For the last few years, I’ve been using a “new” method of fishing called tenkara. The reason for the quotation marks around the word new is that tenkara has been around for hundreds of years, but only recently has the idea been imported to the US. Tenkara is basically what your parents or grandparents might have called cane pole fishing, in that it involves using a very long rod with no reel, with the line, leader and fly attached to the end of the rod. A tenkara rod uses the same basic idea but uses modern technology, making the rod telescopic for easy transport and light enough to use all day without developing shoulders like Serena Williams.
I first heard of tenkara a few years ago during the Fly Fishing Show in Denver. The person who brought the idea to the United States, Daniel Gallardo, was demonstrating it in one of the casting pools, and then I went to see his presentation in one of the conference rooms afterwards. It was an intriguing idea, but I wasn’t quite ready to buy in yet.
Then one my fishing customers did a float with me using one, but being on a big river we didn’t use it much. The next day, we four-wheeled up to Derby Creek where he used his tenkara for most of the day, and let me try it a little. Using it first hand finally got me off the fence to actually purchase one, but for the first year or so I owned it the tenkara rod it was more of a novelty than anything else. I would bring it with me when I went fishing, but almost always used my conventional gear instead.
But then one day, I was using the tenkara up on Gore Pass while fishing Big Rock Creek, and had the first of what I now call my Tenkara Epiphanies. These are moments where I’d suddenly realize that although the tenkara approach had limitations, it also gave me abilities that “normal” fly gear didn’t. On that day on Big Rock Creek, I was on my hands and knees in some tall grass sneaking up to a pool and flicking a dry fly into a foamy seam trying to induce a some small brown trout to eat it. Due to the fact that you are limited how far you can cast a fly with a tenkara, on some small streams you have to get closer to the water’s edge to get your fly in there without spooking the fish. As I was making my short casts and mending my line, I looked up and realized that I had been casting left-handed without even realizing it! I don’t do anything left-handed, so seeing that rod held high in my left hand came as something of a shock. It occurred to me that using a tenkara is so easy and intuitive to do, whether casting or mending, that it might be a great way to turn my beginner clients onto fly fishing. That was what I think of now as my First Tenkara Epiphany, that it was so easy to do that you could do it with either hand.
I began to use the tenkara a little more after that, especially on smaller waters. When I’d fish small streams I’d take the seven foot long three weight my best friend made for me, and also the tenkara which I’d have closed up and attached to the underside of my fanny pack. On day up on Derby Creek, there were some cutbows sipping bugs out of a small foam eddy just beyond some fast current, and I just couldn’t keep my flies in the foam long enough before the moving water would pull them out, even using reach casts with lots of mending, So I put the three weight aside, and brought out the tenkara. With the tenkara’s extra reach, I was able to drop my fly into the foam, and keep it spinning around in there until a trout was able to see it and eat it. I caught and landed three fish out of that hole! I realized then that the tenkara’s length made it much easier to mend than with a shorter rod. I’ve since switched to a ten foot three weight as my conventional rig for small water, and the seven footer now lives in my backyard to fish off my dock with in the evening. The fact that longer rods equals better line mending was Epiphany Number Two.
The second epiphany came the following winter. My friend Ryan and I went to the Frying Pan River one cold February day, when the air temperature topped out at twelve degrees. We were fishing the Toilet Bowl Hole, where the water comes out of the bottom of Ruedi Reservoir. There are some huge fish cruising in this hole, and its justifiably famous, but for most of the year, there are plenty of other fishermen around to share it with who also want a get crack at catching a big fish. But a twelve degree day has a wonderful way of thinning out the crowds. It was one of those days that it’s actually warmer to stand in the forty degree water than to stand on the bank.
Ryan and I were working it, and every five casts or so we’d have to stop and clear the ice out our rod guides. I’d also stop frequently to rotate out the gloves I was wearing, to keep a warmish pair on my hands while sticking the cold, wet ones under my coat. At one point, I was poking the ice out my guides with my thumbnail when Bing!, I broke off the top guide to my rod. This really pissed me off, since I hadn’t brought another rod with me. I was just about to break my rod off just above the next guide down so I could keep fishing, but I really didn’t want to do that since there was still two good inches left, and I knew that I could simply glue on another top guide on when I got home. As I gripped the rod tip, about to snap it off but hesitating, it suddenly occurred to me that I had my tenkara rod up in my Landcruiser, and my conventional rod was spared from further shortening. I waded back to my truck and got the tenkara, and very quickly realized that this was a much better way to fish the Pan than my conventional rig was anyway! It was long enough to cover the whole water, my hands weren’t getting wet and cold from running the icy line through them, I could mend the twirling micro-currents better, but best of all, there were no guides to ice up! The light bulb over my head lit up brightly that morning, and this was Epiphany Number Three.
The next spring, Ryan and I again found ourselves in a cold tailwater, the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir. It was April and they had just opened up the road to it, and not too many other anglers were there. By now I was solidly into the tenkara camp, at least for my own personal fishing, though I wasn’t using it much on my commercial float trips. I caught a couple of small fish on the tenkara, but as usual Ryan caught more, as he always does. But then his line got tangled, and I asked him if he wanted to try the tenkara, while I re-rigged him. He’d always been a tenkara skeptic, and still is to some degree, but he agreed to try it. After just a couple of casts, he was soon into a fine fish, one bigger than I thought the tenkara might be able to handle. But as I watch him play what turned out to be a twenty inch rainbow. I noticed how much that rod bent and flexed under the trout’s considerable pull. I realized that once you’ve got a fish on, the line and leader don’t stretch very much, but the rod does. Your rod in effect changes from being a fly delivery tool into a big shock absorber. And a twelve foot rod is a much better shock absorber than a nine foot one! That was Epiphany Number Four. Ryan landed his fish, and though he’s not a complete tenkara convert yet he seemed to have gained a bit more respect for what they can do.
Starting last year, I began to carry a tenkara rod of two in the hatch of my boat, in case my guests might wanted to try it. Some days we’d be into rising trout in one of the Colorado River’s many back eddies, and for those up close fish the tenkara can be deadly. Most of these back eddies have many spinning foam lines that the trout follow around sipping bugs out of. Long casts are not only unnecessary here, but they can be detrimental. People will see a splashy rise twenty feet away and cast towards it, putting down the fish five from the boat with their line. Also, having that much line on the water can be impossible to mend, whereas keeping your casts shorter with a tenkara not only forces you to focus on your short game, but gives you much better control over your fly once its in the water. This was more of a gradual appreciation, than an epiphany. The other thing about tenkara rods that I only realized over time was what a direct connection you feel to the fish, versus a conventional rig. With a normal rod, the fish is connected to the tippet, leader and line, which is then connected to the rod via the reel. But with a tenkara, your hand is on the rod, and the rod is one with the line and leader and therefore the fish. When a fish moves or shakes or begins to weaken, that life force of the fish is transmitted to you in a far more direct and personal way than it is with conventional equipment.
This summer, due to the high prolonged runoff we spent more time in those back eddies, since the fish were stacked up in them for most of the summer before the water finally came down. I also seemed to have more beginners this year than in the past. As a result, I’ve been using the tenkara rods more and putting minimally-skilled people onto fish more often. One day in what I call Echo Hole, I had a nine year old girl hook a fish with the nymph on a hopper/dropper rig, which she lost when she dropped the rod tip and let the line go slack. Her ten year old brother caught and landed one out of the same hole and she began pouting, but on her next cast she had a nice rainbow destroy her hopper and we landed that one. Her demeanor changed radically after that, and I hope that she is as hooked on fishing as surely as that rainbow was on her hopper. The next day in the same hole, an eighty-five year old woman who had only done spin fishing caught a nice fish, using what she called her “cane pole”. Another day, I two brothers from Chicago who had never fished before do well catching trout on dry flies, ten minutes after they got onto my boat in squirrelly water that that even experts have difficulty mending flies in. Two weeks ago, I had three raw beginners learning how to cast in a stocked pond. After exposing them all to conventional fly rods, I took the tenkara out of my rucksack and rigged a hopper/dropper on it. On her second cast, one woman hooked a fly on the hopper, and before she could land the fish a second small bass took the hopper, and she landed both!
The latest (but hopefully not final) epiphany I’ve had with tenkara came a week ago. I had a very experienced fisherman was coming up to fish with me for the third time, but the day before our trip he had a bad fall and hurt his right arm. He called the night before to tell me about it, and said that they were still coming but that he was going to just fish left-handed all day using his own tenkara rod. I got thinking about that, and was glad that he was open to trying to compensate for his bad wing. But I doubted whether you could be successful fishing the long straight sections of the river given the distance limitations that a tenkara setup imposes. But then another light bulb went on over my head. The length of a total line and leader that rig with a tenkara is typically set by not making it any longer than you can land a fish yourself by. So, if you’ve got a twelve foot rod, than you don’t want to make the total length of your line and leader more than fourteen or fifteen feet, otherwise you can’t hold your arm up high enough to net your fish. However, if someone else is landing your fish, as we do from a boat when that person with the net is me, then suddenly that line and leader can be much longer. And so the night before my client came, I rigged up a new tenkara rig that had about eighteen feet of line and leader. The next day, he was willing try to new long-line rig, and he ended up using it all day long, left-handed, with his right arm almost literally tied behind his back. The results? He caught and landed as many fish as his able-bodied partner did, who used conventional equipment (though his friend caught a twenty inch brown just above our take out, that might have tipped the balance a bit!). A few days later, I floated with a couple consisting of a very experienced man and his less-experienced girlfriend, and she caught more and bigger fish that he did using the long-lined tenkara setup, while he used conventional gear.
The final thing that happened this summer which firmly placed the tenkara rod among my fishing tools to use first, and not just as an amusement, was an hour spent on the Bear River above Yampa. The Colorado had blown out due to a thunderstorm, and so I cancelled a scheduled float trip and went fishing myself instead. In an hour and a half, I caught my first Colorado Grand Slam, landing a brown, a brookie, a cutthroat, and a rainbow, all on the tenkara while my ten footer lay on the riverbank, unused and unneeded.
I haven’t even mentioned some of the other advantages to using tenkara rods that are already more widely acknowledged. Among which are how light they are to pack if you are hiking or horse-packing into the high country. Or how much easier they are to use if you’ve come back from Iraq with just one arm, or lost the use of one to a stroke. Or, how quickly you can replace their delicate tip section with a new one if it does break off.
The bottom line is, tenkara is not a fad, and its not going away, and if you’re not using one now you probably will be someday. Tenkara will never replace conventional gear, but it’s a really nice compliment to it. I’m still more likely to use my old Fenwick or Loomis in most fishing situations, but the more I use the tenkara the more I enjoy doing so. Try using one once, and you may never go back to the same old way of doing things!
14503 Colorado River Road
Eagle County, CO 81637