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In Defense of Tenkara

For most anglers, fly fishing is an activity reserved for the margins of life. It is fit it in when it can be: between work, family obligations, school, and all the other obligations that rightly get top billing. Fly fishing might get penciled in for a day or weekend now and again, but mostly it’s relegated to the margins.

Taking advantage of those short-but-precious hours or minutes is key. Fifteen minutes at a pond between meetings, a quick cast into a creek while waiting to pick up the kids, or a little time allotted to fishing on a family hike can do wonders. It might satisfy a longing. Or, it can at least scratch an insufferable itch.

Gear and all the necessary/optional accouterments are a fun and entrenched part of fly fishing culture. However, these margin outings don’t lend themselves to having a full angling arsenal on hand and at the ready. You might stumble into an opportunity. You might only have as much time to fish as it usually takes you to put on your waders and rig your rod.

These moments, among a number of other scenarios, are where tenkara excels.

This Japanese angling method has gone from relative obscurity to mainstream exposure  in just around a decade. Reel-less and featuring a fixed line, the technique is surprisingly similar to western fly fishing. This familiarity with a simplistic spin is what has captured the attention of many in the American market.

Tenkara has, however, received its fair share of derision. The benefits of ease of use offend the sensibilities of purists and progressives alike.  It is different. It doesn’t share the beloved trappings of the golden age of Western fly fishing. At worst, a ham-fisted approach to using tenkara gear can look an awful lot like dapping or fishing with a cane pole. The gear and technique isn’t  for every situation.

It could be said that the margins in life are perfect for tenkara. The telescopic construction of the rod allows it to be lashed to a pack, stored safely in the backseat, or tossed in the bottom of a child’s stroller. The straightforward line-to-tip rigging means that you can go from not fishing to fishing in as quick as it takes to unravel five yards of leader. On the other end of the equation, you can collapse and re-roll the whole outfit in a minute so you can be on your way. There is practically no “fiddling” time. Your margin is all about a few minutes fishing.

Tenkara purists have their beloved kebari flies and presentation techniques. But a yellow humpy, an olive woolly bugger, and a panfish popper will catch you fish. Retention pond bluegill and mountain trout will put a real bend in most tenkara rods, and neither will require you to mess with switching out the four feet of 4X tippet. All said and done, all you have to “worry” about is a rod and a spool.

Chances are that your tenkara rod won’t usurp the place of your favorite 3- or 5-weight when you are headed out for a day or weekend on the river (although, for some it has!). Yet that particular decision making process shouldn’t stop you from giving tenkara a try. It shouldn’t keep you from the small investment of adding the few pieces of gear that having all you need to fish tenkara requires. The complex gear is for the complicated outings, and the simple gear is for the uncomplicated and spontaneous outings.

You never know: those uncomplicated and spontaneous experiences might provide your margins, and your life, with some of the best fly fishing you could ask for.


  1. Stephen C says:

    Tenkara is a wonderful way to fish and it doesn’t bother me one bit to fish my glass or cane rod one day, and my tenkara the next on the same stream. I like how it shines on pocket water, but it’s great for nymphing too. It’s a great choice for a pack rod in the Appalacian mountains, or as a back up to a “western” rig when you don’t want to carry two western fly rods. I think fishing tenkara from time to time has made me a better angler.

  2. Bill Love says:

    It’s only at the end of a season while reviewing my fishing notes that I realize just how much time was spent fishing the “margins.”. No amount of time is too short nor no stream too small. Our objective for the day might be to pick some huckleberries in North Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains but as we drive over a small crick I’ll plead with my wife, ” …just 30 minutes, please? ”

    That’s where a Tenkara or Eagle Claw Featherlight rod performs far better than any $800 dream rod. What’s the best rod? It’s the one you have in your hand at the time.

    Fishing the “margins” in half-hour increments constantly amazes me of the presence (and sometimes the absence) of native Westslope cutthroat trout.

    Thanks for the explanation of fishing the “margins.”

    Bill Love
    Sandpoint, Idaho

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