Tenkara is not just a style of fly fishing, it is a way of life. Just like our musical or cultural interests inform our clothing and hairstyle choices (I’m still trying to forget about my 1980′s new wave hair style), so tenkara affects anglers. The tenkara angler has an extra spring in her step and a attentive, piercing, hawk-like stare (think of Clint Eastwood as “the man with no name” ). If the tenkara angler’s wearing mirrored lenses then there are probably mountains reflected in them – or at least what passes for mountains in his neck of the woods (think of Eric Cartman). He probably has a lighter load than your usual western angler – simplicity is after all a sort of mantra. It is a small club and we often find ourselves preaching the word and spreading the gospel of tenkara whenever we can - but to quote Mark 6:11 – “if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”, so I’m not going to get too upset with those that are not ready to accept tenkara. But if you come along while I’m fishing my with my tenkara rod and you show the slightest bit of interest you are going to get the full speech and demonstration. The tenkara angler is likely to have something of the do-it-yourself going on too – maybe it’s a DIY rod holster or fly box or lanyard, or net. Maybe it’s just re-purposed items – I’m fond of my Altoids tin fly box, which says several things; 1) that I’m a rebel without a cause and want to be outside of the mainstream of fly fishing (I’ve always been a bit angsty); 2) that I like strong mints and fresh breath; and 3) that I’m cheap (or maybe I should say “frugal”). The tenkara angler is also likely to have strange notions. There is this idea floating around in tenkara circles that matching the hatch is not important (gasp!) – or at least not as important as some folks think. Also, maybe dead-drifting is over rated and imparting action to the fly is something that you ought to try. On these points I am not willing to go all in, at least not all the time. I do know that I’ve had great days fishing general attractor tenkara flies. I also know that I’ve had days when the fish demanded a hatch-matching emerger or nymph. So maybe the truth is this; you can simplify your fly selection, improve your technique and catch fish on general patterns more often than you believed possible. But also that sometimes you’ll do better to match the hatch – I suspect that as in most things, the truth is complicated and that it lies in a dark place, shrouded and unclear – and only in moments of clarity and grace do we see it. I can say this for certain though – I catch a lot of fish on my tenkara rods. Well let’s qualify that (a lot for me may be just a few by your standards)- I catch at least as many fish, and probably more that I did on western gear. Is tenkara superior to western gear? Maybe sometimes – or maybe not. Those who are so confident of tenkara’s superiority may never have seen a truly expert western-style fly angler seemingly vacuum up every fish in a stream. The real question, in my opinion, is “Does it matter if tenkara is a more effective fish catching method?”. My personal answer is – no. It absolutely doesn’t matter to me whether tenkara is “better”. Back in the day I decided to try fly fishing because it seemed interesting. I liked the idea that I could learn some new skills, learn to identify insects, learn to tie flies. Fly fishing seemed to be more in step with the natural world. Fly fishing is, to me, a more aesthetically pleasing experience. Tenkara is more so. So I chose tenkara for its aesthetics and its philosophy. Tenkara makes me more submissive to the fishing environment. The fixed line of the tenkara rod makes me evaluate the fishing terrain in a more careful way than I did previously. I need to move more. I need to position myself more carefully. The tenkara rod, without a reel is so light in the hand. It feels more like an extension of my body. The tenkara cast is slower and more subtle, more natural, easier to learn. You cannot power the tenkara cast – you need to work with what the rod gives you – the line is so light it doesn’t load the rod in the same way. If you try to force it you will fail. What about those crazy reversed-hackle sakasa kebari wet flies flies? Well – they work. Are they magic? No. I fished my minimalist sakasa kebari in Rocky Mountain National Park with great success. Would any other wet fly worked just as well? Who knows. It is not just about flies though. Obviously you need to know where to cast, how to sink the fly and how to detect the strike ( more about these things in a later post). I fished tenkara with a friend new to the method. I caught, with the same fly, 6 or 7 to every one that he caught. I’m not bragging (ok maybe a little). He is a experienced fly angler, but new to tenkara. What was the difference? – technique.
Tenkara can be used in a variety of situations – but it really shines it certain types of fishing. Specifically, high gradient, small to medium sized trout streams, with little overhead cover. These types of boulder strewn, rushing rivers harbor fish that must act quickly. The actively fished sakasa kebari, with its pulsating hackle attracts fish in the few moments before the fly rushes past the trout. The long rod makes picking the pockets on these streams an absolute joy.
The trick on tumbling, flashing, mountain streams that find themselves hurried on by excessive gravity is to get the fly noticed. That means two things – get the fly in front of a fish and perhaps add a little extra attraction. That attraction may be movement, flash or color among other things. Trout are pretty good at spotting a meal floating by, after all if they weren’t they’d starve – so I tend think presentation.
Rocky Mountain National Park has all water types though from smooth meadow streams to rushing mountain streams, to ponds and lakes. Tenkara is great on these meadow streams too – the lack of nearby overhanging trees is especially appreciated.
Oh one last thing – tenkara and RMNP are the perfect combo for new fly fishers. Tenkara casting is so easy to pick up, the kids will be fishing in minutes.