Why Tenkara? We’ll Tell You Why

It’s no secret we’ve been fishing with Tenkara rods for a couple of years now. We haven’t used them exclusively but we do use them a pretty good bit, especially when we’re out fishing for ourselves. We’ve introduced many fly fishers to Tenkara and everyone has been very impressed. We even did a short video on the topic that is among our most viewed on YouTube. As time goes by and we use it more and more we decided it was high time we spoke up a little more on the topic.

Ian guiding an angler with Tenkara on Hazel Creek

Ian guiding an angler with Tenkara on Hazel Creek

To clear, this is not a “why you SHOULD fish with Tenkara” essay. There are plenty of opinions on Tenkara ranging from “the sky is bluer since I started using Tenkara” all the way down to “only limp wristed sissy boys would use Tenkara.” We’re somewhere in between but really enjoy it.

Back when I first started with Tenkara one of my fishing buddies said it just didn’t look like a viable way to fish because “it was too niche”. I had already tried it and was impressed with the possibilities, but this argument against it seemed odd to me. The very angler making this argument had every weight fly rod between 2 and 9 in his arsenal.

“So… Do you take your 2 weight fishing in salt water? Do you take it out for smallmouth? Heck, do you even take it to the creek when you need a weighted nymph and strike indicator?” I asked. “Same for that 9 weight. Do you fish it for anything besides stripers around here? How many times do your find yourself casting at permit a year? ”


Tenkara – Perfect for the Smokies

I’ll concede that Tenkara rods are somewhat niche but just about the same can be said for any fly rod. There are plenty of situations where you wouldn’t want that 5 weight even though it’s about as universal a rod you can find for freshwater. Here in the Smoky Mountains I will say with complete confidence that Tenkara rods have found a comfortable niche. The combination of ultra light line and an extra long rod make for exceptional drifts in the pocket water environment. These rods cast the nymphs and dry flies we fish so often easily and I’m convinced there are countless moments when the Tenkara rods not only outfish western fly rods but actually work in situations virtually impossible to negotiate with the fly rod.

And while it’s not something people expect to hear about a rod with a fixed amount of line, but in many instances we find ourselves casting further with Tenkara than we do with western fly rods. The reason is because of the extra length of the rod. We usually fish with about 10′ of Tenkara line on a 12′ rod. At the end of the line we add about 3′ of 3X tippet and another 2-3′ of 5X tippet. When you’re fishing 16′ of line on a 12′ rod you have to stay pretty far back, especially in pocket water. We were so used to being much closer and making short casts with a fly rod to get good drifts that this concept took a little while to sink in.

The upshot is that we are able to cast at skittish wild trout from further away than we do with a fly rod and that means fewer spooked fish.

A solid Smoky Mountain brown trout caught with Tenkara in a spot where wading was impossible

A solid Smoky Mountain brown trout caught with Tenkara in a spot where wading was impossible

The spring when I first started using Tenkara I was intrigued by the many spots I cast not only cast to but maintain a natural drift on the far side of the river. There were eddies I have ignored for at least two decades because the river was too swift and deep to wade and rapids in the river made mending line an impossible proposition. The long 12-13′ Tenkara rods I was experimenting with cast the dry fly beautifully, kept the line off of swift water, and what little line did touch the water was so light there was no drag.

The advantage was so striking to me that I started carrying a Tenkara rod with me on guided trips in the Smokies. Whenever there was a tough to impossible spot for my angler to get a drift with a fly rod. I’d quickly set the Tenkara rod up. Things were always progressed the same from this point. The angler would look on with interest but say they had no idea how to cast it. My response was always “You know how to cast a fly rod so you know how to cast this.”

And then, without fail the angler would always catch a fish on the first or second drift. After a moment of fumbling with an unfamiliar way of landing the fish, they’d release the fish then ask where they could get one.

One of the reasons we always carry a Tenkara rod now, even when using our fly rods, is that they are exceptionally compact and are 20″ or smaller. A small spool carries our line and we use the same flies. This easily fits in our daypack and Ian often keeps the Tenkara rod tucked into his wading belt when he’s not fishing with it. These rods are perfect for hiking or backpacking even as they fish great on any roadside streams.

Now we’re happy to announce we are selling rods by Tenkara Rod Co in our online store. This has been a long time coming as we’ve been so eager to sell these rods and get them into the hands of anglers in our part of the country. These are great packages at a very reasonable price. The 12′ Teton rod package comes with everything you need except tippet material and is $159. The 13′ Owyhee package is $189. We use both of these rods around the Smokies and can’t wait for you to experience them!

Are we abandoning our fly rods? No, not at all, but we are using Tenkara more and more on our wild trout streams and know you’ll be impressed as well.




  1. Ron Kirksey says:

    Interesting post. I haven’t tried Tenkara but the Smokies’ streams seems like the perfect place to apply the technique. It reminds me of the accounts in those old British fishing books that talked about “dapping” — touching one or more flies to the water’s surface with a long rod and fixed line.
    Ian, I also want you and Charity to know how much this old East Tennessean enjoys your newsletter. It takes me back to my days at UT, fishing the Smokies and local tail waters. I grew up in Clinton and fished the Clinch River below Norris Dam when the only people you were likely to see were country women in lawn chairs, fishing with whole kernel corn and miniature marshmallows for bait.
    I hope to get back down that way in the spring. I’ll let you know, so you can guide me to some streams I haven’t seen in a while, if at all. Meanwhile, if you get up to northern Ohio, we can check out the local Lake Erie rivers for small mouth and steelhead.
    Have a great holiday season.

    • Ron,
      Hope you make it down and we can show you around some. Tenkara is far more like fly casting than dapping. In spite of the ultra light line the rod is super flexible and snappy and casts very well.

      Ian & Charity

  2. Ian, I have fished tenkara exclusively for the past five years throughout the West and Midwest. I can attest to its superiority over Western flyrods on small to medium rivers, less so on stillwater or large rivers. I continue to use my “old tried and true* dry flies. I have found that you can rollcast or reachcast tenkara rods if needed. Using level lines of different lengths makes tenkara a very versatile angling tool. For instance, on small streams with dense vegetation, just shorten the line and tippet and still”enjoy” the longer reach of the tenkara rod; on lakes fish a long line/tippet combo. P S: in my previous life as a Western flyrodder you guided my wife and me on the Little River. We’ve never forgotten what a good time we had. Looking forward to returning to the Smokies with my tenkara rod.

    • Good to hear from you! Your experience sounds very similar to ours. With regard to line we really like casting the furled lines but much preferred the level lines for the ability to customize for tight situations as you said. In the general, open areas we try to help people gain confidence with Tenkara with the furled lines because of their visibility and easy of casting. Once folks get used to the cast and get their aim figured out the level lines work well too but we’ve just seen people have some anxiety about that on their first go round with Tenkara so we try to keep it as appealing and easy as we can so they gain confidence.

      Tenkara has been a terrific breath of fresh air for us, but we haven’t completely abandoned our fly rods! Still we use it more and more, especially on hike in trips.

      Thanks for commenting and great blog. I’ve got to say we feel the same way about Yvon Chouinard’s Tenkara concepts. We agree with you completely!


  3. Joe Staler says:

    Thanks for posting! I’ve been using Tenkara in the Smokies for the last couple of years myself. Many “purist” fisherman seem to be very closed-minded about the idea, but I have fished alongside them and pulled nice fish out of seams on the opposite side of a current that there was no way they could approach. Tenkara in the Smokies is here to stay.

    • Thanks for commenting, Joe. From what we’ve seen the deniers have an idea of what Tenkara is, but haven’t seen it in action. It does require fly casting although I think many are turned off by the idea they can’t cast a half mile with it. Interestingly enough, that’s exactly why we enjoy guiding with it. The biggest mistake we see among most anglers is the desire to cast well beyond the fish and betray your presence with fly line on the water. The Tenkara set up doesn’t let you cast too far very often and ends up putting the fly where it needs to be. Might not be as flashy, but it’s highly effective!


  4. Ed Vaughn says:

    Awesome! Do you recommend the furled line over a level line–and why? How do you roll cast with either line or do you? If not what alternative tactic do you recommend to accomplish a roll cast goal? Great to see you are using Tenkara. Ed

    • Both furled lines and level lines have their advantages. The furled lines cast more comfortably and feel more like casting a fly line. On the other hand they are a fixed length. You can adjust the amount of tippet you’re fishing, but furled leaders are set and can’t be changed.

      On the other hand we’ve set up several level lines for different situations; tight line nymphing, standard dry fly, and smaller streams vs. bigger streams. The ability to create a line to any length is nice, especially when you fish the same stream frequently. We have one line set up for bigger water like Little River, a nymphing line that’s a bit shorter and better for tight line nymphing, plus lines set up for several smaller streams we frequent.

      You don’t necessarily roll cast with Tenkara rods, but you can certainly flip short if you don’t have the space for a backcast. The extra long rods make that relatively easy to accomplish plus the super limber action requires an even shorter stroke than a fly rod.

      To be completely honest there is a break in period to figure out how to handle the rods when there’s some overhead cover, but it’s easily overcome with a little bit of time on the water.


      • Ed Vaughn says:

        I saw that the starter sets included several Tenkara flies. Do you use them? I hope you will periodically give us updates on your Tenkara experiences and tips on techniques as they evolve. You guys are great. Any info on possibility of Lynn Camp. prong opening in 2015? Just thought I’d ask! Thanks. Ed

        • We’ve only used the Tenkara flies a few times, and to be completely honest, we don’t use them much since they aren’t dry flies. The fish eat them fine, but they don’t sink all that much and I’d just as soon fish a dry fly if the fish will move for them.

          We plan to post a few more tutorial videos like the one we did a couple years back.

          Chances are good Lynn Camp will open in 2015, but nothing set out for sure yet.