Traditional Tenkara

Garry Webster brings a touch of Japan to the Snowies

Over the past year I have developed a great interest in Tenkara. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it is Japanese fly fishing. Tenkara fishing of sorts, can be traced back some 500 years, with its roots being in the mountain streams of the Land of the Rising Sun. In February 2018, I made contact with one of Japan’s most accomplished Tenkara anglers, Go Ishii, who in turn introduced me to Yamano-san, with the purpose of Yamano-san making me a Tenkara wazao bamboo rod. In October last year I spent several days with Go and Yamano-san, being taught several processes that go into making such a rod. We also travelled into the mountains for some fishing, but more importantly, instruction in casting and stream-craft. In conventional fly fishing, our aim is to cast a tight loop that gently unfolds upon the water. Line first, then leader, and finally the fly. With Tenkara fishing, it is also essential to cast with a tight loop, but as the loop turns over, if done correctly, only the fly touches the water, with line and leader being suspended in mid-air. Hence the reason why Tenkara rods are generally longer. Rods are from 10' to 15', with the average being about 12' (3.6 m). ‘The more I know, the less I use.’ This is pure, traditional Tenkara thinking and practice. Many of the old masters only use one or two fly patterns, including the most famous master in all of Tenkara, Yuzo Sebata… It’s all about knowing how to manipulate your fly, be it wet or dry. In actual fact, most traditional Tenkara patterns are sparsely tied, and can be fished wet or dry. Several fly rod manufacturers are marketing Tenkara rods and lines that have very little (actually nothing) in common with traditional Tenkara fishing, as practised in the mountains of Japan. This western take on Tenkara fishing is in fact nothing more than conventional fly fishing… Line first, then leader, then fly. The modern Tenkara rods in both traditional and western style are telescopic. They can fold down to a length of 14" to 28", or thereabouts. They are either 100% graphite, or a combination of graphite with a small percentage of fibreglass added. But the similarities end in relation to the lines used. With traditional Tenkara the lines are extremely fine, approximately the diameter of 30 lb mono, and are either level, furled, or hand made of horse hair, which I prefer to use where possible. The line used in western Tenkara is generally the running line of a weight-forward fly line. The length of both lines is similar, from 10' to 20' approx, with mono tippets attached. The rods do not have any reels. The line is attached to the tip of the rod by what is called a lillian, which enables the line to be easily removed after fishing. Before you rush out to buy a Tenkara setup, first decide which path you wish to take… If you choose western style Tenkara, which is Tenkara fishing in name only, you will certainly catch many fish, and have a great time in doing so. On the other hand, if you wish to travel the path of traditional Tenkara… That could be a life-long journey of exploration and learning. So, let’s go ‘traditional Tenkara fishing!’ TENKARA TAKE 1 On Friday 21 December, I took off for the Snowy Mountains with good friend and fly fisherman George Bebonis, who kindly volunteered to be my photographer for the weekend. My ultimate goal was to catch a brook trout on my Tenkara rod. I had never seen a brookie in the wild, and was greatly looking forward to the experience. So, to this end, the destination was Ogilvies Creek. We camped overnight, and started fishing at about 11 a.m. on Saturday. Despite the fact that George took many great photos, conditions were not the best, as there was a low pressure system that came through the night before we arrived. Fishing Ogilvies was an absolute joy. What an amazing little creek. Despite there being a substantial rise of snowflake caddis in the afternoon, we didn’t see or spook a trout all day. Net result, two small rainbows. The following day we fished the Nungar. On my fourth cast I landed a really nice brown of about 11 inches. I thought we were in for a great day’s fishing, when disaster struck! As George was taking some pics of that lovely brown, I glanced at my gorgeous bamboo rod, only to see, in horror, that the tip section had snapped. How, I don’t know? So, that was that Tenkara trip done and dusted. TENKARA TAKE 2 Fast forward Tenkara fishing Ogilvies, part 2. I contacted my good friend Jack Allen, a young 22-year-old guide from Cooma. I mentioned to Jack that I was writing an article for FlyLife and asked if he would like to join me. Jack was quite excited and said, “Only on one condition. Let’s fish as friends, and you can teach me about Tenkara, which is something I would love to get into.” Friday 8 February. I picked Jack up at 8 a.m. in Cooma. We then drove two hours to Ogilvies, only to find due to fire, the road in and out of Ogilvies was closed. Bummer! Jack suggested we fish Rocky Plains Creek, which would be perfect for Tenkara. My rod of choice was a Suntech Kurenai HM30R. In Japan, this rod has a cult following. At 9'7" in length and weighing just 0.9 of an ounce, this rod was made for those who love seeking out the faint blue lines on topo maps. This is a true headwater rod. I was also taking along a beautiful handmade bamboo Tamo (Japanese net), to add a touch of tradition. After parking the car and rigging up, we walked downstream about 45 minutes and started fishing up. There were snowflake and Goddard caddis on the move, so I put on a size 16 Stimi. I was initially horrified at how narrow and overgrown the creek was in so many places. My line, including tippet was about 4.5 metres in length. Casting was nigh impossible. Correction, it was impossible. I reduced the length of my line to approximately 3.5 metres, with almost immediate success. Casting was easy, with drag free drifts the order of the day. I was missing too many takes, and couldn’t understand why. All of a sudden, the ‘penny’ dropped… The tip of my rod is incredibly fine, and so does not have the affirmative responsiveness of a quality 3 or 4 weight graphite rod. I quite simply had to strike a lot harder, to activate the midsection of my rod. Bingo, success! In that session I landed four nice browns, saving the best till last. Measured against my Tamo, he was a tad over 12 inches. Being quite pleased with my efforts, I handed the Tenkara rod to Jack. He took to Tenkara fishing as if he had been doing it for ages. His casting was great, and after about 15 minutes he hooked ‘trout of the day.’ It was an extremely savage take. Jack couldn’t believe just how amazing the Tenkara rod felt. In Jack’s words: “I could feel every single kick of the tail, and felt my tippet rubbing against all the rocks and roots, deep within the undercut. As fast as it happened, he broke me off. But wow, what an experience. I love fishing twig water with my 2/3-weights, but the simplicity of Tenkara fishing has given me a new love and passion for small water.” TENKARA TAKE 3 I asked Jack if he was interested in joining me at Ogilvies on Monday, as conditions were shaping up to be perfect for the ‘dry’ on that day. I didn’t have to ask twice… “I’m in,” was Jack’s reply. When we arrived at Ogilvies the conditions were perfect. The sun was out, with little or no wind to speak of. Jack immediately started kicking a couple of tussocks, with hoppers going every which way. Jack was pumped, rubbing his arms, as he said, “I can feel the UV, I can feel the UV… This is going to be a great dry fly day.” Again, I tied on a #16 Stimi. In the first hour I landed two rainbows and dropped two brookies. I was still striking far too softly. Up to about 5 p.m. I had landed 9 nice rainbows, whilst failing to hook up quite a few more. And then, I had a really savage take… This time, I struck hard. As the trout rolled, Jack shouted, “It’s a brookie.” My heart was pounding. This was one fish I didn’t want to drop. I was confident that he was well hooked, and well hooked he was. Jack did the honours by landing him. An extremely beautiful and well-conditioned brook trout, measuring around 12 inches… My first brookie! I was happy to be done for the day, so I handed my rod to Jack, saying “This is yours for the rest of the day, mate.” (Little did Jack know, the surprise he was in for at day’s end). What an amazing guide and fisherman Jack is — on his first two Tenkara casts he landed two beautiful rainbows. Up to that point he had landed 5 rainbows on his 3-weight. So now, Jack was going for the Tenkara ‘hat trick’ — three consecutive casts, for three trout. Alas, his next cast didn’t produce, but the following one rewarded Jack with another great little rainbow. Three trout from four casts. Indeed, Jack was on fire! It was an absolute joy for me to sit back and enjoy the show. After Jack landed another rainbow, we were both happy to call it a day. At day’s end, as we were packing our gear, I handed Jack my beautiful little Kurenai rod. “Here Jack, this is yours.” Jack refused to take it, but after a lengthy arm wrestle he very appreciatively accepted my gift…Good things happen to good people! Tenkara fishing Ogilvies and Rocky Plains Creeks was an amazing experience. Thanks Jack! Jack can be contacted through the Alpine Angler. The author can be contacted at: For those interested in getting into Tenkara, is a good starting point. Further reading FL#60.

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