkara rod.

Nate slowly approached the edge of Pine Creek and peered through the branches of a big spruce tree at the downstream end of a deep pool. I slid up behind him and stared at the dark water below. In the clear mountain stream we could see three 10 inch brown trout setting in the quiet water watching as the stoneflies washed by them. Every  minute or so one of them would twitch his tail, move into the glide and gulp down a tasty treat. 

“Here is a great place to start,” whispered Nate. “Remember that the art of tenkara is stealth and presentation. The fly needs to fall softly to the surface and float through the feeding zone as naturally as possible. You do not have a reel and you have a 16 foot line, so you have to find that spot where you can cast to the fish without them seeing you.”

We studied the pool and, more importantly, the stream bank. Where could I stand so that I could cast and not be seen and at an angle that the fly would land on the surface of the pool in a natural way? Backing away from the water, I curled downstream, got in the cold water, lowered my profile and started to wade slowly up to the pool. 

The stream was only about eight feet wide, stone lined and was perhaps a foot deep where I was walking. The pool in front of me was about fifteen feet long and two feet deep on the left side, getting more shallow on the right. Two large overhanging trees leaned out over the water, providing shade and a root system that held the bank together. It was in this deeper part that the three fish had found a home. 

I had the tiny, 11 foot tenkara rod, about twelve feet of braided flyline and four feet of 6x leader attached to the end.  The trick was to judge my distance very carefully and to adjust the position of my body so that when I cast, my fly would land in the right place. 

Checking behind me to make sure I had room for my backcast, I flicked the line gently to the rear and then twisted my wrist forward. Because the rod is so long and so flexible, it is easy to overpower it. Therefore, the forward wrist action has to be slow and gentle, letting the line flow through the air in a soft arc. As I eased the line forward I kept the tip relatively high. The line came to the end of it’s forward movement. The Adams fly we were using came to a slow stop and then dropped gently to the surface.

The fly sat high on the water and drifted into the glide. We watched as the nearest brown flicked his tail and rose into the feeding zone. The fly gently rode the current as I raised the tip of the long rod to keep the line off the surface. The spotted trout opened his mouth and sucked in the artificial. I set the hook and the end of the slender rod vibrated as the small fish darted across the pool.

I led the fish downstream into the shallow water. Nate wet his hands, leaned into the pool, and gently lifted the little fighter from the creek. With practiced ease he twisted out the barbless hook and set the tiny fish free. 

Tenkara is the ancient method of fly fishing that has really caught on in the United States. The collapsable tenkara rod can be of various lengths from about 9 feet to as long as almost fifteen feet. When collapsed, it is only about two feet long. It has a very short piece of line (called a lillian) with a knot in it attached to the very end. To that line you attached a ten foot or more braided line. And, to that you attach a leader as with a regular fly line. Then you tie on your fly. 

That is all. There is no reel with extra line. No guides. It is like cane pole fishing with the lightest wand you have ever held. The tip is tiny and the action is extremely soft. A premium is placed on smoothness and softness. And, it requires an accuracy of presentation that will challenge the best of fly fisherman. This is not for long casting and power fishing. It is ideal for small creeks and rivers where short casts of twenty five feet or less are best. But, when you really get into it, you realize that most casts should only be of the that length. And, the cost for the outfit can be as low as $200. 

Once the fly lands on the water, you are able to guide the flow of the fly down the pool because of the length of the rod. You keep the tip high with your casting arm and let the line dance above the water with only the fly touching the surface, or at best, a little fine leader leading the way. When it reaches the end of the glide, a simple little twist of the wrist allows a tight roll cast that will drive the fly back to the head of the pool. 

Now, I make this sound easy, but it is not. It takes practice and patience. However, once you get the idea, you will feel closer to the natural action of fly fishing in it’s original form.

I need to thank Nate Waggoner of Escalante Outfitters in Escalante, Utah (escalanteoutfitters.com) for introducing me to this wonderful way of fishing. He took Mary Gayle and me up onto the Aquarius Plateau where we fished tiny creeks and ponds of three acres or less that were full of cutthroat, browns and stocked rainbow. For those of us that love to fish with 2-wts. and tiny flies for small trout will really enjoy this very secluded and lightly worked area. However, I must tell you that we did take a two hour hike into one small, spring-fed pothole from which we did catch two brookies in the 20-inch range!

In Massachusetts, give Ken Elmer a call at 978-790-4320. For $90 he will supply the tenkara equipment and a 3-hour lesson or for $150 he will take you on the river all day.

For more information on tenkara fishing, go to tenkarausa.com.