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Tenkara

  • Jeff Perin's Thoughts on Tenkara

    For some, Tenkara Fishing is a dream of a simple connection to the fish and maybe to nature itself.

    For others, getting into Tenkara is a reason to buy and play with a new toy or to learn a new skill and master the challenge of a new way to fish with a fly so different than the American standard of using a rod, reel and fly line.


    Nearly 20 years ago I was doing an evening drift from Warm Springs to Mecca on the Lower Deschutes. As I was nearing the end of the drift, I rounded a slight bend in the river to get the first view of Mecca Island and saw a fellow angler on river right fishing with the longest rod I’ve ever seen. As I drifted up to the left side of the island and anchored the boat my thoughts were roaming to the guy on the other side with this mysterious fishing rod.

    I had to know more.

    So I waded around the bend and came up from the bottom to see him in action. We introduced ourselves and he told me he was a professional bike racer and had recently been to Japan where he learned this wonderful fishing technique he told me originated in the mountains there thousands of years ago.

    I was blown away. A long, telescoping rod with no reel and a fixed line length and he was dead drifting a little hares ear nymph perfectly and picking up a fair share of trout.

    A week or two later, my first “tenkara” rod arrived in the mail from Japan.

    Unruly by today’s standards. Too long, fairly heavy (likely due to the fact it was 16 feet long!) and beautiful beyond compare. I couldn’t wait to go try it….

    On about the 3rd fish of the day I broke the tip. Heartbroken I put the rod away and it was over a year later when I finally got the rod repaired and used it again.


    Years later, here I am still the owner of the fly shop, still guiding and still just as interested in new ways to play with a fly and to play with fish. I am still a Tenkara advocate and I understand so much more about it now than ever.


    4 summers ago my guide Steve Erickson and I took a family to the Upper Deschutes near the headwaters. Steve guided the dad and grandfather, and I guided 2 young ladies about 10 and 12 years old who had barely ever fished, let alone fly fished. From the get go, I had planned to have the girls fish with a couple of my Tenkara rods all day. We waded upriver and fish pool after pool with dry flies and the girls quickly picked up casting, but more importantly they easily achieved a dead drifted fly which allowed them to catch a lot of nice little wild trout! At the end of the day the girls schooled dad and grandpa on total fish landed.


    I am now sharing Tenkara with my staff, my friends and my family. Last summer it was so fun to take the boys from the shop out to a few of the local small streams and fish only with Tenkara rods. They loved it.


    You will love it too!


    Tenkara fishing is for everyone. Everyone. It is for new anglers, experienced anglers and anyone in between. For a new angler it is a simple and inexpensive way to get into fly fishing. For an experienced angler it is another way to approach the water that is different than using a standard fly rod.

    One of the great things about Tenkara fishing is the length of the line used. Typical Tenkara lines are 12 to 15 feet long plus a leader or tippet section. This puts you close to the fish and more in touch with the drift of the fly than if you were casting a fly rod with 25 to 50 feet of line out on the water. Both are cool, both are effective but if you come from a long fly rodding background Tenkara will blow you away with the approach and drift possibilities.


    Todays Tenkara rods are great for many types of waters from Small Streams to Big Rivers. You can find people blogging about using Tenkara on Ponds for Bass and Bluegill. There have been documented catches of Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon with Tenkara rods. That blows my mind knowing how much a 16 to 18 inch Deschutes redside will fight against these rods.

    I pretty much stick to using my Tenkara rods on smaller streams like Tumalo Creek, Crooked River, Fall River, the Upper Deschutes and Middle Deschutes and the Upper Santiam just 40 minutes from where I live. I prefer these size waters based on the fact that even if I do catch a larger fish I can keep the fish in the pool or run where I hooked them or follow them up or downstream if need be. On our big waters, a pissed off redside might run into the backing….guess what, with no reel there is no extra line to give so it makes it hard in some places to effectively fish. No big deal! Take it to the water it is intended for and have a ball.


    We sell the TFO Soft Hackle Series of Tenkara Rods at the Fly Fisher’s Place. They offer a 8 ½ foot model called the Cutthroat that is ideal for small streams and also ideal for kids. Shorter and very light, it is a delightful rod to use. In fact it is Jeff’s favorite Tenkara rod ever. It’s like the 2 weight of Tenkara world!

    The TFO SH 106 is a 10 ½ foot rod with a faster action like the 8 ½ model. It is a good all around rod, and the faster action is suitable for dry fly fishing and great for nymphs because you can deliver a hard, fast hook set when the take suddenly happens.

    The TFO SH 116 is you guessed it, 11 ½ feet long and is a slower action rod really well suited for dry flies but with the long reach it is great for swinging a soft hackle or nymph fishing through a nice run.

    All 3 of these models telescope in to 20 or 20.5 inches for travel.

    All TFO rods include a spare tip and second section just in case you break the rod out fishing, they give you an opportunity to replace the 2 most vulnerable pieces of ANY rod when you need it most. Very cool.

    One of the things that sold me on TFO Tenkara rods was they had 3 great models to choose from, meaning they keep it simple, but the rods were designed with a Western Angler in mind so going from your favorite 3 to 5 weight single hand fly rod to a TFO Soft Hackle isn’t going to freak you out. You don’t have to learn a new casting stroke.

    The Fly Fisher’s Place also carries a line of Tenkara rods we get from a friend in Japan. These economical rods come in 10’ 1” and 11’ 4” model for just $129.95! These rods look great and cast great, they just don’t have the extra tips or the lifetime warranty of the TFO models but for $129 bucks it’s a super way to get into Tenkara fishing on a budget.

    Line management with a Tenkara rod is different than with a rod and reel. You don’t reel the line up in between spots. TFO thought of this and the rod sack has a unique line holder that you wind your line on to when the rod is not in use. This is more for the end of the day type of wind up rather than spot to spot on the stream but it is still a great idea.

    On stream, there are easy ideas to control the line from hole to hole or during a hike in to your favorite water. There are commercially available clips that connect by O-Ring to the rod or it can be as simple as using rubber bands and even a bent paper clip. Remember, Tenkara is about simplicity. Make it yours or borrow an idea from a fellow angler. The truth is, in many places you can simply make a few coils of line around your hand and pinch the coils under the grip as you walk to a new spot. Some Tenkara guys bring the telescoping pieces in to the handle when they change spots which is fine and easy enough to do. Where I fish it is not brushy enough to warrant that extra work so I keep the rod extended and the line pinched against the grip when I move to a new spot.


    There are many kinds of Tenkara lines. Some are commercially available and come imported from Asia with Japanese writing and strange numbering like 3.3, 3.5, 5.6 and other weird numbers. There are some rods that it is easy to tell what line to use and others that most people will have no idea. Really, my experience has shown it doesn’t make a lot of difference. Maybe a little performance boost here and there, but most of these lines are Fluorocarbon and they are level all the way through.

    Braided or Furled Lines are the way I like to go over the Mono or Fluorocarbon lines. I believe they cast better and are easier to see.

    The best lines to use on your Tenkara rod are the Cutthroat Leader Company furled Tenkara lines. Simply put, they are amazing at turning over a fly, they are simple to attach and have a built in tippet ring for adding any size tippet you need for the day. Cutthroat furled lines come in various lengths and colors to match all conditions.

    At the Fly Fisher’s Place we also make a custom line from braided Airflo floating running line that is awesome to cast. I attach a 7 ½ foot 4 x leader to this and a tippet ring at the end of the leader and add tippet as needed taking size and length into consideration for where I am fishing.

    Airflo 20# or 30# Ridge Running line cut in either 10, 12 or 15 foot lengths makes a great Tenkara line too, just add the tapered leader and tippet ring and voila you have a nice line to fish.

    The Sage Quiet Taper 000 or 00 with the tapered ends cut off so it is level and then cut to length fro your rod is popular too in some circles.

    We are happy to custom make you a line for your new Tenkara line. We even make a striped black & yellow line perfect for nymphing so you can detect strikes maybe without even needing an extra strike indicator.


    There are many specific old Japanese style Tenkara flies called Sakasa Kebari which translates to backwards fly. They look like a soft hackle with the hackle tied the wrong way, possibly by a 1st time tyer. This was the design so the fly pulsated in the water as the angler actively fished the fly with a chugging or pulling motion to get the hackle to open and close. There are books and DVD’s dedicated to the Sakasa Kebari tying techniques and they are in English and modern productions.

    The truth is you can fish any fly with a Tenkara rod from a Soft Hackle, to a Parachute Adams, Renegade, Ant, Hopper, Bead Head Pheasant Tail or Sparkle Pupa. Anything!

    There are folks who even fish streamers with a tenkara although I think that is silly my self. To each his own, it is your experience not mine.

    I like nothing more than to watch fish rise to a fly, natural or my imitation. So I usually am found matching the hatch or fishing a terrestrial or attractor with my Tenkara rods.

    There is a local angelr from our angling club that has a Czech Nymping technique dialed in with his Tenkara rod and he catches more fish than pretty much any angler I know. Seriously, WOW!

    Tenkara is receiving a lot of buzz right now either on the internet, or in Fly Fishing magazines and for good reason. It is a fun way to take fly fishing to another level of play that you might not understand until you get hooked.