So you are thinking about Tenkara: Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

So you are thinking about Tenkara: Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Have you ever hooked a fish? Do you want to?

Tenkara Fly Fishing

So you are thinking about Tenkara: Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified 1

There is something both primal and magical about jerking the line taut and feeling a fish on. It is no wonder that it is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the US. “In 2017, more than 49 million Americans participated in freshwater, saltwater and fly fishing. Only running activities had more participants.” according to Arguably the most elegant form of fishing involves a hand-tied fly and a cast. Watching the loop of a well-loaded and timed cast is poetic. When the fly shoots forwards and lands with grace and quiet on the water’s surface drawing an unsuspecting fish, time stands still. 

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

All you need! A rod, some line, a few flies, a little kit bag and sunglasses. It does not get much simpler. Oh and don’t forget the license. Now go catch some fish!

I am not a good fisherman. I came to it late on account of the cost of fishing nice stretches of river in the UK. It still blows me away that you can fish amidst the most beautiful scenery in the US and it is free. Case in point I first took it up while living in Alaska. It would have been a crime not to. I loved how we could take a rod on a pack rafting trip and catch our dinner. I loved the size of the fish we caught and I particularly loved how easy it was. For three of the four years we lived there we ate fish we had caught for a couple of meals each week. Yet, beauty aside I did not love how complex fly fishing was. I felt like I spent more time attaching flies and fixing line than I did fishing. I probably did. Also, even though I had pared down my equipment I still didn’t like lugging the “stuff” around. To make things worse when we came back to Colorado in 2009 I didn’t seem to catch anything.  

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Using the Hane to cast into seams in Eldorado Canyon.

Every now and again an article appeared on the internet talking about  Tenkara. While many traditional Western fly fishermen made counterclaims, I was fascinated. Here was a form of fishing that cast a fly and yet did not need so much gear. Even better, it suggested a philosophy favoring a simple approach and that less is more. This aligns with my ideology of the outdoors. I was hooked. I did not feel I could spend money on something I was no good at but I kept on getting the whiff of something intriguing. 

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Getting lost in nature. The Tenkara USA Sato helping the process.

Fast forward a few years and I became involved with a neighbor’s venture. Flyathalon is the most wonderful event. Take something potentially competitive and elevate it to serving a cause. In this case the preservation of healthy freshwater ecosystems. Generate a compelling community and throw in fly fishing, running, and craft beer and you may gain a sense of it. Having run a course with my fly rod I knew I wanted a Tenkara rig so I kept my eyes glued for a bargain.

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Fishing pockets and pools on mountain creeks.

So here is the skinny. In AK I fished with friends, most of whom were fly fishing guides. While they were not on the clock they still gave me tips and feedback. Throw in the fact I had been a whitewater instructor for over a decade meaning I understood water, alas not fish. I should have been a quick study. I wasn’t. The only reason I caught fish was because of their abundance in Alaska. 

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Why lug pounds of gear around when all you need is ounces?

Tenkara I decided to teach myself using the now plentiful videos on the internet. I also attended a Tenkara Summit in Estes Park. Suddenly I was catching fish again. Browns, brookies, cutthroat, rainbow, I was managing to have them all munch on one of my home tied flies. Fishing became exciting. Even better I carry so little the rod is usually with me when I am out hiking, backpacking and sometimes skiing. 

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

The simplicity of Tenkara, very little gear and yes the trout are lurking in there!

So what is Tenkara fly fishing?

Well, that depends on who you talk to. It can be seen as both the equipment or a series of commercial Japanese creek fishing techniques. Let’s start with what equipment you need. First off a telescoping rod. Opened up they are between 8 and 14’ long but collapsed they shrink to between 15 and 22”. Tenkara uses a fixed-line with no reel so the whole kit and caboodle weigh in at about 4 oz. I also carry a little bag with forceps, nippers, knife, some spare line, tippet, and a few flies. In it there is also a baggie of spices, just in case I get lucky while backpacking. I think it is helpful to see Tenkara as a style of fishing. One where after collecting the basic equipment, you can evolve technique with time. One where you do not feel the need to buy a plethora of gear. Vest? Who needs one? Waders? I haven’t used mine since taking up Tenkara. I usually carry a pair of shorts and very light sandals. (Thank you Xero shoes.) A small drybag for my phone and a pair of polarized sunglasses. 

While the most important thing is to catch fish because it motivates you to go out more. The real goal is to become a Tenkara sensei. By having an arsenal of practiced techniques at your fingertips you do not need to carry much. This is what I love about the sport. It is not about how much stuff I lug around, it is about gaining more knowledge and craft. If I am catching fish I am having fun. As I grow as a fisherman I catch more in harder places. The activity improves with experience. 

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

The Tenkara USA Hane. A great rod for small creeks.

Tenkara Flies

Another aspect I enjoy due to its simplicity is tying Tenkara flies. Kebari are quick and fun to tie. This is just as well as I go through a number of them. I often tie them without a vice, holding the hook with my forceps on account of my large and unwieldy fingers. Catching fish on a fly that you have tied is sublime. This is especially so when they are in a quiet mountain creek and you haven’t seen a soul all day. I wonder if this is how my grandfather felt. Quietly pacing a small stream, ears filled with the song of the creek and the accompanying birds and insects. Spectral light caught in the suspended drops of falling water making its way to the sea. The shadow movement of a trout swimming in a pool catching his eye and causing him to aim the fly to land in front of it. The line flutters, a quick pull and there it is, an agitated flipper movement. The game is on. Can he bring it in? It is these simple activities, stripped of modern advances that connect the generations. It is during moments like these that I ponder on what is truly important in my life. This is when I aim to reduce the clutter that does not serve me or my family. It is way more than just fishing.

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Tenkara is ideally suited to fishing little creeks while backpacking.

Interested? Then let’s look at how to get started.

I am going to focus on the offerings of Tenkara USA a Boulder company. Started by Daniel Galhardo, it is arguably the company that has done most to raise awareness of Tenkara in the USA. There are a number of other companies and teachers to look into and I will provide a list of them at the end. But go on, check out their website. In it you will find a store, blog, a page full of lessons, a community forum, dealers and an about page. In fact, it is a bit of a one-stop shop while reflecting the aesthetic of the activity itself. The links to lessons are particularly helpful.

If you are still excited to try then the first question is which rod to buy. Here I would suggest thinking about where and what you are mainly going to fish.

Rod Description What’s it good for Who it is good for Price
Iwana 12’ all-round rod with a light, soft action. Fish up to 12”,  Good first rod for a majority of fishing at a reasonable price point. $170
Sato 10’8”, 11’10”, 12’9” premium rod Smaller creeks to bigger streams & pools You want to fish all manner of mountain streams and are willing to spend a little more $250
Hane A 10’10” super-compact rod. Packs down small and is durable while carrying. A little stiffer when casting. Adventure sports folks who want to add fishing to their arsenal of activities. $160
Rhodo 8’10’, 9’9”, 10’6” premium rod Fishing tight creeks with overhanging trees You like bushwhacking & catching brook trout $250
Ito 13’, 14’7” an adjustable longer rod Fishing wider more open streams. You do not need to hike up large mountains to fish. You dream of the hatch in “a river runs through it.” $260
Amago 13’6” a rod with “backbone” Big fish and big water You want to land big fish and you want to bring them in in a hurry. $180
Ebisu 12’ Special Edition rod Smooth action and accurate casts You want something smoother than the Iwana, don’t mind a little extra weight and like rarer things. $175

So I am going to make an assumption. If you have found you are likely an outdoor person already. You like to hike in the mountains, you may climb, ski, mountain bike. If this is the case I would recommend choosing one of the first three rods as your initial rod. I say initial rod wisely. Once you realize how easy it is to cast. Or, if you are coming from Western fly fishing, how good your catch rate is you will add to the quiver.

If are buying a rod to supplement a mountain activity you do already then buy a Hane. When collapsed these rods are small and strong. Strap it to your backpack or bike and you are ready to stop mid-route and chill by a small creek. Thinking of hiking in to do some fishing at a specific mountain creek? Or, have a favorite spot near a road? Then spend a little more and get a Sato. You will enjoy its ability to fish a variety of sizes of creek and the smooth delivery of the fly. Still not sure how or where you are going to fish, pick the Iwana. This all-rounder will cover most bases and take less out of your wallet. If you are fishing bigger fish or bigger water then consider the Amago or Ito.

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Little Brown in a little San Juan Creek.

So what else do you need?

If you opt to get a kit, then nothing more than a fishing license. If you choose to put things together yourself then I encourage.

2 lines. You can either buy a spool of level line and cut two lengths yourself. This is especially useful if you are fishing smaller creeks and want a shorter line. Or, easier if you are new to the activity, buy two tapered Nylon lines. One at each of the two lengths.

  • A spool of tippet. Start with a 5x
  • A couple of foam spools or TUSA’s the Keeper to keep the line you set up on.
  • Forceps and Nippers – get the pair from TUSA they are reasonably priced and light.
  • Flies – try the Kebari style you can get them from most fly shops now. Start with at least 10.

Setting up your line is probably the most intimidating thing about Tenkara. Not being able to adjust your line with a reel, coupled with a lack of experience will leave you wondering whose advice to take. My two cents worth. Learn the two knots shown on TUSA and aim to have the tippet and line be about the same length as your rod. Life will be good!

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Cutthroat in small mountain creeks. Less than an hour from Denver and a glorious place to watch the sun slip from the sky. You will also have it to yourself then too.

If you are going to try tying your own flies (and I recommend it) then start simple. Try tying using your forceps. Do a bit of online research on tying Kebari and acquire the following: 

Hen soft hackle

Peacock herl

Barbless hooks – size 12

Spool of heavy polyester thread

Bobbin holder

Whip finisher


Before too long you will be knocking these bad boys out in less than 5 minutes. There really is nothing like catching a fish on your own fly. Move over Bear Grylls, this is the real deal. If you want more advice YouTube and your local fly shop are your friends. 

Tenkara Fly Fishing Simplified

Native cutthroat trout. How pretty are you?

So there you have it, a quick intro to Tenkara. All you need now is a few evenings online and a day off. I can guarantee you will catch the bug and given a little practice the fish as well.

Oh, and don’t forget the fishing license.

Some Other Tenkara Web Sites to check out:

  Tenkara Blog

Welcome to Discover Tenkara – Minimum Gear: Maximum Technique

DRAGONtail Tenkara Gear


Wil Rickards

Wil Rikards

Wil was born in North Wales and steeped in its rich maritime, mountain and river folklore. In response to the request to “get a real job” he became first a teacher then professor of adventure education.

He then emigrated to where the sun shines for 300 days and snowfalls for 100 (Colorado). During more than 25 years as an outdoor educator, he worked Scottish winter seasons, taught canoeing, climbing, kayaking, and skiing throughout the States, Europe, and Australia. He also regenerated the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Outdoor Education program. His biggest adventure (by far) is fatherhood. It has also been the inspiration for his website

Things he likes to do include (middle) aging gracefully, and skiing (telemark) aggressively. He is happiest outdoors with a good view, good company, good weather/snow and the residue of self-powered adventure; sweat, a manic grin, and wild eyes.

Wil Rikards

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