Tenkara: The Perfect Fly Fishing Gear for Backpackers

Today’s post is written by a friend and fellow blogger, Jason Klass. I’m sure you all know Jason as the original ultralight gear hacker, MYOG guru, and author of the hugely popular Gear Talk blog, but did you know that he is also an expert fly fishing instructor? So when I wanted to know more about Tenkara I turned to Jason, who graciously agreed to write this superb guest post – enjoy!

Backpacking and fly fishing go together like peanut butter and jelly. Hiking deep into the backcountry often lands you right in the middle of some of the most pristine streams, lakes, and beaver ponds unrivaled by anything you’ll find close to a road. And with the luxury of a couple of days or more on your side, to not take advantage of these magical fishing opportunities would be a crime. But bringing a rod, reel, and fishing vest full of fly boxes and other gear can really add pounds (and bulk) to your pack. So what is a backpacking angler to do? Try Tenkara fly fishing!

What is Tenkara?

Simply put, Tenkara is a method of fly fishing that uses long (11- 15 ft.), telescopic rods, a fixed line, and no reel. That’s right, no reel! The line is tied directly to the tip of the rod. Sound like dapping or cane pole fishing? It’s not. You cast a Tenkara rod similar to the way you cast a Western fly rod (it’s a “real” fly fishing cast—not dapping). And just like Western fly fishing, you have a tippet and fly attached to the end of your line. By all accounts, it is “real” fly fishing even though there is no “reel”.

Tenkara originated in Japan and was developed for fishing for small-stream trout fishing. Since it’s recent explosion in popularity in the West thanks to Tenkara USA founder Daniel Galhardo, many people have been pushing the boundaries, landing larger and larger fish and even using Tenkara for lake fishing. I’ve even heard of someone landing a bonefish on a Tenkara rod! You’re probably pretty unlikely to encounter a bonefish on your next backpacking trip, so let’s stick to the small streams and fish for which Tenkara was intended.

The first question most people ask is how you land a fish if there is no reel. If you’re fishing for smaller fish, you would land them pretty much the same way you do with a Western fly rod—you tilt the rod back behind you, grab the line, and then pull in the fish to your hand or net. Small stream fishing almost never requires shooting line or anything more than stripping a fish in so why bother with the reel? Many people who try Tenkara and are initially concerned about the lack of a reel are instant converts once they see how not having to worry about stepping on their line, line getting tangled in the reeds, mending line, etc. actually allows them to fish more effectively by eliminating the distraction of line management.

Advantages for Backpackers

Since we have to carry everything on our backs, it’s obviously in our best interest to limit weight and bulk. Adding a secondary activity like fly fishing intrinsically adds to our pack weight in extra gear. Tenkara gear significantly reduces the weight penalty of bringing along fly fishing equipment while allowing you to still reap the full benefits of your fly fishing opportunities.

A Western fly rod outfit might weigh as much as 10 oz. with the rod, reel, and line (not to mention terminal tackle). And, if you’ve got a premium rod, you’ll probably want to protect it with some sort of rod tube. This only adds to the weight and bulk. But with Tenkara rods, you save many ounces by eliminating the reel and rod tube (the rods are telescopic and become their own case once collapsed). By comparison, a Tenkara rod and line might weigh a combined 3 oz. giving you a significant weight savings. Also, they collapse down to a mere 20” or so meaning they’re very compact and fit perfectly in the side pocket of a backpack. Tenkara rods take up very little space, add very little weight, yet still give you an effective fly fishing tool to have a great day on the water.

Learning Curve

If you’re an experienced fly caster, you will figure out Tenkara in about 5 seconds. The casting stroke is similar to the traditional stroke (but slightly shorter and with more wrist). If you’re new to fly fishing, you will find casting a Tenkara rod far less frustrating and much easier to learn than Western fly fishing. Trust me. I was a casting instructor for years and have a lot of frustrated faces emblazoned on my mind. By comparison, I’ve seen people pick up a Tenkara rod with no fly casting experience and after a few minutes of instruction, actually catch fish. My wife never fished a day in her life and after I put a Tenkara rod in her hand, she caught 3 beautiful cutthroat trout her first time out. The instant gratification also makes Tenkara a great option for introducing children to the sport.

Limitations

Keeping in mind that the Tenkara method was originally intended for smaller fish in smaller streams, it should be noted that it’s not for everyone, nor for every situation. For backpackers that want to fish smaller streams or ponds without carrying a bunch of gear, it’s perfect. If you need to boom out an 80 ft. cast and drag a Zonker along the bottom of a 30 ft. deep lake, it won’t work. But that’s not a shortcoming of Tenkara. Every piece of gear (whether it’s for fishing or backpacking) has its place. Think about the places you hike into and think about if Tenkara is a good fit. Chances are, it is.

Conclusion

In my opinion, Tenkara is the ideal system for people who want to combine fly fishing and backpacking. A premium Western outfit could easily cost you upwards of $1,000. Wouldn’t you rather spend less than $200 for a complete, lighter, and more practical setup and still be able to have great fly fishing adventures on your backpacking trips? If you’re serious about exploring backcountry and taking advantage of it’s unique fishing opportunities, then maybe it’s time you try Tenkara.

Learn More about Tenkara:

I would like to personally thank Jason for graciously agreeing to write this excellent post and for educating me in the finer points of Tenkara. I’d also like to thank him for exposing me to yet another fascinating past time to become obsessed with and spend my money on, thanks Jason :-)

 

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04380958324541306917 JERMM

    Excellent post, I’m with Jason, “backpacking and fly fishing go together”

    Brian- what’s going to be your first purchase? :^D

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    JJ, you know me too well. I’ve been scouting and researching Tenkara for a couple of weeks now and have desperately wanted to get started. Jason’s post pushed me over the edge.

    I just pulled the trigger on a Tenkara rod, line, tippet, and flies from TenkaraUSA.com :-p

    I chatted with Jason on the phone for a very long time the other night and got even more excited about Tenkara and making my own flies. I bought a set of three as part of my kit just to get started, but on Jason’s urging I have been Googling Tenkara fly patterns and watching video on how to tie them.

    I’ll post an update when my gear arrives obviously. I can’t wait!

    Jason: I noticed that as part of your Tenkara kit you do not have a net. Do you not usually carry one, or just when you are traveling light?

  • http://sticksblog.com/ sticksblog.com

    I would really like to try this out, although one step at a time, and I am still working out my Backpacking kit just the way I want it.. Anyway, I look forward to your reviews…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04380958324541306917 JERMM

    Brian, do you already fly fish?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    JJ, no I don’t for many of the reasons Jason highlighted in his post. I’ve always been fascinated by it and secretly wanted to do it, but it seemed so steeped in mystery and complicated gear choices that I was put off to even try.

    I have a basic Tenkara setup on it’s was as we speak, so I’m excited about getting out and trying this. I love the simplicity and minimalistic approach to Tenkara. I also want to have a hobby that let’s me enjoy the outdoors and take time to stop and relax. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Do you fly fish or any other type of fishing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Stick, thanks. My backpacking kits is pretty well done at this point, even though I’ll never stop tweaking. I looking forward to sharing my experiences as a Tenkara noob with anyone who is interested or looking to get into it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04380958324541306917 JERMM

    Brian- be warned…fly fishing is addictive…looking forward to hearing about your experiences and new equipment.

  • Dave Long

    Am very fascinated in hearing more about TENKARA technique.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      We did some really great Tenkara fishing at Mirror Lake on the way back down form Mt Whitney, so watch out for a post coming out on that soon. Have you done any type of fly fishing before? I hadn’t.

  • Dave Long

    Am very fascinated in hearing more about TENKARA technique. 
    You Tube Lompoc35, or http://www.LongVenture.com 

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    We did some really great Tenkara fishing at Mirror Lake on the way back down form Mt Whitney, so watch out for a post coming out on that soon. Have you done any type of fly fishing before? I hadn’t.