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Tenkara and European Nymphing - When the Old Becomes New.

Sometimes it happens that some apparently disconnected events come together to open a door to something new. A case in point.

First apparently disconnected event.

I had been reading a lot about the Japanese Tenkara style fishing, and had bought a Tenkara rod and used it a few times.

Then a few months on I was reading an UK fly-fishing magazine. Two articles in the same edition of that magazine, apparently disconnected, except that both were about fly-fishing, melded together to open a door neither author knew existed.

 The first article by a well known fly-fishing author and fly-tyer, was taking someone to task about his notion that wet flies tied with hackles pointing forward over the eye of the hook were ‘invented’ about 25 years ago. Not so wrote our eminent author, they were invented about 50 years ago in the Clydeside area, in the UK.

Tenkara forward hackle fly

Both these gentlemen were only about 2000 years out. Japanese ‘Tenkara’ fishermen have been using wet and dry flies with hackles tied forward for around that many years.

O.K. So a marginally interesting, piscatorial and historical matter cleared up.

However this historical fact becomes more interesting when melded with the second article.

The second article, by a long-time member of the English competition fly-fishing team, explored the intricacies of the so-called French, Belgian or Spanish leader-only style of fly- fishing which has dominated World Fly-Fishing Championships in recent years.

The briefest glance at the rules for World fly-fishing contests will be enough to make your head hurt. They are arcane and archaic – but supposedly designed to provide a level playing field for all competitors – and to encompass all that is best about fly-fishing.

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“Best about fly-fishing?”

The French or Belgian nymphing technique is to use very long leaders, 20 to 30 feet and more, cast up and across, let the nymph drift and as it passes the angler lift the rod tip to bring the fly up, and hopefully get a hook-up.

Get as many casts and short drifts in as possible to maximise the number of fish caught. This technique, or its often accompanying Czech nymphing technique (unaccountably, but apparently, called ‘bugging’ in the UK), has now reached the point where competitors use a fly-line that is rated a 1-weight. Very often very little of that almost non-existant fly-line is out of the rod tip. Yes. No fly line, just mono backing – in a fly-fishing contest?

Say no more!

Well to say just a bit more. The long leader – no fly-line style of fishing is almost exactly what the afore-mentioned Japanese Tenkara fishermen have been using for around 2000 years, give or take a century or three.

Tenkara fishermen use just a leader, no fly line, and often flies tied with the hackle wound forward over the hook eye. So this is where the first article and the second meld together, and as more and more Western fishermen discover just how effective and plain fun Tenkara can be, we are seeing a mini revolution in some forms of fly fishing.

Tenkara had its origins in the mountain areas of Japan where commercial fishermen used long, light rods with the line tied directly to the rod tip. These fishermen used flies to catch small fish.

Long casting was not necessary in the relatively small mountain streams, but accurate casting was essential.

Today’s Tenkara tackle is still based on the basic set-up used all those centuries ago. Tenkara rods are now mostly carbon fibre, 9 to 15 feet long, in about ten or so telescopic sections that compact down to around 21”. (My Tenkara rod is 13 foot 6 inches long, and weighs just 3.5 ounces!)

A good Tenkara rod will not break the bank. My rod cost just US$160.00. Remember too. No reel, no fly-line, to add to the rod cost.

The line is attached to the tip of the rod, and is often just a single length of fluorocarbon line to a short leader. Line lengths range from the length of the rod, out to about 30 feet.

Some use tapered leaders and others especially when dry-fly fishing use a furled leader to a length of fluorocarbon leader.

As mentioned earlier many of the flies are tied with the hackle forward, but not exclusively. They are all very simple and anyone who has used ‘Spider’ flies will have a “Hang about, I’ve seen that somewhere before,” moment, when they see Tenkara flies. But ‘conventional’ flies can be used, and be effective. (And by the way Spider flies are effective fished on Tenkara gear.)

It should be emphasized that Tenkara fishing was designed to fish small mountain rivers and streams and for smaller trout-type fish, less than 14 inches long (usually much less) as a rough guide.

This remains pretty much true today. But bigger rivers can be fished, if the angler divides the river up into stream sized segments.

The fly is cast up and across, the rod tip is held high enough to keep as much as possible of the line off the water, and followed down to maintain a drag free drift.

Some Tenkara anglers when using hackle-forward flies give the flies a little ‘pull and drop’ to activate the hackle.

In tumbling water the fly is cast above a chute around a rock, allowed to tumble down the chute, drown, then wash out and rise to the surface – that is if a fish does not grab it first.

This is where accuracy comes in – and it takes very little time to become an accurate Tenkara fly-rod caster.

In fact it takes very little time indeed to become a competent Tenkara caster – much shorter than a conventional fly-rod.

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Tenkara rod actions are not rated the same as conventional fly-rods, but if they were they would be very much in the ‘slow action’ area. So casting requires only an 11 to 12 o’clock cast with a full stop at 11 and 12.

Most of the cast is done with the wrist, unlike the arm and very little wrist when casting a fly-line.

On the forward cast, once the stop has been completed, the rod tip can be immediately lowered and used to point the line in the right direction.

Once a fish is hooked the rods are very forgiving, and they need to be because there is no spare line to let a fish run – it must be played off the rod tip. This is little or no problem with smaller fish; say up to 14 inches, but above that you need to be pretty quick on your feet.

Fishing as I do predominately in New Zealand, where if the magazines and websites were to be believed, all our trout are 10lb plus, why is Tenkara fishing getting a following here?

Well of course all NZ trout are not 10lb plus and there is plenty of water holding much smaller fish.

One of the advantages of fishing for small fish is that they are much easier to catch; they bite much more readily than their behemoth brothers. It is plain fun fishing.

It is also great for fishing on the move. The 21 inch compacted rod fits easily in a back-pack, or is light to carry between river sections in its compacted form, without catching every tree and bush on the way.

I was very skeptical about Tenkara fishing until I watched it in action. When I tried it, I was hooked – bet you will be too.

For more information see tenkarausa.com, tenkarabum.com or Tenkara-Fishing.com

Postscript: I have found the Tenkara style of tying hackles facing forward so effective, I now tie virtually all my wet and spider flies the same way. I think this tying style gives much more 'animation' to the hackles.


At certain times of the year here in New Zealand, e.g. 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.

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Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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