Tenkara by any other name…or Tenkara is as Tenkara Does

So if you happen to be watching there is a debate raging about tenkara (a tempest in a teapot I guess in the grand scheme of things). No I’m not talking about the debate about whether or not you can use a tenkara rod in ways other than “traditional” and call it tenkara. But rather the question is whether you can use a rod not strictly marketed as a tenkara rod and call it tenkara fishing. There is much back and forth on twitter – which really kind of sucks for in depth conversation. So maybe I can offer a venue.

If I use my fixed-line, 7’8″ Soyokaze rod (which is not marketed as a tenkara rod) in a mountain stream for trout, casting a single unweighted traditional wet fly and utilizing tenkara techniques – am I tenkara fishing? I say yes.

What about if I use my TenkaraUSA Amago rod with bait and a float and fish for tanago – am I tanago fishing? It seems so.

Dr. Ishigaki ties flies using sewing thread – which is not intended or marketed for tying flies – so is he tying flies? Or is he doing something else? Seems like they are still flies and not a sewing project. Plenty of people are embracing knitting yarn for tenkara flies – are they then not tenkara flies?

It seems to me that the definition ought to follow from the function. I call this my Forrest Gump philosophy – that is “tenkara is as tenkara does”. There is no requirement, as far as I can see that you use the best equipment for the job. Maybe you are of the opinion that a rod marketed and intended for tenkara is “better” for the job – that may be true. But if I use a steak knife to butter my bread the bread still gets buttered. It is up to the user to determine what he/she wants, what’s best for him/her and what he/she is willing to sacrifice. I use a tool originally intended for electronics as hackle pliers – because I like the way they work – I am still tying flies, not doing electronics.

I’m not making a case for one tool over another – it doesn’t matter to me what you like to use for tenkara – I’m just laying out some abstracted talking points.

What are your thoughts?

14 Comments on Tenkara by any other name…or Tenkara is as Tenkara Does

  1. Great post, Anthony. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Brian Flemming // August 30, 2012 at 1:57 PM // Reply

    I think you have focused on a key difference here. Do “tenkara” and “tanago” designate certain kinds of rods or certain kinds of fishing?

    It may be true that it is unheard of to fish in the tenkara style with a tanago rod in Japan. But people are doing it here in the U.S. So what do we call it?

    If tanago is fishing with bait for 1″ fish in Japan, are we still obligated to call flyfishing for 8″ fish here in the U.S. “tanago” because it is done with a rod labeled “tanago”?

    If that “tanago” rod is sold here for fishing in the tenkara style, is it wrong to use the term “tenkara” to market it? And how would Japanese tanago anglers feel about it being called “tanago”? After all, it is not being sold for tanago (bait) fishing and is unlikely to be used that way. Would they be upset at the corruption of the term?

    I still think it would be valuable to have an overall term for “fishing a fly using a rod that casts a fixed line.” Tanago is clearly the wrong term for that if tanago is bait fishing. Tenkara is the wrong term for that if there are ways to fish a fly using a rod that casts a fixed line that are not nonetheless not tenkara fishing.

    I don’t know if Japan will be much help here. It seems possible that in Japan all fixed-line fly fishing is done with tenkara rods. Not true here, obviously.

    • Brian – I agree with you, it would be helpful to have one term “to rule them all”. But what is it? I mean “fixed-line fly fishing” is just too much of a mouthful right? Reel-less Fly fishing? Unreel fishing? Piscandi Linea Fixa? The style of fishing which shall not be named? Well, who knows. If I had to guess I’d say we’ll be stuck with “fixed-line fly fishing”, but I desperately want to be proven wrong.

  3. I think it might be time to rename my blog to “Fixed Line Fly Fishing On The Fly”. A bit long though and hard to remember.

  4. Jim Lionberger // August 30, 2012 at 5:00 PM // Reply

    This has to be classified as a false controversy. Just because someone/anyone tries to define an activity in their manner does not bind us. Tanago rod manufacturers sell rods, but we get to decide how they are ultimately used. Call it a suggested use if necessary, but we are open-minded enough to determine how we wish to employ them. Anyone who tries to tell me how to think is fooling themselves, not me.

    Anyway, I drive on a parkway, and park on a driveway, so what do I know …

    • Jim,

      I like your idea of labeling – kind of like the serving suggestion picture on my frosted flakes box.

      Yeah this shouldn’t be a super serious topic. But I do think it would be nice to have a name for what many of us are doing. Something that doesn’t trample any traditions and is also specific to the activity, and hopefully catchy.

      Any suggestions are welcome – not that I have any authority to institute them of course. :)

  5. I can see both sides of the argument (or is there more than one side? My brain is starting to hurt). I think it’s important to have a known starting point as to what tenkara is and how it has originally been practiced. From that point anyone can decided for themselves what it is to them and how they want to practice it. Everything changes with time (i.e. equipment, techniques, definitions, etc.) tenkara is no different. Bottom line…are you having fun? Are you doing it in an ethical and responsible way? If so, go outside and go fishing!

  6. Jim Lionberger // August 30, 2012 at 10:22 PM // Reply

    I can’t really see two sides of the argument. I’ll buy what I want, regardless of what someone calls it, & use it as I want. I admit that I see tenkara as a “tool” & not a way if life, so I throw hopper-droppers with beadhead kebaris on the bottom. I call it “tenkara”, and will continue to. Part of the labeling is trying to tell me what to call it. I’ll stay with what I have, thanks.

  7. I would like to point out that if you look at the Daiwa web page, where they list their river stream rods, including their tenkara rods,and the Soyokaze, Sagiri and Kiyose model rods, you will find that the Soyokaze , and Sagiri rods are both listed under this class heading. ハエ・万能竿.

    Depending upon which electronic translator you use, this gets translated as Fly – Universal Rod, or Fly – All-purpose rod, or Fly – Versatile Rod, etc. If I separate the two terms onto different lines, I have some real fun as it then often translates as Fly – Omnipotent Rod. Wow. Omnipotent. Maybe best to drop the deity part and just stick with the do anything part of the definition and assume these rods are for use for a wide variety of different types of fishing. Including fly fishing, but not limited to fly fishing.


    The point is they are not listed under a class called tanago rods. They are both listed as a class of universal use rods.

    OK. maybe all-purpose anything are not the best for any one pursuit, but adequate. The adequacy score, I think, is up to the user to decide.

    If you look at the Soyokaze page it says this rod is good for family holiday outings; fishing for tanago, dace, chub,prawn, goby, crucian carp, etc. iow it is intended for fishing for several types of fish using either bait or flies, depending upon species. It is marketed as a do anything rod.

    A lot always gets lost in translation, especially with electronic translation, but it is clear it refers bait fishing and to use with a fly, but not specific for trout, ie iwana, amago, etc. They are not listed as target fish for this rod.


    Same with the Sagiri rod. However, it is more clearly described as a fly rod. Listing several of the same fish, adding ayu and rockfish. Removing tanago from the list. The description of the rod says it has the tone destination type of a fly rod. I haven;t a clue as to a more accurate translation. But it appears to mean this rod has the flex and rod tip of a fly rod. However, it also says it is for float or pulse fishing in addition to fly fishing. But again, trout, iwana, amago, etc fish are not listed as target fish.


    The Kiyose rod is listed under a different class from the other two. The 渓流・源流 , head water or source flow class. The description mentions nothing about the target fish or method of fishing this rod is intended for. It simply refers to it as a mountain stream rod.


    However, the picture on the web page looks a lot like someone tenkara fishing a trout stream to me. But I suppose one is left to guess about their intended use.

    The main things I wanted to point out is that none of these rods are classified as tanago rods or solely for tanago fishing. Only one of them, the Soyokaze even list tanago (i.e. bitterling) as among the targeted fish type. Thus no one should get hung up on or claim the use of any of them is tenkara fishing with a tanago rod. But also none of these rods list trout, iwana, amago, etc as target fish.

    As for my view. It is the method of tenkara fishing that attracts me to tenkara. It is a combination of hardware and method of fly fishing. But it is the method of fishing that is most important to me.

    • I do not mean to blame you, but there is an interesting and confusing mistranslation in your post. I think only a fresh water fisher can translate it correctly.

      Regarding the description on Soyokaze, there is the term “ハエ・万能竿”, where “ハエ” is confusing. It usually refers to a flying insect “fly”, but it also is a name of a small fish for us fishers. “ハエ” is a “Zacco platypus” in a scientific name. Try to google by “Zacco platypus”, you will see beautiful fish. It is a small fish up to about 6-7 inches. So, the Soyokaze is supposed to be designed to be an universal rod and comfotably handle 6-7″ small fish. Of course it can handle a much larger fish in practice, I know.

      • Eddie – good to hear from you. Thanks for the clarification of that term. I looked it up and that fish is a beautiful fish by the way, and what a curious name for a fish. I wouldn’t mind catching a few of those!

  8. “Tenkara is as tenkara does” – I fully agree this. Fishing tenkara style at any other place outside Japanese mountain freestone streams, you must do changes in casting, flies, line weight and length, ets. in order to match the local conditions. If you always prefer the lightest possible fixed line fly fishing technique you are fishing tenkara.

  9. “Tenkara by any other name

what say you?