Tenkara is what got me back into fly fishing. I spent a decade living in parts of the country where fly fishing wasn’t possible. When I moved back to Colorado I fell back into it, picking up gear and fishing buddies almost as soon as I hit the ground outside Denver International Airport.
Most of it was as if I had never left. The gear was cooler, the flies were better looking, the community had the same intensely fish-focused vibe that I had always loved, and every trip to the local rivers was a blast. However, I had lost my cast. I spent most of those first trips tangled in fly line and splashing my casts so badly that I didn’t catch anything. It’s easy to try and tell people that you’re just out there for the fun of it, and that it doesn’t matter if you catch anything, but when everyone around you is pulling fish after fish out of the water and you’re stumbling over rocks with ten feet of line wrapped around your ankles, it’s never a good time.
I borrowed a buddy’s tenkara rod for an afternoon on a creek in town. It’s nothing special, just a small trout stream that winds through open space on the edge of town and holds small to medium brown trout when the flows are right. When we left the parking lot and my friend handed me the collapsed tenkara rod and a foam line spool I felt under-equipped. “Is this it?” I asked him. I was in the gear-heavy phase of getting back into fly fishing. I had a fishing vest with something in every single pocket. I jingled and rattled so much when I walked that it’s surprising I was able to get near the water without spooking the fish. The rod, a mere 13-inches of graphite when collapsed, and the foam spool of line felt utterly insufficient to catch what, so far, had been incredibly wily and picky fish.
After he got me set up with the line, and after I spent five minutes trying to learn the double slip knot / One Knot to attach the level line to the lillian, we practiced casting in the grass alongside the stream. It seemed too easy, a simple flick from the wrist with my index finger pointed along the cork grip. Bend the wrist back until it stops naturally, then count to two to let the line load the rod. Snap the wrist forward and stop at forty-five degrees with your index finger pointed towards your target. Boom, there’s your cast.
I had it down in five minutes. I was targeting dandelions and rocks in the grass within ten minutes. The previous weeks spent walking around in a bird’s nest of fly line were suddenly time wasted when I could have been casting a tenkara rod.
We moved to the water and within ten minutes I caught my first fish on the fly in over a decade. That first fish was followed by a second, and then a third. The simple set up, the effortless drag-free drift afforded by the long rod, and the light presentation made it easy and fun to cast to and catch the brown trout living in that little stream.
Two years later and I was still using tenkara gear almost exclusively. I appreciated the ability to step out of the car holding only the rod and a spool of line. I could be casting to rising fish while my friends were still adjusting their vests and rigging their rods. I traded in my vest for a much smaller chest pack and streamlined the gear I took with me to the water. Once I got used to the simplicity of tenkara it felt increasingly strange to carry four fly boxes and a stack of other gear. And the truth of the matter is that I didn’t miss that gear. I caught fish, more fish than ever, using less gear and while having more fun. Whether casting dries to rising trout or fishing the bottom of a run with beadheads my tenkara rod became a tool for me to experience fly fishing again in as enjoyable a way as I remembered from a decade past.
If you’re considering tenkara, just go for it. Whether it’s a tool to get you back into the fly fishing lifestyle, a different tactic to break up your day, or simply something fun to target the bluegill in your local pond, tenkara has great potential to broaden your fly fishing experience.
Written by Sam Larson
Sam Larson lives, writes, ties flies, and fishes in Colorado’s Front Range. He likes brookie streams, fiberglass rods, and books about fly fishing. He has been published in Tenkara Magazine and Tenkara Angler and is the founder and content creator for www.bluelinesfly.com. Follow Sam on Instagram here: @bluelinesflyfishing
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