Have you heard of tenkara fishing? It’s a fly fishing style with origins in Japan’s mountain streams, and it’s slowly gaining popularity with western fly anglers. Tenkara and fly fishing have many similarities, but they also have their differences. Today, we’re going to talk about some of the differences between western fly fishing and tenkara fishing, as well as their similarities and the things you should consider before deciding on a fishing style.
What Is Tenkara?
Tenkara is a style of fly fishing that uses simple flies, a telescoping bamboo, composite, or fiberglass rod, and a short length of line without backing. This line is attached to the tip of the rod, as this fishing technique was developed specifically for success on rapid flowing mountain streams. It is about 400 years old with origins in Japan, and while today most tenkara fishers use kebari, a type of reverse hackle fly developed in Japan, many tenkara fishers also use other types of flies.
History Of Tenkara Fishing
Tenkara was developed by semi-commercial fishermen in the Japanese mountains who sold their catch to inns. They didn’t have boats or even large nets, and pursued their quarry by standing directly in the stream. Ready access to silk and horsehair meant that they were able to make weighted lines and fishing garments that flowed with the water, all of which let them get closer to the trout.
History of Western Fly Fishing Vs Tenkara
Interestingly enough, fly fishing and tenkara were developed entirely separately. While they share some similar traits, it is fascinating to see different cultures developing techniques for fishing that have so much similarity.
The most technical part of this type of fishing is rod construction. Tenkara rods were always made from bamboo and nodes were chosen that would naturally fit inside each other, creating a rod that compacted well and expanded to fifteen feet long– occasionally even longer. These rods are extremely light and flexible, which makes them popular with backpackers who want to do some fishing along the way. Today, rods are often between 11 and 13 feet long, and made from various common rod materials.
Tenkara is seen as a highly minimalistic approach to fishing. Unlike fly fishing, tenkara fishers don’t use a reel. Tenkara lines are tied directly to the tip of the rod and have a short braided section at the end to facilitate this.
Tenkara flies are extremely simple, and tenkara anglers don’t usually intentionally try to match the hatch. Instead, tenkara flies entice fish through precise movements. These flies don’t have names or recipes like western flies do. In fact, many were closely guarded secrets, as they were a major part of their developers’ livelihoods.
Tenkara is typically done on small waters. The Japanese mountain streams it was developed around are nutrient-poor and relatively narrow and shallow; the fish that live in them are opportunistic and will readily strike anything that moves like an insect.
Tenkara Fly Fishing Video
This is the best video we have found to explain Tenkara, the gear, techniques and tips for a beginner. Read our article, and watch this 17 minute video, and you’ll feel comfortable understanding how this all works.
This video was created by Tenkara USA, a company that has been a major player in increasing the popularity of this sport in the U.S.
What Is Fly Fishing?
Western-style fly fishing has a long and storied history, but the short version is that it originated in England. While there are ancient references to fly fishing, the first definitive writings about the sport come from the 1400s.
Fly fishing as we know it today developed on England’s nutrient-rich chalk streams and was easily transported to the tailwaters of the Americas. The principles of fly fishing involve tricking trout into thinking that the artificial bait is just another natural part of their environment. Western fly anglers try to match the hatch and present flies that mimic the types of insects that the trout are currently feeding on.
Fly fishing can be done on water of any size. From small creeks to big rivers, from ponds to the ocean, there are fly rods, hooks, lines, and flies that can tackle any challenge. Many fly fishers prefer one type of experience over the others. Some fly anglers pursue certain species of fish, while others are more generalist. Fly fishing is an enormous category of activity, and there are many specializations and derivatives of the sport.
Fly fishing has seen a great deal of technological advancement in its development, as well as technical development. Flies tied today are very different from the flies tied 600 years ago, and we can actually trace the development of rod technology through writings about fishing throughout the renaissance to today.
Tenkara Vs. Fly Fishing
It’s not wrong to say that tenkara is a type of fly fishing, but it is wrong to say that tenkara came from western fly fishing as we know it. Tenkara developed entirely separately from fly fishing; the two did not influence each other at all. The fact is, presenting an artificial fly that sits on top of the water, or subsurface, is just a great way to catch trout. Lots of cultures have developed something similar throughout history. The two styles have a convergent evolution, but they also have many differences that set them apart from each other.
|Type of Rod
|Lightweight telescoping bamboo, carbon fiber, or other lightweight composite rod; today, some are made of fiberglass
|Lots of materials, typically carbon fiber, bamboo, or other lightweight composites– usually comes apart in packable pieces rather than telescoping out to size
|Type of Reel
|Disc drag or click and pawl reel.
|Type of Line
|Backing, fly line, leader, tippet
|Type of Lure
|Simple, generalized fly constructed of thread and feathers.
|Complex flies using a variety of materials, generally more diverse than tenkara
|Type of Fish
|Originally small fish like cherry trout and sweetfish; now, trout of all kinds
|Originally trout and grayling; now, virtually any fish species
|Type of Water
|Best for small streams and shallow water, but can be fished on larger waters with some practice
|Wet Fly or Dry Fly?
|Using the same flies, tenkara fisherman can fish both wet or dry fly presentations.
|Wet and dry flies
On the surface, tenkara and fly fishing look similar. In both sports, you’re using a long rod to present a lightweight artificial fly to predatory fish. Both sports involve casting and mending for the ideal fly presentation.
But the two sports have deep-running differences that set them apart from each other.
Reel Vs No Reel
Tenkara fisherman don’t have a reel, which means they need to bring the fish in utilizing the rod, and grabbing the line with their hands. With western fly fishing, anglers have the line available on a reel next to the handle, where they can either utilize the reel, or retrieve the line with their hands through the eyelets. This tends to make it a bit easier to bring in fish with a fly fishing rod over a tenkara rod.
Tenkara line is fastened to the end of the rod. The line does not continue down the rod through eyelets of a rod like in fly fishing. You can see a full fly fishing rod and reel setup here. WIth both, their is tippet utilized at the fly attachment which is basically thin monofilament or fluorocarbon line that is invisible to fish, but strong enough to bring a fish to net.
Fly fisherman have weighted fly line for casting, and also line backing for fights with larger fish.
Tenkara casting is simple. The line at the end of your rod is a length, and it stays that length since their is no reel or additional line to add to cast further. This means that tenkara casting is quite simple, and limited to the length of the rod and the line. This makes tenkara a bit easier to pick up as a beginner.
Western fly fishing setups can be casted just like tenkara rods, but they have the added versatility of much longer casting options and more complex casting options as well.
Dry Flies Vs Wet Flies
Interestingly, the flies in tenkara can be fished as either as dry flies, or as wet flies. In western fly fishing, it is unusual for an angler to use the same fly fished in multiple ways like this.
Another major difference that separates fly fishing from tenkara fishing is the amount of specialization within the sport. Fly fishing is infinitely customizable. Individual anglers have strong preferences for rods, lines, flies, and techniques. It’s not uncommon for fly fishers to have hundreds to thousands of flies in their collections, each one chosen for a specific situation. A fly you use in August might be totally wrong for September. Fly fishing has a huge number of techniques and materials available that can answer any scenario.
Tenkara, on the other hand, relies less on precise fly mimicry and more on flexibility and movement. It’s normal for tenkara anglers to not switch flies at all, instead focusing on presentation techniques. The goal of tenkara is getting trout to respond to movement as much as anything else, and a tenkara kit is extremely minimal. With much of tenkara, the theme of simplicity often comes up.
Where tenkara and fly fishing really come together is in the philosophy of the sport. Tenkara was born in the land of zen philosophy, which emphasizes a deep connection with nature and a feeling of inner peace.
The same philosophy is true of fly fishing; one of the first major foundational texts, Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, was a treatise about why to fish as well as how to fish. For more than 800 years, fly fishers have been finding solace in nature and a deep appreciation for the calming and peaceful nature of the sport.
Both fly fishers and tenkara fishers seek out that connection with nature and have an appreciation for the meditative, contemplative nature of these types of fishing. Both fly fishing and tenkara fishing can teach you about yourself and lend themselves well to anyone who wants to foster these deep connections to the environment around them.
Pros of Tenkara Fishing
Tenkara is considered to be the first big innovation in American fly fishing in thirty years, after the introduction of spey casting. This has created a great deal of interest and is definitely one pro of getting into tenkara fishing– it’s exciting and fun.
A Simple Structure
Tenkara fishing also allows for a great deal of creativity. There’s a simple structure, but what you do within that structure is entirely up to you. Tenkara is all about two simple principles: identifying where fish will be and properly presenting the fly to them. How you do that is up to you.
Ease of Learning
Tenkara is very beginner friendly. Its simplicity means you don’t need to worry about carrying a great deal of equipment with you, and you have the freedom to practice your casts and your mending. You don’t need to spend a lot of time learning how to do these things, because it’s easy with the simple system. You learn how to set you your system (line to rod, tippet to line, and tippet to fly), learn how to cast very quickly, and then you are able to focus on the experience of fly fishing.
Tenkara has also become more popular for backpacking and travel. Due to its simplicity, telescoping rods, and lightweight nature, it has become a growing hobby for outdoor enthusiasts and travelers. It is simply extremely portable, even for backpackers concerned wit hweight.
Cons of Tenkara Fishing
A major con of tenkara is the limitation of application. If you like to fish big water, stillwater, or water where you need to get flies deep, this technique might not be for you. Tenkara rods and tenkara flies are not going to be able to stand up to big saltwater bonefish or tarpon— they’ll snap the line as they touch it. In addition, the limited casting ability limits the types and sizes of water that can be fished.
Learning Curve & Simplicity
Tenkara’s learning curve can also be deceptively frustrating. At first, it’s very beginner-friendly, which we mentioned as a pro. But once you’re past the beginner stage, the learning curve gets steeper fast. The basics of the technique are extremely simple, but simple does not mean easy. In particular, you often have to get physically closer to the fish than you do with western fly fishing. Trout have excellent eyesight and are very sensitive to movement in the water. It’s can be frustrating to accidentally scare them off (though this is not uncommon in western fly fishing either).
Finding a Mentor or Guide
Another con of tenkara is how few guides are available. This is changing as the style grows in popularity, but right now there’s very few guides or anglers in the U.S. to help other anglers get started. Many fly guides have heard of tenkara, but actually finding one who knows how to do it is more challenging. This can present a barrier to entry for beginners. Tenkara has only been in the United States for a short period of time (Tenkara USA didn’t start selling rods in the U.S. until 2009) – it’s got a long way to go to catch up to other types of fly fishing in popularity, spread, and knowledge within the general population of fly fishers.
However, if you are already a fly fisherman, picking up Tenkara would be quite easy as you’ve likely learned the same skills already.
Pros of Fly Fishing
Ease of Finding Gear, Guides, and Mentors
With a history dating back to ancient times fly fishing’s techniques are varied and well-understood. No matter what type of western fly fishing you want to do, it’s relatively easy to find a guide, an outfitter, tutorials, and other information about it.
Western flies are readily available for purchase at fly shops and online. If you don’t want to make your own, you’ll never have to. Flies are not particularly expensive most of the time, and you can find good equipment at any budget.
Fly fishing is more versatile. There are more flies, more techniques, more waters to be fished, more species to be targeted, and simply more to learn than with Tenkara. This can be a downside, or a pro, depending upon your goals and objectives.
Cons of Fly Fishing
Fly fishing’s biggest con is one of the stereotypes about the sport: its expense. In reality, fly fishing can be done well on a budget. But the sport has a reputation for elitism and snobbery, and the high cost of some fly equipment can be intimidating for new anglers.
Fly fishing also sometimes leads its practitioners to suffer from choice paralysis. There’s such an incredibly diverse range of options that it can be hard to actually decide what to use in certain situations. It’s easy to get caught up in the decision between which fly to use or which size, and that can be frustrating.
Fly fishing also has a steeper learning curve than tenkara fishing. It’s harder to learn how to manage your line, perform your casts, and present your flies. You have to put in a lot of work to learn the craft of fly fishing, and it can be initially frustrating. That said, if you are a beginner, don’t be afraid to get started. We have a great guide for beginner fly fishers that will help you get set up with everything you need to know.
The Final Word
Both fly fishing and tenkara fishing are fun, and there’s a lot of overlap between the two of them. The odds are good if you enjoy tenkara fishing, you’ll enjoy fly fishing, and vice versa. If you’re a fly angler who wants to try something different, tenkara might just be the technique for you.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about