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Tenkara Fly Fishing - The Good, Bad and Downright Ugly

There is a lot of noise around the Tenkara system of fly-fishing. Some of this noise would have you believe it is the brave new world of fly-fishing. It is not. Not by a long way.

Tenkara is fishing simplicity itself. A long, up to 15 feet or so, very light telescopic rod, with the line attached directly to the rod tip. Flick out a fly, control the drift with rod and wait for a fish to jump on said fly.

From my experience using a Tenkara rod over the last four or more years, I can confirm that it can catch a lot of fish, and it can be a whole lot of fun.

Using a 13' 6" rod, and a 13' line and leader I have had great sport catching little trout, anything up to around 10" or so. It is just so easy - hook up, lift the rod tip, let the fish slash about till it tires, then swing the line in, unhook the fish, and let it swim away, with a 'what the hell was that' look on its face.

But once you go beyond this simplicity, you need to remember that this simplicity is exactly what the Tenkara system was designed for. No more, or less.

Once you lengthen the line much above rod length, once the size of fish goes up, simplicity motors fully-floored out the door.

Here is why.

Using my 13' rod I can cast around a 30' line, and I did for a while where river width demanded - but it did not take too many fish to teach me that any line length over a rod length is basically a pain in the rod butt for two main reasons.

First, The long line length means at some stage you have to grab hold of the line and 'hand-line' the fish to your hand or net. This gets tedious very quickly and it is very inefficient. You can end up waving rod and arms around in some distorted demonstration of a demented Disco dancer.

This inefficiency is multiplied exponentially if the fish goes over 12 inches or so, and has any weight over a pound.

Second, if you are using an 'over-rod-length' line and you hook up a fish from where you stand on the bank, and the fish swims toward you, your only option is to walk backwards if you can, or if you can't, run upstream or downstream to regain tight contact with the fish. No fun.

I caught 3 or 4 fish around 3 lb. on my Tenkara rod, but I lost a lot more, some of the lost one's bigger than 3 or 4lb. Hook-up on a 3 lb. fish in anything over a wide stream and trouble is right there in River City, especially if there is a good current flowing.

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It is my experience that landing bigger fish on a Tenkara rod is more luck than good management.

That view is cemented for me by watching some videos of people catching biggish fish on a Tenkara rod. There is just too little control over the fish.

Tenkara fishing was simply not designed for fishing for big fish in rivers.

It was designed to catch small fish in small mountain streams, and is brilliantly adept at that.

It is also true that Tenkara fishing in small streams, especially boulder filled streams allows the angler to get very close to fish. But in a clear river, New Zealand or anywhere, getting close enough to a fish to cast a rod-length line is more than mildly problematical.

I know there will be lots of Tenkara fishermen who will try to catch big fish, (and some have); this may be in the basic nature of all anglers. Ultimately however Tenkara is simply just not the tackle for the job.

It is a bit like trying to drive a nail with a feather duster.

I also know there are anglers who seem to want to make fishing as hard as possible to try and add some more 'prestige' to their fishing 'feats'. Stunt fishing. (It does not just happen in Tenkara fishing. All of us have met this guy - "I nearly landed a ten pound brown on a 1wt with a half pound tippet".)

Despite all the issues outlined above, I routinely carry a Tenkara rod in my day pack, in case I come across some water that is suitable.

So don't write off Tenkara too quickly, in the right situations, it can add a new and satisfying dimension to fly-fishing.


At certain times of the year here in New Zealand, in the Taupo region, small trout from the earlier spawning make their way down the rivers to Lake Taupo. These little fish, up to around a pound, are not too discriminating about what they chomp on. They provided some really fun fishing on Tenkara gear. Well it was fun till I found it was in fact illegal in the Taupo fishery...

Legality and Tenkara
I am aware that some fisheries around the world are banning Tenkara fishing, reportedly because "it is not fly-fishing". I am not going to get into that argument, but here in NZ (and elsewhere?) Tenkara is illegal in many 'fly-fishing only' waters because of the widespread description of legal fly-fishing tackle in fishing licences. The use of a fly-rod, fly-line and reel is mandatory. Moves are afoot to try and include Tenkara in fly-fishing only areas, but making changes in licences is a slow process.

Viva wet fly

Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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