Tenkara Flyfishing

Tenkara Flyfishing

Paul Arden | Monday, 16 January 2017

Today we have an article from Roland Bachofer on his experiences with Tenkara Fly Fishing. I promised a new beginning to SLTV today with Five Minutes of Fly Fishing and this will certainly happen, but it's going to be later in the week and most probably starting next Monday - I want to start with a bag, but the fish have had different ideas! I've also promised a step-by-step to tying the Vince Loud-Mouth Popper variation that I use - this will happen too, and at the same time no doubt. :) So here it is, Tenkara Flyfishing...


From May to August 1993 I travelled through Japan by bicycle – I know, I was young and crazy in those days – now am just crazy... but when passing across the mountains on small roads I sometimes saw people standing on rocks in the middle of a small and wild mountain stream, trying to catch tiny little fishes on 4m, 8m and sometimes even 11m poles, with only a thin line of about the same length attached right to the tip, and I wondered what the hell they were doing...?

In the next town's fishing shop I talked with them about what I’ve seen and they explained to me their Japanese style of fishing. So I bought some of the Tenkara and Keiryu rods (2.7m, 3.2m, 4.5m, 6.2m) and gave it a try then and when on the rest of my trip through Kyshu, Shikokku, Honshu and Hokkaido – and so I also tasted some wild brook trout sashimi on the way...

Back home in Switzerland I forgot about flyfishing for some reasons until I found all my flyrods again when untidying my attic and then came across some information about Tenkara by Swiss bamboo rod builder Daniel Hoda, who introduced Tenkara in Switzerland through HRH (Hansruedi Hebeisen of Hebeisen Flyfishing in Zürich). So I bought some new rods (3.6m fix and a triple-zoom) and booked for a 3-day tutorial of Tenkara-Flyfishing in a small bouldery mountain brook. But unfortunately I broke my leg on the 2nd day (idiot, got stuck beetween two boulders) and so I had to forget about flyfishing for at least one more year...

I had enough time to soak in every video on YouTube that I could find about Tenkara and learned as much about it as possible by watching others doing it – oh, what a hard time that was...!

After 18 months I joined a weekend-fishing-trip at the end of May with my friends from FFCB (Flyfishing Club of Basel) to the small German stream named „Wolf“ in the Black Forest at Oberwolfach (South Germany) where we always go twice a year. And of course I was so hot to use my new Tenkara rods to see, how it works there – yes I wanted it so badly...

The stream is only about 3-4m wide and there are a lot of small to medium boulders in it which makes ordinary flyfishing quite a challenge. So, many fly fishers tend to search for calm laminar stretches or they use nymphs and concentrate merely on deeper trenches – and walk a lot. I’m not up for some fast results (one broken leg due to the „dangerous and risky sport of flyfishing“ is enough) so I do not walk too much but rather work slowly and try every possible spot to see if there is one, or I take the challenge to cast even to impossible places to improve my casting...

I've fished this small stream for years and therefore know it very well. I reckon I‘m able to judge the success of using Tenkara in flyfishing – at least in the Wolf. The fish are not so big because a lot of people work this stream. But the fish are used to that kind of „traffic“ and they come back soon behind you if you keep quiet and move smoothly. They are very nice coloured and I only take few out of the water to look at them, but since I do C&R on barbless hooks I let them go once I have them close to my feet. I only use dry flies on that stream and I always use a small „woodchuck“ (tied as sedge), size 14 with a red or grizzly tail, a body made of red, black, yellow or olive CDC-string, wings using woodchuck hair and a grizzly hackle at the front. Though Tenkara was invented for use with special tied wet flies, I mostly only use it with ordinary dry flies. And this is the result of 2 days flyfishing with Tenkara on my favored woodchuck dryfly: 36 small brookies beetween 20-35cm. It’s a record! That’s twice as much as I usually catch there in 2 days, while my flyfishing friends caught just as much as they always do...

What are the advantages of Tenkara? None, one could say, except this: you don’t lay your line on the water but keep it in the air to avoid drag and so you have much more control over your fly. BUT THAT’S A LOT! Especially in streams where you are faced with wild currents, stones and boulders as is common in a mountain stream (that‘s why and where it was originally invented by Japanese anglers) – there you just place your fly (dry or wet or a nymph) where you want and you don’t give a damn about drag due to the current... and best of all; you can use all your flycasting technique as you always do – overhead, sidecasts, backhand, rollcasts, swichcasts and so on, to name only a few...

But there are also some disadvantages to take into acount. Your casting distance is quite limited – usually to the length of your rod plus line, which is about 1m longer than your rod. But it is enough to fish it where it is useful; in a mountain brook or in small streams. Therefore, especially on open streches, it is sometimes necessary to make yourself small, go down, hide behind a rock and sneak like a thief. Fish up to 40cm are no problem to handle with the delicate make of the rod, but if you by chance catch a tropy trout, you will lose him and maybe also part of your rod... so never try streamers!

Using Tenkara in an open space as it is found in the high mountain areas or near urban areas is fun, but to use it in a „tunnel“ of branches, trees and bushes it becomes a real challenge! So you better exercise all kinds of flycasts a lot, using your ordinary flyrod, before you dare to enter the „tunnel“ with a Tenkara rod! There you can use low side casts over the water up and down the stream, steep vertical backcasts where you can see the sky above you, bow casts, roll casts and some sophisticated casts you just invented yourself according to the situation... But always bear in mind the lenght of your rod of 3.2m to 3.6m which is not really ideal to use it in a „tunnel“ – but I love challenges... How often got my rod and line tangled in low hanging branches, I didn’t count but I’m glad no tip broke so far... lucky me!

By using Tenkara on a small stream I can place my (dry)fly exactly where I want – in an eye behind a rock or right on the rock and let it then fall down aside or behind it, or upstream across a small cascade, or on top of a laminar current and let the fly ride by, all the way down into a hungry trout's mouth... It’s pure fun! They literally jump on the fly because it sits naturally on the surface while head and tail of the fly tend to turn upstream the way like a real insect might do... I often sit on a rock and cast up, down and across. I have time to watch birds coming down and sip some water and if I wait a little longer I can watch the spooked fish slowly coming back and I give them my fly with a low side cast italian style and enjoy to see how they take it... and at the end that’s what I go for: to see them take my self tied barbless fly – and of course play them a little before I let them go free again... satisfying to the max...! 

Roland Bachofer