September 13, 2011

Tenkara Tuesday - Two Years of Tenkara Fishing

Welcome to Tenkara Tuesday.

For today's installment, I'm honored to present a guest post by Randy Knapp, a tenkara angler from Virginia.  I had originally made Randy's acquaintance on the Tenkara USA Forum a few years ago and was very impressed not only by his fishing prowess, but in the variety of fish always displayed in the pictures he posted.  See, Randy's not the typical trout fisherman most envision when they think of tenkara - he uses his arsenal of rods to target all species, and isn't afraid to share his opinions!


Two Years of Tenkara Fishing

After nearly two years of fishing predominately with tenkara rods and similar telescoping rods/poles from 9' to 21' I have come to realize a number of advantages and a few limitations.  I have fished small and large freestone mountain streams and small and large lowland streams, spring creeks, ponds and lakes, saltwater shorelines and saltwater from a boat.  I have used nymphs, dry flies, wet flies and streamers.  I have fished flies from size 20 to 3/0 and weighted rigs up to 1/4oz.  I have fished live bait and artificial baits.  I have fished in all four seasons from calm sunny days to wet windy days with winds in excess of 20mph.

Virginia Tenkara Creek

These reel-less fixed line telescoping rods can be used successfully in a wide range of fishing conditions.  In limited ways they can do almost any kind of fishing.  Making do by trying to adapt these rods to every fishing situation is, however, less than ideal.  Forcing these rods to work in every fishing situation is similar to playing golf with only one club. It can be done, but the simplicity would be quickly offset by the limitations.  A green is best played with a putter and a tee-off with a driver.  Trout fishing on a small relatively open freestome mountain stream is ideal for a tenkara rod, light line, fine tippet, and a fly.  A cold windy winter night of Chesapeake Bay 40lb striper fishing in a fast tide 30' deep with a 12" live eel hooked through the lips with a 6/0 circle hook calls for a different kind of tackle than your typical tenkara rod.  Somewhere in between these situations, a wide variety of tackle choices may be most appropriate.  Since part of the pleasure and simplicity of tenkara fishing is the lightweight compactness of the rods, there are other subjective limitations in their use.

Small Tenkara Brown Trout

A rod weight of under 4oz and a rod length of about 15' or 4.5 meters is about the upper limit for one hand use. A closed length of about 20" or 60cm seems about right for backpacking.  A closed rod of under 4' is best for U.S. domestic airline carryon.  Line type and length as well as weight is very subjective as is line visibility.  I have tried a wide range of available commercial as well as custom lines and feel most fishing situations can be handled best with a highly visible line equal to no more than 1 1/2 times the rod length with about 4' of tippet added.  This means a 12' rod would have about 18' of line with another 4' of tippet for a total length of about 22'.  Combined with the rod length and the fisher's extended arm, this puts most flyfishing situations well within the tenkara fisher's reach.  Fishing in tight quarters may well call for a line-tippet length of much less.  Fishing a large open lake or pond might call for a longer combination.  The lighter the line, the easier it is to fish and manipulate small flies in or on the surface film.  The heavier the line, the easier it will be to cast weighted nymphs and streamers and handle windy conditions.  Furled or hand twisted lines work well in most conditions as do level lines of monofilament or fluorocarbon. The lighter running lines of traditional lighter weight fly lines also work well in most conditions.  At this time, I still don't have a favorite, choosing rather to vary my lines as fishing conditions dictate.  I think buying a line from the company from which one buys their rod is probably as good a starting point as any.  

Tenkara Gear for a Day

I suppose if I were limited to one line for all conditions, I would probably opt for a highly visible level line of fluorcarbon that would test out at 14 to 16lbs and be equal to about rod's length.  To this I would add about 3 to 4' of 4 or 5x tippet.  Most tenkara rod manufacturers recommend tippets of no more than 5x or 5lb test to protect the rod.  Depending on the fisher's experience and conditions at hand, I am convinced that much heavier tippets can be used.  Most rods are not broken playing fish. Surely a fish can break a rod if it is extremely strong or heavy or if the rod is flexed at too great an angle for the weight of the fish being landed.  This is also true of other kinds of fishing rods.  If a heavier tippet is used and one snags a fly and tries to pull it free with the rod, the rod may break or one or more of the rod sections may become jammed together so tightly that they cannot be unstuck without breakage.  This can be prevented if the line can be grabbed by hand and the fly pulled free or the tippet broken.  The main advantage of using heavier tippets is to either land fish more quickly or to turn over larger and/or heavier flies. I do think that fishing a tippet of 4 or 5lb test and a diameter of 4 or 5x is best for most tenkara fishing situations.  If rod sections do become jammed together, having some sort of rubber pad to grip the rod without slipping is essential in the field if simple tapping does not unstick the sections.

Strike indicators for nymphing can be effective and my favorite is a 1/2" thingamabobber.  This is another option that is highly subjective.  Again, I have tried other kinds including yarn, colored putty, foam stick-ons, colored tippets, corkies, big dry flies, etal. Sometimes I don't use any.

Creek Smallmouth Bass

I have found the EZ hook keepers to be the best way to quickly store the line after collapsing the rod to move from one location to another, especially when moving through obstacles with the extended rod which puts it at risk of snagging on streamside tree branches and brush.  I attach one EZ keeper at each end of the base section with a couple of extra o-rings on the rod in between.  I can then hook my fly or flies or tippet end under the extra slideable o-rings.  Wrapping the line and tippet in a figure eight between the keepers helps prevent the line tangling and the line slipping off the keepers.  Leaving my favorite line attached to the lillian and wrapped in this configuration allows me to always have a rod, line, tippet, and fly/flies ready to go.  This easily fits in the rod sock and tube if needed.  Many tenkara fishers lose the rod tip plug which can become loose or misplaced.  All my rod base tip plugs are in a baggy in my fly tying desk at home.  They are unnecessary because my favorite line is always attached to each rod. I have tried winding the line onto my hand, a foam tube, a kite line holder, line spools, etc.  I have found the EZ keepers to be superior to all other methods.  I carry extra lines coiled in an old tippet wallet.  I just write details about the line configuration right on the plastic pocket with a permanent marker.  I can then have extra lines ready for any fishing situation.  One line can do it all, but lines of different length and weight offer needed versatility as stream conditions change.

At the outset of this article I said I have fished telescoping rods from 9' to 21' in a wide variety of conditions.  I now realize that it is too limiting for me to try to do it all with these rods. As long as one recognizes this and is satisfied sometimes catching fewer fish or smaller fish or even no fish at all, then I think one can use telescopic rods with fixed lines and be satisfied.  I am not satisfied unless I can also catch fish in situations not suitable for tenkara style fishing. There are times when I am definately going to catch more and larger fish using another method just as there are times when I will catch more fish with a traditional style tenkara rod, line, tippet and fly. For me the key is to be flexible and use the most suitable equipment for each fishing situation.  This necessitates preplanning and detailed lists of what gear to take as well as having my fishing gear separated into different duffel bags for easy access. There is nothing more frustrating than driving or flying to a particular destination only to find a key fishing necessity was left behind.  I have also too often found myself using a backup rod or parts when the inevitable breakage has occurred.

Tenkara Creek Redeye

I still think tenkara is the best way to fish the small to medium freestone mountain streams for which it was designed.  It is also my favorite way to fish for bluegill and other warmwater pan fish in farm ponds and small lakes.  For other kinds of fishing there are other means that may be more productive though probably not as simple and fun.  Each person owes it to him/herself to determine what is best in a given situation.  However, even after evaluating and determining these various criteria, I would be lying if I didn't say that if at all possible I will always choose one of my tenkara or other telescoping fishing rods, a single line, a spool of tippet, and a box full of flies whenever possible.  It is so simple and enjoyable that it is very difficult to go back to using other kinds of tackle and methods after fishing tenkara for a couple of seasons.  It is very addictive.


About the Author:

Randy Knapp is a retired Seattle fire fighter who has been an avid fly fisher for over 20 years.  He has enjoyed fishing by other methods from childhood when he caught his first sunfish with a cane pole, bobber, and worm.   He now resides with his wife, Liz, in a log cabin in Warm Springs, VA where he fishes streams, rivers, farm ponds and lakes in the Allegheny mountains.  He ties his own flies, travels often to distant fishing locations,  and is an active participant on blogs and forums, especially those related to tenkara tackle and techniques.


Are you a Western tenkara angler?  Do you have a story, pictures, video, fly recipe, or simply a fishing report from one of your recent tenkara adventures?  If so, Troutrageous! wants to hear from you for a future Tenkara Tuesday post!  Feel free to send an email HERE, or check out this previous post for more information.


  1. Nicely written Randy.

    Always enjoyable and informative.

  2. Great post Randy! I love the golf club analogy. I used to use that when I sold fly rods and people asked me which one rod would cover every situation. Even people who don't golf "get it".