Tenkara is an ancient Japanese method of fly fishing that was developed for mountain streams by commercial fishermen. The method was relatively simple and consisted of a long bamboo rod, a silk or horsehair line about the length of the rod and a simple fly called kebari. Unlike western fly fishing, they did not use a reel nor pay much attention to the type of insects that were in the relatively barren fast moving mountain streams full of hungry Iwana and Amago, types of Japanese trout.
Fast forward a few hundred years or so and an entrepreneur and fly fishing enthusiast originally from Brazil on a visit to Japan with his wife was impressed with the simplicity, grace and effectiveness of this method. He immersed himself in the tradition and culture of the style. He decided that others might enjoy this type of fishing and started his company, Tenkara USA to promote and sell tenkara rods, lines and flies. Other enthusiasts soon followed such as Chris Stewart, who enjoyed the similarities of tenkara to English style wet fly fishing as well as the effectiveness of the set up and memories of fishing with a cane pole as a child.
It is easy to get started with tenkara fishing. The method takes away a lot of the intimidation that beginner fly fishermen stumble over, such as casting, line control and good fly presentation. Many veteran fly fisherman enjoy the simplicity and the direct connection from the rod to the fish, similar to European nymphing methods. The ability to keep the light flurocarbon level line off the water and present a fly on a few feet of tippet with perfect drift is great for small stream fishing.
Today's rods are made of graphite and telescope from 9 to 15 feet or so. Most weigh under 2 to 4 ounces. Many backpackers and travelers find the entire fishing kit easy to keep in the car or take with them on trips to sneak in some fishing. The lines are attached to the rod with a simple slip knot onto a lillian which is a small "tag" at the tip of the last section of the rod. People are now using a variety of lines for the "fly line" but most prefer a bright dyed flurocarbon "level line" that vary from x to x in size. At the end of the level line a simple figure eight or stopper knot provides a spot to attach the tippet with a slip knot or other knots such as clinch knots. At the end of the tippet, which is usually 3-5 feet depending on the depth of the water, the fly is attached with the angler's choice of knots, as well many use an improved clinch or a Davey knot. It is a relatively simple set up. There are many videos on line which provide the basics.
The flies used by tenkara anglers are usually reverse hackle which are simple flies that can be fished as a dry, wet or nymph. These flies are called sakasa kebari and most are relatively easy to tie. They provide a unique movement in the water which mimics many types of aquatic insects. Some anglers take great pride in only using one or two patterns for all of their fishing and others utilize more familiar flies that they previously used with their Western set ups.
Many people worry about landing a fish without a reel but it is relatively intuitive to raise the rod and bring the fish to the net or to hand. It can be challenging the first few times with a larger fish but the flexibility of the rod and the constant pressure on the fish and the short line seems to bring the fish to net quicker than when using a reel .
As with most things, anglers are pushing the envelope with tenkara rods and using them to catch carp, bass, small steelhead and even bonefish with mixed success. There is definitely a thrill factor when catching a large brown trout on a tenkara rod for the first time.
Tenkara USA (Daniel Gelhardo's site) at www.tenkarausa.com and Tenkara Bum (Chris Stewart's site) at www.tenkarabum.com have some great information about the method, the history and the fun of tenkara fishing.