An ancient Japanese fishing technique — tenkara — is becoming increasingly popular in the back country of the United States.
Tenkara, which means heaven or from the skies in Japanese, originated with commercial or subsistence fishers in Japan who sold their catch to various inns or in markets. The long, supple rods were used mostly in small streams for relatively small fish, says Craig Hardt, of Lynnwood, a fly fisher who enjoys using a tenkara rod on his trips to the back country.
The rods are popular with backpackers even though they can be 10 to 15 feet in length because they are fully telescoping — with about nine sections that collapse inside each other. Once made of bamboo, tenkara rods are typically now made with lightweight graphite material. That makes them easy to carry in a hand or pocket or to slip into a backpack.
Hardt is among an increasing number of people who carry a tenkara rod on their hikes or backpacking trips in the Northwest.
“There’s a lot of interest in backpackers,” said Dick Sagara, a sales representative for Temple Fork Outfitters, a fly rod manufacturer that offers several tenkara models. “Those who are interested in the rods are very passionate about them.”
Sagara says the rods are popular among people who want to try something different and those interested in a minimal amount of gear.
Tenkara outfits are similar to regular fly rods, but streamlined. Unlike fly rods, which use a fly reel and a host of floating and sinking lines, tenkara rods don’t have a reel or long lines. A tenkara setup involves a rod, a braided and tapered leader, and a simple fly. Leaders are attached to the rod tip and are usually the length of the rod. They are used to tease a fish into striking the fly.
Hardt says flies are very simple, usually just a feather or two and just a bit of material. The long, flexible rods allow them to drop a fly into spots where the fish are expected to lie. As the fly drifts downstream, Hardt may pulse it by raising the rod tip slightly or twitch it to urge a fish to strike.
“Any movement is a potential strike, so you have to watch the fly carefully,” Hardt said.
Tenkara outfits are simple tools that aren’t designed for deep pools of water or for large fish, Hardt says. He likes to fish the rod in places like the South Fork Stillaguamish River near Granite Falls, along the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River off I-90, in tributaries of the Yakima River east of Snoqualmie Pass, and the Cle Elum, Entiat, and Teanaway rivers.
My nephew, Matt Benbow, of Tacoma, likes tenkara rods because of their simplicity and the fact that you don’t need to buy a lot of extra gear. He fishes the small streams around Snoqualmie Pass, carrying his collapsed rod and a handful of small flies.
“Smaller creeks are the perfect venue for tenkara rods,” Sagara said.
They also work well in high mountain lakes and small farm ponds.
Daniel Galhardo, CEO of Tenkara USA, told the Denver Post that tenkara is perfect for fishing mountain streams.
“Mountain streams, that’s really where you see tenkara shining,” he said. “You have this long rod and you are casting across a bunch of currents. But the line stays off the water entirely, so there’s no need for mending, and the drifts are perfect every time. I don’t usually talk much about limits on the size of fish, but it is kind of ideal for targeting that 8- to 20-inch mountain trout. That’s really what it’s designed for.”